DICE Summit 2017: Jeff Kaplan Overwatch Opening Keynote

Jeff Kaplan discusses the creation of Blizzard’s first IP in over 17 years with Overwatch as the opening keynote for the DICE Summit 2017 (Feb 22 at 1PM EST / 10AM PST). We will have a transcript later during the week (probably Friday), and a replay video (later today) in case you missed the live keynote.

** IF you aren’t able to see the embeded player’s interface, try Chrome instead of Firefox. Jeff Kaplan starts at 00:07:16. Read the full transcript below.

Overwatch: How Blizzard Created a Hopeful Vision of the Future

When Overwatch was announced, it was Blizzard’s first new intellectual property in over 17 years. The team was faced with the daunting task of creating a universe that could stand the test of time along with Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft. Blizzard also decided to explore a new world for the first time – Planet Earth – and what seemed like great challenges at first, turned into great opportunities.

Jeff Kaplan
Game Director and Vice President
Blizzard Entertainment

 

Transcript

Kaplan: What’s up everyone, how you doing, I am glad I could be here to host your hangover. I want to say I am extremely humbled to be in front of so many of you. You guys have created experiences that have made me so happy as a gamer. So on behalf of all gamers out there, and myself: thank you for what you guys have done.

I also want to give a shout out to my team. It is always a little awkward at Blizzard because everything we do is a team effort. So whenever we put one of us forward, I like to remind everybody that everything we do at Blizzard is a team effort, and I think a lot of you guys who work on team-based games understand how important the team is. So to my team I am honored to be speaking on your behalf. Hopefully I don’t screw it up.

So world building is the theme of this year’s D.I.C.E. Summit, and it is one of my favorite things about video games. It is probably the area that I feel most comfortable in, so it is very exciting to have to talk about world building as it relates to Overwatch.

So what I want to do is start with a concept from one of the movies that we have made called Recall, and in this movie… it features a doctor named Harold Winston who has a baby gorilla on the moon, and at one point the baby gorilla had never seen anything beyond just boring moonscape his whole life, and he has this moment where he shows baby Winston what planet Earth looks like, and he says: Never accept the world as it appears to be, but dare to see it for what it could be; and I feel like this more than anything else really sums up the world building philosophy on Overwatch, and I’m going to come back to this later on.

 

So I just wanted to share this with you and remind you of it. So the story actually begins with the project before Overwatch, which was a project called Titan. So Titan was to be a successor MMO to World of Warcraft.

 

It is something that we began development on in 2007, and for various reasons we ran into a lot of trouble on the project; and ultimately in May of 2013 we had to put an end to the project, which was very rough because at that time the team had grown to be about a 140 developers, and we were really emotionally invested in what we were trying to do with the game.

So as May of 2013 rolled around we got the team in the room, a 140 people, 80 of us were told that we would be permanently relocated to other teams within Blizzard. We would go on to work on Diablo or Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, StarCraft II, etcetera; but another 20 of the developers would be long-term loans on those projects; and what long-term to us means is anywhere from six months to two years.

So you weren’t going to come back to the Titan team any time soon. What was left was a group of about 40 developers who were given the task of come up with a new idea for a Blizzard game in six weeks, and if we came up with a concept that was compelling enough, we would move forward and we would make that one of our next projects. If we didn’t come up with something that was super compelling, we too would be redistributed to the other teams at Blizzard.

Needless to say, it was a very daunting, almost devastating sort of mindset that the team was in because we were unsure of what our future was going to be, and it was during this time that Overwatch was born.

Now I have been at Blizzard for almost 15 years, and I always thought in the early years of working at Blizzard that one of the dreams that I had as a Blizzard developer was having the opportunity come up with a new Blizzard game. It seemed like it would be the most fun sort of inspiring activity, but fast forward to May of 2013, we were going through that process in a period of sort of despair.

