From Guild Leader to Game Director Part 1: Landing A Job At Blizzard
Photo Credit: Ed Carreón
Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan got his first industry gig thanks to being an EverQuest guildmate of former Blizzard chief creative officer Rob Pardo. His thoughts on game design landed him a job on reigning MMO juggernaut World of Warcraft, and now Kaplan is the game director on one of 2016’s most promising upcoming first-person shooters, Overwatch.
How did you get started in the gaming industry?
I got started in the industry almost by accident; I fell into it. I was always passionate about video games, my whole life – the classic story of starting with an Atari 2600 and Intellivision back in the day. I got into PC gaming very early, the Zork, Ultima series, I loved any Infocom game; they were all fantastic. I never really thought a career in video games was achievable by someone like me. What I mean by that is I always thought you had to be an amazing programmer or a really talented artist to have a career in video games.
So I was pursuing a career in film and then writing and I actually got my master’s degree in creative writing from New York University, and I was trying to get my short stories published and work on a novel. But I was still playing a ton of video games and I would always do things like pick up the map editor – Duke Nukem 3D had a map editor, and Half Life had one included on the disc – those games used to always ship with a map editor and I’d always fire it up and be making maps and that sort of thing. I spent a good part of my twenties trying to get my writing published. And I was really bad, I was failing. In one year, for example, I had 172 rejections from different magazines that I was trying to get my stories published in.
I remember in my mid-twenties I decided to take a break from writing and I had structured most of my time around writing fiction and I had all this free time, and I got really into EverQuest. I started playing that game very hardcore and just as the fates would have it, my guildleader heard me talking about how I made maps in Half Life, and I thought he was just a fellow gamer interested in seeing what I was doing. It turned out that guild leader was Robert Pardo, who at the time was the lead designer on Warcraft III for Blizzard Entertainment. What I didn’t know, what I learned later, was that many of my guild members in EverQuest worked at Blizzard. The big irony there is that I didn’t really know who Blizzard was. I didn’t really play StarCraft or Warcraft at the time because I was more of an FPS gamer; I played a lot of id games. It was just ironic that they were like, “Hey, you live in LA. Why don’t you come down and visit us at Irvine sometime?” Which is only an hour away from where I was living. Then it turned out all these guys were at Blizzard, working on all these great games. At the time, World of Warcraft wasn’t announced, so it was this secret that they were working on an MMO. They asked me to come down for what I thought was just a series of lunches.
Back in those days – we’re talking, this is around 2001 – in those days, video games were a little bit taboo…everybody didn’t talk about them openly. I just really enjoyed having a group of friends where it was acceptable that we all played video games and we could talk about our latest raid and how we’re gonna defeat this latest dragon. With hindsight, what I didn’t realize at the time was that those guys were interviewing me for a role with World of Warcraft. Eventually I remember Rob in guild chat saying to me, “Hey, check the job postings on the Blizzard website tomorrow. There’s a job and I really think you should apply for it.” And I looked at it; it was for a quest designer on World of Warcraft because they had now announced they were going to make World of Warcraft.
I swear to you the job description was written exactly to my background. “Super passionate about MMOs, has past experience with MMOs, and by the way we’re looking for someone with a creative writing degree” and all this, and I felt they were speaking to me. Kind of a long story, but I really had no idea there was a potential for someone like me to work in video games, and I got into it through playing video games which is kind of the coolest thing ever.
So what was it like playing EverQuest back then? I remember it being incredibly hardcore. You were in one of the top guilds; do you feel like those old-school top guilds were a recruiting ground for the games industry?
Yeah, I think it’s very interesting. EverQuest, I can describe it as nothing short of magical, what that game did for gaming and me personally. I really regard that as one of the greatest games of all time. But you mention how hardcore it was, and I agree with that. Not only was it hardcore, it was very punishing and you needed a certain level of tolerance to put up with the constant defeat and constant recovery required by the game. And I think what you had was a very distilled community. It was a smaller community, but everybody was very passionate about the game and gaming in general.
