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Four dazzling years of Overwatch: a conversation with Jeff Kaplan

We talk about everything Overwatch from Mercy mains, to Overwatch 2 with head honcho Jeff Kaplan

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Overwatch, the hero shooter that took the gaming world by storm back in 2016, is now approaching its fourth birthday. That’s a ripe old age for any game, but it’s impossible not to wonder what’s next. BlizzCon 2019 revealed the rumoured Overwatch 2, of course, but with a release date still to be announced, players are pondering what’s in store during the coming year for the first game.

We spoke to the man with the plan, Jeff ‘from the Overwatch team’ Kaplan (some people may also know him as game director and vice president of Blizzard Entertainment) about Overwatch’s past, present, and future, the lessons the team learned along the way, upcoming seasonal events, the barrier tank, the Mercy main, and much more. There are even some hints about what to expect from Overwatch 2, and the real reason Null Sector robots aren’t allowed online forums. Spoiler warning: it’s because they’d complain too much.

Four years of any game is going to be a lot to cover, let alone one as rich as Overwatch. So without further ado, we reckon it’s time to let the game’s director talk.

PCGamesN: What does approaching the fourth anniversary of Overwatch mean to you and the development team?

Jeff Kaplan: What’s even more mind-blowing to think about, for me, is it’s actually going on seven years of Overwatch because we came up with the inception of the game seven years ago.

It’s been an amazing journey. You never know when you’re making something if it’s gonna be fun, you only believe it’s fun – you believe you’re making something cool. Probably the most special moment for us was when we announced it at BlizzCon in 2014 and the reaction from fans was very focused on the heroes. They fell in love with them, doing art and writing stories about them. The second day of BlizzCon we had a Tracer cosplay despite announcing her the day before. So it was awesome watching people fall in love with the universe.

There hasn’t been a moment where you keep wondering what’s gonna happen next, or does anybody care about Overwatch anymore. More and more people have fallen in love with the game and now we’re seeing stories like “I met my husband playing Overwatch”. Or “here’s our daughter – we named her Gabrielle after Reaper”. True story by the way, we thought it was the funniest thing – out of all the characters’ names, the one someone named their daughter after was Reaper.

Never for a minute do we think what we do is as important as people trying to change the world and make the world a better place. We understand we make a videogame and our job is to entertain. But it’s really cool when you realise you’ve touched people’s lives. It feels great to be a part of that.

What does year four mean? What are the main focuses of Overwatch this year?

There are two big things happening in year four. The first is the development team changing focus – I don’t want to say exclusively but a heavy focus – to Overwatch 2. In the past, we’ve been lightly focusing on Overwatch 2 and mostly focusing on the live game, and now we’re shifting as many resources towards Overwatch 2 as possible.

At the same time, year four has also been a great time for experimentation for us. We’ve been a little precious with our balancing. We’ve been precious with testing things internally, and not wanting to freak out the player base or disrupt them. In year four we feel like there’s a maturity to the audience who’s still with us, where they want change. They want us to try things out and they’re okay if we try something out, it doesn’t work, us changing it again. So you’re seeing hero pools, you’re seeing the experimental card, we’ve done a lot of really aggressive balance changes. We’ve already done dozens of balance changes, and we’re only in March so far. It’s a very different philosophy. Early on, we were all about stability, and trying to keep the service as stable, and as similar as possible. You didn’t want to disrupt people – everything was new to them to begin with, but 2020, players want newness thrust upon them, and we can give them that.

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What are you bringing into Overwatch to keep the attention of fans? What changes can they look forward to that aren’t Overwatch 2 related?

I think we’ve delivered some cool things. Experimental card is a great example and something we had been working on for some time. And it’s always fun when you’re working on something and then players start suggesting it and you’re biting your lip. You’re like, that’s an awesome idea – we should totally do that.

Releasing Echo will be fantastic. I think she’s gonna add so much life and creativity to the game. We also have interesting twists to some of our seasonal events coming up. The Archives event won’t have a new mission, like Uprising, Retribution, Storm Rising. I told everybody at BlizzCon because we wanted to be very transparent, and manage expectations. We didn’t make a new PvE mission but we did do some really cool twists on the old missions, adding challenges to them so they work in new ways.