There wasn’t a lot of hope on the team. We were very nervous about what our future was. So we started off with an ideation process, and we came up… we decided to sort of split our six weeks up into these two week blocks. So we spent two weeks on an MMO that was in another Blizzard universe (that we haven’t made an MMO in… lot of choices for you to figure out which it was); and then we also spent another two weeks on a brand-new MMO that took place in a completely new intellectual property; and during this time almost on the side, we started cooking up this idea that became Overwatch; and where the idea came from was we had an amazing artist by the name of Arnold Tsang who was drawing these fantastic character designs, he had done many of them back on Project Titan, and we were sort of looking at his work, and then at the same time as we were doing these MMO pitch ideas we had a class designer by the name of Jeff Goodman (who had also been an encounter designer).

He did all the big raid bosses on World of Warcraft, and he had all these amazing class designs, and we started to think about what if we took Arnold and Jeff’s strengths, and put them together; and that really led to the project that was to become Overwatch.

So this was an early rendition that Arnold did of what the Overwatch lineup might be, and some of these characters were actually taken from the project before, which was Project Titan; and there was a lot of inspiration that we had taken from Titan.

 

In particular, Titan was a game that wanted to take place on planet Earth, and we had this sort of concept of the future worth fighting for that was coined on Titan, but we were never able to figure it out and make it work.

Fast forward to Overwatch, and we were starting to figure it out more. We had a really talented artist by the name of Ben Tsang who… this was in… I think June of 2013, where he created this concept picture.

 

We started talking about how we wanted Overwatch to play, and how we wanted Overwatch to feel, and Ben made this image that I think really holds up today for those of you who have seen Overwatch and knows what the game looks like. This was almost like a guiding light image for us about the game that we wanted to create, and I need to say this for our sub-reddit so it doesn’t implode: No. The hero in the center is not the hero who you think it is. Thank you for putting up with that.

So as you guys know, Blizzard has been fortunate enough to work in some very exciting IP spaces, and world building is something that we really enjoy doing. It is one of our favorite things. We have been fortunate enough to explore high-fantasy in the Warcraft universe. We have been lucky enough to go to high-science-fiction in StarCraft, and then also gothic-fantasy in Diablo; and I think any Blizzard developer feels very comfortable in these spaces.

If you are going to go up to a Blizzard developer and say: Hey, we need an idea for a Diablo dungeon, or we need an idea for a StarCraft planet, or a Warcraft zone. This is our natural comfort space, but with Overwatch (like with Project Titan) we wanted to push ourselves into a new frontier that we hadn’t explored; and at Blizzard, that challenging frontier happens to be Planet Earth, and it was really daunting to us for a while on Titan we really struggled.

 

Our developers would often ask the question: what’s cool about Planet Earth? We love these fantasy universes that we explore, we love these science fiction universes that we explore, but what is so interesting about Planet Earth to us that we can make a Blizzard game that takes place there?

 

So our first step was to sort of study you know how were other games approaching planet Earth, or what was really going on in gaming around planet Earth; and we found, I mean there is a lot going on, and when you put things like sports games to the side for a second and look at the universe building that was happening there, there were some incredible stuff.

So you know, starting off an obvious one is post-apocalyptic, and some of the most beautiful games of our era were post-apocalyptic. I look at a game like Last of Us, which I think we can all agree on is pretty much a masterpiece, or Fallout 4.

 

So some incredible work has being done in this space and it didn’t feel like there was a lot of breathing room for us to make a new statement. It felt like a very daunting place for us to go. Equally daunting to us, because some incredible games were being built in the space was realism. I think I have lost more hours of my life to the Battlefield and Call of Duty series than anyone.

 

I have frequently told the story about how World of Warcraft production literally shut down for a week when the Battlefield 1942 Wake Island demo came out. I’m not sure how many of you remember that, but we just stopped working and pretty much bombed each other for a week, and we actually… it was one of those moments where you get the team talking to like: Okay, that’s enough Battlefield guys. It is time to get back to making World of Warcraft.

So we decided like with Titan, we wanted to go back, we wanted to finish the challenge, and finish with this future world worth fighting for. We weren’t seeing a lot of games exploring the space of what is near future Earth, but in a sort of positive hopeful way; and this is the place where we wanted to be and we wanted to explore.

