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Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan on How to Keep The Best Developers Happy

SEAMUS BYRNE, /BEYOND
11 JUL 2018

Game development is hard. And in the new world of 'games as a service' development, it's an unceasing cycle.

Once upon a time, game developers worked hard under the cloak of secrecy for umpteen years, then released their games to the world. And then, well, that was kind of it.

 

A few tweaks for spit and polish, perhaps, but once the game was out the door, they'd gauge the fan reaction quickly, party in the afterglow, and then move onto the next giant project with another long distant deadline.

But now, there's a constant, craving maw to feed lest it wither and die from starvation.

There's always something new to deliver. New content, new features to push out every month.

Take Overwatch. It celebrated its second anniversary in May, and that special event was bookended by other special events and new character launches.

I recently had the chance to sit down for a chat with Overwatch's Game Director, Jeff Kaplan, on a recent visit to Blizzard HQ in Irvine, California.

So I thought I'd dig into a little of what it's like to work in that always on world, and how they ensure the team doesn't burn out in such a constantly demanding environment.

The rush of live development

"The awesome part about our team, and I think this goes for all the teams at Blizzard, is for so many of us, making the game is as fun and as rewarding as playing the games," says Kaplan.

"If you had to ask most of us here, 'What are your hobbies?' We'd say, 'Playing games, making games.' So we are very, very fortunate to get to do for a living what we really love."

 

As much as Kaplan sits at the top of one of today's biggest games, he's one of those 'kids' living the dream.

He was an MMO guild leader recruited into Blizzard to work on World of Warcraft, climbing its ranks before moving to Blizzard's abandoned 'Titan' project, and then to Overwatch. 

"It's an adrenaline rush, running a live game," says Kaplan. "As great as it is to work on a boxed product, spend a few years on it, ship it, and then move on, there's something very satisfying and exciting about having new content hit all the time."

This year has already seen a long list of Overwatch events take place. Year of the Dog. Blizzard World. The 2nd Anniversary. Retribution. And the launches of characters Brigitte and Wrecking Ball.

To Kaplan, "each of those things is as exciting as shipping a new game."

"You get addicted to that monthly community reaction... Work two, three years on a box game, you ship it, you get a spike of 'We shipped!' And everyone's playing it, and then it kind of goes away. But now every month we get to ship, and people get to react to it."

 

Focused thinking

As fun as that all is, there's still no question that burn out is a big problem in the games industry. It's a constant debate in the industry - how to end the 'crunch' cycles and keep developers healthy in body and mind.

After his departure from Blizzard, the company's former Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development, Chris Metzen - and one of its most public faces - opened up about his own struggles with anxiety and the constant need to push hard and strive for perfection, which fed into his decision to retire.

And it's true that shooting for perfection is something Blizzard has always focused on, with a level of polish across all its games that its fans have long admired.

But in Blizzard's quest for quality, it is also famous for putting its release dates in the "when it's ready" column, not just forcing staff to be ground into dust to deliver both perfection and to crazy deadlines.

The company also holds a set of core tenets close to heart. In the main courtyard of its headquarters, surrounding a giant bronze orc sculpture, is a compass with its mission around its eight points: "Commit To Quality", "Embrace Your Inner Geek", "Learn & Grow", "Lead Responsibly", "Think Globally", Play Nice Play Fair", "Every Voice Matters", "Gameplay First".

blizzardHQangle(Seamus Byrne)

With all that in mind, in a recent "Employee's Choice" awards on Glassdoor, a US employment website, Blizzard ranked as the 28th best place to work in America in 2018 - in an employee satisfaction survey (of current and former staff).

That was 12th amongst technology companies, and the top ranked game developer.

 

So when things do get hard, how does Blizzard help keep people in the right place?

"The team has done a really great job of focusing on the positive," says Kaplan. "It's easy when there's a lot of vocal noise coming your way to only hear the negative."

"We all have this negativity bias that's just natural in human beings, but there's so much awesome stuff that people are saying too."

"There's so much excitement around [our] game, people are proposing to their significant others because they met them in the game," says Kaplan. "All these moments where the community has taken the game and done something great with it, we try to celebrate those moments."