One of them is Molten Cores (we’re obsessed with that name). When you kill any enemy, they turn into a pool of lava. It persists so the more enemies that you’re killing, the more dangerous the area’s becoming. You’re still playing Uprising but in a totally different way now.

We’re actually working on some Summer Games stuff right now. Again, we’re not adding a new sport – there won’t be a new Lucio Ball (or Lucio hockey is what everyone really wants). We won’t be adding that, but we’re putting some cool twists on the existing content and trying to keep the game fresh.

As far cosmetic items go, there are two types of players in Overwatch. There are the types who only care about gameplay. And there are the types of players who care about the cosmetic content. And those who care about the cosmetic content, care about it a lot. That’s not changing at all for this year, there’s going to be amazing stuff. I was just looking over the shoulder of the concept artists at some of the skins and I know that our players are going to lose their mind when they see those.

Then we have fun stuff for later in the year. Nothing that we can announce right now but in the way that Ashe’s Mardi Gras event was a surprise there’s some more things like that on the way. I think they’re pretty cool with some themes and other content that I don’t think people are expecting. Should be good.

Where is Overwatch now, coming up to year four, versus where you thought it was going to be at this point?

This is not exactly how it was planned. It’s interesting because in company-only alpha we used to debate like, “Hey, I think we’re going to need a hero limit”. And it would always end up with me thinking, the next logical thing after a hero limit, is a role limit. In some ways, we saw the future that was coming.

If you were to ask me knowing what you know now, would you implement hero limits and role limits from day one? Hero limits probably yes. Role limits, no. I think it took the community that amount of time to evolve for that to be a necessary mechanic that improved the overall game for everyone. I think there’s a transition to a player base that’s becoming smarter – they’re analysing the game in new ways so I think it was okay that that trended that way.

There are some things that I have long-term concerns about Overwatch. Strictly within game balancing game mechanics, the one that I wrestle with the most currently is the role of tanks and how impactfully they may or may not be. And the difference between a tank with a barrier and a tank without a barrier and how strong should a barrier be. Should barriers even be in the game?

It’s fascinating, Reinhardt more than any other character is a weird pivot on the game. Players are very accepting of Reinhardt – they love Reinhardt. They’re less accepting of our other barrier tanks like Orisa and Sigma – not surprising, those are newer heroes. The impact that a shield brings, having the barrier versus not having the barrier and the long term implications of what it means to add new tanks and if they have a barrier or not. So if you were to ask me, what’s the game director thinking about at this exact moment in terms of long term issues to be worked out eventually. In the short term, I think we’re in good shape.

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Is designing for Overwatch now within the spectrum of thinking about Overwatch 2 and how the games are going to transition?

Overwatch 2 is fantastic for the development team. We often talk about game milestones, not just for Overwatch but in any game. It’s different if you’re just shipping out like a single-player box experience, which you’re maybe going to patch once and everybody’s gonna play the game for 20 hours, watch the credits and think you’re awesome. I’m so envious of that world and what that looks like.

But milestones on a live game, well, there’s before you announce, you can make very drastic and radical decisions. I’ll give you an example, we had moments where the game was eight versus eight, we had moments where the game was four versus four, we tried five versus five, seven versus seven. Those are not the types of choices we can make anymore. We can’t do it because we have a built-in audience. We have a pro sports league that was built around a certain size. The technology has been optimised for four different platforms and we have memory constraints. Those are the types of decisions you can make in early development.

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Then there’s the big decisions you can make in beta, with a smaller audience who are constantly saying to each other, on Reddit and Twitter “well, it’s just beta so maybe this is gonna change”. As a developer, you get kind of a bye with that. You’re allowed to get away with certain things. An example is our totally different version of competitive play during the beta which our players didn’t like. When we shipped in May of 2016, we didn’t have competitive play in the game but everybody was cool with it because we said, “we had competitive in, you didn’t like it, we’re going to rework it, that’s gonna take time”. And then our very first patch, we put in.

Now Overwatch is four years old, we have to be very careful about the amount of dramatic decisions that we make and how it affects a player base that has been playing for a long time. So the experiment composition experiment we ran recently that was three damage, two support, and one tank, that decision is the kind of thing that the design team can make in alpha or in beta and just go, “this is better for the game, we’re going to do this”. You make that decision, know it’s better for the game and move on.

