Aaron Keller is a Blizzard veteran, but taking on Overwatch 2's directorial duties may be his biggest challenge yet.
There are few video game developers that have as much cachet with an audience as Jeff Kaplan. Not only was he a vice president at Blizzard and director of Overwatch, but Kaplan was also a figurehead for the community to gather around. Whether it was to complain to him about the latest meta and lambast balance changes, or to turn him into memes and celebrate the festive season, for most fans, Jeff Kaplan was Overwatch.
It makes sense, then, that his departure from Blizzard shook the community, giving rise to questions about the future of Overwatch 2 and the franchise in its totality, as well as the development team behind it.
Along with the announcement that Kaplan was leaving came confirmation that Aaron Keller would be taking on directorial responsibilities for the project and the team. While public awareness around Keller might not be on the same level as that of Kaplan, Keller was instrumental in the creation and ongoing development of Overwatch as assistant game director, and the natural choice to step into the role. By Keller's own admission, Kaplan is a tough act to follow, but Keller is anchoring himself to creating the best possible Overwatch sequel that he and the team can make.
Shortly after the announcement of his role as the new director of Overwatch 2, we spoke to Keller about taking on the position, the pressure, priorities, and the path forward. Expectations are high for Overwatch and, even more so for Keller, the community has expectations for his presence as the face of the franchise, so we also talked to him about whether he wants to meet those expectations or approach the position in a new way.
How does it feel to be the director of Overwatch now?
Aaron Keller: Well, it's exciting and it's overwhelming at the same time, but in a good way. The reason that I'm excited to be game director on this project is because I love Overwatch. I love this game. I love the universe that we've created for people. I love the heroes and the locations in it and so, any chance that I get to be able to make any sort of impact on this project, I jump at it. And then I love our team. The Overwatch team is so incredibly talented, they're so passionate about what they're working on, and they're also just really, really great humans.
So, anything that I can do to help in the transition, to help them feel that they're able to be more passionate, more creative, and to put more of themselves in this game, I'll do it.
How long has Jeff [Kaplan]'s departure been something that you as a team knew about, how has that been factored into your development, and what has the impact of that been? A lot of people would ascribe the entire vision for Overwatch to Jeff but obviously, that's not the case, but what has the impact of him leaving been?
Yeah, it's really interesting because Jeff will do regular development updates for this project and he would always start them with, "Hi, this is Jeff from the Overwatch team," and as much as he possibly could, he was trying to put the focus of the game on the team and not on himself.
Maybe it's the reality of the way communities form that a lot of times there's someone out in front that you know is the spokesperson, or becomes like the poster person for a particular game or property. But at the same time, this game is built by the team.
Jeff and myself--there are a few ways to look at the position--but one of them is we do the least amount of things for this game. We're not opening up the editor and building characters, or animating them, or building maps for this game. That's everybody on this team, and so I get that from the outside this can look alarming and this can look like the entire team just left, or the vision holder for this game just left, but that's not the case. The team is the one that's carrying the torch forward and they always have been.
The Overwatch team was started in 2013, our senior leadership group are all original members of that team. We have so many people that started this project that are still there and then we have brought so many other people on that are now these incredibly impactful creative members of the team. All of us together are the ones that are bringing this forward and I'm just happy that I'm able to play whatever role in it that I can.
You spoke about the developer updates, so can we expect, "Hey, this is Aaron from the Overwatch team" in the future? Is that something that you're going to take on?
[Laughs] It's important for us to communicate with our community. I can't speak to exactly what all of the updates were to look like or what the ways that we communicate are going to be. We're talking about several things right now that we're going to be doing going forward but I'm not exactly sure what form all of them are going to take. But yes, I will be talking to the community.
We've heard a lot about Overwatch 2 and what you want to do with it with the PvE, but speaking more broadly, including Overwatch and Overwatch 2--because they're both going to be active--what is the vision for Overwatch from you in a leadership position for the franchise going forward?