Turns out the Overwatch team also throws internal parties to celebrate each new event or character launch as well.

"The day Brigitte went live, we scheduled a team lunch, and we did a full Swedish spread," says Kaplan.

"We have a lot of Swedish people on the team, and I kept asking them, 'Is this real? Or is this just fake American Swedish?' They were like, 'No, no, this is good,' like, 'You guys did good!'"

"I think those moments are important, to stop and celebrate."

Caring from the top

Kaplan is careful to point out that the driving force behind the entire Blizzard business are founders who are, first and foremost, game makers, not just some spreadsheet-focused business people.

"Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce, Allan Adham, they still work here and they're active in the development of all of our games," says Kaplan. "They were programming at one time, so they understand all the game developers and non-developers here."

"I think more than anything, as many great games as those guys have created, it's more about the culture that they've created," says Kaplan. "They care so much for every single one of our players, but they also care about all of us as members of the Blizzard nation."

"They understand we're not just people here punching a clock, making a product, and leaving as soon as my time's up. That this is really a lifestyle for our players and a lifestyle for employees, and we've got to make it as great as possible."

I got to see some of that 'lifestyle' during the visit to Blizzard HQ. It becomes clear very quickly that the campus is designed to be as lifestyle friendly, as comfortable, as possible.

The basics are all in place - cafeteria, pleasant outdoor areas, exercise areas, and even pet friendly offices. And a lovely little library (with a full-time librarian) full of books but also games of all kinds - video, card and board.

Blizzard also gives each team a budget to modify their work spaces to reflect the personality of the team and the games they work on. Various buildings ooze (almost literally) the character of the crew behind their games, and there are also epic sculptures and models to inspire the team's imaginations.

tyrael blizzhq(Seamus Byrne)

Digging deeper again, the campus also plays host to fitness classes, educational seminars, career training opportunities, and even clubs and societies as another enhancement to the campus social life.

In one example, the Blizzard cryptography club painted sigils around campus to secretly reveal the launch date of Diablo 3. (No one outside the crypto club solved the puzzle).

Family dynamics

So how about fitting holidays into a rhythm where every few weeks there's a critical deadline? Is it a state of constant crunch? Or does 'always live' mean a better balance can be achieved?

It might just be more the latter.

"Everyone is so good at their jobs, but also so good at just being part of that team, that it's easy for anyone to go, 'Look, I need a break for two weeks,' and everyone immediately goes 'I gotcha', or, 'Make sure this is done before you go so I can pick it up,'" says Kaplan.

"It's a family in a way, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, you feel confident that you can take a day off without someone going, 'What, you taking a day off?' It's more like, 'Cool, man, I got you. Let me grab bugs from you, I'll take some bugs, I don't mind doing that.'"

And, in the end, that family includes you, the players. Awwww...

"I love our community," says Kaplan. "We recognized - we, the Overwatch team - the minute we shipped the game, May 23rd, 2016, it was like a handing-off moment. 'This doesn't belong to us anymore. This belongs to you.'"

When Kaplan says this - maybe I should call him Jeff now, it feels like we're getting closer - I truly believe him. This doesn't feel like a sleight of hand to sell more games. It's heartfelt, and it's infectious.

"We recognize our role. We are the custodians of this amazing experience that they are now creating, and I think if you ever lose sight of the fact that without the 40 million players who are playing the game, we created nothing, and we have nothing, and none of it really matters."

I ask Jeff (I'm running with it) about his amazing Yule log video in December, when the Overwatch Twitch channel streamed him sitting in front of a fire for 10 hours. It was such a bizarre and hilarious gift to the community, but also showed such a pleasant sense of being open and accessible for the fans.

He laughs about it, and says they love to humanize the team behind the game so fans know they're all in this together.

"We're just people, we play games too, we enjoy memes too, and when we become the target of them, I think we have to just accept, like, 'You know what? This is the wild ride we're on.'"

"We're no different, we're no better or worse, we're just a part of this awesome community."

/Beyond is ScienceAlert's new section covering the wider world of gadgets, games, and digital culture.