Jeff Kaplan talks Overwatch progression, unlocks, and beta invites

Jeff Kaplan

Ahead of today's relaunch of the Overwatch closed beta, we had a chance to talk to Game Director Jeff Kaplan about some of the changes that have been made during the hiatus. The second beta will feature a new King of the Hill-style game mode called Control, and a pair of new maps, one set in Zenyatta's homeland of Nepal, and the other a “giant, super-tall skyscraper in China,” which Kaplan said is a particularly effective showcase for Overwatch's colorful vision of the future. Beyond that, he also offered some interesting insight into player and character progression, unlockables, and how Blizzard may—or may not—approach microtransactions.

Kaplan reiterated a point he made late last year, saying that Overwatch, unlike other Blizzard releases such as World of Warcraft or Diablo, is not a progression-based game. Progress rewards are a way of “thanking the players for their time invested,” he said, rather than a means of forcing them to grind through content they may not be interested in. To that end, progression is measured through player level, so instead of leveling individual heroes, you'll effectively be leveling yourself.

“As you gain levels—and there are unlimited levels, we don't have a level cap, you can always gain levels—each time you gain a level, we give you a loot box. Inside the loot box there can be four items that come out of it,” he said. Loot box items are randomized, and each item has a rarity level: common, rare, epic, and so forth. And, he emphasized, they are all purely cosmetic. “You don't gain any sort of advantage over other player by unlocking these items. They're purely for player expression, and just because they're cool.”

Unlockables will include “a host of skins across all of the heroes,” as well as emotes like “victory poses,” which enables heroes to show off in all sorts of different ways when they're on the winning team. Kaplan said one of the coolest things coming are “Highlight Intro” animations that, when unlocked, will display a “really amazing animation” when players earn a Play of the Game, like Torbjorn “riding his chariot like a mechanical bull.” There will also be dozens of different sprays on tap, and even unlockable VO lines that can be triggered through the communications wheel.

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And if you end up pulling duplicates or stuff you just don't care about it, you'll have the option to exchange those items for “credits” that can be used to unlock things you actually want. “If there's, you know, 'Oh my god, that Zarya skin, I really wanted that but I keep unlocking stuff for heroes who aren't Zarya,' over time you'll have enough credits where you can just buy the Zarya skin and you don't have to depend on random luck anymore,” Kaplan said. “We feel like it's casual, it's simple, it's fun, it's expressive, and it doesn't make you feel obligated to do the progression—but it makes you feel very rewarded for the time you've invested.”

Kaplan said there's been discussion about making the loot boxes purchasable, noting that while they drop “at a pretty decent pace,” some internal testers wanted to be able to get at them right away. “I feel like [it's] an age-old debate, and by age-old I think it's like a ten-year-old debate at this point,” he said. “[There are] some who feel like they have more time than they do money, and some that feel that they have more money than they do time. So we're definitely open to exploring allowing the loot boxes to be purchasable at some point, but we haven't gotten to it yet.”

It's less likely that Blizzard will sell Overwatch credits separately, but it's something that could come up for consideration in the future, he said. Similarly, while there's currently no “purchase-only” content in the game beyond the Origins Edition and Widowmaker preorder skins [those won't be unlockable for credits because, he said, “We want those to feel special and exclusive”], it's simply too early in the process to commit to it one way or the other.

“We haven't made any philosophical decision of whether or not we will ever do that, or not do that. I think right now, the biggest question we want to answer, when the beta comes back up next week is, 'Are the loot boxes fun? Do people like the items?'” he said. “We added this thing called the Hero Gallery where you can really browse through all the heroes and unlockable stuff, and we want that to be awesome. When you look at the hero gallery and look at all the stuff, we just want you to go, 'Wow, there's so much cool stuff.' And if the players aren't saying that, we have to revisit some things. So that's kind of the first step for us, and whether or not we'd have items for purchase exclusively down the road, I think it's too soon for us to really know that right now.”

Kaplan said that another round of beta invites will be going out, and it will be “equal to or larger than the largest [beta] wave that we've ever done.” Despite that, he predicted that disappointment will be plentiful: “ I don't think there's any beta wave short of letting everybody into the beta that's big enough at this point.”

He's probably right.

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