Yeah, that's a great question. I was lucky enough to be in a role previous to this where I was really well-connected and aligned to what the vision for both Overwatch and Overwatch 2 were. Coming into a position like I'm in right now--we're mid-cycle on Overwatch 2, I don't think it's right for me to suddenly make a bunch of big changes to either one of these games, and I think what's nice is there aren't really huge changes that I do want to make to either game because I've been so involved in both of them.
I think for me, Overwatch 2… there are two halves to it, and I know we've spent a lot of time talking about what the PvE side of the game is with our hero missions and our campaign and the progression system that drives all of it. But the other side of the game is just as important, if not more important, and that's the PvP side of the game. We have 60 million players that love that side of the game and are attached to that side of the game. We know, going forward, we have to make the next best version of a team-based shooter. So to me, yes there is this PvE side of Overwatch 2 but I am very focused on the PvP side of the game and I want to make that as compelling as we possibly can.
Do you expect there to be a change in ethos when it comes to design, development, and deployment? From the outsider's perspective, the Blizzard way has always seemed to be that you have this group of people who work intensely on something, and then release it when it's perfect. But modern games in the same stable, your contemporaries, have a lot of people working on a project, they rapidly iterate, and they push stuff out super quickly, and that maintains constant engagement. Do you foresee Overwatch and Overwatch 2 sticking to the slow and steady pace, or are you [thinking] we need to be the same way that Fortnite is--a new piece of major content every other day?
One of the values that Blizzard has is "commit to quality" and we're always looking to make the very best version of anything that we make. But I think that there can be a tendency to cling to that, and maybe hold onto pieces of content or systems that we made longer than we should. So for Overwatch 2, I think this is a game that players really want to play, and it's a game that I would like to get out to our community as soon as possible, so we're going to make a great game and we are really committed to making it as amazing as we possibly can. And the last thing we want to do is to release it early before it's ready.
But we recognize that it's something that players are waiting for, and it's something that's important to put out there. So we are doing as much as we possibly can to accelerate the development process for it.
Going forward I think that, especially for Overwatch 2, players ought to be able to look back at what we've created for Overwatch 1, we have created almost as many maps for the live game as we did for the game when it launched, almost as many heroes for the live game as when it launched. We have put a lot into this game. We have brand-new ways to play, brand-new types of maps and game modes, and we run our seasonal events every year.
I think that this is something that when I start looking forward, just personally, [about] what I think we ought to be doing in the future, it's that and more [that] we need to put out. It's really important for the game and for the community for us to be releasing as much as we possibly can for the game.
Overwatch still very much feels like a boxed game in that you released the core game and then every now and then you release characters and then updates and events. Whereas most of your contemporaries, Fortnite, Warzone, Apex, those kinds of games, they feel like live-service games. Even though, technically, Overwatch is a live service game, it doesn't behave like a live-service game. Is that something that you are thinking about changing for Overwatch 2? Perhaps with stuff like a battle pass, creator codes, and the kind of stuff that is necessary to make a multiplayer shooter competitive in the modern landscape of multiplayer shooters?
I can't really speak to exactly what will be in there, whether this game is going to have a battle pass or not, but I think I can talk to our values a little bit because when we when we design anything at Blizzard we like to set up the values for it, the pillars for it, and then everything kind of derives from those particular values. The values for Overwatch 2 are that we want the game to feel like it has a constant heartbeat, that there are a lot of updates to the game, and that the community knows that it's kind of our first priority moving forward.
It's hard for me to say, every live game is a little different. Whether the value is a live service value… I think our value is to put as much time and resources as we can into updating the live game and to making it always feel new and fresh and substantial.
What do you think you need to do to maintain long-term interest in Overwatch? I think back to Overwatch's release and it had an incredibly strong debut out of the gate, and then, over time, it kind of petered off. It had little spikes here and there, whereas you have other games that have more consistent spikes. I'm wondering how you're approaching the long-term… [how do you] assure the audience that they can commit to Overwatch once again for the long-term.
