Overwatch 2 at Blizzcon 2021: The Big Jeff Kaplan Interview
Despite today’s Overwatch 2 Behind-the-Scenes panel revealing a glut of new details about the game, there’s still a lot to discuss about Blizzard’s shooter sequel. Thankfully, we managed to speak to exactly the right person about that – game director Jeff Kaplan.
We discussed the game’s lack of a release date, how connected it will be to the original Overwatch, the frustration of being seen not to be making a “real” sequel, the possibility of cross-play, and dived into lots of the panel’s stranger new details – among many more topics.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
IGN: I really enjoyed the presentation – there’s a lot more new detail about the game in there than I went in expecting. A lot to dig into.
Jeff Kaplan: I’m glad to hear that. We’re really hoping the players just see a lot of stuff – and I think there’s a lot of Easter egg stuff in there too. Not even deliberate, just stuff we overlooked and, well, we probably revealed something by mistake because there’s a lot of content in there.
IGN: I’m going to start with the very obvious question that I feel we should just get out of the way. Obviously we didn’t get a release date in the presentation – is the idea with Overwatch 2 at the moment that it’s a “ready when it’s done” situation? You talk a lot about unfinished experiments – because of those, is there just no point in putting a timescale on it?
Jeff Kaplan: Yeah. I think in general, that’s how we usually operate at Blizzard. Not always – there have been cases where we’ve announced a date and then had to push it – but generally we don’t want people getting too excited about a date unless we feel really confident. And the number one thing that we care about is the quality of the game. It’s one of the Blizzard values. Have you been out to the Blizzard campus?
IGN: I haven’t actually.
Jeff Kaplan: Well, I haven’t been there in a year, I don’t even know if it’s still there [laughs]. But we used to have a statue with the Orc and the company values around it. And one of those values is, ‘Commit to Quality’. Making sure the game is right is the most important thing to us at this time. So that’s what we’re really focused on: delivering on the expectations of what a sequel are. I think that’s core to us.
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IGN: I’m sure this comes without a timescale as well, but is there a plan – as with the original Overwatch – to have an open or closed beta phase before we get to the eventual Overwatch 2? Or is this more of an “it’s going to be ready when it’s ready” situation?
Jeff Kaplan: No, I think at this point, we’re not going to be able to pull an Apex Legends on the world and just announce its release [laughs]. I think this is the exact opposite strategy, for whatever it’s worth – announce it super-early. We’ll be pretty transparent. We’ve already been having internal milestones, those have been extended play tests that have involved people outside of just our team playing the game. Then we’ll probably move into some sort of alpha internally for a while. That’ll probably be more under wraps, there won’t be a lot publicly being talked about.
And then it’s very likely we will move into a closed beta that will be more in the public eye at that point. And it’s still not been determined if we are actually doing an open beta or not – I have a hard time imagining in the era that we live in, there not being some sort of open beta happening at some point, but nothing’s committed to yet.
IGN: One thing I would love to talk about is just the sheer scale of this presentation. You cover so many different areas – is this turning into more of a sequel than you expected it to be going in?
Jeff Kaplan: No, I think it’s kind of the opposite. I think in a lot of ways we didn’t communicate it at BlizzCon 2019 accurately. We tried to. We tried to tell people this is a true sequel. This isn’t DLC, this isn’t just something that should be a patch. But obviously we didn’t do that correctly because people just sort of created their own dialogue around what the game was. This was always the vision of the game. This has always been what we’ve had our eyes set on.
I’m somebody, if you look back on my career personally, I’ve made expansions, I’ve made patch updates. I have a very clear picture in my mind of what the difference between an expansion and a patch is versus a sequel. And our goal was always to make a sequel.
IGN: I guess that perception comes down partly to the fact that there is a connection with the original Overwatch here. It wasn’t mentioned too much in this panel, but I assume that connection is still the plan for PvP – Overwatch and Overwatch 2 will still be connected?