What I think happened was that by creating this small community it really sort of perpetuated and encouraged very deep design discussions about the game itself within the community. And because of that it’s very easy to look back on times in EQ or different websites or forums and say, “Wow, this person, who is that guy who calls himself Furor? That guy is really smart about playing EverQuest. He has really smart things to say about raiding and the way these mechanics should work. And you look him up and it’s this guy, (World of Warcraft creative director) Alex Afrasiabi, and there were so many people like that in EverQuest who really displayed their knowledge – in the early days, they weren’t called blog posts but looking back that’s what we’re really talking about – where guild leaders would post their thoughts about the game, how they thought mechanics should work.
I can remember there was a guild called Afterlife that was run by these two guys, Thott and Hobbin. I don’t know their names in real life, but Thott was an incredibly smart thinker about video games. I don’t know what he does in real life or what his career is, but he was the guy who came up with DKP, or the Dragon Kill Point system, which was how most guilds run their loot distribution. As part of that he came up with an item database so that they could reward their guild with loot on raids. Well, that item database went on to become a site called Thottbot, and Thottbot was the inspiration for Wowhead, so these guys were smart, really deep design-thinkers who understood games on a whole other level. It was really awesome to be a part of that crowd and to be in touch with people like that.
You were known in that community as well for being outspoken. Given that, have you ever seen comments about games that you’ve worked on in that same vein, and has your own commenting in that circle shaped your thoughts on passionate feedback?
Yeah, it absolutely has. One of my favorite things is when players plunge the depth of the Internet and they’ll pull old quotes that I said and use them against me. I find that very humbling and it’s very important to remember where I was coming from at the time. But for me, it was a lot of fun, writing and being part of a big community. I had that background in creative writing so I loved writing and I loved expressing myself in that way. What it’s given me is a real appreciation for community leaders, especially people who are vocal and driving community opinion. And what I would do in the early days of working on World of Warcraft, I had a bond with the people running the uber guilds at the time, the really elite guilds, and what I would do is make sure to reach out to as many of them as possible, make sure they had my email address; I was able to talk to them through DM tools. I’d actually go and approach them in the game, talk to them and have conversations with them. I would go in as they were raiding and talk to them, ask if everything was working correctly, are you guys having any issues, really try to open the dialogue with them.
I wish that had been done with me when I was a player. I feel like I could have helped make some of the games I played better if there had been an open dialogue with some of the players. So what I try to do is have a dialogue with those players, see what’s working and not working. We’re players too. We’re players of the game, lovers of the game, and we’re not just off making it and hoping it’ll work in the wild. So I’ve tried to be open, give my email address to as many players as I can, as many vocal players as possible so that they know there’s human beings on the other side. We’re not just nameless, faceless developers who are ruthlessly trying to make a game so we can move on to the next one. We’re really trying to build something great here, and we know that happens with player and developer interaction.
Back to EverQuest for a second, what was your favorite memory of EverQuest? Like of all the EverQuest you played, what was the best moment for you?
In EverQuest I had all these epic moments, we literally had a world’s first in Legacy of Steel where we killed the avatar of war; we had almost every server first on my server, which was Nameless at the time that I played. But the weirdest part is that some of my fondest memories were the humbler times as a struggling rogue. I played a rogue, and rogues were widely regarded in the early days of EverQuest before some balance adjustments happened as an underpowered class in that game. So there weren’t a lot of rogues, and I ended up being the first rogue to get 50 on our server, but it was a hard journey because most people didn’t want a rogue in a group.
There was this one night where I sort of begged and pleaded with a cleric friend I had to take a trip into Lower Guk. I’d never been in a Lower Guk group before, and I knew that’s where all the awesome items in the game came from. Also, I just heard all these stories of stuff that had happened. This was in the early days before everyone was max level, so there was still a lot of fear and intimidation about going into some of these dungeons. And I remember getting into this group and going into Lower Guk, and we did these camps that all had names that were based on the bosses like the Guk Lord, the Archmage, and there was one boss that just looked like a giant hand, so everyone just called it hand. We did this whole Lower Guk circuit, including killing the assassin who dropped this amazing mask that turned you into a dark elf if you were a rogue or a bard, and I was the first rogue on the server to get that mask and it was just a magical night. The biggest deal for me was that I actually got a group because rogues didn’t usually get groups, but then to get this really cool item that was the first one on the server was a special night that I will always remember.