Overwatch Anniversary: Jeff Kaplan Talks Lessons Learned & The Future of Overwatch

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30 million people played Overwatch in its first year. (Photo by Justin Hayter)

Happy birthday to Overwatch. Blizzard launched its first new IP in 17 years last May, and the game has received almost universal praise since release. The game now boasts 30 million players in 190 countries, and 24 characters with voices localized in 12 languages.

A fast-paced team shooter, Overwatch has broken through with a fresh take on an entrenched genre. The earth tones and war-torn battlegrounds of the leading shooters are replaced with bright and exotic locales, which developers chose by considering preferred vacation destinations.

The accolades were immediate and abundant. Game Informer and Destructoid both awarded the game a perfect 100 score, with the latter giving the apt description that it has “the polish of a Pixar film without feeling overly childish.”

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One year into its release, the developers at Blizzard are as invested in their new property as ever. The team is already working on events planned through October, and free content continues to release almost every month.

At a media event in New York City celebrating the game’s birthday, Heavy sat down with game director Jeff Kaplan to discuss the game and his role after one year:

What’s the biggest lesson your team has learned in the past year?

It was obvious from our other games, but you almost have to learn it every time: the second you launch the game, it belongs as much—if not more—to the community of players than it does to us. The most powerful voice in making the game what it is— is the players. When you’re making a game, you’re just setting a stage, and your lead actors are the players.

So you learned to listen to the community? Or just accepted that it’s not your game anymore?

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It’s not our game anymore, and we absolutely should be listening to the community. We don’t have to listen to the community. We can make whatever decisions we want. But they’re way more intelligent than ever before; we’re talking about a generational shift in gaming. When I grew up, games were something parents bought for kids, a toy to keep them happy. Our generation looks at games not as a toy for kids, but as the next dominant form of entertainment media.

One year later, what gets you the most excited about Overwatch?

When we were making Overwatch, we were looking at these three pillars of Blizzard IP development: Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo. It was this daunting concept of, “Who are we to try and make another pillar? We’ll be lucky to make a little brick.”

There’s only so much room on Mount Rushmore…

Exactly! We said the only way were going to do this successfully is that we should not try to make StarCraft 2 or World of Warcraft. We need to try to make Warcraft I. Remember the humble beginnings that our other games came from.

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Warcraft was not the Warcraft as we know it today, with Hearthstone and World of Warcraft and Legion. At one point, it was just Warcraft I. Overwatch was conceived to be the Warcraft I of the Overwatch universe. We had very big plans and dreams, but we knew that we would never get to those unless we were successful with our Warcraft I.

With that in mind, the fact that we have achieved some success with Overwatch—it opens the door to those other dreams that we had of what the franchise could be. And I know I’m being very vague!

Were you worried about getting to that place?

The period of uncertainty that existed was when we pitched our game to Blizzard executives and Activision executives. They were all very supportive, but there was a certain amount of raised eyebrow like, “Wait a second, we’re the Call of Duty company. Of all the things you want to make … a shooter, guys? Really?” There was a lot of doubt in what was, in essence, a bunch of MMO and RTS developers like, “Are we going to be able to make a shooter?”

March of 2014 was our first big milestone and it was called Core Combat. We were going to show a map and some heroes. We ended up making Temple of Anubis, Pharah, Reaper, Widowmaker, and Tracer. That was enough. All the Blizzard executives and Activision executives came and they played it, and they were instantly like, “This is amazing.”

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With only four heroes— and like the worst class comp ever in the history of Overwatch, the ultimate Quick Play comp— it was so fun. The core was there, the art style was there, the vibe was there, and everybody was like, “I get it. I get what it’s going to be, and it’s going to be super fun.” But until March 2014 there was a lot of doubt, like, “Can these guys do it?” Our team had sort of bet the farm on it, so for us, it was a little nerve-wracking.

This interview has been edited and condensed

While Overwatch celebrates a diverse cast, Jeff stands alone in the face of criticism. He’s the only member of the Overwatch team to appear in periodic Developer Update videos, and that exposure has resulted in a unique fame for him. More on that in Part Two.


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