Feature Article

Overwatch 2: Jeff Kaplan On Expanding Story, Refining Gameplay, And Beards

Game director Jeff Kaplan talks about managing the community's expectations for Overwatch 2 and working to keep things fresh in the first Overwatch.

Despite being released in 2016, Overwatch remains an incredibly popular multiplayer experience, with a healthy community of players returning day after day for online skirmishes. Naturally, longtime players are eager to play the next entry in the franchise, which was originally announced in 2019. Many fans expected 2021 would be the year a new chapter in the Overwatch saga would unfold, but that is not the case.

The community became crestfallen in the immediate aftermath of this news. However, at BlizzCon 2021, the Overwatch 2 team showed off more of the game than we'd ever seen, and the scope of the effort became more apparent. As well as making drastic changes to the player-versus-player experience, Blizzard is creating a large-scale player-versus-environment suite complete with story missions and over a hundred repeatable missions that can be played with friends, and will allow characters to be developed in an RPG-like fashion. It looks to be much bigger than most imagined.

Following the reveal, we spoke to game director Jeff Kaplan about what the team showed at BlizzCon, balancing their vision with the demands of the community, the challenge of keeping the first Overwatch fresh, and its narrative ambitions for Overwatch 2.

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Jeff, when I first interviewed you in 2017 it was revealed that you had not seen a Fast and Furious movie. Have you seen a Fast and Furious movie in the time since then?

Jeff: [Laughs] I still have not. I think that makes me a terrible human being. Yeah. I still have not seen any Fast and Furious movies.

Steven, have you seen one?

Steven Khoo: Yes. I've seen all of them. And they're great.

Okay, thank you Steven. Because [last time] not only had Jeff not seen it, but the UK PR person hadn't seen it either, which was just devastating. Anyway, Overwatch 2. You finally showed off a huge chunk of it. What's the response been? Because the first showing, you said you came away feeling like people didn't really understand what you were going for.

Yeah. It's really interesting. You hit the nail on the head. After the first BlizzCon, you watch the reactions and you go, "Oh, they're not understanding what we're making here." You're reading comments, and you can only show what you're showing on the show floor. It's not like during the BlizzCon you can run back to the studio and quickly generate a build and show people other things. So, you're kind of at the mercy of what you came prepared with for the show.

So, we were a lot more knowledgeable about how to communicate Overwatch 2 the second time around, because we had all of these reactions that we could react to at that point and go, "Okay. They think this, but we know that's not true. They think that, and we know that's not true. Let's really show them what we're doing, and let's not be shy. Let's not hold back a bunch of stuff that we can tease out later or trickle out later."

Because we know we're going to make new, cool stuff that we can tease out later and trickle out later. There's things I don't even know what they are yet today. But I have confidence in my team, over the next year we're going to come up with something cool. So, this one was much different. I think the team reaction after this BlizzCon was, "Oh, we did it. They understand. They finally really see the vision for Overwatch 2 that we've seen all along." That was a big success. And then I think we struggle with the same thing that the community struggles with, which is "Boy, we wish there was more content coming for Overwatch."

And on that front, it's a little bit tricky for us because how the community talks about it is not actually fair. They hate it when I say that, by the way, and they'll criticize me for saying that. But they tend to talk in a little bit of dramatic hyperbole, which I like because I too talk in dramatic hyperbole. So, I feel like we're talking the same language. But they'll say, "Oh, that means we're not getting any new content for Overwatch 1." But I don't think that's a fair representation. I think we've actually done quite a lot of work for Overwatch, even since the BlizzCon 2019 announcement. The rate at which we've increased balanced patching, I hear the fans will say all the time, "Oh, I can't believe they didn't add any new maps," when we just added Kanezaka, which I think is an amazing map. I think it's one of our best playing and one of our best looking maps.

We've done tons of what we call these mini events, where we did one for Symmetra when we released her short story, Stone by Stone. We've added new modes to things like Lunar New Year where we did the Bounty Hunter mode. So, I feel like what the community is saying when they're saying, "Oh, my gosh, you're not releasing any new content," I feel like what they're saying is, "We really wish there was a new hero that you were releasing between now and then." And it literally comes down to: we can release a new hero but then [have to] delay Overwatch 2. And I don't think that's the right decision right now.

Cards on the table, I have definitely had that feeling. Obviously, Overwatch 2 is not coming out this year, so I think once that news hit and us as Overwatch players got our mind around how long that time is, we were like, "Oh, no. How do I keep Overwatch fresh?" But I guess, like you said, people have these expectations, so that's a reality now. Do you feel the need to try and address it and ramp up production? You can't do a new hero and maps are also very difficult, but are you thinking about ways of trying to keep them engaged, even if it is to placate the audience a bit?