Jeff Kaplan: We feel like it’s super important to keep the community together. That’s one of our biggest goals. It’s so odd to me because if we were to rewind to BlizzCon 2019 and I were to just say, “Hey, we’re making Overwatch 2, it’s a sequel. It’s going to have all of this amazing PvE content, story missions, hero missions, all-new PvP maps. We’re going to add new heroes. We’re going to change how a bunch of PvP works. See you later, Overwatch 1 people, hope you buy Overwatch 2!” The weirdest part is everybody would just go, “Oh, they’re making a sequel.”
But the second you go, “Let’s try to be a little bit cooler about what we do with the community,” we actually get destroyed by that very community. It’s something I hope in some ways influences people to think about how they want to be treated as a community. Maybe there are some ways that we can do things that are better, cooler, both from the game company standpoint, but also from the community standpoint. Because the reaction we got was very much like, “No, treat us like we’ve always been treated before.” And it’s like, well, that’s what this behavior is going to lead to if we’re not careful.
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IGN: With that in mind then, are you able to give a sense of what the impact of the changes that you’re showing – particularly to PvP in Overwatch 2 – will be on Overwatch 1? Because I think that’s where people have a disconnect. When you’re talking about things like the weapon sound pass or animation changes, where does the buck stop for where Overwatch 1 can improve versus where Overwatch 2 will?
Jeff Kaplan: I think there are two types of changes to think about. One are purely technical changes, advancements in technology – if we update the system specs, the updated engine, those types of things will enable us to do [things] that we can’t do currently. That’s one set of things. The second set of things is from a purely psychological standpoint: a community’s ability to accept and adapt to changes. What can we get away with in a patch in Overwatch 1? When does the community accept a massive change that can only come with a sequel? Both of those things are in consideration. Our general thought and philosophy is we shouldn’t just arbitrarily hold things for Overwatch 2 that would benefit Overwatch. We should try to get those out to our community as soon as possible.
And you see that in content balance changes we’re doing or just general changes to the game. Recently we added Priority Pass to improve queue times. It’d be easy to make an argument like, “Oh, we should just hold on to that. And bolster the perception of value in Overwatch 2 for stuff like that.” But we feel like, “No, this is something that, there’s no reason for it to wait. Let’s just get it to our community as soon as possible.”
So there are certain things that are tied to Overwatch 2 either thematically, psychologically because of player change, technically because of engine improvements. And then there are other things that we just think we should get to the Overwatch 1 community. And we really take all of them on a case-by-case basis. It’s a constant discussion of what should go in what branch and let’s make sure that we’re serving the players as much as possible.
IGN: Obviously there are changes that are coming to Overwatch 1 that will be a part of Overwatch 2. Is the plan still for those those PvP audiences to be able to play with each other, despite the fact that there may be differences between those two games?
Jeff Kaplan: Yes. The plan is to really have the two PvP audiences converge, or I guess a better way to say it is that there would be one PvP audience – they’re just enjoying the PVP experience.
IGN: But will those still be within single console families, or is there any plan for cross-platform play? Could an Overwatch 2 PvP player on PS5 play with an Xbox One Overwatch 1 PvP player? Is there any movement on that?
Jeff Kaplan: We are extremely supportive and excited about the concept of cross play. We love it in other games. In general, our thought is any system the game can adequately run on, and any way that people can play with their friends – even just for reasons of improving the matchmaking experience – we’re very excited about those ideas. We don’t have anything officially to announce or talk in detail about today, but in general the team stance is that cross play is exciting. We are interested in exploring it and if we can overcome the hurdles, we would love to bring a feature like that to our players someday.
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IGN: In terms of the stuff that’s just going to be an Overwatch 2, I don’t think I’d quite grasped how expansive you’re aiming to make the Hero Missions mode. I think it’s [assistant game director] Aaron Keller in the video that says he wants there to be hundreds of missions, and for people to come back night after night to play them. Are you approaching this with a Daily Challenge approach? Is that how you’re going to deliver those variations?
Jeff Kaplan: So here’s an interesting way to think about it. As we know, PvP is highly replayable. We have a huge audience today – we’re sitting in 2021 for a game we launched in 2016 with millions of people playing it, which is awesome. So we know the replayability is high there. We want to make the story missions, like the campaign, have an element of replayability to those – but we’re not under the illusion that a linear campaign is going to be highly replayable. And that’s what we showed at BlizzCon 2019 – that Rio mission – and a lot of people are like, “Oh, I don’t see how I’m going to play that for thousands of hours.” And we’re like, “Yeah, I don’t think you are going to play that for thousands…” That’s not the goal.