 

So as we embarked on this journey to world build what was to become the Overwatch version of Earth, we actually started with World of Warcraft, and we look back on some of our basic tenets of world building from World of Warcraft; and the pictures that I have chosen to show behind me are very deliberate. It is the human starting area of World of Warcraft (for those of you not familiar with it), and it encompasses Elwynn Forest, Red Ridge, Duskwood, and Westfall; and these areas are unique because they each have their own special story, but the variation is what was important to us, the very deliberately our art director on Overwatch who happened to be the art director on Original World of Warcraft at the time always talks about color theory of location, and these areas in WOW are very deliberately green, red, yellow, and blue. It has an immediate emotional impact on players.

 

For those of you who played World of Warcraft, I always use the example of that moment when you wander from Elwynn Forest, and you cross the river into Duskwood, you immediately have an emotional change that happens, and you know something different is happening, and we really want to take this concept of variation and bring it into this new world we are building for Overwatch.

The other lesson that we learned from World of Warcraft is what I like to refer to as the Burning Crusade lesson. So Burning Crusade introduced a new planet to World of Warcraft, one called Outland.

It was very familiar to players of Warcraft II. They had seen it before, and it was familiar to Warcraft III players, but Burning Crusade was very interesting to us from a developer standpoint. I think a lot of game developers, and a lot of you in this room, we have a hyper-sensitive geek radar, and what I mean by that is we are extremely attracted to things that are different and sort of challenging; more so I think than your average person.

So we have the concept art that I’m showing behind is four zones like: Hellfire Peninsula, Netherstorm, Shadowmoon Valley, and Blade’s Edge Mountains; and immediately as game developers we responded to these areas like: these are the coolest places ever, I can’t wait to build them, I can’t wait to go there as a player.

 

Well, what we found out over time is that environments like this can actually be very oppressive and fatiguing to players, and in a game where you hope that players spend hundreds if not thousands of hours, you kind of need a visual and a tonal break from the oppressiveness every so often.

So in Burning Crusade we start to see players hang out more and more in Nagrand, or in Terokkar Forest, or even back to starting areas like Stormwind in the old world, because they found places like Netherstorm and Shadowmoon Valley, so utterly oppressive. So this was a lesson we immediately thought of with Overwatch.

Our goal was to make the game very approachable. We wanted it to feel as inclusive as possible. We wanted as many gamers in the world to feel like Overwatch was a place that they were welcome. So when it came to world building in Overwatch we started to ask the question: Okay, we are making this game that takes place on planet Earth. Where would you want to spend time on planet Earth? What’s cool and fun? So what are some vacation spots?

So Santorini (Greece) which is a place on the left, someplace I have always wanted to go in my life, literally dreamed as a fantasy for me, like wow he’d be so great to go there, looks so beautiful, I have seen so many pictures, and on the right is our map called Ilios — which is our homage to Santorini (Greece).

 

So we start really with this concept of (you know) visit places that people have always wanted to go to and might not ever have the opportunity to get to in their lifetime. If they are going to spend hundreds of hundreds, or thousands of hours there make it somewhere you want to be, not somewhere you are oppressed by.

We also want it to be hopeful. I have talked about how a bright hopeful vision of planet Earth was what we were sort of after (so my slide has not advanced correctly so we are having a technical moment here). So Iraq was another place we wanted to go to. Now if you look at how Iraq has been portrayed in video games for the past 10 years, I would describe it as usually war-torn. A place of conflict. A place of little hope, but Overwatch takes place 60 years in the future, and we were asking ourselves on the Overwatch team, could we imagine a better future for Iraq? Is it really necessary to show dusty streets, or bombed-out buildings anymore? Haven’t we seen enough of that not only in video games, but in the world?

 

So can we please imagine a better future for Iraq? So the Overwatch vision of Iraq is that one of the most technologically-advanced cities in the world exists in Iraq, and it was built by a group of scientists and researchers hoping to make an even better future for people on planet Earth. So that was our vision of it; and where all of this is going sort of that old cliche that fantasy is greater than reality, and there’s nothing new here, it is all about tapping into the imagination of your players, and your players can imagine things far greater than we can build them; and we really wanted to run with this, this kind of idea that fantasy is greater than reality. And I have a couple stories that I think some of the stuff better than any others. So one is the story of Hollywood, which is one of the locations in Overwatch.

