Sombra is in the public test realm on PC, which means she’ll soon be hacking her way into both console and PC releases quite soon. But how did Sombra come to be? How did Blizzard come up with a way to make a stealth hero fun but not unbelievably frustrating for the opponents? We found the answers to these questions and much much more (Did you know Genji used to have stealth, was melee only, and could execute downed players?) in a chat with principal game designer Geoff Goodman at BlizzCon 2016.
GI: Tell me about Sombra. What was the inspiration behind her?
Goodman: She was a tricky one. She was probably the hardest character to make over time. We thought we had this great idea going into it, “Oh, we want to do this stealth character!” That’s what we started with, and “Let’s do a character that’s not so lethal, maybe she can hack people.” Actually, she originally started by hacking, it was like a damage-reducing debuff on people. And it didn’t have a cooldown, the idea was you could hack everybody and try to lower all their damage. It ended up just not feeling super visceral, it wasn’t super great. So, the basic idea of the whole thing though was like, we want this infiltrator character that uses stealth, because that’s the core, that’s what we’re trying to hit, because we know stealth is this awesome fantasy. I mean, I love playing stealth characters in every game, it’s fun. So we always want to do it, so it’s this trick of “how do we get this in our game in a way that doesn’t break it?” [laughs] So, a lot of iteration. We got all of the hacker vibes and that was great, because that allowed, on the gameplay side, to do all these kinds of nice not necessarily lethal abilities that utilize her position behind enemy lines in ways that are less frustrating than just dying instantly.
So do you think you’ve alleviated those concerns with a stealth character being frustrating for other players to deal with?
I think so. I mean, I think, as I mentioned before, we had tried stealth before on Genji originally. He was this lethal sword – he only had a sword back then. It wasn’t his ultimate. We tried it as, it’s almost like a situation where you were invisible, you go behind somebody…he had this move, it was actually kind of fun, it was this move where you get up behind somebody and stun them, and they would fall down. And then you’d do this slow stab motion down. And if you didn’t get shot or moved off, I think it was in three seconds, you just killed them outright.
So it was kind of cool because you could try to find people that were not with their team and everything, but ultimately that’s just frustrating. That’s just like, that’s never going to be fun, right? So when we went back to stealth, we’re not going to make that mistake again. So I think really this time, she definitely can get those kills, and she can help her team by doing that, but she has all these other tools that are just so useful. And this is the first time we’ve done an ability, other than maybe you can argue Junkrat’s trap disables some abilities, but she disables all abilities. So it’s super powerful in a lot of situations.
Do you find, a lot of times players can get frustrated with disables, anything that makes them not able to play. Is that a concern with Sombra at all?
It definitely was, originally. In fact, we first had that concern when we were working on Ana, we were putting in the sleep dart thing, super cool, it was just like ugh, we’re really gonna put a long sleep in the game? And I’m like well, luckily we have awesome tools and we can prototype things really easily. So with Ana I just threw it in and was like, let’s just play with it and the way it’s tuned. It’s very difficult to pull off a lot of times, it’s difficult to keep them there. So that actually worked out really well for us. And then coming onto Sombra, we were like, well, let’s try this ability too, prototype that, see how it feels. And again, on a lot of characters, it doesn’t disable their weapon – it’s not that big of a hit. If I disable 76’s abilities, he can still just shoot me. Most characters, it doesn’t feel as debilitating. But there are definitely sometimes where you catch a Mercy diving in to res her team or something, she gets hacked on the way in, she’s like “Oh no! I hadn’t, ah, my plans are foiled!” It’s a lot of fun.
So tell me about her kit. How does Sombra play in the perfect world? I’m a pro Sombra player, what am I doing?
The biggest thing is, you want to position yourself, try to get behind the enemy lines, but not necessarily where you’re going to get caught and killed by yourself. You want to stay safe. You can do a lot of things just from that position alone. If you’re on voice, you can give intel on where people are of course, that’s easy. But if you hack somebody, and this is another interesting thing about hacking, it reveals their health bar all the time. Normally in the game, the way our health bar system works is if you shoot an enemy, their health bar shows up for a limited time while they’ve taken damage. But she just reveals it all the time, it lasts for I think a minute right now. And it also reveals their ultimate status. So in a way, she’s kind of stealing information, and so your whole team can see, “Oh, that Mercy’s got her ultimate, I can see it, so we have to play around that.” It’s kind of a cool way to, not only is it a really powerful gameplay effect, but also helps reinforce her kit, her lore, her background and everything, getting information for your team. And also, her gun’s pretty good. She can actually kill people, and especially she has an ability to see targets that are lower health, so she can seek out the vulnerable targets, she can jump down and take those guys out. Especially, you know, if you have a Widow or Hanzo on your team that can wing somebody in the back lines, hopefully near where you are, and they run away to get health, and you’re “gotcha.”
