Col­lected Works

The game direc­tor of Over­watch on false starts and new be­gin­nings at one of the world’s most sto­ried studios

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY CHRIS THURSTEN Pho­tog­ra­phy James Shep­pard

Over­watch direc­tor Jeff Ka­plan on a ca­reer spent at one of the world’s most sto­ried studios

Dur­ing the early 2000s Jeff Ka­plan spent a full third of his life in EverQuest. He played the game at the high­est level as an of­fi­cer in one of North Amer­ica’s most prom­i­nent guilds, Legacy Of Steel. When not in Nor­rath he pitched nov­els and short sto­ries to pub­lish­ers and tin­kered with the Half-Life map ed­i­tor WorldCraft. One day, in EverQuest, a fel­low of­fi­cer asked if he could try Ka­plan’s maps. Later, the same guild­mate in­vited him to lunch in Irvine, Cal­i­for­nia, at a game de­vel­op­ment stu­dio called Bl­iz­zard, which Ka­plan had never heard of – he didn’t play strat­egy games. The guild­mate was the Bl­iz­zard de­signer Rob Pardo; stu­dio co-founder Alan Ad­ham was also a mem­ber. A se­ries of lunches over six months even­tu­ally re­vealed them­selves to be job in­ter­views. This RTS stu­dio had an idea for mak­ing an MMOG, but it needed an MMOG player’s ex­per­tise to make it hap­pen.

Ka­plan’s sub­se­quent 15-year ca­reer at Bl­iz­zard has seen him be­come de­sign lead on World Of War­craft, the world’s most suc­cess­ful mas­sively mul­ti­player RPG. He over­saw de­sign on the aborted MMOG

Ti­tan be­fore, in the af­ter­math of that project’s col­lapse, spear­head­ing work on the phe­nom­e­nal – and phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar – Over­watch.

WORLD OF WAR­CRAFT Developer/pub­lisher Bl­iz­zard For­mat PC Re­lease 2004

I joined in May of 2002, which is the pe­riod when they were wrap­ping up War­craft III and then start­ing on the E3 build of World Of War­craft. It was a big deal. WOW was go­ing to be at E3 and needed a good show­ing.

They hired me along with an­other de­signer who was go­ing to be on quests named Pat Nagle. Pat and I started from scratch with how a quest should work. We started out more from a cre­ative place: what are the sorts of quests that we want to do in a game, what are those sto­ries, how can we have that type of game­play? We worked with the pro­gram­mers to get the tools made so we could cre­ate con­tent and then we split up – he started with El­wynn and I started with West­fall. We said, “OK, here we go, you take this zone, I’ll take that zone, we’ll see where we’re at.”

El­wynn was our first team-wide playtest. We were kind of shocked, be­cause com­ing from EverQuest, iron­i­cally you barely did any quests in that game. Our as­sump­tion was that we’d give you a quest, you’d go do the quest, and you’d dis­cover a new area of spawns – like, ‘Here’s where Hog­ger is, and oh look there’s all these gnolls here, I think I’ll kill gnolls for a cou­ple of hours.’

We put the team through the playtest and first thing af­ter that ev­ery­body is up in arms. ‘I ran out of quests! Did some­thing break?’ Alan, Pat and I had this re­al­i­sa­tion: “Oh fuck, we’re go­ing to have to quest this whole thing out.” We lit­er­ally had to re­think the project at that mo­ment. Our old es­ti­mates for how many quests we thought we were go­ing to do ver­sus how many quests we ended up do­ing were rad­i­cally off. When I think about the ef­fect that

WOW had on MMOs... I al­most think it’s broader than that. One, MMOs can be for ev­ery­one. MMOs are not just for crazy­hard­core peo­ple who are will­ing to spend one third of their life on this ac­tiv­ity. The other, and I guess this goes hand in hand, is that it’s not OK for a game to to­tally lack di­rec­tion for play­ers who seek it. A lot of play­ers just need some­thing, some sort of di­rec­tion, or they’re go­ing to check out from the game.

