For the first time since Starcraft (1998) Blizzard are working on a brand new IP and franchise - Overwatch. At PAX East we were given the opportunity to sit down with game director Jeffrey Kaplan, a Blizzard veteran who has been there since 2002 and was partly responsible for the world creation in World of Warcraft. After leaving his position as game director on World of Warcraft, Kaplan spent the next few years working on Project Titan that was eventually cancelled and so he took on the role as game director on Overwatch.
"We love our previous franchises. I worked on World of Warcraft for six and a half years and loved it," says Kaplan when asked what it's like working on a non-existing property. "It was the hardest decision ever to leave World of Warcraft. But the time is just right for something new from us. It's a new genre with the FPS. And just tackling this bright, beautiful, new future Earth that we want to introduce people to in Overwatch has been really a lot of fun for us."
Taking a step away from the usual dystopic futures we typically experience in video games Blizzard opted for a different vision with Overwatch.
"There is a lot of different visions out there for what it might be like in the future and in video games those tend to turn very dark pretty quickly," says Kaplan. "Post-apocalyptic, gritty, you know, what would New York look like if it was under water type of visions. And they're fun to think about, but we wanted to really challenge ourselves and the catch phrase that we use to talk about the world we're building is: 'Is it a future worth fighting for?'. So what's the point of fighting this battle if everything is just wrecked in the first place? And we wanted to create a universe that was just inviting to players. That they wanted to spend a lot of time in and learn more about."
But how was it that Blizzard decided to do a shooter, it might not strike the outside observer as a strange choice for a studio so heavily invested in games that has historically favoured strategy and later role-playing.
"First of all, there is a lot of passion for shooters at Blizzard," says Kaplan. "Myself I've always been a fan of the shooter genre, played it from the very beginning with Castle Wolfenstein. You get into the Dooms, and the Quakes and the Duke Nukems. Really the first whole group of shooters. There's a lot of passion at the studio for shooters as a genre. Also, something to think about Blizzard, is that with everyone of our games people haven't expected us to make that game. And a lot of people have forgotten with World of Warcraft. Back when we first announced World of Warcraft and we were working on it people said 'what are you doing? Blizzard is the RTS company. You guys don't make MMOs. You don't know what you're doing.' And I'd like to think that we've proved capable of making a decent MMO with World of Warcraft and I think most recently you could see with Heroes of the Storm, it's this great hero brawler and you've got Hearthstone which is a fantastic CCG. So I think we're trying to prove that when we have passion and desire to tackle a genre we're going to put everything we have into it and to make it as competitive and as approachable as possible."
Jeffrey Kaplan downplays the importance of game modes in the game. Currently there are three modes in the game points capture and payload (one team escorts and defends a bomb with the other team attacking) and a combination of these two modes. Blizzard have been experimenting with more modes, but found these basic modes are best at bringing forth the heroes and the gameplay variety they bring. They found players would think to much about the specific tactics of winning the particular mode instead of focussing on their hero and his or her abilities.
"The game is all about the heroes. They are at the centre of what Overwatch is about. We're also trying to draw out of our players their inner hero and get them to feel that way. We feel that variety was a huge part of that. Variety and diversity. Not only in gameplay, but also in who do you want to be. Do you want to be the giant ape? Do you want to be the heroic strong woman? Do you want to be the cybernetic monk from the future. We want to give you a lot of these types of options. But really over the top heroic gameplay is what we're trying to do first and foremost with Overwatch."
So far Blizzard have revealed 14 heroes divided into defense, offense, support and tank categories. At PAX East the latest two entries Zarya (tank) and McCree (offense) were added.
"McCree is sort of our gunslinger outlaw," says Kaplan. "He has a cool story where he was originally a bad guy who's robbing trains, stealing ammunition, you know, shutteling guns around the country. He gets busted by Overwatch and now fights for the forces of good. He's a really fun character to play. He's kind of like a mid-range to long-range sniper, but also very effective at short-range with his fanning the hammer of his revolver. He's got a really devastating ultimate ability called Dead Eye where he takes sort of count of everybody on the battlefield, holsters his gun, waits until he sees everybody, whips it out and shots them all."