Weirdly, I think there’s so much good about the 3-2-1 experiment, but I don’t feel comfortable pushing it live in 2020. What Overwatch 2 becomes for us is another great opportunity, it’s a moment where people expect and are hoping for radical change. This is what a sequel is all about, “you’re not just gonna give us the same game, right”? So as developers, I think we can all be excited about the opportunity that Overwatch 2 brings for “okay, it’s time. We’ve been playing the same game for many years now. It’s time to move on to the next thing”.

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There’s been a skew towards battle passes and paying for new content in live games. Are there any plans to change the monetisation of Overwatch from loot boxes or is that just something that’s locked in at this point?

Well, we have made a lot of changes to loot boxes and how they work over the years, so we’re definitely open to change. Overwatch 2, in terms of business model, we’re exploring different options that move us away from loot boxes, but I think that will be more for Overwatch 2 than the core game. I would never rule anything out.

I think battle passes are cool. Putting monetisation to the side, a battle pass is a fun engagement mechanism. If you look at a game like Diablo 3, they have what’s called the Season Journey, which is, in essence, a battle pass. It’s not monetised in any way, it’s just a bunch of cool content – these are the things you should be doing in the game and if you do, we’re gonna reward you. I think that’s an awesome system.

What are the major things you think you and the team have learned about Overwatch in the last four years?

There’s a couple of big areas that I think we grew a lot in. A lot of us had previous experience on live games, but Overwatch was different. I think we learned a lot about anti-cheat. Focusing on people trying to grief the game, exploit the game, cheating, and I’m super proud of where we’re at and the systems in place are amazing. The number of staff where that’s their whole focus is pretty amazing and they’ve grown in a lot of ways. I think there’s been a lot of learnings about what and what not to do, and how that changes regionally.

It’s a shame because it’s an area that we can’t talk in detail and specifics where I can give you an example. Anti-cheat and anti-hack is just an arms race. It’ll never go away. You know, we kind of laugh when games talk about like, “Oh, we put an anti-cheat system in our game, so there’s not gonna be cheats” and it’s like [shrugs] you know? That’s assuming everybody who wants to cheat is really dumb and they’re only going to try one thing. It’s a constant maintenance that happens and I think we learned a lot.

I think we learned a lot in terms of player behaviour and how they treat one another. I play a lot of competitive online games and I have for years, and I’m very used to how people treat each other online and it’s fucking terrible. I’m not trying to make an excuse for it, people are just horrible to each other. And for me, because I’m a game designer I ask myself, why are they doing this? A lot of it is anonymity. It’s the same reason why when driving on the road, it’s okay to flip somebody off. I would never turn to my colleague and flip him off, but it’s a natural thing that people do on the road. And I ask, ‘Well, why is that ok?’ It’s because we’ve dehumanised the other person and there’s anonymity to it.

Overwatch attracted a large audience – we’ve had over 50 million people play the game. And for many of those people, I hear the story, “I’ve never played an online shooter before” or “Overwatch was my first Blizzard game or my first online game”. My first reaction when people say, “there’s toxicity in Overwatch”. I’m like, “yeah, well let me show you what some other games look like. It is roses and candy over here like compared to-” but that’s not fair. You can’t let yourself off with an excuse of, “we’re doing better than most people, it’s much worse elsewhere”.

But I realised early on, there was a focus on that and that was a story in the community. I realised it’s because the game is so popular and so many people have never seen this before – they think it’s unique to our game. Unfortunately, League of Legends suffered the same thing. That’s another game that was a lot of people’s first big online game and they’re like, “oh, there’s a problem with League” well actually, there’s a problem with human beings. Let’s start there – there’s a problem with human beings.

We try our hardest to solve it, but it was a good challenge for us to address. To own the problem, to spend a lot of time and effort on systems like LFG [looking for group], the endorsement system, and even role queue. And then we put a whole analytics group looking into player behaviour and how do players feel about one another and how matches feel. And there’s our own anecdotal data of, how often do you feel like somebody’s been hostile to you in a match? All those gauges have shown us, wow, we’ve made a difference and it’s better, now everybody’s chilling out, which is good. That’s something we’ve learned a lot about, made a lot of progress on, and something we’re proud of.

When it comes to toxicity what are your plans to further improve prevention mechanisms?