In terms of WOW be­ing a suc­cess, this is go­ing to sound su­per weird 11 or 12 years af­ter it all hap­pened, but we had huge in­se­cu­rity about the game. Ev­ery in­ter­view we’d do, the ques­tion we kept get­ting asked was – it wasn’t phrased quite this way, but: ‘ What busi­ness do you have mak­ing an MMO? You guys make RTSes.’

Back in that time pe­riod the two games that MMO play­ers were most ex­cited about were EverQuest II and Star Wars Gal­ax­ies. Ev­ery­one be­lieved [ Gal­ax­ies] was go­ing to rule the uni­verse be­cause it was the two

things that I know I was most ex­cited about in life, which was Star Wars and MMOs. I re­mem­ber the year that we showed World Of War­craft at E3, we were fully playable – you could run around, go to Scar­let Monastery, do all that stuff – and for Star Wars Gal­ax­ies they had lit­er­ally only shown a movie and the movie was win­ning Best Of E3 awards. Our morale was su­per low. I think the only one who had con­fi­dence was Alan. It was around that time pe­riod that EverQuest an­nounced that they had passed 400,000 sub­scribers. I was think­ing we’d be lucky if we got half that, a quar­ter of that, and Alan Ad­ham stood up and said, “We’re go­ing to have one mil­lion sub­scribers, that’s how good I think this game is go­ing to be, that’s how much I be­lieve in you guys.”

I re­mem­ber look­ing at Alan. I held him in the high­est ad­mi­ra­tion be­cause he was my first boss, he was one of my men­tors, he had hired me, he had founded Bl­iz­zard. In that mo­ment I looked at him and thought, ‘Wow, he’s bat­shit crazy.’

WORLD OF WAR­CRAFT: THE BURN­ING CRU­SADE Developer/pub­lisher Bl­iz­zard For­mat PC Re­lease 2007

I’m not sure how many peo­ple know this, but we shipped World Of War­craft with 60 de­vel­op­ers. Sixty peo­ple made that game. It’s some­thing that to this day I’m very proud of, [but] af­ter we launched, be­cause it was such a dif­fi­cult crunch and such a dif­fi­cult de­vel­op­ment cy­cle, we lost about 20 de­vel­op­ers.

We had all of WOW’s suc­cess to sup­port from a live stand­point, and we had no an­i­ma­tors. All of our an­i­ma­tors had quit. There’s this one patch where we in­tro­duced four green dragons. It was lit­er­ally be­cause we had a dragon model and get­ting colour shift on it was triv­ial and we had no one to work on the game at that point. The team was dev­as­tated and de­mor­alised. We were pulling boxes from the re­tail chan­nel so you couldn’t even buy WOW. You launch this game and then you’re like, ‘Pull the boxes back! We can’t sup­port them on the servers!’

We had hired some new peo­ple. I re­mem­ber we hired this one server pro­gram­mer whose name was Brian Gib­son-Winge. We’re hav­ing a team meet­ing and I re­mem­ber ev­ery­one talk­ing, like, ‘What are we do­ing? Noth­ing we’re do­ing is good.’ Brian was the brand-new guy in the room, and he stands up and says, “Hey guys, I know I’m the new guy and I prob­a­bly shouldn’t speak up, but what’s wrong with you? You made World Of

War­craft and this is the most awe­some fuck­ing game in the world.” Sud­denly, as we started hir­ing more peo­ple like Brian, the team got rein­vig­o­rated. There was a huge turn­ing point go­ing from vanilla WOW into

The Burn­ing Cru­sade, and it was be­cause of the in­flux of new peo­ple who re­ally in­spired the team. That and the first Bl­iz­zcon were a big morale boost for us.


Developer/pub­lisher Bl­iz­zard For­mat PC Re­lease 2008

The team since Wrath Of The Lich King has done amaz­ing things – I think the best ex­pan­sion they have ever made is

Le­gion. But at that time, there was some­thing very spe­cial about Lich King. When we re­flected on The Burn­ing Cru­sade we re­alised that we had a story that was prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit too con­vo­luted for most peo­ple to un­der­stand. There’s prob­a­bly five fac­tions of Blood Elves. As lead de­signer on the game I didn’t even know which Blood Elves were which at a cer­tain point.