I think it's hard to assure people ahead of time through words. It's something that we tried to do with Overwatch 1, and I think it's great to hear that you thought coming out of the gate we really delivered on that. We continued building new maps and new heroes and new game modes and releasing systems for that. Competitive was released a month after the game went live--it's our intention to operate that way for Overwatch 2. I wish that people could hear that and believe me, but I think they'll see it once the game comes out. We have a lot of big plans for what live content will look like for Overwatch 2.
As director now, what is your image of Overwatch's identity currently, and what do you want it to be a year from now, post-release or whatever it may be?
Yeah, I think that there are multiple ways of looking at Overwatch and there are different ways of looking at our fans, and I think some of that is what has led to the development of Overwatch 2. We have a set of players that are very high-skilled, and are very competitive and are actively really engaged in the PvP side of the game. And then all the way on the other side of the spectrum you have a group of people that are fans of Overwatch as a universe and as a world, they love the heroes, they love the tone of the game, and they love the locations and the world itself, but they don't actually play the game.
And so what I'm hoping is that, going forward, Overwatch 2 can be that game that is played by a much broader section of the community. I want the game to be just as competitive, if not more so, on the PvP side. We have a lot of really exciting things that we're doing to kind of shake up the way PvP is played, to innovate on what we've done and to bring new game modes and really interesting ways of playing to the table.
But at the same time, we want this way for these people that just love this world and its heroes to be able to play the game as well, and to come away with a really special story and a deeper understanding of what that world is. And that's what this other side of the game is that we're building--or at least it's one part of what the other side of the game is that we're building.
The PvE side of it feels like a way to invite people who aren't necessarily built for PvP and might not have the sensibilities that make it work [for them] to enjoy the world of Overwatch. But then also, you're kind of creating the responsibility to also feed them new content for the long term. Is that the plan and are you currently built to do that? What is the structure of the team and are you going to be able to feed these two heads of the Overwatch monster equally?
The PvP side of development is something that I think is incredibly streamlined across the team, and it is something that we're experts at. I recognize that the other side of the game is a big undertaking and there's more to it than building the PvP side of the game. I think the game that we've talked about is a content-based game. When you start talking about progression systems, especially deep progression systems, you need a lot of content in order to be able to deliver a really great experience for players to work through that. We have a lot of people on our team that have worked on a lot of different projects throughout the industry and a lot of different games at Blizzard. We have a lot of people from the World of Warcraft team, from the Diablo team, and even from the StarCraft team. I think that we all recognize the type of game that we're building and we're building all of the right systems in the right content in order to make it really, really engaging and fun for players. So I agree with you, it's a big ask, but I think that we're set up and we're approaching it eyes wide open, knowing what it needs to deliver on that.
I've been watching what people are saying in response to Jeff leaving and there seems to be two camps. You get one which is, "Who will protect Overwatch now that Jeff is gone," and the other is, "Oh, this is kind of exciting because we have new leadership minds in charge, maybe they'll try and mix things up a bit." How do you feel about those perspectives? How do you respond to the people that are like, "Our Lord and savior Jeff Kaplan [is gone] who will protect Overwatch from becoming a weird Activision Blizzard money [machine] now?
I think teams, especially a creative team--a game development team, they're very organic structures, and they're entirely formed around the strengths and weaknesses and personalities of everybody on that team, from the newest members of the team to some of the most senior people on the team. A lot of times, what happens when somebody leaves a team, especially somebody in a leadership role, is everyone expects the new person to just jump in and do everything that their predecessor was doing. So in a very real sense, we have a Jeff-shaped hole on our team right now, but I'm not Jeff. I'm not. I don't have all the same strengths and weaknesses that Jeff has. I have a different leadership style than Jeff has and so I think going forward things will look a little different across the team. Things will look a little different in our communication style to the community. And there's nothing wrong with that--It's very natural for something like that to happen.
I think the common thread through all of this though is the Overwatch team itself, and the Overwatch team is still comprised of the same incredibly talented people that have built the original game and have continued to bring it forward. A lot of people have asked me if I'm worried if I'm scared of things, if I feel a lot of pressure, and I honestly don't and I'm not worried. It's not out of a sense of arrogance or overconfidence in myself. It's because I know and I've worked with this team for so many years and all of my confidence is placed in them.