I think there are two main ways to tackle behavioural problems and we need both. One is punishment and enforcement. I don’t know if people realise this, but if they share with us, whether it’s through customer support or through our social media any incidents that are viewed as hostile, we jump on it right away. We action those players immediately. The more we can have active, real human beings looking at what’s happening and evaluating is great, but also automated systems are great so that certain things never get said in the first place.

And then there is the positive direction, which are systems like LFG, the endorsement system, and social systems that encourage people to play with and be respectful of each other. Honestly, I think role queue automatically did that. Right away you and I aren’t in a match like “why are you playing a third damage? You should switch to support”. Automatically through game design, we eliminated that conversation ever happening again in Overwatch.

I also think in Overwatch 2 the introduction of heavy focus on PvE is going to be great. I don’t think all of us are born to be competitive like every match victory and defeat matters. The beautiful part for game developers when it comes to PvE when you’re fighting the Null Sector robots, we can make you win more than half the time. We can’t do that in PvP. The Null Sector robots don’t have forum accounts and aren’t going to post any mean things like, “why did you stun me for ten seconds”. So we can allow players to band together, be appreciative of their teammates, and not feel the utter sting of defeat, which is sort of impossible in a competitive PvP game.

So there’s a lot I’m excited about because early on when Overwatch first launched, we were so focused on the enforcement and the rules and all that kind of stuff. Although we’re still making efforts in that direction, what is more enjoyable and a challenge for us are those positive encouragement systems that we can focus on.

What do you think are the big draws for people coming into the game now rather than four years ago?

I think there’s a lot of awesome reasons why Overwatch is better now than it has ever been. I feel like the game balance is better than it’s ever been. If you actually put that quote, they will tease me forever, like “look Jeff said the game balance is okay. He’s so wrong. He obviously hasn’t played Mei recently.” I think the game is more enjoyable with role queue than it ever has been. There’s way more variety, we’ve added eleven heroes since launch, so players have 32 amazing heroes to pick from.

There are an amount of people who either haven’t heard of Overwatch or have heard of it, but don’t really know much about it and when they sit down, and they play, they instantly want to buy the game. They’re like, “oh my god, I didn’t know this is what the game was all about, this is so much fun”. So every once a while we’ll run free weekends or free trials and that’s a great opportunity for people to get into the game to just try it. Check it out, see if it’s fun and we have no problem letting people play the game for free because what we’ve seen is that new players are like, “this is awesome. I love it. I’m having so much fun”.

Some players feel that hero pools is good for the meta while others think it pushes away one-tricks, like Mercy mains. How is it playing out?

I have those debates, like daily with myself as somebody who drove for hero pools to happen. We’re in total wait and see mode on hero pools. So far the early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for Overwatch League – the fans love it. They’re seeing all this hero diversity they’ve never seen before so that’s been great. For players, they’re experiencing it for the first time right now so I don’t think any of us have lived with it long enough to know.

So what we’re really talking about would be the Mercy main who only plays competitive Overwatch and is not willing to do anything else for a week. I think with 50 million players, it would be wrong to assume that that doesn’t actually exist. It’s easy to blow that off and go, “you can’t go play mystery heroes? Or can you just play Moira or Baptiste for a week?” It’s easy to dismiss it but I think that the feedback is valid and real. I just want us all to live with it for a little bit to see if we need to make any tweaks or changes. It was not a system that when we put it in, we said, “oh we’re brilliant. Why don’t we share our brilliance with the community?” We were pretty clear, we said, “we think that this is going to make the game better overall for the majority of players and if it feels like it’s not doing that, let’s make some changes”.

I’ll give you an example of some tweaks and changes we’ve explored. We’re not necessarily pulling the trigger on these, these are just like brainstorm ideas but if that Mercy main issue is real, and I think it is, maybe hero pools should be daily. That causes other problems, it really makes it hard for any meta to solidify but is that Mercy main okay, that for a couple hours at night, they can’t play Mercy? Another idea is maybe hero pools only apply to a certain skill rating, like Masters and above, because the reality is, the meta only really, truly exists at around that level. The rest of us just complain about what we hear everybody else saying like, “yeah, I’m mad about that”, but we’re not actually playing it.

I think it’s too early in hero pools to say for sure. My gut reaction is overall, it’s been extremely positive, but we might need to make some minor tweaks.

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