So what does the hack actually do? It doesn’t reduce damage anymore, it just shuts their abilities down?
Right. The hack disables your abilities – like anything you have an icon for on your bar, it disables those. You’ll actually see, the abilities will turn red and not work any more. But any left click or right click, like it doesn’t disable Mercy’s wing or ability to heal or damage buff or anything like that. So it’s kind of asymmetric, intentionally. So if I disable 76 or Widowmaker, it’s not super great, but if I disable Reinhardt or Genji or Tracer, it’s amazing. So a lot of times, you’re going to maybe want to pick her against certain comps, or maybe in situations where there’s this one Genji that’s just driving you guys crazy – which is common.
So if you hack someone, can the other players on my team like, you know they see the health bar, so does that mean they can see them through walls from across the map?
You can’t see them through walls, no. You’re still going to need a Widowmaker or Hanzo for that. But being able to see their health status even if you haven’t shot them yet, when someone has low health, you can jump after them or something. It’s a good advantage.
So what’s my big play? Walk me through a situation where I’m Sombra capturing a point.
Sure. In a normal play – if you don’t have your ultimate, because the ultimate is a whole different story – but your first goal should be to try to get the position that you want. So you want to try to get behind people, where they’re not expecting you to be. Sort of in the same way that Reaper tries to get in flanking position where’s he’s kind of hiding. Although she can literally turn invisible, so it’s a lot easier for her. And then you kind of have some decisions. Hacking enemy health packs, especially near and around where they’re trying to use them, the larger health packs. If your team is injuring somebody and they run back for the health pack and it’s not there, or it’s hacked which means they can’t pick it up anymore if she hacks it, that’s really powerful.
You could also in turn, if you want to hack health packs that your team is using, more towards them, because it actually makes them respawn a lot faster. So you can decide if you want to use your hack for that. The hack on those health packs lasts for a minute, so it actually lasts for quite a while. So you could hack multiple – you could play that game if you feel like that’s important for the situation you’re in. But nine times out of ten what you’re going to try to do is make a big set-up play for your team. So, let’s say that the enemy is Reinhardt, which is also a really commonly-used character right now. He’s guarding in the front, and his team has got 76s or Hanzos behind him, shooting through. And maybe you have a Reinhardt, and both teams are kind of damaging each others’ barriers, trying to bring that down. If she just gets one hack on that Reinhardt, the shield just comes down, he can’t use it any more, everyone just gets the full damage. And their team is now scattering, and maybe some are injured, and she can use her ability to maybe pick off some of those targets. And of course, if she has her EMP, that’s an almost whole other thing. Because she can just – in that same situation, if she uses her EMP right there, they’re all shut down. Because all their abilities are shut off for six seconds, any shields or barriers are destroyed. So it doesn’t kill somebody, like Reapers can just jump down kill a lot of people. But it does, like it’s this big alley-oop for your whole team.
What’s the range on that? Does she have to kind of center herself in the middle of the enemy team in order to pull it off?
Yes. It centers around her, but it is quite large. I don’t remember the exact radius, I think it’s a 10 meter radius right now. And it’s big enough where you can hit pretty much everybody in a battle that you’re trying to hit, but it’s not big enough that you can do it from safety. You usually have to jump in the middle of where you want to do it. The nice thing is, she has the translocator beacon. So ideally you throw that down somewhere safe first, jump down, hopefully off somewhere high, or stealth in, throw the EMP off and immediately get out of there. Because, again, their guns still work! They’re still just going to try to kill you. You have to be careful.
So you tackled the stealth problem then with Sombra. Are there any other character archetypes that you’ve been trying to make work, that just aren’t meshing well?
Hmm, that’s a good question. Well, one thing that we are looking at all the time is sort of…as I mentioned before, Reinhardt’s picked quite often. Originally we felt like there was a lack of healers, so we introduced Ana. We’re sort of feeling like maybe…you know, we have a lot of tanks in the game, but we don’t really have anybody who’s within the same relative design space as Reinhardt is, where he’s charging in front with his shield, trying to block damage, soak damage, a lot of raw damage. So I feel like there’s an avenue there that maybe we can explore for another character. That’s more of like a raw gameplay concept. There’s a lot of other cool character designs, I mean, the concept guys are just drawing all the time. Can’t stop them, even if you tried.
