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'Overwatch' and the promise of an all-ages video game boom

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Overwatch Trailer

Take a look at some of the biggest games of this holiday season: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Assassin’s Creed Unity. Far Cry 4. Dragon Age: Inquisition. These are the games that we’ll all be talking about over the coming weeks. They’re also all rated Mature—recommended for ages 17 and up. Sure, there are fantastic games geared for the young and young at heart—games like Skylanders: Trap Team and Disney Infinity  or Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. But you won’t see many essays on these. Outside of the rare exception —your Minecraft, your League of Legends—all ages titles don’t dominate the cultural conversation the way a new Grand Theft Auto does — and it’s a damn shame.

But maybe that’s about to change.

Last weekend in California, a studio named Blizzard Entertainment had its annual fan convention—BlizzCon. BlizzCon is pretty huge, which makes sense, Blizzard being the studio responsible for World of Warcraft—which roughly seven million people still play. Metallica was there, too. That probably helped.

There’s something you should know about Blizzard: they’re widely regarded as one of the best studios in the world. They’re one of a handful of developers who can take as long as they want on a project, without inciting the ire of gamers or executives. A lot of rules don’t apply to Blizzard.

At this year’s BlizzCon, the company unveiled its first new franchise in 17 years. Called Overwatch, it instantly became one of the industry’s most highly anticipated games, and a lot of it had to do with this trailer:

Want to know one of the reasons that Blizzard is so revered as a game developer? It’s this: people don’t ever stop playing the games they make. The servers for legacy games like Diablo II and the first Starcraft, games more than a decade old, are actively maintained, and guides and wikis are regularly edited and curated. That’s before World of Warcraft is taken into account—a game that needs no introduction as far as longevity is concerned.

The point here is that when Blizzard announces a new franchise, it’s a very big deal, because (1) the franchises it has are more than enough to sustain it, and (2) every new Blizzard project is virtually guaranteed to become a gaming obsession. Blizzard games have staying power, they grow and change and improve with their audience. If you’re willing to play a Blizzard game, chances are there’s a way to play it that suits you perfectly. But want to know the most exciting thing about Overwatch? It’s those kids.

Overwatch is a decidedly all-ages affair, and the fact that Blizzard is the studio behind it is a very big deal indeed.

In a lot of ways, our biggest studios have been failing or outright ignoring kids. In seeking ‘maturity,’ game developers tried to push boundaries, but in only one direction—the violent one with lots of curse words. This left a void that allowed for a tiny indie game like Minecraft to take the world by storm—because we all have to start gaming somewhere, and a lot of times it’s as children.

But Overwatch looks like the beginnings of a sea change in video games. In keeping with another trend, it’s an online game, with no single player experience—and as more games move in this direction, it’s important to make your target audience as wide as possible, and your game as friendly as possible. That’s the impression that was given when Gearbox Software announced Battleborn earlier this year—another decidedly inclusive game with a strong focus on online play made by a major studio.

Granted, this is something that Nintendo has known for years—and it’s why the company continues to succeed in spite of being virtually ignored by the Grand Theft Autos of the world. If video games are for everyone—and they are—then all of our biggest games should be the ones that are the most welcoming to players of all ages. Sure, Grand Theft Auto V is great. But rare is the person who falls in love with video games thanks to GTA. They fall in love with Mario, or The Legend of Zelda. And then they keep playing games for the rest of their life.