Jeff Kaplan Talks Overwatch, and Why Diversity Has Been An "Overwhelming Positive"

By Rich Stanton on at

Overwatch is one of those games where, when someone doesn’t like it, I kinda wonder about their taste in other matters. It’s like the kid at school who said they didn’t like Mario Kart. Who doesn’t like Mario Kart? It’s a blinding achievement, even for a studio the size of Blizzard, to have produced a game that so expertly distils a genre of extreme complexity (and cruft) into something that anyone can play.

I recently returned to the game after a hiatus of a few months, and found it had been re-energised over several updates with new characters and modes (more on which later) but the thing I couldn’t quite get out of my head was Team Fortress 2. I used to play Valve’s class-based shooter a lot (Pyro, since you ask), absolutely adored it, yet when I’d had a break and went back it always took a while to recapture that same magic – and sometimes, in the absence of the old crew, it never could.

I ended up watching a few of those brilliant Valve shorts about the characters and it was then, wallowing in nostalgia, that I realised how much I’d underestimated this side of Overwatch. It’s a game where the great revelation is that class-based shooting doesn’t have to mean classes – they can be characters instead. And I realised that not only had Blizzard achieved this objective in-game but had somehow created an environment where the community picked up these characters and really ran with them – the volume of fan art, fiction, videos, whatever you want, is just incredible. The personalities communicate the abilities.

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“That was sort of the inspiration behind the game in general,” says Jeff Kaplan, a VP at Blizzard and the game director of Overwatch. “When we had transitioned onto the game, trying to come up with the core concept, we actually had the phrase in some of our design documents that was ‘Heroes not Classes’ and it really got you to think differently about who these people were.

When we talked about Overwatch internally, there was a lot of pressure; we hadn’t come up with a new intellectual property at Blizzard at the time when we came up with Overwatch – it had been seventeen years since Diablo. And there are these three pillars at Blizzard that were just Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo, and it’s very daunting to go ‘Well, how can we make something that could stand as a fourth pillar to those, someday?’ Like who are we to think we could come up with something like that? And we really embraced this philosophy of crawl-walk-run, and we look at Overwatch the game as the crawl.”

Calling Overwatch a ‘crawl’, a game that has north of 25 million players and received countless game of the year awards, strikes me as the kind of thing that needs some explication. “It really is sort of the ‘crawl’ to us, and a big part of that was we knew we were making this very tightly scoped experience,” says Kaplan. “It was a 6-vs-6 action shooter, it doesn’t have a PvE campaign, we weren’t the be-all and end-all like with some open-world persistence – it was just ‘No, we’re making a 6v6 shooter game.’ But with that said, when we looked at Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo – we looked at something like Warcraft and we’d go ‘OK it started with Warcraft 1 which was a very humble, tightly scoped game as well. How did they create a universe that someday, somebody could see all this other potential whether it be other games or even storytelling in other mediums?’ And for us it was to treat Overwatch from day one as if this was a fully realised universe that we were going to explore in other ways and not just be a 6v6 shooter.”

You heard it here first folks – World of Overwatch coming soon. One of the things that does strike me, in light of this idea of a tightly-scoped experience, is that on my recent return to the game I was a little surprised to feel that a little of that had been lost. Not in terms of the core experience, but the newer modes – the 3vs3 mode, the 1vs1 duels – felt a tiny bit gimmicky. What does player behaviour and the community more generally tell Kaplan about these additions – does the audience respond to this stuff in a way I don’t?

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“Well, it’s funny because I agree with you and I actually, internally, use the word ‘gimmicks’ often,” says Kaplan. “One of the things that’s most requested by our playerbase all the time is new game modes. And I read the feedback when they’re asking for that, and a lot of it seems very gimmicky to me. But I understand the desire for variety and I think the team understands that and that’s the whole reason we introduced the arcade.

“And we even named it the arcade because it seemed – like, they’re not even in the main menu. It’s not even a core function of what we direct you to; we call it the arcade and the phrase that we use is it’s the area you go to blow off steam, because in competitive and quick play a lot of players... they take it very seriously and they get that mindset. I think sometimes they forget that there can be a toy-like aspect to the game, which is like – I just want to have some fun in some silly and ridiculous ways so we introduced the Arcade for that reason.