So they have a lot of awesome concepts that, sometimes we’ll just look at something and like, “We just made that character, that is super cool.” Or we’ll do something out of the story that would be a cool character. So, it changes.
So is Sombra a “villain” in this story? I mean, there are less villains in the Overwatch universe than there are heroes right now, yeah? So are there plans to bring parity to that, is that the way it’s supposed to be?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be fully even, but we do want to introduce more characters. You know, you have a character like Reaper, who is obviously evil, but he’s very focused on the thing that he’s…he wants to destroy Overwatch and everything about it. So like, you kind of get it, like I get what you’re all about, it’s your thing. Sombra’s a little more nuanced. She’s definitely evil in the sense that she’s kind of only out for herself. So she’s working with Talon, but it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s in the same space as Widow and Reaper. They’re just, “We’re all about Talon. We’re the company men for Talon.” And she’s like, “Talon’s really working out for me right now, maybe it won’t be in a month, and maybe I can backstab them.” As you saw in that video, she’s working with Talon, but at the same time she’s kind of got her own agenda, and kind of backstabbing them in the same way. So she’s all about herself.
With 3v3 and 1v1 maps coming online, you’re not going to balance things around those maps, right? So are you concerned that some characters may become the ultimate 1v1 character that everyone’s picking?
Well for the 1v1, it’s a mirror duel, at least what we’re showing here. We have other options we can try later. But the mirror one is interesting because, if the character is balanced at least you’re playing it against itself. And we have tried…Originally we were like, let’s throw everything in there and play it a lot and see what feels kind of broken or doesn’t really work. Like we though, hmm, Symmetra might not work here, this is going to be kind of weird, because you lock on the beams and it’s like a map race, whoever wins. But actually we were playing it and we were super surprised because Symmetra’s super fun. It’s a totally different game. So you’re playing it like, if you just run at the enemy Symmetra and try to left click her, she’s probably got a turret somewhere, so she gets to win because she gets the turret damage. So what you do is, she puts down a turret, the enemy, and you move up and you put down a turret. And then you don’t want to pursue each other. You try to right click their turrets, they’re trying to build. It’s almost like a Starcraft bunker rush, where you’re pushing toward their territory and taking over. So we found a lot of times it’s just worked out really fun. If we ever do a mode that’s like, you can pick whatever you want, that may be more challenging at that point, and we might have to adjust it there. But it’s been significantly fun internally. We’ve played a lot.
So for the Sombra reveal you sort of whipped the fanbase up into a frenzy with the ARG. Are there plans to do that again for another hero rollout, or was that sort of a Sombra/hacker-specific kind of thing?
We don’t have any plans right now. It was a fun way to interact with the community. I think we definitely learned some lessons with it. I think sometimes the community, you know, didn’t like certain aspects of it. So we’re definitely responding to that – we understand. If we do another one, we’ll take a lot of feedback into account. But by and large I think it was very successful. It was a lot of fun to sort of interact with the community in a new way with a game that isn’t just like, “here’s more content for the game directly.” It’s like, “oh, here’s more of the world that’s kind of interesting.” And obviously it works really well with a character like Sombra, who’s all about hacking and the world of computers, so it was great.
Are there any problems trying to get players to play support roles?
Sometimes. I mean, that was a big concern especially before Ana. I think the introduction of Ana not only helped us because she’s a healer, but she’s specifically as you probably noticed, she has much more of a what we call a skill cap. She’s harder to…she’s not just like, all about positioning. Mercy’s all about positioning and being careful about where you are relative to your team and everything. So I think that’s going to be a large part of it, is introducing more characters that speak to more people, that may even…like supports. We’ve got a lot of people who originally were like, “Oh, I don’t play support.” And then they played Ana and were like, “Oh, this is actually really fun. I didn’t think I liked support but I actually like this character.” So I feel like that’s a big success. I think we’ll re-evaluate, and you know, we’re going to be coming out with new characters hopefully for a while, so we keep playing the game. So we’ll keep that in mind and try to keep people interested.
So is there any incentive to get into the arcade and play these new maps?
Ah, yeah, loot boxes! We have a counter on the top that shows you, you have to play, I believe it’s three games, and then you get a loot box. But what’s nice about the arcade is it’s not like, oh, if you played a mystery hero, you get a box. And then you play this other thing, you get a box. No, it’s all one large pool, and you can play anything you want in the arcade and it counts as a notch for loot boxes. So you can jump around, you can play in the brawl playlist, or in the mystery duel if you want it, it’s a lot of fun. And that way, there’s so much more variety there now that I think it really speaks to a lot of people. Plus, who doesn’t love loot boxes?
Right. That’s what we all want more of, right?