I recently interviewed Jeff Kaplan about, what else, Overwatch. Before meeting him I’d done some googling and found an old subreddit thread linking to an interesting – and familiar – part of Kaplan’s past. Before joining Blizzard, you see, Jeff Kaplan was seriously into Everquest, and ran one of the biggest community sites around. He was that super-invested player that gives the developers constant feedback, good and bad. And the particular post that the Overwatch subreddit dug up, of course, featured Kaplan giving Everquest’s poor developers both barrels.
Straightaway I saw this as both amusing, and something that informs the way Jeff Kaplan and the Overwatch team engage with an extremely large and passionate fanbase. We talked a little about games-as-a-service in the main interview, and community management is one inevitable part of it: you have to keep players on-board, informed, and take their feedback seriously, while still controlling the game’s overall direction.
Jeff Kaplan now is cool and collected, rational and funny – so I float my theory, and ask whether Zen Kaplan exists because he was once that angry poster.
“Yeah, absolutely,” laughs Kaplan. “It’s funny because that same forum post gets dug up all the time, and the whole archive is there of all of my Everquest stuff. They didn’t call it a blog back then, it was before the word blog was even invented, but all of my website updates were there, and I didn’t rant too often. There were a couple of times where I was super passionate, but I was the one who had to manage my guild forums and my guild website was one of the most popular Everquest destinations that Everquest players would come to.”
The whole structure of Everquest, the guilds basically, lent itself to this kind of self-service community management. Running a guild or having some role in it had serious prestige within the game, and in a real sense was the endgame for some. It was also, rather fortuitously, giving Kaplan an education in highly-engaged playerbases.
“Being the forum moderator really gave me an insight into online communities and how people react and being a player,” says Kaplan. “I didn’t know any game developers back then, I only learned afterwards that I actually did know game developers but I didn’t know at the time – and I knew nothing about game development. It gave me a tonne of perspective. To fast-forward to where I am now – when I read these angry posts... I wish culture wasn’t like that, it’s abusive and it’s not very productive and I feel a lot of personal regret. I wish I had been a little bit more worldly in my thoughts at the time and could see things from multiple angles.”
Such is the nature of the world. When you’re in your thirties, you think you were a bit of a dummy when you were a teenager. My own youthful experience as a forum rager involved several different competitive games, and a book’s worth of half-formed posts based largely on whether I’d been winning or losing that day. I’m not proud, but I wasn’t that bad so it doesn’t especially bother me either: mainly I just think, wow, I can’t believe I cared that much, and knew so little. Misplaced as it was, that kind of passion is why I’m writing this now.
“Not everybody does game development,” says Kaplan. “People don’t work in studios and know what it takes to make a game or a feature or tune it or create an animation or make a server work; this is not common knowledge. So I like to be very forgiving of the community in that sense and when I read somebody talking angrily to me on our forums or talking angrily on Reddit or in a press article – what I always think to myself is: the person who truly doesn’t like Overwatch isn’t playing it.
“They’re just not playing it – they’re not sitting here on the Overwatch forums and they’re not personally attacking me or my development team. The person who’s not playing Overwatch is playing some other game, and these people – while they’re maybe not expressing themselves in the most productive way – are extremely passionate about the game, and there’s usually something in there to learn from or some way to use that feedback or harness that feedback to turn it into some positive way.”
“As somebody who’s been on both sides of the fence, I wish I could convince these people like ‘Look, if you just took out the personal insult... you’re making a really great point!’ They don’t realise the type of things like if they attack somebody on my development team, we’re going to ban them from the forums for doing that. Or if they are just being kind of bratty and ranty about their feedback, we don’t respond to that directly because we don’t want to encourage that behaviour. You know, saying ‘hey, Overwatch team, I think Widowmaker could use some adjustments...’ we’d be happy to respond to that and interact on that level, so it’s taught me a lot.”
Widowmaker OP, you heard it here first. One thing I do wonder, though, is about how true my sense of nostalgia for the early days of the internet is. I was a teenager in the late 90s, Netscape Navigator gangstas hear me, and while the communities were much smaller and more fragmented – and there wasn’t any concept of social media – the atmosphere felt a lot less poisonous.
