How Jeff Kaplan went from troll to celebrated game designer

Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Jeff Kaplan left Blizzard entertainment this week after 19 years of service at the company. During this time he worked as Director of Overwatch and Senior Designer on World of Warcraft.

 

Very few developers will ever have the opportunity to influence millions of people and entrance people for billions of hours with their content, but that is exactly what Jeff Kaplan did as a designer on World of Warcraft and then as the Director of Overwatch. Believe it or not, he started out as just another well-informed toxic troll flaming the developers online.

 

Jeff “tigole bitties” Kaplan, leader of Legacy of Steel

Before Kaplan became a game designer, he was a gamer and avid MMORPG player. He served as the leader of the Legacy of Steel guild in Everquest. While in this role, Kaplan became an outspoken critic of the poorly designed encounters and time-wasting mechanics featured in Everquest in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. He frequently posted his opinions about Everquest game design to the site in those days.

 

Some of his opinions were spicier than you would expect from the well-tempered veteran leader we know today. In April 2002, he posted the following obscenity-laden game design rant on the Legacy of Steel forum.

 

 

Only a couple of weeks after posting that rant, Jeff Kaplan announced that he was joining Blizzard Entertainment as an Associate Game Designer. His role would be to design quests and other game design elements for World of Warcraft.

 

The outspoken game design critic and hardcore gamer would be given have a chance to put into practice all the "fixes" he had been ranting about.

 

“The readers of [legacyofsteel.net] have also come to know my personal opinions on what constitutes a fun gaming experience versus what feels like a complete waste of time or poorly designed encounter,” Kaplan said on April 15, 2002, while announcing his new position at Blizzard. “You've all read my opinions on such things as tedious key camps, obvious time sinks devoid of any story or linear narrative, quests which reward the lucky over the skilled, and quest rewards which are out of synch with the amount of time and effort required to complete them."

 

Kaplan continued: "I hope that my association with World of Warcraft will serve to comfort MMORPG fans that ‘one of us’ is on the other side of the fence, looking out for the interests of the player.”

Designing the World of Warcraft

While Kaplan originally made his name as an outspoken troll who flamed developers, he cemented his legacy through solid, genre-defining design choices while working on World of Warcraft.

 

 

In May 2002, he started his new position at Blizzard as a founding developer for World of Warcraft. In this position, he was finally able to set about fixing everything that he thought was wrong with the MMORPG genre. He was one of two original quest designers, alongside Pat Nagle, so he has a huge influence on the iconic quest lines and stories that have defined the World of Warcraft brand for a generation.

 

Many old-school players continue to enjoy Kaplan's early content through remasters like World of Warcraft: Classic and the upcoming World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade.

 

Kaplan ended up working on World of Warcraft for 6.5 years. The game released in 2004 and quickly became a massive success, peaking at 12 million subscribers in 2010, shortly after Kaplan left the project.

 

He was a deeply influential game designer during World of Warcraft’s renaissance and left his fingerprints all over the property before leaving. His work reached millions of players, and took up a staggering number of hours in playtime since World of Warcraft players are infamous for the huge number of hours they sink into the game.

 

Becoming Papa Jeff

Kaplan was on top of the world as a Senior Designer for World on Warcraft. But after nearly seven years of investing in the MMORPG, Kaplan decided to move onto a new project called Project Titan. 

 

Titan was originally set to be a class-based shooter/MMO, which is why Jeff was assigned to the project. Kaplan was an avid fan of both FPS and MMORPG genres, so he was the perfect director for Titan. Titan was eventually canceled, with the development team having only a month and a half to pitch a new game. The game that they pitched was Overwatch.

 

 

Blizzard announced Overwatch at BlizzCon 2014 and set its release for 2016. The hero-based shooter promised an exciting world with tons of lore and a unique combination of class-based shooter components and MOBA-like elements. Kaplan was the director of the new title and quickly became the face of the development team by hosting the Overwatch Unveiled Panel at BlizzCon 2014.

 

 

Throughout Overwatch’s lifecycle, Kaplan built a rapport with the Overwatch community by hosting the Overwatch development team updates on YouTube.

 

 

In the updates, he announced everything from new events, to new heroes, to new information about the Overwatch League. It is hard to believe that the soft-spoken Kaplan that we got to know over the past five years was ever the angry troll known as “tigole bitties”. 

 

In 2017, Kaplan solidified his meme status in the Overwatch community by hosting a Yule Log stream, where he simply sat in front of a burning Yule Log on Christmas eve for hours on Christmas Eve. It was also around this time that the Overwatch community affectionately nicknamed him Papa Jeff. 

 

 

While Kaplan and his team made a lot of mistakes during Overwatch's lifecycle, Jeff Kaplan still left a positive impression on the Overwatch community with his upbeat attitude and dad-like personality. He was a member of the old guard at Blizzard, one of the original designers that brought so much life and character to the company's games in the early days. He was massively influential on two of the most popular gaming franchises in history.

 

If Papa Jeff can go from being a toxic forum poster to being one of the most celebrated game designers ever, maybe we can all change for the better.

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