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From Guild Leader to Game Director Pt 3: Building Overwatch

by Daniel Tack on Apr 01, 2016 at 07:40 AM

This is our final segment of our three-part interview with Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan, talking EverQuest, WoW, and the upcoming first-person shooter Overwatch. You can check out part one here and part two here!

So how did you move from working on WoW for so many years and whatever Titan was, to a first-person shooter?

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, as I mentioned to you when I was talking about the EverQuest days, shooters were really my first love when it comes to video games. I think of Doom, Duke Nukem, Quake, Wolf 3D; they were really some of my biggest inspirations. That was an exciting period of time in video games, because we were starting to see games from a first-person standpoint and start to appreciate 3D worlds, which was a whole new way of looking at video games that hadn’t been there before. So it’s very exciting to me; it’s something that I always wanted to work on. And I had an immense passion and love for MMOs as well, so there was a lot there that I loved, but one thing that I was never fully in love with in any of the MMOs that I had played was the combat itself. I think the combat was really fun, but nothing quite spoke to me like playing Quake 3 Arena in terms of action combat, like how to really get your heart pumping, that visceral feeling. I’ve always been dying to work on a shooter, and then there was a great era of shooters in the 2000s that happened – you know, Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2 I think were some of the greatest shooters of the present era that were ever made. They were just absolutely fantastic games and really inspired me. 

Team Fortress 2 was just mega in my mind, because I had grown up in that Quake community where I played Team Fortress 1 as a Quake mod. I remember it with great nostalgia and great memories, and then I remember when Team Fortress classic came out as part of a Half-Life release and being blown away by how much they had progressed the genre. But Team Fortress 2 not only was a juggernaut in terms of class-based team shooters, but I think it transcended game design in general of how many smart decisions were made in terms of making sort of a modern, beautiful, elegant, simple video game. There was such inspiration from that, so as we were rolling off of Titan and we were coming up with ideas that we as a team were super passionate about, we really chased our hearts more than anything else. 

The whole MOBA coming-of-age had happened: DotA, DOTA 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, and while we didn't want to make a MOBA, we were looking at what is super great about these games that really appeals to people. It’s that idea of delivering heroes as characters, and not just giving people classes, but really developing heroes. Not only in terms of what their gameplay abilities were, but like that Tracer was a test pilot in the RAF, and she’s really positive and perky but kind of twitchy because she’s gone through this time-traveling accident. Winston was a scientist first and foremost, and is almost a reluctant hero. Symmetra is kind of a villain, but she kind of thinks she’s doing the right thing. It’s just a fascinating turn to try to take these characters and not only make them awesome gameplay heroes, but try to build characters in a new universe that we wanted to spend a lot of time with. Overwatch has been a passion project from day one, but it’s unique in the fact that it’s a collaborative passion project that’s shared by the entire team. I’ve never been on a team that shared such a unified vision and cared so much about what they’re making than Overwatch.

You talked about building out the Overwatch universe. Right now, obviously there’s a lot of character and flavor in the maps and characters, but is there ever a chance that there’s going to be some kind of overworld or PvE content or some other way to engage with the game other than just going into matchmaking and boom, you’re in a match?

Right now, the focus of Overwatch is entirely on our competitive game. We are very excited that we are going to introduce our play-vs.-A.I. feature, which is getting to be more robust. It’s going to be more like Heroes of the Storm play-vs.-A.I., where players can actually queue up solo but get matchmade with 5 other players and play against bots. I think the idea of exploring PvE in Overwatch as game developers has us all eagerly awaiting the chance to do that, whether that be in some subsequent Overwatch game that we haven’t made yet, or even in a different genre of Overwatch. I think we’re all dying to explore PvE at some point, but not for this game. Not for the initial offering of Overwatch, which is really focused on the team-based hero-action combat. So it’s something we’d like to get to someday in a different game.

I’d love to hear how you settled on the current progression system

Yeah, absolutely. So I mentioned I do these things called developer updates where we just try to be as communicative with our community as possible, and I try to explain to people that we try to couple progression systems. And it’s so sad, because I mentioned that it seems so freaking obvious to me as I say this to you, like “Here’s why they didn’t work,” but the first progression system we did was actually before our 2014 Blizzcon announce, so we actually had a progression system in before that first Blizzcon. That one I would almost describe as traditional or expected from a progression system, where you’d level up these heroes and then they had talent trees, and you could pick different talents and we had stuff like – the example I always give is Reaper, when he does his shadow walk he’ll heal to full. It was actually power-affecting stuff – so we had one where Widowmaker was more powerful at long range if allies were around. 

