Overwatch’s Jeff Kaplan on how his team built a future worth fighting for

“More. Mega. Unexpected. Awesome. Amaaazing.” This is what game director Jeff Kaplan promises with year two of Overwatch, delivered like an action movie sizzle reel.

In celebration of Overwatch’s first birthday, we sat down with Kaplan to talk about, well, a number of things. The focus of the meeting was on the newly-launched Anniversary Event and where the game is going next in its second year. But, as people usually do when they speak of the future, he revealed a surprising amount about the game’s past.

First, imagine Overwatch as it stands today: a hectic six vs six team-based shooter filled to the brim with strategic possibilities, yet balanced enough to give uneven teams a shot at victory. It's complex with its nuanced heroes, yet somehow approachable to newcomers at the same time. That approachability, Kaplan tells me, is key to the Overwatch experience. 

It’s a train of thought has fed into Blizzard’s previous titles, too. “Raiding [in World of Warcraft] used to be an activity that only 1% of players took part in. This is a great example of how you can take a really deep game system and open it up to more people who normally wouldn’t do something like that. That was our goal with Overwatch,“ Kaplan says. 

A different shade of Overwatch

Overwatch is easy to jump into head-first. Each of its characters, though different in many ways, will feel familiar to anyone who has played a first-person shooter. The game prides itself on being simple to pick up, but tough to master. But it wasn’t always so inviting.

“The first playable versions of Overwatch were actually hardcore shooters. Seasoned shooter fans would have instantly felt at home there, but our goal over time was introduce enough approachability through game systems and hero mechanics to open the door to more people who might not play this type of game normally.”

This phase in development for Overwatch was a far cry of the final product, but it helped the team arrive at what it is today. “You don’t start by thinking of ways to make it easier for people. You start by building the fun core loop of the game and analyze how you can introduce as many people to that loop as possible, especially the ones who would not normally be engaged in a loop like this,” Kaplan told us.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

What the future will and will not bring

There are currently 24 characters to choose from in Overwatch, ranging from the small and nimble Tracer to hulking, powerful tanks like Zarya and Reinhardt. And in year two, there will be more, Kaplan says.

But despite this wide and growing cast, many players choose one who they like to play as and stick with it, even when their team is at odds by their choice. 

This raises a question that I’ve heard asked and one that I’ve posed myself, too: why not just allow customizable loadouts and swappable skills for each of the heroes?

For instance, Symmetra, one of the game’s characters, can choose between two different options for her ultimate. This proves that Blizzard is beyond just toying with the idea. But will it bring similar capabilities to the rest of the roster?

“No,” Kaplan says without hesitance before offering up an interesting look back at one of Overwatch’s early builds.

“It was a fundamental part of the core game design of Overwatch to not have that type of system. Our philosophy is that we’d rather add more heroes with a simple ability set rather than have just a few heroes with a lot of deep ability interaction.

“The first version of progression we ever had in the game would level you up the more that you played as a hero. And as you’d level up, you would get a talent choice, of sorts, to spec out your hero.” 

Ring a bell, Dota 2 players? 

Kaplan didn’t say whether this style of progression had been mapped for each character, but he offered up a wealth of early development detail about Reaper, one of the game’s powerful attack characters.

“He had the ability to heal completely while using wraith form, or could be in wraith form for a longer period of time. 

“We had a bunch of this implemented very early on and the game really lost what we call its ‘read’. The whole ‘read’ of the game didn’t really exist anymore in that form. 

“Imagine that you’re in a match. You’re already overwhelmed with the amount of heroes to choose between and what their skill sets are. Then suddenly, you’d have a Reaper in the mix and you wonder ‘is that a heal-to-full-in-wraith-mode Reaper?’ or is that a ‘do-wraith-mode-for-longer Reaper?’ You no longer know how to interact with the heroes.

“The knowledge requirement just to be good on the most basic level at this version of the game was too steep. And it edged away at approachability, which is important to us. It left the game feeling muddy in a lot of ways, so we pulled it out.” 

A state of constant evolution

Fine-tuning the experience to welcome players and offer an extreme amount of depth to chase after is, according to Kaplan, “the key for all Blizzard games, not just Overwatch.”

And that key is what pushed the team to put approachability at its core, a term that he says “gets misinterpreted a lot to mean that we’re dumbing everything down, which is not what it’s about all. If the game doesn’t have any depth, there’s not going to be any replayability.”

Before Overwatch ever launched, it had already seen considerable change both in its core gameplay systems and how its characters worked. And since its debut last year, we’ve seen Blizzard working to polish and add to the game even more.

Where will the game go from here? Kaplan told me that his team intends to stick to a monthly release cadence of new, free DLC, and that work on content is complete as far out as October 2017. 

So, the upcoming characters, maps and game modes for the coming months are already set in stone, but we’ll have to wait to see how it all unfolds in the Overwatch universe.

Cameron Faulkner

Cameron is a writer at The Verge, focused on reviews, deals coverage, and news. He wrote for magazines and websites such as The Verge, TechRadar, Practical Photoshop, Polygon, Eater and Al Bawaba.