But we are building Hero Missions on the PvE side of the game, specifically targeted at replayability. And we’re hoping to achieve that through four main axes. The first is, unlike in the story missions, in the Hero Missions you can play whatever heroes you want. In a story mission it doesn’t make sense that Widowmaker and Tracer are together because they’re enemies and they shouldn’t be fighting side-by-side… unless we constructed some bizarre story where that happens. Which might happen now [laughs]. But you can play whatever heroes you want. So as you know from PvP, the hero comps changing really changes the dynamic nature of the game and adds replayability.
The second factor is that you’re going to be fighting different enemy types in Hero Missions. So sometimes it’s going to be against Null Sector, sometimes it’s going to be against Talon, and then there might be other new enemy types that we haven’t announced yet that you would be fighting against as well. So adding variety to the enemies and having them fight and be challenges in different ways is exciting to us.
The third axis is the locations. The plan is, at this point, we have a really robust map catalog from Overwatch 1, and we have maps from Overwatch 2. That’s just talking about the PvP maps, but we’ll also have all of the PvE experiences we’re creating. So you’re going to have this variety of locations to fight in, which is going to add a dynamic nature.
And then the fourth axis is the different objective types – and you see some of these in the BlizzConline video. Sometimes you’re doing things more defensive in nature – protect the satellite uplink dish, for example. Sometimes you’re doing things more aggressive in nature. You know, “There’s a poison gas cloud coming our way. We’ve got to get out, get to extraction.” We’re hoping to come up with as many objectives as possible.
And then we’re hoping these four things all combined together are then fueled by the progression system. That’s going to have things like leveling heroes up – just changing their base stats alone is interesting. Unlocking those talent points. And then there are other elements of the progression system that we haven’t even announced yet or talked about yet. It’s something we have a lot of experience with at Blizzard. If you think about a game like Diablo or World of Warcraft, in some ways, those games are almost driven mostly by the progression systems in the game, even more than just the core combat. What’s exciting about Overwatch is it has really dynamic, fun, core combat. Now being fueled by this hero mission system and the progression system, we think it’s going to be pretty deep and rich by the time we’re done with it.
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IGN: That really was the bit that sparked my imagination as I watched – that tinkering element is super-exciting to me. We see a kind of a variety of different of effects that we can add, including seeing Mercy being able to do an area of effect resurrection [an ability removed from the original game in 2017] – are we going to see a lot of original or lost abilities coming back in the PvE progression system?
Jeff Kaplan: Absolutely. And the way that I like to think about it is there are some things that are just horribly broken in PvP, and feel terrible in PvP. Like, when you were on the enemy team and Mercy resurrected all five players after you had killed them all, it felt really terrible and that’s why we had to change it. But the beautiful part is Null Sector and Talon, don’t go to Reddit and complain when Mercy has five-man res [laughs]. So we can put it in PvE and have it feel pretty good.
There’s other things like crowd control abilities – crowd control abilities when you’re the one doing them, feel fantastic. It feels powerful, it feels game-changing. When it’s being used against you, it feels terrible. So in PvP, you’ve noticed over the past year, we’ve been toning crowd control down in Overwatch 1 just to make the game feel better. But we can do things- like, it’s shown in the BlizzCon video, “Hey, do you want to change Reinhardt’s Firestrike into Froststrike?” And now it’s freezing enemies. One of Reinhardt’s other new talents is he can pin more than one enemy. And again, that’s something that would feel terrible on an enemy team in PvP but it feels great and PvE.
So we can suddenly get away from with things, you know? I don’t know if we have any that are specifically this, but I use it as an example with our team all the time, like, “We can do a ten-second stun in PvE if we want. The robots, aren’t going to complain that we do that.” So it’s been so much fun. I think Geoff Goodman – he’s our lead hero designer – he has some quote, that we get to play Frankenstein and mad scientist. Basically all the things that we always wanted to do. So the creativity has just been through the ceiling.