“I think that the custom game browser is the same thing; it exists for a lot of reasons, I think. Pro gamers and teams who just want to scrim against one another can use that system, but at the same time somebody making their ridiculous boss fight mode with the 500% Roadhog against the six Soldier 76s that have half health – they can all have fun too.

I think it’s OK for the game to have a little bit of this ‘blow off steam’ sort of stuff, it’s OK for it to just be fun, as long as we don’t mix that up with the core part of the game, which to me has always been quick play and competitive. As long as we’re not junking that up with a bunch of gimmicks, I think we’re in good shape.”

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There is a wider point here, however, about the nature of the current industry’s movement towards games-as-a-service, which is that inherent to this business model is accumulation. Overwatch will keep getting new stuff, and noticing it was ‘season 4’ already did rather take me aback. I worried a little about having that feeling which gradually crept up on me in Hearthstone, which I played solidly for a year or so, where the pace of additions and expansions eventually became too great – and I just gave up on following it. That may be my loss as a player, but it does make me wonder when enough is enough. Can a game like Overwatch ever be ‘complete’ and, if not, when is it going to tick over being a bit too complex for people just to jump in and play for half an hour without worrying about Season 16?

“There’s a concept that I think a lot about which I describe as ‘complexity versus depth,’” says Kaplan. “It’s all semantics, so you’ll have to forgive me, but it’s something I do think about a lot. So depth, to me, is game systems that allow you to have a lot of replayability that make the game feel bigger for the player and open the player’s possibilities up. Where complexity is almost the inevitable tax that you pay for having depth; complexity are systems that require knowledge in order for you to sort of engage with the extra depth that comes along.

“So the question is that whenever you’re adding depth to the game, it’s silly to think that you’re not going to add complexity at all, but how much depth can you add while really trying to reduce that amount of complexity. So the phrase that we use internally on the team is ‘maximise the depth, minimise the complexity’ – I’m not saying we’ve done a masterful job of that, and I’m not saying that we will always do a masterful job, but it’s very much something that’s in our minds.

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“What we’re wrestling with is, yeah, it is a game as a service, and players are highly engaged with it, and they love the fact that we update the game and we know that there are players who have cycled out and will return back to us, we’ve seen the behaviour before and it’s very common, so it’s just about balancing, finding the right balance. World of Warcraft has to deal with this, Hearthstone has to deal with this, all games that are live as a service and you’re sort of looking at three constant audiences.

“There’s the engaged players, there’s win-back players – players who have cycled out and are coming back – and then there are new players, and not every decision is necessarily best for all three of those audiences, but it’s a mistake not to recognise that at all times, with every decision you make, you are going to affect all three of those audiences, but are you doing it in a positive or negative way?” I quite like Kaplan’s semantics around complexity and depth, so I ask for an example of it in action.

“I’ll give you an example our players won’t like very much,” laughs Kaplan. “When you play quick play, you don’t get to choose what map you’re playing, and it’s a common request that players have: they either want to view and pick the map exactly, or they want to have a voting system, like each round will come up and then we’ll all vote. And while it’s not a lot of complexity, it is adding more to the game by doing that, and what I don’t think players realise is that the maps are very much designed to feature different heroes at different times.

“Like the city centre of Oasis is designed very different than the Streets section of King’s Row, and different heroes have advantages and disadvantages in all of those different locations, and in fact it encourages a lot of hero-swapping and composition changes. In the world where players are sort of self-selecting into whatever map they want to play, it’s also limiting their possibilities and maybe even influencing what heroes they play or how they play those heroes, so I think we get a lot of depth out of forcing the map variety on players and not letting them just pick. With that we made the concession of the custom game browsers there – and if you’re like ‘I only play King’s Row’ – OK, have at it, there’s a place for it.”

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It strikes me, in relation to this point about map design, that one of Overwatch’s great strengths is in embracing this kind of asymmetry. It seems to me that one of the things the design threw out – and it really worked – is this idea that symmetry and balance is something that must be striven for. Overwatch embraces that its characters are so wildly different and, despite that 1vs1 duel mode, they’re not really designed for head-to-head comparison. It’s one of the reasons why the complaints, which continue to this day, about the lack of a straight-up deathmatch mode just don’t make much sense.

“When I think about a character like Reinhart or Mercy, and think about how we would have to balance them to be viable in a Deathmatch scenario, I believe we would ultimately homogenise them in a way that no longer are these characters these unique, diverse gameplay entities – they would become very samey,” says Kaplan. “Trying to balance each of these characters to be viable against one another is not what we’re about, the fun and exciting thing is just how wildly different they all are. If you want to play a very symmetrical team-based deathmatch shooter, some of the best games out there let you do that. The world didn’t need another one of those right now.”

