‘Overwatch’ Director Jeff Kaplan Reflects on Its Explosive First Year

It’s been a full year since Blizzard released Overwatch, its competitive, hero-based first-person shooter. In the intervening months we’ve become all the more obsessed with the phenomenon, which we named our favorite Game of 2016. Normally, one year  isn’t a major anniversary for a video game, but thanks to seasonal events and a creative fan community, the game has experienced a lot of change, and that’s something worth celebrating, no?

We recently spoke to game director Jeff Kaplan at an event to celebrate the Anniversary, along with the new Game of the Year edition and upcoming year of content.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Digital Trends: How was Overwatch inspired by other shooters out at the time?

Jeff Kaplan: We talk about Overwatch being a “Blizzard shooter”. So this was an initial goal we had when we started making the game. It was the summer of 2013 and we were huge shooter fans on the team… We had come from that old-school shooter crowd that played a lot of the Quakes and Unreals, and we remembered when shooters had rocket launchers and crazy, over-the-top weapons. We had sort of entered this era of the modern military shooter… We absolutely love the modern military shooters, and have a lot of respect for them as well, but we felt that when it was time for us to make a shooter there wasn’t a new statement waiting to be made in the sort of shooter reality genre that was going on, so we really wanted to make something a little bit more over-the-top.

We also wanted to introduce some of the Blizzard aesthetic to that, which meant mostly shoulder pads, but we don’t have too many of those in Overwatch. Reinhardt has some pretty big ones, but — you know the sort of over-the-top proportions that you see. I don’t think anyone in any Blizzard universe owns a level and can actually make a straight line anywhere in the environment. And also just introduce a lot of color and saturation, make it ok for everything to look a little bit different. Our goal was not realism at all.

What did you learn from Blizzard’s other games?

We learned a lot of lessons from our previous games, like World of Warcraft. We started studying player behaviors like where they hang out, and we realized that we tend to make these games where people spend if not hundreds of hours, thousands of hours, and if you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of hours in a location, it might as well be a location that is really awesome and not one that’s dark and oppressive, which kinda drives you out of the game. We would literally have a discussion when making maps like “Hey, what’s a place that you’ve always wanted to go to vacation in?” So for example when we came up with Ilios, which is our fictional Greek island, it was obviously modeled heavily after Santorini in Greece. The whole impetus for making it was that our assistant game director, Aaron Keller, really wanted to go on vacation there. He couldn’t afford to go on vacation there so we were like “ok, we’ll just build it instead.” That was our version of why we made that location.

What is the core of Overwatch?

The game really is all about the heroes. I think that’s the thing that’s made people respond to Overwatch the most, the heroes themselves… We have a driving design philosophy, even when we talk about our map design, that the most important part of our map design is our heroes, as weird as that may sound.

Right off the bat we knew that we didn’t want any two heroes to play the same. We wanted to have a lot of heroes in our game, but we didn’t want to homogenize their abilities, like give everybody a sprint ability, since then all the characters feel the same, like everyone has sprint and a jet pack. We wanted them to all to be extremely different.

“Right off the bat we knew that we didn’t want any two heroes to play the same.”

The other thing that we started to do with the design of the heroes to achieve that differentiation was recognizing that, if we’re going to make a modern-day shooter and have it be approachable by as many people as possible, recognizing that not everybody played CounterStrike 1.6 and was an awesome sniper at 100 meters; that there are people who might want to try this genre out who haven’t been around the block as much as some of our other players. We started to develop characters like Symmetra, who has a lock-on beam weapon where you can be really smart about the strategy and tactics of team gameplay, without having to be the world’s best twitch sniper, for example.

We also wanted to add variety into the heroes in terms of skill level and how you show off at those different skill levels, recognizing that some players just want to support other players, or some players want to build stuff. Some players really do like sniping, some players like bouncy projectiles, so [we prioritized] making sure there was a hero that spoke to everyone.

Tell us more about how the characters drive development

It [designing unique characters] led us to this philosophy of embracing differences. The core magical moment for the Overwatch team — when it really snapped into us, the sort of game we wanted to make — was when we stopped thinking about a character like Tracer being an avatar-based character, meaning Tracer wasn’t a class that you could pick if you wanted to be a boy tracer or a girl tracer or long black hair tracer vs curly yellowed haired tracer, that we weren’t all going to have different names for our Tracers. That Tracer was Lena Oxton, the RAF pilot who had been in an accident with a test plane, and could now rewind time. She was a very specific person, with a very specific back story, that what’s became very interesting to us.

overwatch best team compositions builds mccree 01

We began to fall more in love with these heroes when we came up with their backstories and we realized that, [in] the same way that it was fun to look at the world map and talk about all the places we wanted to go, it was also fun to talk about all of the people that we wanted to be, and all of the different countries that those people could be from.  So more and more we started to embrace the differences in our heroes and talk about how unique each of them could be and all the different places we could go with them.

We started with this concept, too, of challenging stereotypes. I always joke that when a stereotype is right, we like to embrace it. So I’ve never had anyone offended that McCree is the American cowboy, like that’s an example of you can embrace a certain stereotype and everyone seems to roll with it. For those of you that are familiar with the game, you’ll recognize that each of the heroes that we put up in here in some way challenges a different stereotype.

Do you have a favorite?

That’s not like an archetype where we all go “Oh yeah! The Egyptian mother, I love that in all the games I play.

I’m not going to go through all of them, but I think Ana is my favorite of all because she’s doing so many things that you just don’t see in modern shooters, like if you rewind a few years ago the thought that you would have an Egyptian elderly mother who was an amazing sniper and healer was just not–that’s not like an archetype where we all go “Oh yeah! The Egyptian mother, I love that in all the games I play.” but it was fascinating for those of you that followed when we announced her the community instantly embraced her and just loved her not only through her gameplay but who she was as a person. They seemed to love her even more because she had this sort of not perfect relationship with her daughter Pharah, who’s another one of our characters, and I think that’s helped people to relate to her more: her backstory is complicated, with the sort of questioning did she do the right thing by her daughter or not, which I think is an interesting story that’s not being told in a lot of games right now.

What’s your favorite feature of the game that you wish more people knew about?

One of the things we’re most proud of is the quality of the voice acting in the game. The community has fallen in love with our voice actors and our voice actors have really become stars in their own right on their social media. Even more than the English version, I really encourage you guys to check out the other languages and how well the localization is done. The voice actors across the world have done an awesome job. I’ve switched my client to German and Korean numerous times and really they’ve captured the spirit of the voice actors.

What does the future look like for Overwatch?

We’ve been extremely aggressive about updating the game and keeping it fresh and new for our players. They give us so much feedback and they’re so engaged with the game that we don’t want to let it stagnate and we want them to have new things all the time.

There’s a ton more content–we’re not taking our foot off the gas pedal for one second. In fact it feels like we just have our legs beneath us… We have one hero that’s very far along in development right now and a whole host of prototypes that are a lot of fun, so we’re not stopping anytime soon.