Overwatch game director Jeff ‘fantasy dad’ Kaplan was at Bilbao’s Fun & Serious game festival last weekend to collect the Avant-Garde Award. We got the chance to chat with him about recent goings-on in Blizzard’s juggernaut shooter.
You can click here to read his thoughts on the release of Moira, the game’s latest hero, and here to read about Blizzard’s ongoing efforts to curb toxicity. For the rest of our conversation – which touches on Blizzard World, future seasonal events, and bug fixing – read on.
Compiled from the forums and other official announcements, here’s your guide to everything coming next in Overwatch.
Let’s talk about Blizzard World – are there any easter eggs in particular that you’re excited for players to discover?
Jeff Kaplan: There’s a ton in there. I think for Blizzard World, our level designers and environmental art team had themost fun making that map. One of the things that I think is super fun in terms of easter eggs is we put a lot of voice lines in there – we have the voice actress from StarCraft who did the Adjutant, she’s in there. We have Uther [the Lightbringer], and we have Deckard Cain. So, as you wander around various parts of the map, depending on where you stand and what you do, you might hear some special voice lines that you might not have heard otherwise.
Was it a challenge to include all these Blizzard references – easter eggs and theme park rides – at the same time as making a strong competitive map?
The level design was done by our assistant game director Aaron Keller, who’s a masterful level designer, so I wasn’t worried about him making a good competitive map. If you ever come to Blizzard, we have a statue of an orc in the courtyard, and right in front of him it says: “Gameplay First.” That was the thing we were after most of all: to make a really good competitive map. Aaron was also trying a few different things, like there’s this dual choke in the front, a two-stage kind of fallback that he created, which I think will introduce some really new gameplay to the first point.
The trick with getting all of the Blizzard stuff in there was actually more of an exercise in deciding what we can leave out, because we had so many ideas for things we wanted to include. We wanted to do more with Orgrimmar, for example, but instead its gates are just kind of in the background. So it was harder to decide what to leave out than making it play competitively with all the different themes. That actually wasn’t as hard as it might’ve seemed.
How did you do that – decide on what to include and what to leave out?
We knew right away we wanted this really strong Warcraft/StarCraft/Diablo theme. Most of our maps tend to be broken into three areas anyway – when we talk about Eichenwalde, we talk about it in terms of the village, the outer castle, and the inner castle, so with Blizzard World we went straight to [those three games]. That came very naturally.
Then the challenge is how to incorporate that. Warcraft means a couple of things: it means Hearthstone, it means World of Warcraft, it means Warcraft III. So how do you get all of that involved? Where does Heroes of the Storm come into play? It was the kind of map that’s like your creative dream – it was really fun to try to hit everything and do everything justice. We’re really sensitive to the fact that the Overwatch team doesn’t make Hearthstone, so when we were making the Hearthstone Tavern, we pulled over the Hearthstone guys, and we said ‘can you guys look at this and make sure we’re doing it justice?’ And Ben Thompson – who’s their art director – actually started art directing the Hearthstone Tavern within Overwatch, going ‘OK, this is how the windows should look; OK, the banner over the door should look this way’. So it got pretty meta at some points.
So far, seasonal events in year two have recurred just as they did in year one. Will that continue, or have you got some surprises for us? What about lore events, like Uprising?
Obviously Winter Wonderland is coming back, and I think that’s a good example of bringing an old event back with content that people loved, but also adding new content. That’s one direction we’re going.
I’m looking forward to the Yeti Hunt.
Yeah, it’s cute. The idea isn’t that you’ll play that Brawl for hundreds of hours, but you’ll play it a few times and be like “oh, that was cute, that was fun.” That’s our intention with it, it’s kind of a lighter one.
When it comes to Lunar New Year, that’ll be returning. It’ll be renamed to Year of the Dog instead of Year of the Rooster, so we’ll be good there. Uprising is a bigger challenge, because, obviously, that was a very specific lore event. I think we have some interesting plans to evolve what we’ve done in Uprising, but I’m gonna leave that a bit of a surprise right now.
We’re also considering how to bring Anniversary back in a new way. I think it should always be a mix of the old and the new – you use Uprising as an example, and even if we were to do some new stuff, there’s a lot of players who never got to experience the original Uprising content, so we need to bring that back for them as well.
We’ve seen a lot of controversy around loot box design in recent weeks. Overwatch has had one of the more successful models – why do you think others have failed where yours have succeeded?
Well, I’ll focus more on Overwatch, rather than talking about what else has been done in the industry. There were a couple of core philosophies that were very important to the team when creating our loot box system. One was that it had to be a very player-centric system, meaning that we know what players like and don’t like, and as players we don’t want any sort of power increase in our system. We wanted the system to be purely cosmetic, so that was one of the core philosophies.