The other thing that was re­ally amiss in Burn­ing Cru­sade was that we had one of the most com­pelling characters in Il­l­i­dan, but we only let play­ers in­ter­act with Il­l­i­dan in the Black Tem­ple. Such a small per­cent­age of our play­ers got to do that con­tent be­cause it was tuned to be so hard­core, and it was so in­ac­ces­si­ble. The mas­sive les­son com­ing from The Burn­ing

Cru­sade into Wrath Of The Lich King was, if you have this front-of-the-box com­pelling char­ac­ter like Il­l­i­dan or Arthas, give it to peo­ple! Let peo­ple in­ter­act with it. It’s no mis­take that the first sec­ond that you log into Wrath Of The Lich King, es­pe­cially if you make a Death Knight, who’s stand­ing in front of you? It’s Arthas.

Also, we had Alex Afrasi­abi, who was prob­a­bly the most fa­mous EverQuest player of all time. We hired him dur­ing vanilla

WOW, but I feel like Alex’s curve was re­ally start­ing to peak with Wrath Of The

Lich King. We put Alex in charge of all quest de­sign for that ex­pan­sion. Alex was the one who made that Death Knight start­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, which I think at the time and maybe to this day is one of the great­est sto­ry­telling quest ex­pe­ri­ences in the game. It made ev­ery­body ques­tion what we had done be­fore.


Developer/pub­lisher Bl­iz­zard For­mat Unan­nounced Re­lease Can­celled

I moved over from WOW to Ti­tan the week

Wrath Of The Lich King shipped. It was Novem­ber of 2008. I re­mem­ber it well be­cause we have this tra­di­tion at Bl­iz­zard when we ship a game: we do a cham­pagne toast out in front of the orc statue that’s at the stu­dio. The Wrath Of The Lich King cham­pagne toast was mem­o­rable for three rea­sons. One was be­cause it was Wrath Of

The Lich King, and we were very proud of it. Two, it was my birth­day. Three, it was the day that Barack Obama was elected for his first term. I re­mem­ber be­ing quite drunk when I found out that Obama had won the elec­tion. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awe­some!’ Then I passed out a few hours later. Very shortly af­ter that, like the next day, I moved over to what is now called Team 4 to work on Ti­tan.

Things started off great. There was an en­thu­si­asm and an am­bi­tion to the project that made it very al­lur­ing for a lot of us. For the first year that I was on the project, from 2009, it was just a lot of brain­storm­ing, a lot of ex­cited false starts were hap­pen­ing, a lot of tech­nol­ogy ex­plo­ration. It was some­where at the end of 2009 that the red flags started go­ing off


for me. ‘ This doesn’t feel like we’re mak­ing the right type of project.’ That just in­creased as the years went on.

The week be­fore Di­ablo III shipped they moved Ray [Gresko, pro­duc­tion direc­tor] onto Ti­tan to help save the project, so he didn’t even get to en­joy the launch with his team. We were pulled into this meet­ing and told, “Hey, you’re pro­duc­tion direc­tor, you’re game direc­tor; you guys need to try and save this project.” Ray said we should get lunch and we took the lead pro­ducer Matt Haw­ley with us. Ray sits down across from Matt and I and says, “Tell me what I need to know about

Ti­tan.” Matt looks at me, and I look at Ray, and I say, “Well, we need to shut it down.”

Ray was taken aback. He said, “Well, they brought me on this project to save it. You have to re­spect the fact that I can’t just shut it down.” Six months passed and dur­ing that six months we re­placed some of the lead­er­ship on the team. We now had a new tech direc­tor, a guy called Mike El­liott, be­cause the tech­nol­ogy on Ti­tan was just a mess, noth­ing worked, and we brought Mike over to help. Ray, Mike and I were in a one-on-one with the three of us; I don’t know how it’s a one-on-one with three peo­ple, but that’s what we call them. We were in this meet­ing and Ray had his mo­ment where he said, “Oh god, you and Matt were right, we need to shut it down, it’s just not go­ing to hap­pen.” And Mike says: “Wait! I was just brought onto the project to save it! We can’t shut it down!” So we went an­other six months and then it was af­ter an­other one of those one-onones where we said, “It’s time to go to stu­dio lead­er­ship and tell them that it’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

