Behind the scenes of Bounty Hunter
Calling all outlaws, pariahs, and the nastiest of ne’er-do-wells—there’s a bounty out, and the time has come for you to collect. The newest Overwatch Arcade mode has arrived in accompaniment of the Lunar New Year and it’s here to stay. Hunt heads, earn points, and work your way up the scoreboard by proving yourself as the fiercest fighter in the fray. Who will emerge victorious and claim the crown of the apex predator?
Senior game designer Michael Liaw, one of the architects behind the murderous mayhem of the new Bounty Hunter game mode, talks iteration, collaboration, and how to rake in points by racking up kills.
Liaw, a senior game designer on the ecology team, began his industry journey catching bugs for designers to amend as quality assurance. Now, he spends his days crafting and fine-tuning the scores of enemies players will face in Overwatch 2.
“I went to college for computer programming and hoped I’d find my way into games, but didn’t really know how to,” says Liaw. “After my first year at school, I applied for a quality assurance position at BioWare and managed to get the interview. I showed up to that interview all nervous, wearing my best business attire, and met with a bunch of relaxed and laid-back devs who were curious about my problem-solving skills and if I’d be a good fit for the company. It turned out I was. I worked QA for a few titles, then transitioned to being a game designer.”
After a friend gave him a heads-up about an opening for Overwatch, Liaw, a long-time fan who’d clocked a slew of hours in a number of different Blizzard games, joined the team and didn’t look back. “The more I got to know about the people who worked here, what life was like at Blizzard, and just how humble everyone is, the more I couldn’t wait to join them all.”
Bounty Hunter is the first brawl Liaw has worked on, and its implementation adds something new to Overwatch—a wild, free-for-all deathmatch where players can score bounties and hunt down targets to claim points. It was, at first, a daunting undertaking, but he found his groove with the help of his teammates. “I’d never actually done any game mode design like this,” Liaw says. “Most of my professional career had been spent working on enemy design and artificial intelligence, so this was outside of my normal comfort zone. But that’s the great thing about working with this team—they encourage you when you want to try out new things, and they help you succeed.”
Bounty Hunter’s beginnings are rooted in the Lunar New Year event, where Capture the Flag has become a yearly staple for players to enjoy. “This mode actually started off as a free-for-all version of Capture the Flag,” recalls Michael Heiberg, a principal game designer on the Overwatch team and the individual responsible for Bounty Hunter’s inception. “I love our Capture the Flag modes—especially Blitz—but I wondered if there was a variant that might be interesting and fun for players who want a more relaxed, solo-queue experience. So we tried out a version where the bounty target was carrying a flag and the goal was for hunters to kill them and steal their flag. After a few playtests we ditched the flag because it made players feel like they had to deliver it somewhere.”
Then, Heiberg passed the reins to Liaw. The team began to iterate more, creating a rough prototype for what would eventually flourish into Bounty Hunter. Initially a modified eight-player deathmatch mode, players were able to see the now-flagless bounty target through map walls, allowing hunters to track it down and deal death. “It was a lot of fun and exceptionally chaotic,” Liaw says. “But you didn’t really stay alive as the target for long. We decided to keep iterating and thinking about how to embrace the bounty hunter theme in the game mode itself.”
He considered a number of concepts as development continued: how would players claim bounties? What would they receive for successfully executing a target? Should the target’s bounty increase with time, making it more worthwhile for hunters to stalk from the shadows before pouncing? While the murderous mayhem was exciting from the get-go for hunters, being their quarry felt less so.
Liaw considered how players would be rewarded for becoming the bounty target. The moment had to feel impactful—like the prey would have a fighting chance against the pack of predators suddenly beelining to slaughter them.
“Jeff Kaplan came up with the idea of giving them a full ultimate meter. I thought, ‘Well, that could be pretty fun—I wonder how that feels as a player?’” recalls Liaw. “As it turns out, it’s really fun to have a guaranteed ultimate.”
The moment when players attained their ultimates after becoming the target in playtests was always, as Liaw recalls, “an absolute delight.” The team enjoyed assessing each game and attempting to figure out what common meta would rise and how to counter it. As iteration continued, becoming the bounty target became less of a panicked fight-or-flight decision and more of a satisfying challenge. “I particularly love the audio you get for becoming the bounty target and getting kills as the target,” says Liaw. “It just feels so rewarding and you just want to keep getting more and more kills, and the visuals that go along with it make you feel powerful. There’s a mad scramble that happens when everyone is fighting to become the next target and figuring out silly ways to get the most out of a free ultimate.”
Tricks of the Trade
With design wrapped up and the game mode readied for this year’s Lunar New Year celebration and beyond, Liaw is excited for players to experience firsthand the anarchy of Bounty Hunter and the new experiences it offers. “It’s a free-for-all deathmatch, but with a focused objective for everyone,” he says. “It provides purpose and allows an easy way for players to find others to fight. Plus, the chances of coming back from a low standing on the scoreboard are pretty high. Players get triple the points any time they kill the bounty target or get kills as the target. Combine that with getting your ultimate when you become the target, and you’re always just a good killstreak away from getting back into the fight.”
Trying out a new brawl and having to immediately adapt to an unfamiliar set of rules and limitations can be daunting; thankfully, Liaw has a few tips for players looking to secure that good killstreak.
First: you get points for killing other players, even when they’re not the target. “It can be useful to try to kill the players who are going after the target,” he explains. “It’s not worth a huge amount of points, but they’re most likely not focused on you and can be an easy kill. The target is visible through walls. If you want a fight, head towards them and you’ll probably find someone else along the way.”
Second: make use of the perks you gain access to when you become the new bounty target. You’re instantly healed to full health once you land that killing blow on the former target, and you get a free ultimate. “It can be worth it to try to clutch out the kill on the target. If you can do it, you can potentially get more kills, or get out of the fray.”
With these lessons internalized, Liaw hopes that players can embark upon their first of many bounty hunts and lose themselves in the chaos of the new brawl.
Now through February 25, charge into the fray and celebrate the return of Overwatch Lunar New Year with festive cosmetics, weekly rewards, and a new brawl: Bounty Hunter!