Game development is a long, arduous, expensive, complicated process — and sometimes, it ends in failure.
Jeff Kaplan, game director and vice president at Blizzard Entertainment, knows that firsthand, unfortunately.
Kaplan’s been at Blizzard since 2002, where he worked on “World of Warcraft” for six and a half years, designing quests, dungeons, and all sorts of other things. Around 2007, he started work on Blizzard’s next venture into the MMO world, a game called “Titan.”
“Titan” was not-so-secretly in development for about seven years, but before Blizzard could even officially announce its existence, it was cancelled in September 2014. A couple months later, in November of that year, Blizzard announced its brand-new multiplayer shooter, “Overwatch.” It was assembled — at least in part — from the leftover remains of “Titan.”
Speaking anonymously to Kotaku in 2014, sources who were involved in the development of “Titan” said it would have been a massive online game, not totally unlike “World of Warcraft.” Like Bungie’s MMO-style game “Destiny,” “Titan” would have flipped between a third-person perspective in social areas and a first-person shooter perspective in combat zones, but it sounds like the social zones offered players a wide variety of activities, letting them hold mundane, everyday jobs when they weren’t busy shooting bad guys. And “Titan” would have taken place in a sci-fi version of Earth, “with one source describing [its art style] as a cross between StarCraft II’s in-game cinematics and Pixar’s The Incredibles.”
If you’ve played (or even glanced at) “Overwatch,” this aesthetic sounds pretty familiar.
In an interview with Business Insider, Kaplan discussed “Titan,” how he knew it was time to walk away from the development work he had poured years into, how its cancellation affected him personally, and what kinds of games he looked to for inspiration when he started on “Overwatch.”
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tim Mulkerin: You’ve talked a lot about how you transitioned from working on “Titan” to eventually changing course and essentially starting from scratch with “Overwatch.” But how do you come to that decision to just totally scrap a project rather than powering through and seeing it through to its conclusion?
Jeff Kaplan: Yeah, that’s a great question. The tricky part with something like that is there’s not really a playbook. In no part of our planning do we ever plan to have that moment happen, and if we’re fortunate, those moments don’t happen very often.
In general, when you’re working on a game, you usually have a sense of where the team morale is at, and sort of the team sensibilities in terms of how successfully they feel the game is going. And also, you have a sense of the game itself — is it fun, is the technology working, are the tools to make the game working — and in general, what happened towards the end of “Titan” is we realised that so many of the elements we had enjoyed experiencing working on other projects were just not working.
And the project went on for quite a long time. It wasn’t some rush, rash decision — and in fact, I think usually here at Blizzard we’re optimistic, and even if a project is experiencing some trouble, we’ll find a way to pull it out of that trouble. And eventually, we realised we had hit a point where the technology was not working, the design was not working, the timeline had been dragging on, the team’s morale was pretty low and it was time to move on from that project.
Mulkerin: So, when something like that happens, was it seen as this failure that you should all be ashamed of, or was it something that’s just a reality of game development, and everyone was ok with that being the eventual decision?
Kaplan: I think it’s sort of both, to answer your question.
I think everybody knows on a both professional and objective level that that’s just a reality of game development that that’s gonna happen. I’ve heard [President of Blizzard] Mike Morhaime say on numerous occasions we’ve canceled as many games as we’ve shipped here at Blizzard, so at some point, especially being a game designer, you know those odds. I’ve been working on the competitive system for “Overwatch,” so I understand you’re gonna win 50% of the time and lose 50% of the time, and you know that as a developer that that chance is always there — yet, you do feel there’s something about being creatively invested in a project for a long period of time and really pouring your heart and soul into everything you do that it’s disappointing when it happens.
I don’t think the company at large viewed us as failures because I think they were very understanding how things got to where they did. I think some of us who were on the team inevitably had a sense of failure but I think that’s very different than being viewed as a failure, if that makes any sense.
Mulkerin: Yeah, totally. So did that take a toll on your own personal confidence as a designer and working in game development, then?
Kaplan: Yeah, I think that I was very personally affected by the events that played out on “Titan” in sort of a deep, profound way. I had worked on “World of Warcraft” previous to coming to “Titan” for six and a half years, and even though “World of Warcraft” was stressful at times, being part of such a large, vocal community and it was a lot of work, we put in a lot of hours of our time into making “World of Warcraft,” it was very rewarding and the game was very successful. I ended up spending about five years on “Titan” and we just started to drift away. Especially without any community or player interaction, you just started to question, you know, “What am I doing?”
We are very much craftsmen, and we’re people who enjoy having people play the things that we make. We make fun things and we think that they’re cool, and part of that experience is sharing that with people. So, having that period of time where we weren’t getting to share that with somebody, it definitely affected me and it made me wonder you know, had I done some of the best work in my career on “World of Warcraft” and was I never going to get to enjoy success again? There were definitely those feelings that happened.