 

Now I grew up in Southern California, was in college, I interned for four years at Universal Pictures, and when I was a teenager I used to hang out on Melrose Boulevard going into the vinyl record stores and trying to buy imports. But so I spent a lot of time in Hollywood growing up, and when it came time to make a map in Overwatch that took place in the U.S., myself and Chris Metzen (he is the creative director) really wanted to do something in Hollywood, we thought it was one of the strong fantasies of people who weren’t from California, who had never been there, probably would like to spend some time in Hollywood; and we are very fortunate at Blizzard to have an amazingly talented environmental art team; but our environmental art team is comprised of a lot of foreign folks, so we have people from Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Brazil, so the list goes on, and none of them are from southern California.

 

So they start building this Hollywood map, and it is looking amazing, like they build the streets of Hollywood and we are just blown away at like what their vision was for that map; but when it came to work on the backlot portion of the map, they didn’t really know what a Hollywood backlot was. So we sent them up on a day trip to one of the studios to check out the backlot, and idea of what sound stages look like — that sort of thing; and it was fantastic, they got a ton of great reference, but there is this unfortunate moment where they drove through Hollywood on the way home and they get back to the studio, and they start redoing the streets of Hollywood, and their scenes is a totally different concept, and they are like: we got it all wrong, it doesn’t look anything like what we were building, and we were panicked because honestly it looked kind of shitty — you know, the new version it looked like Hollywood.

And we went back to them and we said like no I would rather have the Hollywood as it appears in the mind of the guy from Belgium or Sweden than the Hollywood that exists in the real world. We are not after realism. For those of you who know we have a map that takes place in London and we have an EMP garage under Big Ben, which makes no sense whatsoever. So it is not about realism, it is about that fantasy.

Similar story with the Mexican map that we built, which is called DORADO. So we knew for a lot of reasons Dorado was an important story location in Overwatch. We had a hero coming up that was from Mexico, we had a movie that we were making called Hero that takes place in Mexico, and there was a lot of storytelling we wanted to do in this area.

 

So myself and the assistant game director Aaron Keller were looking at locations in Mexico to build, and we started with Mexico City; but it just didn’t work for us. Mexico City is a very contemporary urban (sort of modern), what you would expect it to be the type of city, and the map we needed to build had to be coastal for gameplay reasons.

We needed the edge of the map to be open. So we wanted a coastal town. It had to be hilly, and we wanted there to be a lot of color in the map. We really wanted there to be color, but we are kind of ignorant about the area, besides like you know Mexico City, we live in Southern California, so we are familiar with Tijuana and Ensenada, but none of them were really hitting what we wanted.

So being the utmost top researchers in the industry, we went to Google Images (laugh), and we typed in. This is literally like you can type this in right now on your phone if you want, colorful Mexican town is what we typed in, and we weren’t even looking at the picture, we just looked at the thumbnail pictures; and we are like: This is it! This is perfect. It is so awesome.

 

This is exactly the version of Mexico that we wanted to build, and like I said we hadn’t even blown up the picture, but the one that we talked about the most that really fit the gray box block out of the map that we had was this one right here which is just gorgeous. This like coastal seaside town.

 

After we had completed the map, I think it was about two months after, someone came up to us and said: Why are you calling, why did you use Manarola (Italy) as your reference for your Mexico map?; and I think this kind of is very exemplary of the idea that Overwatch is not about the reality of what the planet is, Overwatch is much more about what we hope the world would sort of be; and I promise the citizens of Mexico when we make the Italy map, we will only use reference of Mexico for that.

 

So Chris Metzen who is our creative director, he has since retired, and I miss him dearly, I hope he comes back to us, has a quote that I just love which is that Blizzard is a hero factory, and he sort of means two things by this: one, if we had aligned ourselves in terms of the type of heroes we create they are lawful good paladins.