The second was that we wanted every item that was available in the loot boxes to be obtainable in some way that didn’t have anything to do with luck, so we did the duplicate and the credit system, and the unlocks. That way, if you ever felt like ‘there was that Junkrat skin that I’ve always really wanted but I don’t seem to ever pull it out of the loot box’, that you had an avenue of obtaining that that wasn’t loot box driven, or random driven.
The other reason that our loot box system has been successful so far is we try to listen to our players as much as possible. They’re very vocal when they’re unhappy about things. An example is the first Summer Games event, where you couldn’t get the items for credits, and our players said “hey, that’s not cool, we’d really like to get the items for credits.” So, as soon as that event ended, we added the ability for the next event – which was Halloween Terror – to unlock the items for credits. Then, shortly after the Anniversary event, we made it so that duplicates were far more rare in the loot boxes. I can never say that duplicates don’t exist, because we don’t have infinite content, so at some point a duplicate will exist. But we were hearing feedback during the Anniversary event like ‘hey, these duplicates aren’t really cool, what can you do about it,’ and we made a change.
So we’re hoping to show players that we play the game too: we’re involved in a dialogue with them, we’re happy to make changes, the system’s cosmetic-only, and you can obtain everything in the loot boxes through other ways. That’s what’s stayed important to us.
Let’s talk a little about game health. There’s been a recent surge of bug fix requests on the forums, especially on Doomfist, who’s just had a round of fixes. But he’s not done yet, right?
No – a bunch of his fixes go in with the Winter Wonderland patch, and then the next round will be in the patch that happens in January. So it’s ongoing. Some bugs are easier to fix than others, but we’ve gotten a lot of help from the community. The number one thing that helps us is anytime you can show us a bug, or you can tell us how to reproduce it. So a video or a set of reproducible steps really shortcuts us to a fix. And they’ve been fantastic with this on Doomfist.
Apart from those who just say ‘fix Doomfist’, presumably?
Yeah, that doesn’t really tell us much.
Traditionally, it would be the job of QA testers or community managers to track bugs for fixing – how do you feel about sharing so much of that burden with the community?
We have a really amazing, dedicated QA team, and they’re extremely talented. The thing that is not always obvious to players is that, with 35 million players, the sheer volume of playtime they have trumps anything we would ever be able to do in terms of internal testing. And there are certain cases that come up that we’re just not gonna see, but the community is. We don’t want any bug to go into the live game, and we want to try to fix it as soon as it happens, but there are things that are just undiscoverable by us that will surface when you have such a large volume of playtime elsewhere.
Do you feel like your communication on bug fixes and patches – which used to be great – has slipped a little just lately? There was a lot of confusion around Lucio a couple of PTRs ago, for example.
I felt really bad about the Lucio thing, that was an unfortunate miscommunication on my behalf. I didn’t understand exactly what was going on – I thought I understood what we were changing, and it turned out we were changing something else. It wasn’t just a bug that we had fixed, it was an unintended change that came as a result of other changes. But our intention was never to nerf Lucio, and I sort of communicated it like: just a bug, it’ll be fixed, and then I realised that it was actually a change that we had intentionally done, but not with the intention of nerfing him.
That said, I think our turnaround was really fast, and we got him back into shape pretty quickly. I think it’s just the nature of patching the game so frequently – there are gonna be slight mishaps like that.
Yeah, it’s interesting to see different approaches to this – some devs hotfix, others wait longer between patches to make sure they’re more robust at the expense of leaving some bugs in the game. There’s a trade-off there.
Well, for us in particular, the trick is if we want to maintain parity between Xbox, PlayStation, and PC, it’s far more challenging to make fixes. If we decide to make a fix for PC only, we can do that, but it will come at the expense of a later patch for consoles. So we’re always weighing – we don’t want anyone to feel like they come second after another audience, so we’re always trying to get fixes in holistically for everybody, but it can’t always be the case.
Finally, on toxicity, we’ve seen some confusion on the question of one-tricking. Can you clarify this for us? Is one-tricking considered toxic or actionable behaviour?
Things get very complicated, because the discussion usually focuses around individual players who have been actioned.
And they might have been actioned for other things?
Yes, and we’re not always at liberty to discuss exactly what they have been actioned for. All in all, the game lets you pick whoever you want. It’s not up to your teammates who you should play. I do think it’s respectful to people to be willing to gel with the team composition, but you can’t ban somebody – it’s not a bannable offence – for just playing one hero, as long as you’re trying your best to win with that hero.
I think the game gets in a very dangerous state when we tell you who you’re allowed to play and not play with the game functioning like it does right now. The allure and the fantasy of Overwatch is there are these 26 heroes, and you can log in at any moment and be one of them. We should be trying to keep them all viable, and all decent picks within a team composition. I mean, sometimes you’re gonna be countered, but we can’t leave it at other players’ discretion to decide what you should be doing.
Jeff also chatted to us about Moira’s release and the hero who might follow her, and went into more depth about Blizzard’s ongoing efforts to curb toxicity.