"Sort of the opposite end of that spectrum is Zarya. She's our first female tank, so we're really excited about that. So far we've got a male, a gorilla and a female, so we feel we've got a good representation there. And Zarya she plays really differently. I think she's a higher skill tank to play than Winston or Reinhart. She has a really interesting resource mechanic where she can put a barrier either on herself or an ally to protect them. As that barrier takes damage it charges up her main weapon and her primary attack so she does more damage. You'll see these really skilled players kind of snowball when they play Zarya in a good way. And last but not least is her ultimate ability which is the Graviton Surge. She can place it anywhere, stick it to the ceiling, stick it to the wall, you name it. And it takes the whole enemy team and attracts them towards it. It combos great with if a team mate of yours is playing Tracer and throws her Time Bomb in there, wipes them all out."
Kaplan then expanded a bit more on the peculiarities of playing as Zarya.
"I was playing her wrong at first," he concedes. "I would put the shield on somebody before they entered combat, hoping they would go into combat and take damage. Watching the really skilled Zarya players what they do is wait until somebody is already engaged in combat and throw it up almost as a trick on the enemies cause they can't stop fire quick enough before Zarya has charged herself up. So there's a lot of skill to the ability."
Kaplan opened up a little on how abilities and synergies are being designed and balanced for the game.
"One of the things that we try to do is make sure that not everybody's ultimate ability just kills everybody on the map. I think that's an instinct when you design ultimate abilities. The name alone tells you 'wow, it should do a lot of damage', but sometimes you can come up with stuff that combos in ways that you might not have thought of if you were just thinking in terms of damage. Widowmaker is a great example. Her ultimate ability grants visin for her entire team to see enemies through walls. Obviously it's super powerful for her as a sniper, but it helps everybody out. Having that awareness of where the enemy is is a huge way to create some awesome combinations."
Over the years Blizzard have had the good fortune of being incredibly successful with basically all of their releases and so they've been able to support them for years and years with patches, content updates and more. It's a strategy that is now an outspoken policy.
"We're dedicated to support all our games at Blizzard at this point as a live service," explains Kaplan. "We think there's no such thing as releasing a game and not thinking about it any more. With Overwatch that's our exact philosophy. Right now the focus is entirely on making a great competitive, yet approachable 6v6 experience in multiplayer. And whatever might come after that we're looking a lot to the community to fan receptive to what they want to see in the game after we get it out there and it's really solid."
If Overwatch is something brand new for Blizzard what carries over from other franchises in terms of universe and design. And what is the relationship between Overwatch and the now cancelled Titan that Kaplan worked on for years.
"There is definitely a lot of Titan influence in Overwatch," explains Kaplan. "We spent a lot of years working on Titan and we thought a lot about that universe as we were working on it. So there are game mechanics. There are technology concepts. There are art concepts that we wanted to carry over from Titan. But at its core Overwatch is a brand new game. When we started the project we completely reset. We completely redid the artstyle. We completely redid the technology of the game. And the whole concept is completely different. Titan was really going to be this big giant MMO and I think as players are realising Overwatch is an epic game at heart, but the scope of it is really razor focused. It's a competitive 6v6 shooter. The game design is drastically different. We tend to take influence from all the previous projects we've worked on so bizarrely there's definitely Titan influences in Overwatch, but there's also a lot of World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, Starcraft influence. One of the games that we look at the most and talk about the most around Blizzard is Hearthstone, believe it or not. We think there's so much magic to the way that the Hearthstone team approach game development that we're really inspired by what they're doing."
"We have a set of design values that all the designers at Blizzard talk about and really hold close to their heart," says Kaplan. "There's a couple that I feel really speaks to Overwatch. One is this idea of what is the fantasy? You know you see that tremendous gorilla over there. You see the cybernetic monk. Like what is the fantasy of playing that character? So we try and deliver on that. There's other things, other values. One of the things we have is called 'make everything overpowered'. And I think you see this in games like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone. You look at some of the cards in Hearthstone, like the first time you look at Kel'Thuzad and go: 'How is this card balanced? How is this card not just going to be the most powerful card in the history of card games?' And as Hearthstone players know there's lots of counters to it, and what not. So we're trying to take all the design knowledge that we've gathered over the years from working on our previous games and bring the Blizzard version of that to the shooting genre.
Even if Overwatch looked extremely polished and played excellently at PAX East it is currently scheduled to enter the beta phase next autumn.
"We feel like, as Blizzard as a company, we have a commitment to quality and we have a promise we made to our players that a game experience is going to be really before we release it," explains Kaplan. So as much as we know there's a lot of anticipation for Overwatch and we want to get it into everybody's hands as quickly as possible we also want to make sure we do a good job and get it right."
For more on Overwatch please have a look at our BlizzCon impressions of the game.