It’s already very overwhelming in a game like Overwatch to have 21 heroes coming at you. Not only do you have to learn what your hero does but you have to learn what the other 21 heroes do, and how to read the tells of all of their abilities, and we spent a lot of time trying to make that stuff work, and make it obvious, and let you know what’s about to happen to you on the battlefield. When you add this whole talent system in on top of it, and at the rate of gameplay that Overwatch plays at, it was just too much to process. You have to at the blink of an eye recognize “Oh my god, that’s Reaper, he’s going to do X, Y and Z.” But now you also have to turn and go, “Oh my god, it’s Reaper, and he could be specced for more healing and survivability, or he could be specced for more long range, or he could be specced for short-range blast damage.” It just became way overwhelming. 

So we scrapped that one, and then we decided, “Hey, we’ve got to get the power progression out of our progression system; let’s try cosmetics.” So attempt number two was to create a progression system where players would play different heroes and all the heroes had levels that could go from 1 to 20, and then as they would level up they would unlock cool stuff. Cool stuff was like skins, skin tints, we have a spray system where you can spray logos on the wall, voicelines, emotes, victory poses – we have something called a highlight intro, which is when you get into the game, we do a really cool over-the-top animation of the character; those you really have to see to understand what I’m talking about. 

So we had all this cool cosmetic stuff, and as you go from 1 to 20, we would unlock the stuff in a certain order. But immediately we spent a lot of time trying to communicate to our audience, and the people in the beta really get this, that the magic of Overwatch is that you can change heroes at any time. So there’s this fluidity to the combat because you’re constantly picking and matching counters with the other team, and suddenly we had this system where you’d be standing in the spawn room and your whole team is pinned down, but you have three Widowmakers on your team trying to get out of the spawn room. And you kind of politely say in team chat, “Hey guys, I think we might need some heroes who can push out of the spawn room more than Widowmaker can.” And then everybody would respond like, “Yeah, I totally agree, but I’m like one level away from unlocking my cool Widowmaker skin, so I get it, but I really want to unlock the skin so I can’t switch off of her.” So progression-system number two was a terrible mistake because it overly rewarded players staying on one hero and it didn’t allow for variation and people to switch off of that hero. 

There’s no power progression in it, but instead we’re giving you an account player level instead. So you, Dan, will have a level – we’ll give you a level so it doesn’t matter who you play, you can play any character in a match and you, the player, will level up. Each time you hit a level – and there are infinite levels now…kind of similar to Diablo III’s Paragon system, where you can just keep accruing levels. Every time that you level up, we will give you what we call a loot box. Loot boxes contain four items, and it’s all that stuff randomized. So sometimes you’ll get a legendary skin, sometimes you’ll get a rare spray, sometimes you’ll get an epic emote – there are different qualities to the items that you’re unlocking from the box. We also added a system where we have a hero gallery now and you can go and browse all these things that you’re unlocking in the loot boxes, and you can look and say, “Let me look at Junkrat,” and see all of his skins. 

You might be saying to yourself, “Wow, I have really poor luck with the random draw out of the loot box; I never get that Junkrat skin that I really want.” Well, as you get duplicate items in the loot boxes, instead of just giving you two Widowmaker skins of the exact same one or whatever, we’ll award you credits the second time that you get it. Or sometimes credits can just be a reward in and of themselves that come out of the loot box, and the majority of items on each of the characters in the hero gallery – like that Junkrat skin that you were coveting but can never get because of your random luck – you can just unlock it for credits if you want. Like if you find that, “Well, over time I haven’t really gotten that thing that I want, but I have enough credits now, so I’m just gonna go ahead and unlock it now.” That’s sort of our new progression system in a nutshell; I realize I’m probably missing some part of it since I ramble a little too much.

That seems pretty self-explanatory. What about being able to visually identify a hero with so many skins – I know this has happened in DotA 2 recently, with all the crazy skins they have – like maybe you don’t recognize Reaper if he’s wearing a Santa Claus outfit or something right away. Is that a concern?

