9 Things You Didn't Know About 'Overwatch' Director Jeff Kaplan

9 Things You Didn't Know About 'Overwatch' Director Jeff Kaplan

The game director of 'Overwatch' originally set out to be a writer, and landed into his dream job by accident. Blizzard Entertainment

He was a failed poet who became the director of one of the most popular games in the world

He was a failed poet who became the director of one of the most popular games in the world

Jeff Kaplan rose from failed poet to game director of Overwatch, a shooter that now boasts more than 20 million players. Gamers everywhere secretly dream of a life like his: he won his dream job and met his significant other playing far too many hours of shooters and MMOs when he should have been working.

"I would do it for free," Kaplan told Glixel in a recent interview. "It's the funnest thing in the world. I didn't like collaboration in film, but I love it in games – programmers and artists working together, that's the magic."

It might be tough to replicate his formula, but it's fun to tell the tale. Here are nine things you might not know about the man driving Overwatch.

Kaplan was a fiction writer and a poet...
Kaplan went to school for creative writing at the University of Southern California. He was so strapped for cash that when the woman who funded a $200 scholarship he won for poetry took him out to eat to celebrate, he was "mostly excited about the free lunch."

He did work for Universal Pictures as a writing intern for a while, but it didn't meet his romantic expectations about how writing for the movies should be, he says.

Still, he moved on to graduate school at New York University in the same trade. His goals were clear: "I'm going to get my short stories published," he remembers. "I'm going to get an agent."

…But not a successful one
Instead, he ended up working at his father's executive recruiting firm to pay the bills, starting in the afternoons so that he could write in the morning. Every day in the late Nineties, he would get up at 5 a.m. and write for an eight hour block before the recruiter calls would begin.

"Your hope was that you would get two notes on a story [from an editor] to keep you going," he says. But that rarely happened. Instead, "In one year, I got 172 rejections. I started and scrapped two novels. I felt like a huge failure. I never got anything published."

He met his eventual boss because he gave up on his dreams
In 2000, Kaplan got one rejection too many and quit writing.

"I said fuck it, I'm going to play EverQuest in my free time," he said. He had already been dabbling in the groundbreaking MMO RPG. He stopped going out, stopped writing, stopped doing anything but working and playing. "At least I didn't feel like a failure there. I had these big blocks of anti-social time."

His EQ guild was Legacy of Steel, run by Rob Pardo, the lead designer on a small upcoming game called World of Warcraft. The two would chat about the levels Kaplan would develop for the shooter Half-Life.

"Rob started to ask me a lot about the levels I was designing," Kaplan says. "I had no idea what Blizzard was. I was super into EverQuest."

He knew that there were people who worked for Blizzard in the guild, and that his guildmates thought it was a big deal. But he never connected the dots, he says. "I had no idea it was a job."

When Rob Pardo asked him out to lunch, he almost said no
"Rob said, 'I'm just down in Irvine. You should come down and have lunch with us.' " Kaplan remembers. This was back in the early 2000's, when people didn't trust folks they met online. "I was terrified; who's going to attack me? You didn't meet people on the Internet."

But he went anyway. It's not an overstatement to say the meal changed his life.

"It was an epiphany," Kaplan said. "I had always been ashamed of playing games. It was a weird coming-out moment for me. I felt like it was okay for me to be playing games."

The lunches continued off and on, and over time, their tenor changed. Looking back on it, Kaplan says he sees now that they took on more of a recruiting tone. At the time, he was still clueless, he said.

"Rob said, 'You need to check the job listings tomorrow.' There was a job written for my background," Kaplan says. It was for an associate game designer – basically, a quest designer for World of Warcraft. It called for someone with experience building video game levels who also had a creative writing degree, and Kaplan knew it had been built just for him.

He started work the same day as Nat Pagle's namesake
Kaplan joined Blizzard the same day in 2002 as Pat Nagle, another designer who would become the namesake of famous WoW and Hearthstone fisherman Pat Nagle. They met in the lobby of Blizzard's clandestine HQ in a research park in Irvine as they waited to be taken upstairs.

It was the beginning of a friendship and a new chapter in their lives. (Nagle now designs the weekly Tavern Brawls for Hearthstone.)

"It was magical," Kaplan said.

He met his wife gaming – and assumed she was a man
A guildmate from Legacy of Steel had remained a friend after Kaplan stopped playing EverQuest, chatting with him on ICQ.

"I assumed that anyone with a female name was a man," he says. "You didn't ask. After EQ, we kept pinging each other. She was one of my best friends. I thought she was a dude."

We weren't sure how long 'WoW' would last, so we had to get going on the next MMO. It was like being brand new to baseball and winning the World Series. This is awesome! Let's do it again.

Eventually he found out she was in central California, and invited her to lunch. He knew Angela was a girl at that point, but wasn't sure what to expect. "She was amazing, and happily, she was also gorgeous."

The two were just friends for years after that, becoming gradually closer, until they finally married in May of 2006.

"I think of the number of couples that met in WoW and I say, thank god, it's finally normal," Kaplan says. "I play Overwatch every night with her. She has a higher skill level than I do."

Titan's failure was a personal blow
After Kaplan eventually became game director of WoW, he jumped on the chance to help make Blizzard's next big project: Titan, the scrapped MMO that became the basis for Overwatch.

"For me creatively, everything I hoped and wished to do on WoW I'd done," he says. "We weren't sure how long WoW would last, so we had to get going on the next MMO. It was like being brand new to baseball and winning the World Series. This is awesome! Let's do it again."

Unfortunately, the project tanked.

"We struggled. We struggled for a really long time. The chemistry wasn't there," he says. But the expectations were that they must succeed. "We tried much longer than we should have. It was the most difficult decision to shut that project down. I created, and failed, and nobody would ever see it. We had a ton of killer ideas."

Titan and Overwatch aren't as similar as people think
After Titan, the company regrouped, and Kaplan ended up on another project, an offshoot of Titan that focused entirely on multiplayer combat: Overwatch.

That project would prove to be a typical Blizzard blockbuster success. But even now, Kaplan sounds wistful about the lost opportunities in Titan. While some of its flavor lives on in Overwatch, it's not nearly as similar as people think.

"Titan was a class-based shooter," he says, offering the example of Overwatch's chipper, zippy mascot, Tracer. "We had a class called the jumper, and the jumper became Tracer in Overwatch. But Tracer as this beloved hero, and how these united heroes came to be – that was the missing DNA."