Collected Works: Jeff Kaplan

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This article was originally published in issue 307 of Edge, back in May 2017. Head here to subscribe to Edge, and get more great features and interviews like this in every issue. 

During the early 2000s Jeff Kaplan spent a full third of his life in EverQuest. He played the game at the highest level as an officer in one of North America’s most prominent guilds, Legacy Of Steel. When not in Norrath he pitched novels and short stories to publishers and tinkered with the Half-Life map editor WorldCraft.

One day, in EverQuest, a fellow officer asked if he could try Kaplan’s maps. Later, the same guildmate invited him to lunch in Irvine, California, at a game development studio called Blizzard, which Kaplan had never heard of—he didn’t play strategy games. The guildmate was the Blizzard designer Rob Pardo; studio co-founder Alan Adham was also a member. A series of lunches over six months eventually revealed themselves to be job interviews. This RTS studio had an idea for making an MMOG, but it needed an MMOG player’s expertise to make it happen.

Kaplan’s subsequent 15-year career at Blizzard has seen him become design lead on World Of Warcraft, the world’s most successful massively multiplayer RPG. He oversaw design on the aborted MMOG Titan before, in the aftermath of that project’s collapse, spearheading work on the phenomenal—and phenomenally popular—Overwatch.

World of Warcraft

Developer/publisher: Blizzard
Format: PC
Release: 2004

"I joined in May of 2002, which is the period when they were wrapping up Warcraft III and then starting on the E3 build of World Of Warcraft. It was a big deal. WOW was going to be at E3 and needed a good showing.

They hired me along with another designer who was going to be on quests named Pat Nagle. Pat and I started from scratch with how a quest should work. We started out more from a creative place: what are the sorts of quests that we want to do in a game, what are those stories, how can we have that type of gameplay? We worked with the programmers to get the tools made so we could create content and then we split up—he started with Elwynn and I started with Westfall. We said, “OK, here we go, you take this zone, I’ll take that zone, we’ll see where we’re at.”

Elwynn was our first team-wide playtest. We were kind of shocked, because coming from EverQuest, ironically you barely did any quests in that game. Our assumption was that we’d give you a quest, you’d go do the quest, and you’d discover a new area of spawns—like, ‘Here’s where Hogger is, and oh look there’s all these gnolls here, I think I’ll kill gnolls for a couple of hours.’

We put the team through the playtest and first thing after that everybody is up in arms. ‘I ran out of quests! Did something break?’ Alan, Pat and I had this realisation: “Oh fuck, we’re going to have to quest this whole thing out.” We literally had to rethink the project at that moment. Our old estimates for how many quests we thought we were going to do versus how many quests we ended up doing were radically off.

When I think about the effect that WOW had on MMOs... I almost think it’s broader than that. One, MMOs can be for everyone. MMOs are not just for crazy-hardcore people who are willing to spend one third of their life on this activity. The other, and I guess this goes hand in hand, is that it’s not OK for a game to totally lack direction for players who seek it. A lot of players just need something, some sort of direction, or they’re going to check out from the game.

In terms of WOW being a success, this is going to sound super weird 11 or 12 years after it all happened, but we had huge insecurity about the game. Every interview we’d do, the question we kept getting asked was—it wasn’t phrased quite this way, but: ‘What business do you have making an MMO? You guys make RTSes.’

Back in that time period the two games that MMO players were most excited about were EverQuest II and Star Wars Galaxies. Everyone believed [Galaxies] was going to rule the universe because it was the two things that I know I was most excited about in life, which was Star Wars and MMOs. I remember the year that we showed World Of Warcraft at E3, we were fully playable—you could run around, go to Scarlet Monastery, do all that stuff—and for Star Wars Galaxies they had literally only shown a movie and the movie was winning Best Of E3 awards. Our morale was super low. I think the only one who had confidence was Alan.

It was around that time period that EverQuest announced that they had passed 400,000 subscribers. I was thinking we’d be lucky if we got half that, a quarter of that, and Alan Adham stood up and said, “We’re going to have one million subscribers, that’s how good I think this game is going to be, that’s how much I believe in you guys.”

I remember looking at Alan. I held him in the highest admiration because he was my first boss, he was one of my mentors, he had hired me, he had founded Blizzard. In that moment I looked at him and thought, ‘Wow, he’s batshit crazy.’"

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

Developer/publisher: Blizzard
Format: PC
Release: 2007

"I’m not sure how many people know this, but we shipped World Of Warcraft with 60 developers. Sixty people made that game. It’s something that to this day I’m very proud of, [but] after we launched, because it was such a difficult crunch and such a difficult development cycle, we lost about 20 developers.

We had all of WOW’s success to support from a live standpoint, and we had no animators. All of our animators had quit. There’s this one patch where we introduced four green dragons. It was literally because we had a dragon model and getting colour shift on it was trivial and we had no one to work on the game at that point. The team was devastated and demoralised. We were pulling boxes from the retail channel so you couldn’t even buy WOW. You launch this game and then you’re like, ‘Pull the boxes back! We can’t support them on the servers!’

We had hired some new people. I remember we hired this one server programmer whose name was Brian Gibson-Winge. We’re having a team meeting and I remember everyone talking, like, ‘What are we doing? Nothing we’re doing is good.’ Brian was the brand-new guy in the room, and he stands up and says, “Hey guys, I know I’m the new guy and I probably shouldn’t speak up, but what’s wrong with you? You made World Of Warcraft and this is the most awesome fucking game in the world.” Suddenly, as we started hiring more people like Brian, the team got reinvigorated. There was a huge turning point going from vanilla WOW into The Burning Crusade, and it was because of the influx of new people who really inspired the team. That and the first Blizzcon were a big morale boost for us."

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Developer/publisher: Blizzard
Format: PC
Release: 2008

"The team since Wrath Of The Lich King has done amazing things—I think the best expansion they have ever made is Legion. But at that time, there was something very special about Lich King. When we reflected on The Burning Crusade we realised that we had a story that was probably a little bit too convoluted for most people to understand. There’s probably five factions of Blood Elves. As lead designer on the game I didn’t even know which Blood Elves were which at a certain point.

The other thing that was really amiss in Burning Crusade was that we had one of the most compelling characters in Illidan, but we only let players interact with Illidan in the Black Temple. Such a small percentage of our players got to do that content because it was tuned to be so hardcore, and it was so inaccessible. The massive lesson coming from The Burning Crusade into Wrath Of The Lich King was, if you have this front-of-the-box compelling character like Illidan or Arthas, give it to people! Let people interact with it. It’s no mistake that the first second that you log into Wrath Of The Lich King, especially if you make a Death Knight, who’s standing in front of you? It’s Arthas.

Also, we had Alex Afrasiabi, who was probably the most famous EverQuest player of all time. We hired him during vanilla WOW, but I feel like Alex’s curve was really starting to peak with Wrath Of The Lich King. We put Alex in charge of all quest design for that expansion. Alex was the one who made that Death Knight starting experience, which I think at the time and maybe to this day is one of the greatest storytelling quest experiences in the game. It made everybody question what we had done before."