Yeah. I don't think of it as placating at all. In fact, I think it's necessary and it's something that we not only want to do, but we love doing. We love adding content to the game. We really enjoy it. So, it's definitely not something that we do just because we feel like people are complaining. This is our baby, and we think it's good and healthy for the game to do updates. With that said, like I mentioned, I think the experimental card, adding it to the game and the agility that it's given us in updating the game has been actually really amazing. If you were to track balance patches in the first two years versus what it looks like after the experimental card, I think it's been a dramatic improvement to the game. It keeps the meta moving. It keeps things fresh.

We've also been able to do some really big features. Priority Pass was a huge undertaking. Priority Pass, actually--the work on that started before Role Queue was even live. Our engineers were already thinking about a system like that and working on a system like that. So, it was a massive time investment. And I think it was a really good and healthy feature, and we have the statistics to show that it really helped with queue times and it's done a lot of good for the game.

Without over-promising or announcing anything, those aren't the only ideas on the list for the future. It's not like our plan is we're not going to do anything between now and the release of Overwatch 2, but simple balance experiments on the experiment card. That's not our plan. We do have content planned. And while it might not be content like a new hero, which is... We know that's what players want. There's a lot of cool things that I think will keep the game fresh. And some things people might expect, some things people don't even know are on the radar, so I think it'll be a good year.

It's bizarre. Game industry executives and players are a cohort. I don't know if anybody realizes this, because I have to explain to both groups. I'm like, "I guarantee you, nobody wants Overwatch 2 to ship sooner than the Overwatch team, even more than you, whether you are a game industry executive or a player of the game. I guarantee you, we want to ship the game more than you want us to ship the game." So we're not deliberately dragging our heels. We're working super hard as fast as we possibly can reasonably to get the game made.

What's the impact on you and the team to see expectations build up around a release date, and then see the response to it being far away. We had the Activision call where it was made clear that it's not going to be 2021, and then the Overwatch community went into this kind of communal lamenting. What's it like for you to see that happen? Because I imagine it must make you feel sad, but also kind of amazed that there's this many people so desperate for it.

As a human being, it's impossible not to hear criticism and feel bad when you hear that criticism. It's just natural. It's just a natural human instinct when that happens. When you can be objective, if you can be objective, you can have that moment where you realize only people who are truly passionate about what we do would have the reaction that they're having. If they didn't care, if they weren't into Overwatch, either they were apathetic or they actively didn't like Overwatch, they wouldn't even be focused on this. They wouldn't even comment. It's not even worth their time. Why would they be trolling in YouTube comments or a Reddit thread if they don't like Overwatch? There are so many other places for them to spend their time and energy. And just realizing you've got these incredible players who are fans and supporters, and passionate, and they don't always know how to express their passion in a way that is helpful.

There's an analogy that I like to use sometimes, I actually use this analogy to my team. The morning after BlizzCon we had a team meeting and I said, "You have to remember that sometimes, our fans are like... If you think about back when you were in junior high school or something like that, maybe you're 12 years old. And there's that boy and girl, and one of them has a crush on the other one, and they don't know how to express it, so they walk up to them and punch them in the arm. Well, I just wanted you to know that I liked you and I wanted some attention from you, and that was the best way I knew how to get it." And I'm like... That feels like the video games relationship at that point.

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It sounds like what you're saying is the Overwatch community is Helga from Hey Arnold, which is a fantastic analogy.

Yeah. I think there's a lot of people who get it and understand, and want us to take our time and make something great. And then there's a lot of people who don't get it, but they're just really excited and they need to let that passion out in some way, and we're okay with it. We understand, and all I can say is we're working as hard and as fast as we possibly can. And at this point, the date is less important to us than getting it right and making it great.

Yeah. I mean, as someone who loves that franchise, I think that rings true with me as well. I'd rather you get it right than release it early.

I worked on Burning Crusade, which obviously we just had the big announcement that Burning Crusade Classic is coming out. And I don't know if people remember this, but Burning Crusade came out in January. It didn't ship in November, and 100 percent we were trying to ship that game in November, and we missed the year. We missed the holiday season. No one remembers that, but everybody remembers that Burning Crusade was a great WoW expansion. And that's sort of what we need to stick with, is the date's going to be whatever the date is, but you can't recover from a bad launch and a bad game at launch. And we want the game to be great at launch.

Yeah. I think we've learned that lesson quite a lot recently. What is your expectation for how Overwatch 2 will launch? Because I think back to the Overwatch launch and that game was just a completely different wacky game at launch. You could pick a team of Torbs and Mercy could rez an entire team. Do you feel like you'll have to make big pivots when Overwatch 2 comes out? Are we going to be in a position where you're like, "All right, we need to shift this game in a big way," or do you expect that your experience thus far means that it will launch in a more solid state?