I don’t think most peo­ple re­alise this, but Bl­iz­zard has can­celled more games than we’ve made. When you’re mak­ing a new game at Bl­iz­zard it’s more likely that your game’s go­ing to get can­celled than it’s go­ing to see the light of day. Now I don’t think that any developer work­ing on a game be­lieves that you’re the one – I think we all think that we’re spe­cial. Some­thing that was unique about

Ti­tan was that it’s not usu­ally the team that says, ‘This is not go­ing to hap­pen.’ It’s a very daunt­ing thing to do. You’re ba­si­cally say­ing, ‘We failed to do our jobs.’ You don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. You don’t know if they’re go­ing to say, ‘Thanks for your time here, be on your way.’ That, and most projects go on for that length of time – ul­ti­mately, I did six years [on the Ti­tan project].

We knew in about April of 2013 that we were go­ing to shut the project down, but very few peo­ple knew. Only the top lead­er­ship of Ac­tivi­sion knew: Bobby [Kotick] knew, Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce, my­self, Ray Gresko, Rob Pardo, Mike El­liott. The rest of the team didn’t know. We were try­ing to work on a con­tin­gency plan be­cause we had a 140-per­son team. We wanted to be care­ful in that mo­ment that we didn’t dev­as­tate a lot of peo­ple, make peo­ple feel that they’d wasted their ca­reers.

The ini­tial plan was that we would come up with a new game con­cept, and then we would in­form the team at the end of May that we were shut­ting Ti­tan down – how­ever, there was this new game that we were go­ing to make in­stead. That plan, as I say it now, sounds so naive. I have to pre­tend that we’re still mak­ing

Ti­tan dur­ing the day, and at night and on the week­ends I’m go­ing home and I’m putting these pitch decks to­gether for dif­fer­ent game con­cepts. I’m ab­so­lutely fuck­ing pan­icked.

In­stead we came up with a plan to in­form the team that we were shut­ting the project down. Luck­ily the stu­dio was in dire need of help on our other projects, so it was the per­fect time to have a lot of de­vel­op­ers free up. Of the 60 re­main­ing de­vel­op­ers, the vast ma­jor­ity were en­gi­neers and pro­gram­mers. We had built a new en­gine for Ti­tan, but the en­gine was a mess, and we said, ‘Do what­ever we have to do so this work isn’t to­tally wasted.’ Then a very small group of us, about ten, were given the as­sign­ment over a six-week pe­riod to come up with game pitches. If we came up with some­thing com­pelling, the team would go on to make that. If we didn’t, the re­main­der of us would be re­dis­tributed to the other projects. We were in this weird mourn­ing pe­riod, but we sud­denly had to be the most cre­ative [we’d ever been] in our lives.


Developer/pub­lisher Bl­iz­zard For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease 2016

At first we re­ally thought that we were the MMO team. The first idea we worked on was an MMO that was not in the

War­craft uni­verse, but was in one of the other Bl­iz­zard uni­verses – [you have] tonnes of ques­tions about what that might be, I imag­ine. The sec­ond idea we worked on was an­other MMO con­cept that was not in an ex­ist­ing uni­verse, and not in the Ti­tan uni­verse – it was a brand-new MMO con­cept. It was hard be­cause we were re­ally scop­ing every­thing back. Whereas Ti­tan had been the most am­bi­tious MMO I’ve ever seen, we were do­ing these other MMO pitches with one hand tied be­hind our back, know­ing the time pe­riod we were given was not re­al­is­tic to make an MMO. A lot of us had MMO ex­pe­ri­ence, knew ex­actly what it took, and we knew, like, there’s no way this was go­ing to hap­pen.

We were hav­ing a class dis­cus­sion – it was go­ing to be a class-based MMO – and our class de­signer, a guy called Ge­off Good­man, said, “I wish in­stead of hav­ing six classes or nine classes, we could have dozens of classes. But what if our classes had fewer things that they did and were more spe­cialised?” It re­ally just lit the light­bulb for me. I went back to my desk af­ter that and I was re­ally in­spired by what Ge­off had wanted to do, but I was ac­tu­ally think­ing to my­self, ‘I don’t think that’s an MMO.’