IGN: It feels that it sort of unlocks a whole different, for want of a better term, it kind of unlocks a different talent tree for the developers as well, you know? There’s a whole set of other things to work through there.
Jeff Kaplan: Absolutely. Absolutely.
IGN: Do you have any favourite PvE builds? We see one in the video where Soldier: 76 is able to walk with his area of effect healing, that also boops people–
Jeff Kaplan: We already nerfed that [laughs]. We already got rid of that. What’s funny is people are like, “Should we show that? Because we got rid of that. That turned out to be really terrible.” And we’re like, “Yeah, we should just show work-in-progress.”
Builds that I love? I have many – I am not normally a Junkrat player but we were doing a Junkrat playtest where we were testing some of our progression systems, and I was asked to check out the Junkrat trees. In one of his trees, the end talent in the tree is that you can dual-wield grenade launchers. And I’m like, “How can that even be balanced and not be super-broken?” And I remember I actually ended up Shadowplaying a bunch of the gameplay because I was laughing so hard, and my team was laughing so hard, and having so much fun. To the hero designers’ credit – it was Geoff Goodman and a gentleman by the name of Brandon Brennan who made that talent – it was balanced, it was fun, it was super cool.
The Reinhardt builds are fascinating. We keep doing these Reinhardt playtests because – not that you have to go to these extremes, but I think a lot of us end up going to these extremes – there’s what I’ll just call the Reinhardt wrecking ball build, where you basically say to your team, “I hope you never want to see the shield again because you’re not going to see it when I’m playing this build.” And it’s all about aggression, and the hammer, and moving forward. And then on the exact opposite side of that, there’s the Reinhardt build where basically the shield is all of the power. Up to and including you can make the shield bigger. It’s just awesome. And so there’s these two different builds. One is like, “You’re never going to see the shield.” And the other is, “Expect to see nothing but the shield.” It really lets player creativity and player playstyle preference dictate how they want to play the hero, which is pretty fun in my opinion.
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IGN: Obviously Reinhardt is a fairly major point made throughout the video, right down to you tinkering with the existing PvP version of Reinhardt. Has that expanded creativity from the design team built into those experiments in some way? Have you unshackled yourself from how you were forced to think about PvP before?
Jeff Kaplan: We have a lot more tools in our toolkit, which is cool. Some of that is on the creativity ideation side, but a lot of it is also on the technical and art side as well. It’s easier to pivot on these heroes when you have a bunch of animations, visual effects, great gameplay code that enables you to make these abilities. We’re unlocked a little bit.
The Reinhardt PvP changes, those were coming from more of a place of just watching and listening to player feedback and also watching what people like and don’t like about the tank role. One of the things that’s on the table – I don’t know if we’ll actually do this or not – but we’ve even thought about just renaming the role in Overwatch 2 to ‘Brawler’ instead of ‘Tank’, and just reset expectations. Not only of you as the tank player, but also of your team for what you want out of this guy.
Right now, it’s not uncommon in a game of Overwatch 1 to log in and have somebody just say like, “We need a shield, you have to play a shield. Don’t take the shield down.” And you’re like, “Well, I didn’t feel like just holding, left trigger or right mouse button down all night. That wasn’t my idea of how I wanted to play Overwatch tonight but I’m being forced to.”
So we’re trying to rethink maybe the way the game is played a little bit and redefine what PvP needs – go, “Hey, we’re not in Overwatch 1 anymore. We’re in Overwatch 2 now. It’s okay for it to be different. In fact, how many years are we going to play the same game before it’s time to move on and experience something different and allow us to evolve?” Which I think is good.
IGN: One thing I’d love to know, with a kind of connection to both PvP and PvE – you’ve got custom game modes and arcade modes that are a bit more casual. Is it even possible, or is there any thought, about bringing those talent tree versions of PvE characters into PvP in a less competitive setting?
Jeff Kaplan: I think it would have to be a completely not competitive setting. We haven’t done anything officially yet but we’ve definitely talked about – we know that players are going to want to play with these talents in PvP. Just straight up, I think it’s horribly broken to play with these talents in PvP but I also am very open to allowing the players to try it and find the fun, if they can find the fun in that.
