The surprisingly long development history behind Wrecking Ball, the latest addition to Overwatch's colorful cast of heroes.
Hello PlayStation gamers and heroes of Overwatch! I’m here to tell you about the newest addition to our game’s cast of colorful characters: Wrecking Ball.
There’s more to Wrecking Ball the hero than just a robotic ball armed with quad cannons, as some of you may already know. Really “Wrecking Ball” is just a persona that was crafted by Hammond, a super-intelligent hamster, when he began fighting as a gladiator in Junkertown. To help explain the distinction between Hammond the hamster and Wrecking Ball the hero, let me step back a little bit to the beginning of the character’s story.
The Champion of Junkertown
Hammond was Specimen #8 on Horizon Lunar Colony, which Overwatch players will recognize both as a playable map in the game and also the research facility that produced Winston, the gorilla scientist who’s been part of the game’s hero lineup since the very beginning.
Based on Winston’s history, some players may have assumed that all of the specimens at the Horizon Lunar Colony were apes, or at least primates. But here on our own Earth, humans have sent all sorts of animals into space over the years for a variety of different reasons—cats, dogs, turtles—and we thought that would be something fun to explore in the Overwatch universe.
Hammond was another test subject at the lunar colony, but the experiments they conducted went a bit further than the ones they conducted on Winston. That’s why Hammond isn’t just smarter than a normal hamster; he’s also much bigger.
If you’ve ever owned a hamster, you know that they’re always trying to break out of things and explore. Hammond’s story starts in a similar place to Winston’s, but then branches in a different direction. During the uprising on the moon where the colony’s primates take over, Winston decides he’s just going to escape instead. Hammond already likes getting out of things, so he formulates a plan to tag along with Winston and builds a little pod that attaches to Winston’s ship.
Hammond is more of a DIY mechanic than a scientist, so his escape pod is a pretty slapdash construction. It snaps off mid-flight, landing him in a scrapyard in Junkertown, while Winston makes his way to Gibraltar. After poking around the scrapyard and realizing the local inhabitants are more than a little volatile, Hammond decides to go underground, so to speak, and he knows he’s going to have to rely only on himself to survive. So he builds himself a mech and invents the character of “Wrecking Ball” to fight in the Junkertown arena as a gladiator, and that’s how he survives there: he develops a new persona for himself as the champion of Junkertown.
When Wrecking Ball initially appears in-game, you might notice that others interact with Wrecking Ball in different ways. Roadhog and Junkrat, for example, only knew Hammond as Wrecking Ball for the longest time, so Junkrat might walk over and just start gushing over how amazing he thinks this giant destructive mech is… and completely ignore the fact that he’s a hamster.
The nature and history of Wrecking Ball also posed some challenges when it came to reconciling Hammond’s story with the hero’s gameplay. While making it so Hammond himself is visible in matches doesn’t make a ton of sense from a story perspective, we knew we had to show the character’s personality in-game. Plus, actually showing the hamster gives opponents a much clearer headshot region than they’d otherwise have. On top of that, hamsters are super cute, and we liked the idea of showing this critter more than, say, giving the robot a mechanical head or something like that so that players knew where they should aim.
From “Ball Guy” to Hamster
We’ve been sneaking little hints about Hammond’s existence into Overwatch for about two years now. Observant Overwatch players might have noticed snippets of information about Specimen 8 getting out of his cage, ever since the Horizon Lunar Colony map was shown. But the idea for Wrecking Ball goes back even further than that, though we didn’t know for a long time that he’d end up being a giant genetically modified hamster.
Very early on, we had an idea for a hero we referred to as the “Ball Guy,” who was a mech that turned into a ball. At the time we thought giving him some sort of magnetic abilities would be cool—think something along the lines of Katamari Damacy—or at one point we thought he’d suck in bullets and shoot them back out. The core of this hero fantasy was always “I’m this big ball of destruction,” and eventually we started to think more along the lines of: “What if Overwatch was a pinball game?”
“Ball Guy” didn’t make it into the original roster of heroes, but we always knew that we wanted to come back to him eventually, so slowly the character developed out. From the very beginning we pretty much knew he was going to be a tank, simply because it made perfect sense with his size and our vision for his role on a team as a disruptor. We started to see him as this zone-control kind of hero in a similar vein to D.Va or Winston—as opposed to the very literal sorts of tank heroes like Reinhardt and Orisa who are great at holding a line and soaking up damage. And eventually, we took this character-less, emotionless robot and asked ourselves, “How do we make him cooler? How do we give him that extra oomph to really give him personality?”
Around that time, our lead artist Arnold Tsang drew a version of Ball Guy that had a little robotic hamster on top pointing out of the hatch in the mech. That immediately took a character who was cool in terms of his gameplay design, and introduced a really extreme contrast in terms of personality and aesthetic. There was a lot of discussion around topics like, Okay, having a hamster in a ball is a pretty neat connection. But should it be a robot hamster or a real hamster? Is the ball intelligent and the hamster is the sidekick? Should the hamster be able to speak?
We spent years figuring it all out. A big part of the reason it took so long is that while we do take Overwatch seriously, there is also a certain lightheartedness to the world that we like to embrace. I mean, we had a talking gorilla from the moon in the initial launch. If you look at that now, years later, everyone is perfectly fine with it—”Oh yeah, talking moon gorilla, that makes perfect sense!” We wanted to let a certain amount of time to pass before we pushed the envelope again and put another oddity into the game.
Pushing the Envelope
And that’s the thing about Wrecking Ball—we knew that he was going to be a somewhat polarizing figure. We wanted him to be polarizing. I think you fail in both directions if people just hate something. But if everyone just loves a character and thinks they’re perfect? Well, nothing is ever perfect. You want that dichotomy between people saying, “Oh this is too far,” and others saying, “This is amazing!” We wanted that push and pull, that passion on both ends of the spectrum.
Sometimes the polarization happens on the gameplay side, and sometimes it’s over a character’s personality. We knew we were pushing things, but we wanted to see where the limit was—how far we could push things, how much we could get people talking, while also putting together a really fun character with great new gameplay that all worked as one cohesive unit.
If we had just gone: “Hamster, into the game!” with no context, it would have been totally absurd. Hamster with some story context? Still pretty out there. Hamster in a ball with awesome physics and gameplay? Kinda nuts, but after you play him for a little while, our hope is that he grows on you and that you go from thinking, “This is kinda crazy” to “This is kinda fun” to “I can’t imagine Overwatch without it!”