I was fas­ci­nated with the shooter con­cept. The thing that worked the most on Ti­tan, be­cause Ti­tan had shoot­ing as its com­bat model, was its PvP shoot­ing. The two things I loved most in gam­ing were MMOs and shoot­ers. I started think­ing about a more tightly scoped game us­ing that Ge­off Good­man con­cept of dozens of classes with abil­i­ties.

I started pulling a bunch of Arnold Tsang con­cept art of characters for Ti­tan. We had this class called the Jumper in

Ti­tan that had Blink, and Re­call, and Pulse Bomb, and about 30 other abil­i­ties, but I al­ways felt like Blink, Re­call and Pulse Bomb – and the Pulse Pis­tols – were the coolest part. Sud­denly it was like, ‘Well, what if the Jumper uses this art and has only these abil­i­ties, and what if it’s a per­son – in­stead of this name­less, face­less class, these are ac­tual characters?’ had that pitch deck and the rest of the team was work­ing on MMO number two, and Ray Gresko came by and looks over my shoul­der. I show it to Ray and he’s in­stantly like, “Oh my god, that’s what we should do.”

So we took the deck and we grabbed [Chris] Met­zen and he lit up right away. Es­pe­cially when he started to think about how it’s not a generic sniper, it’s Wi­d­ow­maker, who was turned against her hus­band in this cold-blooded as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt. That was so much more com­pelling to him than these generic classes. He had the same re­ac­tion Ray had, and Matt Haw­ley our pro­ducer was over­hear­ing our con­ver­sa­tion and said to me, ‘You need to pitch this to the team to­mor­row morn­ing.’

Matt’s the one who forced the game to get named Over­watch. We were tak­ing the deck to the team, and the deck had a very not-good name for a shooter. Matt’s like, “There’s noth­ing less in­spir­ing than what you have that deck named right now. You have to come up with a name for it.” And I said, “I want to call it Over­watch.” Over­watch was al­ways a world group in

Ti­tan, but it was to­tally dif­fer­ent – but all of us loved the name. So there was a mo­ment of re­birth that we could ac­tu­ally call this new game Over­watch, and we pitched to the team and al­most unan­i­mously they said, “Yes, we want to make this game.”

Be­ing an in­di­vid­ual developer on Team 4, it was like a whole new era when we started Over­watch. That was very good. The prob­lem was that we needed to get the game con­cept ap­proved by Bl­iz­zard and by Ac­tivi­sion. The year was 2013 and we had just failed enor­mously at cre­at­ing Bl­iz­zard’s next MMO. It was sup­posed to be this MMO shooter. Then we come back and we’re sit­ting in the board­room with the top Ac­tivi­sion ex­ec­u­tives – Thomas Tippl, Den­nis Durkin, Bobby Kotick – and what do we pitch to them,

the guys who have enor­mous suc­cess with the Call Of Duty se­ries? We walk into the pitch meet­ing with a shooter. They were su­per po­lite and su­per nice to us, but you could sense this un­der­cur­rent of, ‘Oh god, of all things, what are you id­iots do­ing?’

The sav­ing grace was a pic­ture that Arnold Tsang had drawn – an early ver­sion of the char­ac­ter lineup. We’re pitch­ing and there’s a lot of hard ques­tions com­ing at us and Bobby [Kotick] just stops the meet­ing and says, “Go back two slides.” I’m think­ing, ‘Oh, fuck, what was two slides ago?’ We go back and it’s that Arnold Tsang pic­ture. The room just got quiet and you could see the wheels turn­ing in Bobby’s head. He just said, “I’ve never seen art like this, I’ve never seen characters like this.” It was the only pos­i­tive thing that was said in the Over­watch pitch meet­ing – how Bobby emo­tion­ally re­acted to the art. What that bought us was that we had un­til March to put to­gether a core com­bat demo of the game.

The demo we made was Tem­ple Of Anu­bis, fully ar­ti­fied and lit in our en­gine, which now ac­tu­ally worked, and we had Reaper, Wi­d­ow­maker, Pharah and Tracer. And it was just the funnest thing we had ever played. The Bl­iz­zard guys loved it, the Ac­tivi­sion guys came and be­cause they’re shooter fans, they were scream­ing and yelling with joy. It was just the most pos­i­tive, off-to-the-races mo­ment ever.