I realise that’s an emotive term and I may well be mistaken, but it feels like scale has made the signal-to-noise ration almost unmanageable. And on top of this we have the recent unwelcome trend of communities targeting developers when a game doesn’t match their expectations – No Man’s Sky is the obvious example, but a more recent one would be Mass Effect: Andromeda, where some (admittedly poor) animations came to overshadow a very good game, and a female Bioware employee was targeted by the usual suspects.
These extreme reactions, which range from personal harassment to tanking a game’s reviews on Metacritic or Steam, feel like a modern phenomenon. I don’t ever remember discourse being as nasty and focused as it is now, and I wonder whether that’s anything to do with the way the games industry has evolved or if it’s just reflecting a wider social trend; obviously, we now see aspects of this in politics.
“I think it’s a combination of all those types of things,” says Kaplan. “I think it’s a combination of one, there’s a broader audience; it’s bigger than ever playing games, so it’s absolutely true that the signal-to-noise ratio is affected by how many people. Two I think when you have these aggregate sites like the Steam reviews or Metacritic and the fans know that they can affect it...
“I always laugh, in this day and age, whenever somebody does an internet vote. Like... OK, I forget what company it was but one of the soda companies did a ‘Name our next flavour’ on the internet and I was just like ‘Oh – don’t do that!’ – the internet is smarter than all of us put together and dumber than all of us put together at the same time, and it’s certainly more powerful than all of us put together. You see it on Metacritic, you see it on the Steam reviews, and I think that there’s some power that the community has to say “Look, we can tank something if we put our minds to it. There’s this other thing – I don’t know how to describe this, I would love for a psychologist to do a study of this because I think it’s a thing – that any online community, as positive as it is – and the Heroes of the Storm online community is extremely positive, the Overwatch community is extremely positive...
“But there are these moments where I think it’s almost necessary, I don’t know what it is, but I feel like communities prime themselves that they have to blow up at certain times. It’s this necessary catharsis... we had a moment, this emotionality happened and... I think it’s kind of natural. I am always happy when they get upset about something that I don’t think is a big deal. I live in California, we’re obsessed with earthquakes, and whenever a small earthquake happens, I don’t know if there’s any scientific evidence of this or not, you’re thinking like ‘OK it relieved some pressure... the tectonic plates and whatnot are all probably settled now so that means that we won’t have a big earthquake later...’”
What’s a small earthquake in Overwatch?
“They were really pissed off that Mei turned into a Snowman during our Christmas event,” chuckles Kaplan. “‘This isn’t worthy of a Legendary skin!’ They were fucking furious, the full rage of the internet! And then the press is writing articles about how angry they are, and I’m sitting there going like ‘of all the things we could mess up with Overwatch, you people are pissed that Mei turns into a Snowman and it’s Legendary...’ OK, awesome!”
We end by talking about that problem with user reviews, which seems intractable – whereby communities often target games for reasons other than their quality, and try to ‘ruin’ their score. In the case of both Metacritic and especially Steam, this can have a real impact on sales. And when you see it happen to something beautiful, it really makes me sad.
“I was reading the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Metacritic,” says Kaplan. “And I’m playing the game and I’m like ‘I think this is the most perfect game ever made.’ I went to Metacritic and I’m like ‘How is this not a 100? It should break Metacritic, just be stuck on 100!’ – and then I was shocked by the fan reviews, because the press reviews were very high – like it’s in the high 90s; it’ll be one of those all-time... which is kind of where I expected it to be. But then I’m looking at the fan reviews, and it’s like at a 7 point... like low 7s.
They don’t like the framerate Jeff. It’s a legitimate criticism, and I’m sure they’ve all played the game.
“I read it and it’s like... well, one guy doesn’t like the framerate and suddenly it’s a 0. Like... he gives it a 0! And hey, he’s got a vote – his vote counts along with everybody else, and even some of those really low scores like the 0s and the 2s are people saying like ‘It’s a pretty good game, but not as good as Ocarina of Time... 2.’ And I’m like ‘What do you even do!?!’”
Kaplan throws his hands up in the air to punctuate the last point, and his sheer disbelief is plain to see. I know where he’s coming from – what else can you do about such an injustice? “Sorry,” he laughs. “I’m ranting!”