From battling on the frontlines of the Omnic Crisis, to teaming up with a mega-sized murloc looking to sway an eternal conflict between two towering celestial beings--the realm-shattering magics of the Nexus causes Blizzard characters to often end up transplanted from their earthly homes to some new and surprising territory. One such journey was that of Aleksandra Zaryanova, aka Zarya.
With our 30th anniversary around the corner, now seems like a great time to track down the designers who brought Zarya to life in Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm and find out what goes into creating an iconic Hero that spans two worlds.
The Defender of Russia’s Intro to Overwatch
Zarya’s voyage from early concept to the destructive wielder-of-weaponry was a surprisingly smooth process for the Overwatch design team. Oftentimes, there are several rounds of iteration on a Hero’s playstyle, feel, and general concept before locking in a character’s design identity.
With Zarya, “she was designed to be a tank that ‘wanted to take damage’” from the very beginning, said Geoff Goodman, Zarya’s Overwatch designer. “Initially we were thinking maybe she could absorb damage and give herself shields, but later settled on powering up her gun instead. One of the design goals of our tanks is that they can potentially dish out good damage, but they aren’t as consistent as damage heroes. This was a nice fit for Zarya as it meant we were able to push her damage to be super high if you managed to ‘eat’ a lot of damage and get charged up.” The team tested a few alternate ideas, but the kit we recognize today took shape quickly and Zarya’s core design stuck through to the live game.
It can take a lot of iteration to figure out what makes the perfect ultimate for a Hero. But with Zarya, “Graviton Surge was the first thing we really tried and it was a slam dunk from the very start. It took a lot of iteration to tune and tweak it, but we knew it was iconic and special from the first playtest,” says Geoff. While they tried an alternative ultimate that projected Barriers to all nearby allies, it was “visually messy” and didn’t have the play-making impact of Graviton Surge. “To this day [Graviton Surge] is still the slowest charging ultimate ability because of how powerful it is.” In addition to its strength, it also feels like the perfect gameplay manifestation of Zarya’s take-no-crap attitude. Or, as Geoff puts it, “[Zarya’s] personality and background really lean into this ‘c'mon and try to hit me’ vibe that our game design was built on.” Pulling the enemy team into one location, then essentially saying “you’re here. I’m here. Let’s do this.” is exactly what you might expect from a record-setting renowned Siberian soldier.
Zarya’s now clear and well-established gameplay has cemented her as a stable and consistent member of the Overwatch roster. While many Heroes (such as Bastion, Mercy, and Symmetra) have seen significant changes to their abilities throughout the years, Zarya’s design has remained relatively untouched.
With a stable base to build upon, the Heroes team was ready to start their own version of Zarya in the Nexus.
Up Next: The Nexus
Even before the launch of Overwatch in 2016, the designers on the Heroes of the Storm team were practically beating down the starting zone barriers to begin implementing some of the now-iconic Overwatch heroes into the Nexus. Tracer was the first to debut, but Zarya was earmarked almost immediately as a must-have addition to the roster. It was up to game designer Jade Martin, whose Hero designs include Dehaka, Ragnaros, Cassia, Qhira, and others, to translate the back-and-forth bruiser from Overwatch into the Nexus. Zarya was one of Jade’s most played Overwatch Heroes, and he knew that he not only needed to create a translation that would pass muster for internal designers, but also bear the scrutiny of diehard Zarya fans. “Anytime we look at bringing a Hero into the Nexus we always consider our fans’ expectations for the character. It’s not just the public either; all of us on the team are huge fans of Blizzard games and lore,” says Jade. Making sure they stay true to expectations means digging into what draws people to these characters and “finding the core of what players love and translating it into the gameplay experience. We target that early and make it our goal.” says Jade.
Just like in Overwatch, Jade and the team knew that Zarya’s core gameplay needed to be that in-your-face, “hit me and see what happens” style. With that in mind, Zarya was originally destined to become a tank whose primary purpose was one of standing up front and taking the hits for her team. However, the unique aspects of her original abilities screamed for her to take on more of a hybrid bruiser role, where she could exist at the frontlines and be a lethal threat if played well.
Translating a character initially designed in a first-person shooter over to something played from a top-down perspective meant that certain sacrifices had to be made. One was losing the component of “aim” that acts as a major skill determiner in FPS games. To retain some skill-based reflex checking, Zarya’s alternate fire (shooting orbs of energy) became a spammable accuracy-reliant ability in Heroes. To further reward those players who knew they had the chops, Jade says they created talents like “Pinpoint Accuracy” which grants bonus damage if you hit those perfect shots.
The Overwatch design team was involved throughout the process of re-imagining Zarya for Heroes. When it came time to create a second Heroic Ability (the Heroes of the Storm equivalent to an ultimate), Jade and the Overwatch team collaborated and even dug up some of Zarya’s early ability explorations before creating the zone-controlling counterpart to Graviton Surge, Expulsion Zone. In addition to these design riffing sessions, Overwatch designers were also brought into early playtests, to make sure that the “feel” for Zarya in the Nexus was a true representation of what they originally created.
Since Zarya’s translation to Heroes went so well, we asked both of her designers to give a bit of thought to where they think she’d fare best in other Blizzard titles. While Jade imagines Zarya’s abilities could translate well over to a Diablo-style ARPG (though with some mobility issues), Geoff says that Zarya “already feels like a raid boss in Overwatch when she’s fully powered up and running through your back lines... so, maybe as a WoW raid boss?”
While we are unlikely to see Zarya in the dungeons of Tristram or roaming the Shadowlands, she’s a perfect addition to the Nexus and an icon in Overwatch thanks to the work of dedicated developers like Geoff and Jade.
Be sure to stay check out the Blizzard.com news feed to keep up with what’s going on in Overwatch and Heroes.