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.