The world needs heroes, right? It so happened that I interviewed Kaplan just after a Marvel executive, David Gabriel, discussed how the company’s comic sales had been in decline – and said that retailers had told him “readers were turning their noses up at diversity” and “didn’t want female characters out there.” There Marvel, or a representative of Marvel, seems to present diversity as a commercial negative, and I would guess Blizzard’s experience with Overwatch has been the opposite?

“I mean with Overwatch right now we are at 25 million players and growing and it’s still growing rapidly,” says Kaplan. “I think the way that we’ve embraced all sorts of walks of life – and sort of looked at our planet in a very positive and inspirational way. Like we’ve really tried to say to people ‘Isn’t this world that we live in cool? Aren’t all these people cool and they’re all very different from one another? Even the ones that look similar have different back stories.’ “I think it’s been nothing but a positive for us, and I think it’s been one of the things that fans have responded to the most and embraced the most, so in no way do I think any part of having a diverse cast of characters is a negative, it’s been nothing but a positive.”

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Perhaps the most-covered example of this was when a comic book, funnily enough, revealed that the game’s cover star Tracer had a girlfriend. What struck me at the time, while mocking the more extreme reactions, was that generally the community loved it – and there was a huge outpouring of Tracer art and postings over the following days and weeks. It almost made me wonder if there was a misrepresentation there, in that people generally either didn’t notice or thought it was great, but a couple of hundred people cause a big stink and that’s what the headlines are. What was Kaplan’s sense of the response? “From my perspective, when we revealed that Tracer had a girlfriend, it was overwhelmingly positive – ranging from overwhelmingly so, we got a lot of fan mail that said ‘Hey, I’m an LGBT teen in high school right now, and it’s very hard for me and knowing that the character on the front of the box of my favourite game and the one that all my friends play is like me made me feel better about myself.’

“We got some really positive responses like that, and it goes all the way down to... the way that I like to talk about it is the phrase that I use is ‘Normal is Normal’ – and I think a lot of people were just like ‘Oh, OK. She has a girlfriend? Great. I have lots of friends who have girlfriends and lots of friends who have boyfriends and it’s just a normal part of life.’ We didn’t actually see a lot of negativity. So my perspective was that it was overwhelmingly positive.”

“Seriously I was blown away at the fan art and cosplay the day... within 24 hours of the comic being out, how much... I don’t even know how artists can work this fast! Literally draw that fast – amazing cosplay of Tracer and Emily – a cosplay! Fully dressed up, photoshoot, amazing fan art, I’m like ‘wow,’ it almost seemed like a celebration to me when it happened.”

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I went on to talk to Kaplan at length about dealing with fan communities, a digression which for the sake of length we’ll run separately. But I wanted to finish with a thought inspired by our recent series of articles called ‘In The Land of ‘Dying’ MMOGs’ - which goes back to once-thriving online games to see what the communities that still persist in playing it are like. It made me wonder if Blizzard had ever, for a game like World of Warcraft which just seems to go on and on, thought of a funeral plan – all of these always-online games that Blizzard makes, what happens when the community drops to a point where it’s not viable to support it any longer? Or is that a silly thought?

“We should but we don’t think about it at all,” says Kaplan. “I don’t know if you just heard but we just announced we’re remastering Starcraft and patching the game! And we’re like three expansions into Starcraft 2 at this point, so we probably should have a plan like that, but we really don’t.

“In fact, we’re always thinking of ways to get back to our old games and what can we do with themes... I remember when Blackthorne and Lost Vikings and Rock n Roll Racing were considered ‘gone and done’ and we put them on Game Boy Advance. We absolutely should have a plan like the one you’re talking about, but when I was working on World of Warcraft, the original plan was that the game had to last for five years.”

I guess you could call that mission accomplished.

“Yeah,” laughs Kaplan. “That was our mindset – we’re going to have to make enough of a game so that it can last at least five years, and then after that we’re going to have to come out with lots more MMOGs, and you see where we’re at now, so we should absolutely have that plan. We literally have a classic games group at Blizzard: a group of developers that are as big a programming team as any of our other heavily in-development games right now. I think we’re a little bit too in love with our games to have that funeral plan yet.