Yeah, you know, it’s definitely a concern. So now we’re back in internal alpha, we have this progression system up and running, and we’re starting to get feedback from the company about skins that there might be concerns about, and then we will do the same thing when it comes to the public closed beta when we bring that back up. We’ll also be looking for that feedback and we’ll make any tweaks or adjustments as necessary. 

For example, one thing that’s on our radar is if you look at the Origins-edition skin, the Jack Morrison skin for Soldier 76 has kind of got this long trenchcoat, and there’s a debate right now both on the team and in the company of, “Is that too similar to Reaper?” Some people say yes – what tends to happen is the first time people see it they’ll say yes, and then after a week they’re just used to it and they can react just fine to it. A lot of players have said also that they respond more to animation than they do silhouette, and other players respond more to silhouette than animation. Some players also respond more to color, so we’ll keep an eye on it for sure and we’ll be careful. 

We’ve also decided to do some other things, because we feel like if you’re going to have all these cool skins, you’ve got to let people show them. We have really robustly blown out our custom game feature with tons of new rules that players have never seen before, so that’s going to be really exciting when the beta comes up, but some of the rules are less exciting but more straightforward. So we allow you to start a custom game, and you can decide that you can disable skins for that. So we feel that if somebody is in a tournament, or they’re playing a little bit more seriously amongst their friends in a competitive environment and they feel like skins are somehow an advantage or disadvantage to someone, they can certainly fire up a custom game and disable skins in that match. It’s something that we’re approaching very cautiously, but we also want to make sure that when it comes to self-expression that we allow for people to see these as well.

On completely unrelated note, what’s the coolest gaming-related item that you own?

This is like a really bizarre one, but we did a partnership with Visa for a World of Warcraft Visa card back in the day, and they were so cool. They had this beautiful WoW art. I forget how many of them they made, I think they had like nine of the races on these Visa cards that you could get, and someone had given me this framed picture with all of the different Visa cards with my name on all of them behind the frame. The art was very beautiful, but I always laugh because I was like, “Is this an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass thing?” I could just whip out nine Visa cards and charge them, and who is all this going to get billed to because I don’t ever remember getting approved for any of those cards. I think that was definitely a really cool item, but that was the runner-up. 

My favorite gaming-related item that I have is – well, when we ship a game at Blizzard we have a lot of traditions: We do a champagne toast out in our courtyard, where the whole company comes and celebrates the launch of the game, and whenever we do that, whatever’s the newest game that we’ve launched, we hoist the flagpole out in front of the studio and it’s got the California flag, the U.S. flag, but also alongside those we hoist the flag for the franchise of whatever game that we’ve launched. The first one in our new campus where we started that tradition was Wrath of the Lich King. After Cataclysm had come out, they had hoisted the Cataclysm flag instead of the Wrath of the Lich King flag and J Allen Brack, who’s executive producer on World of Warcraft, had come up to me and handed me the flag for Wrath of the Lich King. 

It was awesome because it had been hanging out in the elements for two years or whatever, so it’s frayed and tattered; this thing is weather-beaten. I said, “There’s no way I can take this, J. It belongs to the team; we should hang it in the main meeting room.” And J looked at me and said, “Oh, don’t worry. I had a second flag made, so they have a brand new, shiny, gorgeous one hanging on the wall. But I wanted you to have the war-torn, battered one that actually hung on the flag pole.” So I’d say that was probably the coolest gaming-related item that I own.

That is a cool one. Alright, last question: What’s your favorite game of all time and why?

You know, I’m gonna have to go with EverQuest on that. I think the game was beautiful for its time. I think it was revolutionary to put that many people together, interacting with each other. I think Norrath is one of the coolest worlds ever built and the level of imagination and storytelling and adventure...I’ve never felt so much adventure in a video game as I did in EverQuest. But beyond the game itself and the quality of the craftsmanship that was originally added and eventually Sony Online put into EverQuest, the people that I got to know and the bonds I made…I feel more connected with my friends and guildmates in EverQuest than I do in – for example, I have more friends who were guildmates in EverQuest to this day than I have of my old high-school buddies or college friends. I feel like I have more of a connection with the people I played EverQuest with than anyone else in my life. I think the game is nothing short of magical.