One of the things that fans really love about the team as a whole is how vocal and receptive you are to the feedback. One of the things that they'll want to know is if it's going to change. Do you still plan to have that open communication and almost be reactive to what the needs and wants of the audience are?
Yeah, we have every intention of remaining in communication with our community. What that looks like, whether that's always me or not, I think is probably best left as a process rather than a decision. And I guess what I mean by that is Jeff… well, I think Jeff was a little uncomfortable as the person out in front of the Overwatch team. It was his value that the spotlight could be put on the team itself.
And he ended up becoming more and more focused on over time, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it worked out well for us, but it doesn't have to be that way. I don't have to be the person that's always communicating our thoughts and intentions, or our reaction to what the community wants. If it ends up happening that way, it will end up happening that way, but it could also be other people on the team that are taking up that mantle. I think the value here is that we continue communicating with our community, the value isn't that it has to be me doing it right.
It's very strange for the Overwatch team, and there are various other directors in the industry too, where the expectations of what's needed from them are different from usual directors. You get normal directors who are just making a game, then you get directors who need to perform for the community as well. That's a strange place where Jeff was. Did you think about that and how have you kind of come to terms with the idea that people expect you to be almost like a celebrity figure to their community?
I think about that a lot and I agree with you, every game director that I've worked with has a slightly different focus. Jeff was a vice president at Blizzard and his focus was really wide and he was also incredibly capable of handling a wide focus and looking at not just the team, but different parts of the organization. My mandate, and some of this is self-imposed, some of this is in conversations with other people across the company and the team, is to focus as much as possible on Overwatch as a game. That's where I'm going to be pouring my creative energy and passion and time: building that.
I don't think I'm going to be able to talk to the community and the media in the same way that Jeff did. The guy is so good on camera, he's sharp, he's quick-witted. I mostly stumble through answers and leak things about potential releases that we have when I talk to people.
If you want to do that right now, please, go for it.
[Laughs] Yeah, there you go.
So what you're saying is we shouldn't expect to find you sitting in front of a fireplace for nine hours come December.
Oh my God. I think we can expect for the process to be a little organic and I hope that our community is open to it, and that they're willing to go along on this ride with us because at the end of the day, what we really care about is making them the best possible game that they can play.
How much are you involved in the growth of Overwatch as a franchise beyond just this specific release? For the longest time there have been discussions around free-to-play needing to happen; people think it's an important strategy, every other game in the same stable is free-to-play. How do those business decisions factor in when you know they could also impact the health of your game? Are you in a position to make that call and push it up the ladder?
Yeah, I mean, the business model obviously has some impact on what a game is going to look like. It's not everything in a game, at the end of the day you want something--especially for Overwatch--that's fluid, action-packed, strategic, and is all about the hero. So there is this core of a game that just needs to be excellent and no business model is going to come in and save any game that doesn't have that. So, number one, our focus is on just creating the very best version of this game that we can. Coming into this position, there are parts of the game that I was very heavily involved and there are parts of the game that I was lightly involved in, and so I think that the parts of this game that Jeff was maybe handling to a greater degree than me, I'm going to have to get more involved in. It's just part of the job.
I think that it's incredibly important going forward to look at what happens for Overwatch 2 after launch. That's a big part of this game. We discussed it earlier, like what, and how much content are we going to be releasing for this thing, so it's something that I think is incredibly important. It's something that I'm focusing on right now. But in a lot of other areas where Jeff did have a lot of involvement and a lot of reach, I'm either going to be looking to bring myself into those or find somebody who can champion that, that I trust in order for me to be able to spend more time focusing on creating the game.
We've touched on this in different ways, but how much are you looking at other games in your competition pool as a guide for how Overwatch evolves? Is it important for Overwatch to remain distinct and of its own flavor or is it important for you to look at what else is out there and try and emulate some of it? Like we said previously, those are [games] that are making money and generating massive audiences.