So it’s an idea that we’ve definitely entertained and we would be excited. There are some slight performance issues, like the game tuned and balanced to run on all systems in PvP versus PvE. There are different considerations but I’m sure we could work through those. And a lot of times when we enable stuff in the workshop, people just know you’re not going to get a good frame rate doing that [laughs]. They kind of accept it like, “Oh, is that a pyramid of Torbjörn that I’m seeing? I wonder why I’m only getting 30 frames a second right now.”
IGN: To move to a different part of the game, I’d love to touch on story mode. We know very vaguely what the story is about in Overwatch 2, but is that a campaign mode in which we will only play a selection of characters from the reformed Overwatch? Are there only “good” characters available in story missions, or will we be able to play all the characters along the way?
Jeff Kaplan: In the story missions, currently the plan is that some of the story missions are a mandated set of four characters. That was like our Rio demo at BlizzCon 2019, where you had to play Tracer, Mei, Reinhardt, or Lucio. Other missions are much more open and allow for some hero choice, but only heroes that make sense contextually for that story.
It is unlikely that we will have a cohesive campaign that contextually incorporates all 32 of the existing known heroes. And there are some real edge cases like Hanzo or Wrecking Ball, how do they fit in? Why would it make sense for them to be on a mission with Overwatch? But we are hoping to incorporate as many heroes as possible into the story missions. That’s been one of our goals but whether we get to all 32, plus the new Overwatch 2 heroes, it’s unlikely that we’ll hit a hundred percent completion on that.
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IGN: And will we be able to play story missions solo or offline? Or is this still definitively an online team game in that regard?
Jeff Kaplan: I’ll give you a weird answer: it’s kind of both. It is definitively an online cooperative story experience. That’s what we think is cool and unique and innovative about it. You don’t traditionally play story or campaign games with other people, and we think that’s going to make it feel very distinctly Overwatch or Overwatch 2. With that said, we are working on friendly AI and, if we can get it to a point that we’re satisfied with, we’re okay with the AI existing in some cases. An easy example is if somebody goes linkdead or something, we don’t want to ruin the experience for the other three players.
Perhaps we just let you play [with AI], but that’s not officially decided yet, and there are a lot of technical hurdles for us to get over. So we’re working on the friendly AI, I don’t know if it will get to a point where it’s good enough that we think you would have a great experience playing just by yourself but we’re definitely open to it, and that’s something we’re going to push on throughout the development of the game.
IGN: Obviously the timeline is off the table at the moment, but is there a sense of when people might hear more about Overwatch 2 after this?
Jeff Kaplan: Yeah. Our plan is very different now. When we announced Overwatch 2, we were very explicit with the audience. I don’t know if everybody remembered this but we literally said we’re going dark, and we said we’re going to talk about this at the next BlizzCon. I think part of what happened was the pandemic situation, the fact that there wasn’t a BlizzCon in November 2020, and things got kind of pushed off until February – but we were very explicit. Like, “Hey, we’re not talking after this BlizzCon we just need to focus on the game.”
Our strategy for after BlizzConline in February is to be more communicative. I don’t know if I can officially commit to monthly updates on Overwatch 2, but we definitely want to be more communicative. And our plan is not to go dark for an extended period of time. In fact, we were discussing as recently as yesterday the opportunity of there maybe being some cool stuff we could talk about in March or April to keep people updated and to keep people going. So it’s very front-and-center in our mind to communicate more.
We also want to be careful. I think there’s a right time to get the audience hyped and build to launch. And there’s also a time where it’s like, “Hey, that was kind of not cool of you because it was too early and we’re not ready to have this yet.” So I think we want to be very transparent with people. I’m really glad that the discussion happened of, “Hey, don’t expect Overwatch 2 or Diablo 4 this year,” because I think that helps set people’s expectations. So if we do say something in March or April, they’re not like, “Oh my God, that means we’re beta in May and then release in June.” It’s like, “No, it’s out there that that’s not happening. So let’s all get our expectations aligned.” But we definitely want to be more communicative and more transparent with the development of Overwatch 2 as we get into the closing out of the game.