Jeff Kaplan, game director of the hugely successful "Overwatch", talks about money, failure, being a troll on the internet and the dream of one day running a Blizzard theme park.
Jeff Kaplan still has plans on this day in November. He's wearing a t-shirt that shows the silhouette of Soldier 76, an old and grumpy military guy, the former commander of a now-disbanded elite group. "They always call me 'Papa Jeff' in our reddit community", explains Kaplan, game director of the hugely successful online multiplayer game "Overwatch" by Blizzard Entertainment ("World of Warcraft", "Starcraft", "Diablo"). "So me and the other old guy from our game, Soldier 76, we've got to stick together." Kaplan and his team at Blizzard were shooting a video that day, to say "thank you" to the game's fan community at reddit, and to congratulate them on reaching one million subscribers. "It's such a friendly place, they celebrate each other", says Kaplan with eyes glowing with pride and excitement. Outside of reddit, Overwatch had at that time just reached 35 million players worldwide. Kaplan is not a pop star or Hollywood actor, but for these 35 million people, he's the face of Overwatch. He's appearing in videos like the christmas bit, where he just sits in a chair in front of a fireplace for ten hours, without doing much. And he still doesn't seem to have realized that he's famous now.
SZ: You once said you're sort of the "black sheep" of your family, career-wise. Your brothers started out on traditional business careers and were successful at an early age. So, let's talk about money: Are you now the top earner in your family?
Jeff Kaplan: Would you believe me when I tell you that I never asked my brothers what they make?
Yes. It's never of any interest to me. As a youngest brother I always looked up to my older brothers. They were my idols, my superstars, my heroes. In my eyes, I will never be as good as them. And I always assumed I'm not as successful as they are.
You are the game director of one of the most successful games currently out there. Isn't this a very well paying job?
When I came to work at Blizzard, I was 29 years old. I had already been working for many years in a different industry, for a decent salary. And Blizzard offered me a very, very low salary. I know this because of the position I'm in now: I've seen the salary of every single person who works in development at Blizzard, so I know what every single developer makes. In my 15 years here I've never seen anybody make less than what I was offered when I came here. Yet I still decided to take that offer. I don't care about the financial part at all. As long as I can take care of my wife and my kids, it doesn't really matter. And I need internet, a really good internet connection.
Being able to take care of your family and having a good internet connection? Those are modest financial goals...
When I was trying to make it as a writer and I was really struggling and failing, I had these three goals: One: I want to be able to afford a good internet connection without struggling. I was playing "Quake" on a dial-up connection. And they would call me "HPB", "High Ping Bastard", because I had a high ping and people would yell at me to get off the server. I was jealous of people who had ISDN or DSL. Two: I wanted to be able to afford any video game that I ever wanted to play. There was a time when I had to decide whether to buy "Warcraft 2" or a different game. I forgot which one, but I remember standing in the game store and realizing that I can only afford one of these two games. And I really regret that to this day. And three: I want to be able to have at least five dollars for lunch every day. I was stressed about money to the point where I was going to a fast food restaurant where they had a dollar menu. And you're like: "What can I eat for a dollar today? Imagine if I had five dollars to spend on lunch, how good lunch would be!" These were my financial goals in life. And I think I hit them by the time I was thirty. Probably a bit later than I should have.
Were you really that poor?
I wasn't poor. If I ever needed help, my parents would help me. But I felt a tremendous guilt if I ever asked them for something. I remember asking my parents for a loan for the first house I ever bought. I mean, everybody asks their parents for a loan for their first house, right? Yet I still had to live with a feeling of guilt about that. When I payed off the loan - it was off of one of the bonus checks for "The Burning Crusade" -, that was the happiest day for my wife and myself. So it was less about being poor and more about being stubborn.
Apart from how financially successful you now are or aren't, you realize that you're doing a job that a lot of gamers only dream about, right?
I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world for the job that I have. But some people would think about the job differently than I do. They think that I can make any decision I want. That's not at all what's so great about my job. The most awesome part is the people I work with. Every single day you're learning from these super smart people. I work with a guy that has a PhD in physics. Our tech director was a practicing lawyer before. Our executive producer has done every form of programming and design and is just a genius at what he does. I've gotten a lot of attention because I do the "developer updates", so I'm the face that the players are most familiar with. I always try to tell people that I'm just one hundredth of a big pie. Everybody here has contributed equally if not more to Overwatch than I have.
If you design a game, hundreds of people have influence on your baby. How hard is it to not be in charge sometimes?
I am the least intelligent and least talented person on the Overwatch team. I like to think that Blizzard is a place that a lot of developers from all over the world want to come to and be a part of what we're doing. If that assumption is true, then we can have access to some of the top game developers in entire world. If you have access to the top game developers in the world, you have to let them be empowered and make amazing decisions. Every member on the Overwatch team is empowered to affect any part of Overwatch they want to be a part of. And they're good at it. So it makes it very easy to relinquish control. More than that: It actually feels like a failure otherwise. We call it the game director card. There are moments where they'll come up to me and say "Jeff, you've got to play the card on this one, it's time", because the team can't agree on something. It feels like I failed as a leader, if it comes to that.
You worked in the film industry before, that seems to be a similar working environment as games development. Yet you said that you hated the collaboration there. What was so different about working with movies than working with games?
The last time I worked in Hollywood was in the 90ies. So it could be very different now. But at the time it was very stratified. Everybody was super passionate at every tier. But I felt that you had these executives who would talk down on who I thought were creative and brilliant people. Also often times the business decisions overpowered the desire for creating a work of art. I worked in the story department, so new scripts where coming in constantly, and I had to xerox them. This was the 90ies where everything was paper and nothing was digital, and I basically had to live in the xerox room. I was 19 years old and would just read the scripts as I was making the copies. And I started reading a copy of the "Pulp Fiction" script. "Reservoir Dogs" had been out and I thought that was one of the greatest movies ever made. It changed my whole view of what a movie could be. So I'm reading "Pulp Fiction" in the xerox room at Universal Pictures. I remember going to my boss and asked: "Are we making this? This is amazing!" And he said: "Oh, no, no. The studio has no interest in that." And the script that I was xeroxing and which everyone at the studio was excited about instead was "Green Acres - The Movie". The movie version of a really old TV show. "Green Acres is the place to be!" (sings) That's what they wanted to do instead of "Pulp Fiction".
And they ended up making this movie?
They didn't, thank God. But everyone around me was excited about "Green Acres" because they believed in the bottom line. I remember feeling like I never had such a disconnect with the place I'm working for.
And in games development, the bottom line is not that important?
I feel like in games we value the people and their opinions differently. In front of Blizzard headquarters, there's an Orc statue, and around the statue are a couple of bronze signs. One of them says "Every voice matters". It doesn't matter if I've been here for 15 years and I'm the game director and you sit at the front desk or work in the cafeteria or are an associate programmer on one of the teams. Your opinion is as important as mine and we're gonna figure it out and make the game together. There's more of an equality in video games than in the movie industry. In fact we expect new people to teach us a bunch. They're going to bring something to development that we didn't have before. Plus, we recognize that the older you get, the worse you get at video games. I can watch this 20 year old guy who's a grandmaster at Overwatch, and I can learn a lot of stuff from him about the game that I made.