Well, I'm hoping that it launches in a solid state in terms of stability, both from a technical standpoint... We were very proud of the Overwatch launch, that it was a very stable launch. We didn't have servers crashing. So we want a stable technical launch, but also a generally healthy state of the game at the time of launch. The thing about the design and balance of the game is that the player base is always evolving. So even if we didn't touch the game ever... If we had some perfect balance state that everybody agreed on, the game was perfect and it was balanced and we never touched it again, the players are going to unbalance the game eventually through player creativity and innovation. And a lot of that is what was going on with Overwatch at launch.

There were all of these things that we always suspected. We suspected that we'd have to put a hero limit on the game someday. We suspected we would have to put a role limit on the game someday, but it wasn't necessary because the player base at large had not evolved to the point where that was meta behavior. So I think we'll have something very similar. We want to do significant alpha and beta testing with Overwatch 2. We want to get it to as stable of a place as possible, but I have no doubts that how Overwatch 2 looks at launch versus versus in year two will be dramatically different in ways that we don't know yet. Because if it was in ways that we know yet, then we're really bad at our jobs for not just doing that.

The roster for Overwatch 2, I assume, is going to be everyone in Overwatch and then new characters on top. Is that fair to say?

Yes. Correct. We'll be adding, and we will not be removing anybody from the roster.

You mentioned there that you have to factor in limits on characters. That's got to be happening soon, right? At some point, I imagine like Overwatch turning into Smash Bros., where there's 40 characters on screen, which in a first-person shooter, it just seems like an impossibility. Is that something you're bracing for?

Yeah. I think there are thresholds that you cross, and I don't have magic numbers for these, on both maps and Heroes that require different game design decisions. I'll give you an example on the map front. Once we hit some sweet spot of, I'll just say it with air quotes, 'too many maps,' and I don't know what that number is... It doesn't feel like we're there yet, but once we hit the point at which players don't feel like they get to play on the maps that they really love, or they feel like they don't get to learn maps because there's too many maps in the pool, that's an example where we would need to add some sort of system that doesn't need to exist in the current state of the game, but will need to exist as we evolve in the future.

Examples there, without committing to anything specifically, but, do you add map pools? Do you add a map voting system? There's lots of different ways to skin the cat there, but the problem being, at some point, you hit a tipping point where you have too many maps. The same thing is going to happen with Heroes at some point, where we will hit a point where we feel like, "Okay. There might be too many Heroes for people to really grok what's going on. Do we need to add systems around limiting the mind space of, "How many Heroes do you have to know when you jump into a match?" and you look at the other team, and you say, "They've got an X, Y, or Z. What do they do again? I don't even know what they do."

Speaking of cats, in our 2017 interview you discussed a cat hero that became a big talking point on the internet. Have you been experimenting with any more animal-based Heroes for Overwatch 2?

We put a hamster [into the first Overwatch], which was a pretty big deal. I'm trying to think-

Will we get an actual cat hero?

We released Brigitte; we know that Brigitte is squarely a cat person. There's a lot of Brigitte in Overwatch 2, and so there're a lot of cats in Overwatch 2.

You're saying it's time for a dog to balance it out?

Well, a dog would be cool too. Actually, Orisa has a dog.

True. True.

There is a big dog moment coming up. I'm not going to spoil it now, but there is a dog that people will fall in love with coming up.

It's a new dog, not an existing dog?

A new dog.

Dang.

You got a cat exclusive in 2017, and now you have a dog exclusive, but I'm not going to give you any details.

Okay. I appreciate that.

It's coming up, and there is a beloved dog that belongs to one of our Heroes that you're going to learn more about.

Fantastic. I appreciate that.

The main Hero Missions are a more direct way to tell the story. Overwatch's story, the broader beats of it, was static. You explored facets of it from different angles, but it never progressed in a major way. Are there any goals or a plan to have a more fluid story in this game, something that develops in real-time the way something like Destiny would? Will there be like, "Then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened"?

I think the plan right now is that the story missions will be a cohesive linear campaign that pushes the plot forward and sets the context for the world state. The Hero missions will take place within a static point within that world state. For example, when we reach the end of the campaign and we hit a certain world state through the story missions pushing that forward, the Hero missions will then [take place]. All of the Hero missions are very light on the story because that's [not] the focus of the Hero missions, but the Hero missions will take place within the context of that. Now, our hope would be that we get to make more story missions in the future.

