Jeff Kaplan reflects on making our Game Of The Year 2016, Overwatch
How has it been seeing Overwatch really capture the attention of the gaming community and become such a success, did you ever have any idea it would be so huge?
Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch game director and vice president at Blizzard Entertainment: It was really hard for us because we get so close to the game, it’s difficult for us to have proper perspective and objectivity. I started my career working on World Of Warcraft and we were so fortunate with that it took off as a cultural phenomenon. I worked on World Of Warcraft for six and a half years and then I spent a bunch of years not working on it; that gives you a chance to reflect.
That was a special period of time for me and I knew it might never happen ever again, either at Blizzard or in my career. So for people to embrace Overwatch as much as they have is really special to me.
A part of what makes Overwatch such a success has to be because of the characters. When did you know that you were onto something?
We started falling in love with the heroes and the characters and what they came to represent internally very early on. There was this sense of magic that we were feeling, but you never quite know whether that’s just because it was our baby and close to our hearts, or will other people pick it up and make it their own.
Overwatch has so much personality, where did the inspiration for the heroes emerge from?
It’s really interesting, because it all started with gameplay. If you’ve ever been here to the Blizzard campus we have this Orc statue with the company values in front of it and in the centre of it is ‘Gameplay First’. Early on, the focus for the heroes was that each one of them had to have completely unique gameplay.
We didn’t want to rehash what other heroes had done and we didn’t want to homogenise our heroes and have them do similar things. But while it started with this gameplay focus, as we were creating these characters, in terms of the art, the writing of their back-story and their voiceover dialogue lines – we really started to embrace this concept of diversity. We wanted to create these characters from all different walks of life, with very different perspectives.
Creating such a unique group of heroes was at the core of the game then, is that part of what makes it work as well it does?
Not only was the gameplay mandate that it had to be unique and different from hero to hero, but also who the heroes were themselves in terms of people, it became very important to us for them to be different.
It’s not like we had some diversity checklist that we were making our way through, our goal was one of inclusivity. As the community approached this game, we recognised that human beings are far more unique than the 23 [characters] we currently have in Overwatch. But we painted a picture so that any of us that weren’t exactly represented in Overwatch could imagine ourselves being represented and that we felt included in this family – even if at times it’s a dysfunctional family, we still felt included. That inclusiveness became key to the magic.
Each of the characters has taken on a life of their own within the community, which speaks to how well they were designed; do you have any favourite-fan creations?
We love Gremlin D’Va, so much so that when we created her sit emote we incorporated the community’s impression of what that meant – so she’s playing games and drinking decaffeinated soda. We also love where the community has taken Soldier 72, that they call him dad and World’s No.1 Dad.
We try to feed back into the community so they know that we are listening and paying attention. When it came time to do the Summer Games event and we had to pick different sports for different heroes, we made the Golfing 76 victory pose and spray – immediately people associate golf with dads – it’s our way of winking back at the community and saying hey, we’re with you, we’re following you.
How happy are you with the content that has arrived post-launch, it’s been at the heart of keeping the game populated, right?
We’re very happy with our content roll out. I think we’ve also learned a ton. As a development team, even though many of us have come from different studios or from different teams within Blizzard, this was the first game released by our development team. For us, there was a learning process to go from a ‘shipping game’ to a ‘live-support team’, that is a very different mindset to go into.
I think our team has made the transition as fluidly as you could hope for; they are really enthusiastic about it. For us, it’s been a learning process; from the Summer Games to Halloween, implementing community feedback, making items purchasable for credit, I think that’s all an example of us getting our legs underneath us and sort of learning what works and what doesn’t. We’ve just been trying to set things on the right track for the future, so that there’s a lot of faith and trust in us. I’m very happy with our releases so far, the new maps and the new modes.
Two of the biggest additions have been competitive and new heroes, both of which could have upset the natural balance of play…
Anna was really well received, that was a great moment for Overwatch development. And Sombra so far has been really well received on the PTR. I think the pacing [of content] feels good and the players are beginning to realise that we do something major almost every month. I wish with hindsight – in fact, it isn’t even with hindsight because there just wasn’t much we could do about it – but as we were listening to feedback and making iterations, we spent a lot of time on competitive mode.
We had a version of it in the beta, then we had Season One and Season Two both with heavy iterations over what was in the beta and that was more time consuming than we had planned for. We were hoping to have smaller iteration cycles and to hit the target quicker with our first version of it, but I think we showed the community that we were listening and that we are willing to make major changes based on their feedback; hopefully we’ve garnered some good will with the community in our efforts so far.
Every round of Overwatch seems to have its own story to tell, are you happy with how players have responded to the modes and pace of the game?
It’s been awesome so far. We have our original design philosophy printed right outside our office – that help guide our level designers into building maps – and our first value is that ‘it’s all about the heroes.’
The thing about our Overwatch design philosophy is that it’s extremely simple. It’s [about] creating these amazing, unique heroes that really stand apart from one another, with these really epic over-the-top abilities that can combine in ways that you could never imagine, with more permutations than any of us would have ever hoped for. It’s about taking that really simplistic design and focusing on really high execution on simple hero abilities and not mucking up the game with a lot of really complicated rules or game modes, or what I like to call gimmicks.
A lot of the time, when people are pitching new game modes or new ways to play Overwatch to us, they are always very complicated, [but] there’s a purity to the flow of gameplay. To the simple elegance of the design, of the heroes, and we want to embrace that, not move away from that. If we can achieve our design goal, of as much depth with as little complexity as possible, that will allow for those stories to come out, that’s always been our hope since day one and we are still sticking with it.
Jeff, thank you so much for you time and congrats on being named our game of the year for 2016!
I just want to thank you. This is such an honour for the team and myself, just thank you so much! The Overwatch team is so humbled and grateful to be given such an amazing honour. But, we’d like to think that it isn’t just an honour that’s bestowed on Blizzard or the Overwatch team, but on the whole Overwatch community.
We really feel that what makes a game great is not the code, or the art or the design that goes into creating a piece of software, but it’s all the passion and enthusiasm of the gaming community to really create fun for each other. We feel like this is as much an award that goes to our entire community as much as it is something that we just share here at Blizzard, so, I just want to say thank you to the entire community for creating something so awesome.
Want to see what games could compete in 2017? Check out our latest issue!