 

If you look at Uther, if you look at Thrall, if you look at Raynor, they are all kind of, they fit a type; but also that we try to make our players walk away from our games feeling like the hero; and Overwatch more than the environment that we have built, Overwatch is more about the heroes than anything else; and I think it is interesting to talk about how heroes are a part of the world building process. It is not just about these environments that you are building.

 

So approachability is one of the top things we care about. We want as many people to feel included and welcomed in Overwatch as possible. So for that reason, each of the heroes has to have extremely distinct gameplay mechanics, and also extremely varying skill levels required to be good at those heroes. We want some heroes to be very approachable, very easy for players to pick up and play, and other heroes have an extremely high skill cap because we care very much about hardcore skilled players as well. So there is a great variety there.

The other sort of obvious thing is the visual design. It starts with the character silhouette and how the character gets modeled, but also includes how the character gets animated and posed. We wanted our characters to be very visually different, and you could recognize them from anywhere on the battlefield; but even more than sort of the gameplay and art mechanics behind how these heroes work, we wanted there to be heroes that felt approachable to each person.

 

We all like different things, we are all attracted to different things. That is one of the beautiful things about humanity, and making a game on planet Earth is how awesome the differences are. So we started getting into the backstories of all these heroes, and we found it to be really really fun just sort of explore different countries, and how different people from different countries might think about one another, and how they are all going to interact, and it became really fun; and what is weird to us is that Overwatch started to spark lots of discussions about diversity.

 

It was a very hot topic during the development of Overwatch, I think it is still a very important topic in today’s gaming world, and so there was a lot of discussion about diversity and we have been both praised and criticized for some of our decisions when it comes to diversity; and I think it is really interesting that people think that diversity was the goal of the Overwatch team when it was not.

What we cared about was creating a game, and a game universe, and a world where everybody felt welcome; and really what the goal was was inclusivity and open-mindedness. We wanted there to be this feeling, and I have talked to a lot of people about this, and I think they have agreed with it that when I say like you might be from somewhere that we haven’t represented yet in Overwatch, but you could imagine there being an Overwatch hero, or an Overwatch map from your area; and it seems totally plausible, like it seems like at any time I could be represented in the game, as a sort of this open-mindedness and inclusivity that were the goal of Overwatch. I think diversity is a beautiful end result that you get when you embrace inclusivity and open-mindedness.

 

Now the subject of stereotypes comes up frequently, if you are making, we found it like super challenging to make a game on planet Earth, Azeroth, and Sanctuary; and the StarCraft universe are far safer; but as soon as you say somebody is from a location, I probably pissed somebody off from Hollywood today. But as soon as you say somebody is from a location, everybody gets very sensitive. So we have tried to in many ways challenge a lot of stereotypes.

 

So I am not going to tell the story of each of the heroes that I have put up on the screen behind me, but in some way each of them challenges the stereotype. Ana (on the far left) is particularly interesting to me because she is a sniper, she is an older woman who is a mother, and has a very complicated story with her daughter about whether or not she did the right thing by the way of her daughter.

So as you can see, there is not a lot of games featuring older Egyptian mothers who happen to be snipers. We went out of our way to sort of challenge this notion. In December, we wanted to kind of put a thank you out to our community, so we made a comic book written by Michael Chu (our lead writer) that was called Reflections, and we wanted to feature all of our heroes in their home life, we show them in these adventurous movies all the time, and do all these cool things and again I want to show them in their home life; and Reflections happened to reveal that Tracer had a girlfriend at home. Not a boyfriend, like some people expected, and this is all part of what we on the Overwatch team just think of as normal things aren’t normal, and it is important to show normal things as normal, so they become more normal; and a lot of people had expected other characters to maybe be representative of the LGBT community, and maybe it wasn’t Tracer; and to us what was important about Tracer was that she was this badass time traveling hero first and foremost.