The next step af­ter that demo was Bl­iz­zcon 2014, which was in­tended to be our an­nounce. Ray [Gresko] was the in­spi­ra­tional leader on the team who be­lieved in us more than any­thing, and he said to us, ‘I want us to be­come one of those Bl­iz­zard sto­ries one day’; the team that gets can­celled one year and an­nounces a project at Bl­iz­zcon the fol­low­ing year. Ray had such an amaz­ing plan to get us to that Bl­iz­zcon.

We knew we were go­ing to face a cou­ple of is­sues. One was that we had to pub­licly can­cel Ti­tan. Then I started fo­cus­ing on how we could an­nounce the game, what con­tent we should have that would make peo­ple be­lieve in the game and not be dis­ap­pointed by the con­cept. What I was wor­ried about was a cou­ple of things. One, we weren’t mak­ing an MMO. Two, Bl­iz­zard was mak­ing a shooter and we weren’t a shooter com­pany. Three, I thought peo­ple would think we were overly de­riv­a­tive of ei­ther var­i­ous MOBA games, or games like Team Fortress 2.

Ev­ery time we tried to pitch the game to some­body they were scep­ti­cal, but ev­ery time they played the core com­bat demo they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is awe­some.’ So I put to­gether this con­tent plan that was to have three maps, be­cause I wanted to show that the game ac­tu­ally ex­isted and wasn’t just this smoke-and­mir­rors E3 demo. The big push was for 12 he­roes. The rea­son for that number was that I wanted to very cleanly clear the nine classes from Team Fortress. I felt that if we had nine or fewer classes dur­ing our an­nounce, play­ers would nat­u­rally map ev­ery one of our he­roes to a Team Fortress

2 class. Which is funny be­cause when the an­nounce ac­tu­ally hap­pened, the fans who read about it on­line im­me­di­ately jumped to that con­clu­sion. What was awe­some is that the fans that at­tended the show played so much of Over­watch there that they be­came our strong­est ad­vo­cates. ‘Guys, I know there’s ob­vi­ous in­spi­ra­tion from games like Team Fortress but they’re do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. This is a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Noth­ing to me was more re­ward­ing than that mo­ment at Bl­iz­zcon 2014 when Chris an­nounced the game and then it was just there on the show floor and ev­ery­one was play­ing it. I for­got how im­por­tant that was, not only to me per­son­ally but to ev­ery­body on my team as well. ‘This is the rea­son we do this, be­cause of those guys out there play­ing the game right now.’

The team to­day is in an awe­some place. I think we had a lit­tle bit of a rocky start to be­com­ing a live-ser­vice team, but the team has re­ally hit its stride now. They feed off the live game, they feed off the com­mu­nity, and they re­ally are ready for some of the next big chal­lenges that we want to do. They’re al­ways in­spired by not what’s go­ing on now, but think­ing about what Over­watch could be some­day: where we could take it.


WOW’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity, a pri­or­ity for Bl­iz­zard co-founder Alan Ad­ham, made it the MMO to beat for over a decade

The new Al­liance race in The Burn­ingCru­sade was ini­tially in­tended to be the Pan­daren, but in­ter­na­tional is­sues forced an un­ex­pected shift in fo­cus to the Draenei

WrathOfTheLichKing’s more in­volved sto­ry­telling for solo ad­ven­tur­ers was in­flu­en­tial on sub­se­quent ex­pan­sions, once again set­ting a stan­dard that other MMOGs would scram­ble to match up to

Ti­tan’s art and PVP de­sign hugely in­flu­enced Over­watch, and the Over­watch team has sub­se­quently paid trib­ute to the can­celled MMO through skins and events

Mir­ror­ing World OfWar­craft, Over­watch’s vast suc­cess is owed to its char­ac­ter­ful art and im­me­di­ate ac­ces­si­bil­ity. It has found a huge au­di­ence among vet­eran shooter play­ers and those who’d never nor­mally com­pete on­line

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