Now that we have a game that's built around adding that kind of content, our hope would be that we could add story missions to the Overwatch 2 framework that then pushes the plot forward in a way that we really couldn't do with Overwatch 1. At best, we had Archives, which was very deliberately structured to not push the world forward. In fact, Archives was always exploring the past, and then Junkenstein's is kind of an alternate universe. It's kind of like, "Whoa, what happens when Reinhardt tells a spooky story at the Halloween party?" Overwatch 2 is set up very differently, that we can push the world state forward.

That's awesome. I guess my dream was a new Hero, let's say Sojourn is available, to actually get that Hero, you need to team up with four friends and go and rescue Sojourn or something like that. Then a new Hero is introduced later, and there are world events and that kind of stuff. It sounds like that's kind of in the plans. Is that fair to say?

That's not necessarily the plan, but it definitely is the plan to reveal, "What is the future of Overwatch?" and spend less time focusing on, "What is the past of Overwatch?" We kind of get that people at this point understand what the backstory is and that there's a hunger to move it forward, and, "Well, what's coming? What's new? Surprise me with stuff I haven't heard before."

We can just confirm that we're going to remove 2CP from competitive play in Overwatch 2 ... [that's] something we've committed to."

One of the things that you mentioned in the presentation was you were re-evaluating the future of certain modes, and 2CP was one that you kind of highlighted. I guess you made it clear that it was just something that you were figuring out right now. It wasn't definitive. Who ultimately has the say in that? Because the community will shout, "Get rid of 2CP," but is it a case where you're like, "Actually, we see there's value in 2CP, so we're going to leave it"? How do you balance pleasing yourself and pleasing the audience?

On the 2CP journey--and by the way, it wasn't intentionally ambiguous in the BlizzCon movie. We can just confirm that we're going to remove 2CP from competitive play in Overwatch 2. It's sort of beyond a consideration at this point and something that we've committed to. So it's safe to confirm that.

With that said again, the community tends to talk in hyperbole and there's also a bit of echo chamber that goes on in certain communities where everybody hates 2CP, which is not true. Lots of people love the mode. Lots of people love the maps. We are very much in agreement that there are some fundamental flaws with the mode as a competitive mode. And you saw us try. The amount of reworks we've done to 2CP maps has been kind of crazy.

We took Horizon Lunar Colony in and we completely rebuilt the map. And then we try all sorts … changes we've tried to make 2CP maps play better, just the internal iterations on that has been significant. We've just hit a point where we sort of said to ourselves, "It's more worth our time, just developing a new mode at this point. And grandfathering, for lack of a better term, those old maps." We're not going to delete them or make them go away. There's too many Overwatch fans who love Hanamura and love Temple of Anubis. And we know that it would just be mean of us to remove those maps and not let people play on them anymore. So whether it's through custom game or something in the arcade, we'll make sure that that gameplay is still available to the people who love it.

And it's even in consideration, like, "Well, do we just leave those maps in Quick Play?" I don't know, generally we like Quick Play to be a reflection of what's in Competitive. So maybe we remove them from quick play, but we make sure it's in Custom Game and in Arcade. But ultimately that decision has to be one that we own as the development team. I think it's impossible to ever say that there is such a thing as the one community who agrees on anything. I don't think that's any way to run the game. I think it's important to listen to all of the communities. And at the point at which you're agreeing with them where our most competitive communities are very critical of that mode. I think we have to just go, "Yeah, we agree. There's some really fundamental flaws." It doesn't mean that everybody hates that mode and therefore we should nuke it from existence on the earth. It just means we should probably think about removing it from Competitive and put our development efforts towards new modes that we think they'll like.

I just want to end on some good news. In 2017 I showed you a picture of what shows up when you Google Jeff Kaplan.

I remember.

That really orange picture where your eyes are half closed. And we talked about what we could do to get rid of that. I don't know if you've checked recently, but if you Google Jeff Kaplan, that picture is gone.

Is it really? What shows up now?

Now it's that amazing picture of you with the really full beard with the black going into gray. That orange picture is now about seven or eight rows deep. So you're free. You're done.

You talked to me, you said, "Didn't, you know that you can change the picture?" And I had that weird feeling where it's almost like the internet is a religion. And you have to let it do what it's going to do. And it's not my job.

The only way to change it was to bury it with more popular pictures. And you put out a picture of yourself with a full beard, and that is what did the trick. So that's it, man. Whenever you want to get rid of anything on the internet, just grow a beard.

Okay. Well Tamoor, what I'll do for you, because I always have to give you exclusives, I'm going to give you the ultimate beard glam shot.

Yes!

Complete with Instagram filters. Do with it what you like.

I appreciate it.

Papa Jeff becomes Daddy Jeff
Papa Jeff becomes Daddy Jeff

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tamz

Tamoor Hussain

Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot, he has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.

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