 

I was preparing for this talk and I took a moment to study some of the shooters over the past 10 years, and as I was looking into these games (and these are some of my favorite games of all time), I played more shooters, I dare say than anybody; and I have poured more hours into these games than I’d like anybody to really be aware of; and I have had so much fun, but I started to notice a trend of like as I put the box covers together of these games, and the trend seems to be grizzled soldier dude.

 

And it made me think about just how different Overwatch was in so many ways that… when I look back on the past 10 years of great shooters, and I’m not trying to say that Overwatch is a great shooter, but we aspire to be, it is very different to have an LGBT character on the cover and also one who’s a female. So it is something that we are pretty proud of.

 

Now don’t think for a second that we don’t also embrace stereotypes. So I have never had an American come up to me and complain about the horrible representation of Americans in video games. it is actually, it is more sad that I think a lot of us Americans see ourselves like this guy back here; but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

Really what was happening through this whole process is that the world that we were building, and the heroes that we were creating no longer belonged to us. So the fans of Overwatch through fan fiction, through cosplay, through the most amazing fan art that I have ever seen certainly take over the world building and the intellectual property for us.

 

You can ask the Overwatch fans who is dating who in the Overwatch line up, and it is actually kind of amazing. They have stories for all the heroes, and what their love lives are, and we love it. We think it is the best thing ever that it belongs to them, and we now think of ourselves — Blizzard and the Overwatch team, we are just the custodians of the universe. wWe are taking care of it for what our community is going to create moving forward, and the end of January we saw something very special happen.

There was an international march for Women’s Rights that took place all over the world, and the thing that really caught our eye was that in Seoul (Korea) during the march, somebody was flying this flag that had the symbol for D.va (who is our character from Korea) who in some way challenges stereotypes, and in other ways embraces them; but we saw this flag flying for D.va, and we looked into it more and there was this national foundation for D.va which was a feminist foundation for Women’s Rights, and what really started to fascinate me when I looked more into this, I started to read their chart, and I don’t expect you guys to be able to read any of this; but it is a last sentence there. So we decided to opt for feminism under her emblem (they are talking about D.va) so that in 2060 someone like D.va could actually exist; which I thought was just amazing, and it sort of came back to that original point that I was trying to make of never accept the world for as it appears to be, but dare to see it for what it could be; and that was exactly what was happening in Korea.

 

In no way do we aspire to be a political game, we have no political motivations whatsoever, but it is fascinating to see that the values of the Overwatch team are now being embraced and owned by the community in their own sort of positive way; and I wanted to end with my team because this is my team today, and it is obviously bigger than the 40 people that we started with, and a lot of that is because we have had a decent launch, and luckily we didn’t get dispersed to the winds.

 

We still exist, but I talk a lot about Overwatch and sort of the people that it is touched, and the type of world that we tried to build; but I want to remind people that (and I hate to use the word, because it sounds negative)… but we started building Overwatch from almost a selfish place, and what I mean by that is you had a team that was faced with little hope and a lot of despair, and we felt like there was a failure. It was kind of a dark situation that we were in, and to almost pull ourselves out of that dark situation, we imagined a bright and hopeful world, and it all became true. It was sort of a fairy tale ending. I don’t want for a second to discount the importance of realism in video games. I think it is extremely important for us as an industry to keep pursuing realism, because we need to show people what the world is like.

Likewise, I hope there continues to be an awesome pursuit of post-apocalyptic games, because it is very important for us to imagine what could end up being our future if we are not careful; but I hope in some ways that the Overwatch experience of the Overwatch team stands to show that there is room for positivity and inclusiveness in our industry as well.

Thank you guys very much, hope you enjoy the summit.

Tomas Hernandez is owner of Blizzplanet.com since 2003. I post news about World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Hearthstone, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard Careers, and the Warcraft film.

Blizzplanet is a leading fansite covering news about upcoming Blizzard Entertainment licensed products. I also post previews and reviews. I have interviewed book writers and Blizzard game developers.

I was previously an employee of the OGaming Network (2003), and IncGamers (2008-2010). I was a guest newsposter for GosuGamers (World of Warcraft) a few years ago and for Diablofans.com (formerly Diablo3.com)

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