Mulkerin: In a way, the failure of “Titan” seems like a kind of a pivot point in Blizzard’s history where you guys have moved away from huge, massive-in-scope projects to just making a game as large or as ambitious as it needs to be, if that makes any sense. You know, whereas “Hearthstone” was maybe seen initially as this weird phenomenon that just kind of happened, it’s now becoming how you approach game development from there on out. Does that ring true at all?
Kaplan: I think the part that rings most true about what you said is chasing our passions for our next projects. “Hearthstone” was obviously very much a passion project and there wasn’t any conscious decision at Blizzard to make games of a certain scale. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we should make all small-scale or large-scale games.”
I think what was more important to us was to make a game that we had tremendous vision behind and that we had a lot of passion about. And that’s sort of what drove us in the direction to make things like “Overwatch,” and it was less about deliberate or strategic decision about what scale it should be. If I think that vision and passion we had for “Overwatch” had been a much bigger game, we probably would have made that game, but what was driving us was the desire to play the particular game that we made.
Mulkerin: So, what qualities did you see in other games that you saw and were like, “Yes, that’s what we want to do”?
Kaplan: There were a ton of games that inspired us when it came to making “Overwatch.” Obviously, the whole “Team Fortress” series, from the early days of it being a “Quake” mod, that idea of a class-based shooter. I feel like, someone will probably correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I feel like that really evolved from the earliest “Quake” mods of “Team Fortress” that existed way back, and I put countless hours into that.
But we were inspired by so many different shooter games: “Half Life,” “Half Life 2” was amazing to us, the entire “Quake” series — and we often talked about what was different from “Quake 1” to “Quake 2” to “Quake 3.”
A lot of people on the team were really inspired by “Unreal” and some of the weapons and abilities that you could use in “Unreal.” I played enormous amounts of different “Quake” and “Half Life” mods, including “Counter Strike,” which was a “Half Life” mod originally. You know, that’s sort of how it evolved. I was in the earliest days of when it had public testing on “Counter Strike” — I was playing it as an early mod, and giving feedback on the forums.
And then there was this whole other group of games, you know, the MOBA genre was very inspiring to us, too. You look at games like “Dota,” “Dota 2,” “League of Legends,” “Heroes of the Storm,” and they were really embracing more of the team side of things. I think shooters never fully got the team side of things about what’s really fun about coordinating abilities and timing and sticking together as a team and making sure you didn’t get picked off as a solo player. That inspiration really came from MOBA games.
Besides the obvious games that inspired something like “Overwatch,” a lot of the “Hearthstone” design inspires us. There’s this simplicity and elegance to a game like “Hearthstone” where only what’s in the game is what needs to be in the game. We get to work with a lot of those designers, so we ask them lots of questions and we sort of try to learn from their design style.
There’s “World of Warcraft” influence in “Overwatch” in the environmental art and map design. We’re huge believers in a big, drastic change in environments. They should be welcoming and a place that you wish you could go to in real life, and that was directly from “World of Warcraft.” And there’s other minor things like the random loot pulls from the loot boxes we were actually talking to Diablo and Hearthstone devs about how their games make that work. So there’s the obvious inspirations like “Quake” and “Team Fortress” and the MOBA genre, but I think there’s some non-obvious inspiration as well in other games.
Mulkerin: So, did you feel equipped to make a first person shooter? Because, obviously that’s quite different from anything you had ever made before, but as you said you had been playing them a lot. Is that something you felt comfortable tackling?
Kaplan: So initially, it was daunting because personally I had not made a first-person shooter, but the cool thing was is we built this team around a mix of development talent. A lot of the talent came from previous Blizzard games, so they brought a lot of their knowledge about online gaming, making things fun, responsive, building things in the Blizzard style, but we also did build a lot of the team around previous shooter experience.
For example, our lead gameplay engineer, a gentleman by the name of Tim Ford, was instrumental in the “Medal of Honour” series, so he had worked on shooters for years, and before working at EA had even worked at Treyarch. So he’s just one example of the types of people that we tried to build the team around.
The other thing to keep in mind was we had a first-person shooting mechanic in “Titan” — that was the combat mechanic of “Titan.” So, in some ways, like, somebody had asked me when we started on “Overwatch,” “Well you’ve never worked on a first-person shooter before,” and I didn’t correct him on this, but I was thinking at the time, “Actually, I’ve been working on a first-person shooter for five years, it just hasn’t shipped.”
It definitely was a difficult ramp up. It’s a community that knows exactly what it wants and doesn’t want and they’re very particular about the details. We were sort of humbled to be in that space and we sort of knew that this is a revered genre and we have to be careful and respectful with the design decisions — in particular around the hardcore shooting mechanics — because we know that there’s this audience who knows exactly what they want and we need to deliver on that.
For other excerpts from this interview, be sure to check out Kaplan’s comments on upcoming changes to Symmetra, as well as his take on the conversation surrounding similarities between “Overwatch” and Hi-Rez’s “Paladins.”
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