It was May 24, 2016. It was a “normal” release day for Blizzard Entertainment in one sense: nobody realized at the time that Overwatch was about to become a global sensation.
On the eve of the hit game’s first birthday — and with a mysterious “Anniversary Event” rapidly approaching — I sat down for a chat with Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan.
Given the year he’s had, you’d think Kaplan would come off as a little tired. Instead, he seemed energized. It’s been a whirlwind year for the Overwatch team, but there’s a handful of moments that stand out.
So here they are: Jeff Kaplan’s three favorite moments and single worst moment from the first year of Overwatch.
BEST: Junkenstein’s Revenge
“Junkenstein’s Revenge was awesome.”
The first Overwatch Halloween event introduced a first-for-the-game cooperative mode in which a team of four set heroes — McCree, Soldier: 76, Hanzo, and Ana — faced off against multiple waves of evil Omnics. The goal? Defend the gates of a castle and prevent Omnic forces from breaking through.
Kaplan loved that event, but the way it came together is what made it extra-special for him.
“That music pulls at me internally every time. It just sums up what we were trying to do with that event,” he said.
Before every event, a “tone guide” is distributed to the Overwatch team. It’s a collection of sights and sounds that give everyone a feel for what each event is trying to capture.
“There’s a lot of different ways you could take a Halloween event,” Kaplan explained.
“I had put together these images that represent … the vibe that we’re going for on Junkenstein’s, and our composers were the first ones to respond with that music. I felt like the music just took it to the next level.”
BEST: The launch
Overwatch was released worldwide on May 24, 2016… and it arrived 20 minutes late.
“In Blizzard history, at least for the past 10 years, that’s pretty good,” Kaplan said, laughing. “The servers were up, we had no major server issues.”
Remember: no one knew at the time what Overwatch was about to become. No one on the team thought of it as this momentous, world-shaking event. They just wanted the dang thing to work right.
“It was just: ‘Please let it work. Please let it work and let them just play.’ I wanted to not be a story that the servers just went up,” Kaplan said. He just wanted to see the kinds of debates that spring up now on forums and the very active Overwatch subreddit.
“I wanted everybody to just be talking about ‘Oh my god, Hanzo’s overpowered and Reinhardt can use a buff.’ I know if we’re down that path, we’re doing good.”
Kaplan credits the Blizzard team for the smooth launch. The studio assembled a “technical strike team” to ensure that everything went off with no problems, and to quickly squash any problems that did spring up.
“It was worldwide, simultaneous, and I was super super proud that they pulled it off.”
BEST: Sombra’s BlizzCon 2016 reveal
Ah, Sombra. Remember that ARG? And the long, pregnant pause that followed after the Overwatch community solved the big puzzle and slowly came to realize that BlizzCon — still months away — would be the site of the eventual reveal.
That was fun, right?
“We knew that we had made some missteps with the Sombra ARG and the forums were having a debate,” Kaplan said. “They knew that Sombra was going to be announced. The [ARG] had run its course and they were super angry at us.
“The debate on the forums was, ‘Should we boo when they announce Sombra or should we all just be silent?'”
This turned into a proper debate, with paragraphs-long arguments penned by Overwatch fans on both sides of the discussion.
“‘Booing will show our anger and our displeasure… but silence is even worse because it’s even meaner,'” Kaplan said, paraphrasing one of the common forum refrains at the time. “They were writing these essays on what the response should be: either the boo or the silence.”
When BlizzCon finally did roll around in November of 2016, all the plans were set. Blizzard co-founder and president Mike Morhaime had the dubious honor of unveiling Sombra to the world.
“At the time it wasn’t supposed to be angry! It was supposed to be this cool part,” Kaplan said of the decision to give Morhaime the reveal. “We had been working on this Sombra animated short for months and we were really proud of it. We thought it was going to be awesome.”
So the day arrives and Kaplan was sitting in the audience. It was a nerve-wracking moment, with his mind flitting back to the forum debates.
“I remember [thinking], ‘Oh shit, are they gonna boo or are they just gonna be quiet? How horrible is this going to be?'”
The reveal was meant to be subtle. Sombra is a hacker, so Blizzard had prepared a jokey “year in review” video that she would disrupt for her first appearance on camera. But it wasn’t a sudden thing; the video would hitch and stutter a bit, then continue. The longer it went, the more frequent the glitches would be, until Sombra finally appeared.
There was just one problem. No one at BlizzCon was fooled, and the response was immediate.
“When the first tiny glitch happened, the room — the energy there — they just started cheering. I’ve never heard that room cheer so loud and be so excited,” Kaplan said.
“I just had these butterflies. At the same time it was this huge relief” — he laughed here — “Thank god they’re not booing us. How quickly they forgot. They forgot the plan!”
WORST: That D.Va buff
If you’ve been playing Overwatch for the past year, you probably know which D.Va buff we’re talking about here. It was the big one. After Defense Matrix 2.0 debuted, D.Va also saw both her health/armor and her damage boosted. She became unstoppable, and a fixture in every match.
It’s not the unfortunate buff that bums Kaplan out; it’s the amount of time D.Va was left in that state.
“We’re a pretty small team, overall. We grew from 70 to 100 [after release]which isn’t too huge. We only have seven game designers on the team, plus myself,” he explained.
The D.Va balance changes came just a few weeks before the studio’s annual holiday break. Everything just shuts down between Christmas and New Years. And in 2016 especially, it was a much-needed break for the Overwatch team.
“We were pretty burned out,” Kaplan said. “We had worked really hard on launching Overwatch, which meant a lot of crunch [and]we didn’t take a lot of vacation the year before.”
So the balance changes happened before the break and it quickly became apparent that D.Va was in a bad place. And making matters worse, one of the designers had just taken a vacation after those changes went live.
“I don’t think people realized that there’s not a lot of us. It’s not like we have a whole crew on standby to make balance changes at all times,” Kaplan explained. “It’s one of those cases where, if someone wants to take two weeks off, we’re not going to make balance changes for two weeks. I mean, we could, it’s just not how we roll. We’re very careful and deliberate.”
Between that unfortunately timed vacation and the subsequent holiday break, figuring out a fix for D.Va in a timely fashion was impossible. Everyone knew it, but nothing could be done about it.
“Literally the week between Christmas and New Years, we were having private emails with each other,” Kaplan said. “‘How exactly are we gonna nerf her? She absolutely has to be nerfed.'”
And she was. As soon as everyone was back and settled, fixing D.Va was the first priority. But by then, multiple weeks had passed with D.Va absolutely dominating the meta. Worse, some of those weeks spanned the holidays, when hordes of new players joined the party.
“What you had then was the community who had lived with an overpowered D.Va,” Kaplan explained. “There’s a bunch of people annoyed by D.Va … but the worst factor and the thing that I feel the most bad about is you had a bunch of people who had so fallen in love with the power that taking it away was like the cruelest thing we could have done.”
Blizzard has always been transparent about the fact that, due to the nature of a balance-heavy game like Overwatch, sometimes heroes end up feeling overpowered or underpowered. Tending to that is a constant process. But in the case of D.Va, she’d lingered too long as an all-powered mecha-god.
“To leave a highly popular character overbalanced for as long as we did does a lot of damage. We’re still feeling it today,” Kaplan added.
“I would call buffing D.Va too much right before a holiday the low point. To this day, we’re still paying for it. D.Va mains are very vocal and very passionate.”