We're always looking at other games. We're always looking at just other pieces of media, whether it's a game or a movie or TV series or books, and we were looking at those for inspiration. I would prefer to use the term inspiration than emulation for the way that we look at other pieces or other things that are out there, because I think at Blizzard, we always put our own spin on things and we have our own take. And I do think that Overwatch occupies its own unique space in the gaming world and it's not just a team-based shooter. The world of Overwatch, with the heroes that we've created for it, is something that's totally unique. This inspirational, hopeful future that we have built, I think it's something also that the world needs and resonates with people, our players and our fans. There's something remarkable about it.
I think our game is unique as well. There's something about how fast and fluid and strategic that it can be, and the way that every character just feels right when you're controlling them. I don't think that that's something that every game out there has, and there are a lot of amazing shooters out there. Activision develops other absolutely amazing shooters that we look at and take inspiration from. But when you get into them and play them--it's not to say that Overwatch is better than them--it just feels different, and for me as a player, for my type of game, every time I launch Overwatch and I start playing it, it feels like coming home a little bit. There's just something about this game that just clicks with me and resonates with the way that I like to move about spaces and the way that I like to interact with my own character and with other heroes.
Is that something that just happens when you become very familiar with an experience and can you achieve that same thing while also mixing up the formula in very drastic ways, as the audience in the world kind of demands right now?
Yeah, you definitely can. We've seen that happen with other games. I recognize that there is a risk to doing something like that, but if you look at the launch of Overwatch and when we first released it, it was really different than just about any game out there. It launched with over 20 heroes and 12 maps for people to play on, so there was a lot of information to digest and you could call it a really steep learning curve, but people flocked to it. I think that they were hungry for something like that. So yes, there's a danger to making something different, but I think that that's also, a lot of times, what people are looking for.
In the actual blog post, the announcement was made, there was a line that says new features are coming into the live game very soon.
Can you talk a bit more about what that means or the timeframe in which you expect it? You know the Overwatch players have been feeling a bit thirsty for new stuff.
I'll do my best to speak around it and not leak it ahead of time.
Give us a leak.
[Laughs] Yeah, there are really big features and systems coming soon. As big as anything we've built for this game, and the amount of resources that we've poured into these has been massive across almost every aspect of our team to do it. Those will be coming out soon. I don't have a date that I can announce right now. Hopefully, it's something that we'll be able to start talking about sometime in the near future, but I am very excited for them and I can't wait to see people's reactions.
At the risk of stocking some anxieties, what is the thing in taking this position that you feel is the biggest challenge going into it for you.. something that makes you think, "I'm not 100% sure I'm ready for this yet"?
I can give you two answers here and the first one is just based on the amount of work and content that the team is building right now. There is so much going on on the Overwatch team and they're building so many cool things that, right now, the challenge is figuring out the best way to bring all of them together. Maybe it sounds like a good problem to have and it is a good problem to have, but it's still something that we need to focus on to make sure that the game that we deliver is a very cohesive experience to players.
And the second thing, and this is a more of a personal thing for me, and it's the thing that I'm most worried about is… Jeff Kaplan was my boss and mentor at Blizzard for most of my career. We started months apart 20 years ago working at this company. And since Wrath of the Lich King, he's been my boss and I've always looked to his style of leadership, the way he's approached design problems and the way he has mentored and cared for people on the team. I've looked to that as an example and as something that I want to emulate, and so the loss of Jeff is, in a very real sense, a loss of a very big support system. For myself, I believe that having professional and personal support is very important for people, and so I'm going to just miss that guy, as not just as a coworker, but as a friend and a mentor.
The Overwatch community can be a lot of things, but it's also very supportive. They want to love the game, so I hope that helps a bit.
It's so interesting, too, because I think you could see Jeff's love for the game in everything that he did. I just really hope that going forward, the community realizes that, not just me, but everyone else on the team, shares that. You know, we're developers at Blizzard Entertainment, we're highly valued in the industry and we could typically go and work anywhere we want to, but this is what we're choosing to work on because this is the game that we all love.