Feature Article

Blizzard's President On Making Sure Nothing Changes

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

After the departure of Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime, J. Allen Brack stepped up to the role of president. Brack has a long and storied history with the company, including being executive producer of World of Warcraft, one of the most beloved and successful video games of all time.

This heritage is something that Brack is very keen to highlight, and for good reason: it's a reminder that the person in charge of Blizzard right now is someone that helped develop the game that has been its biggest success.

Brack hasn't had the best of starts, owing to the reveal of a mobile version of Diablo that fans had a negative reaction to. This, by Brack's own admission, was something that could have been handled better. But in the midst of this drama--and after it--it's the developer's perspective and history that he has that he highlights when asking fans to put their faith in him and the studio.

While Brack admits the messaging could have been clearer, he still has faith in Diablo: Immortal as a game and is confident that it represents Blizzard's values as they always have been and always will be. Not just that, he is confident that the Blizzard of today carries the spirit of the same developer that brought us Warcraft, WoW, StarCraft, and the many other beloved games in its stable.

Ahead of the climax of the Overwatch League season and BlizzCon 2019, we spoke to Brack about the response to Diablo: Immortal, the preservation of the studio's identity, and his ambitions for Blizzard.

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GameSpot: What was it like seeing World of Warcraft Classic launch, given your history with the game and the company. Must have been strange seeing the halcyon days of WoW brought to life again.

J. Allen Brack: Yeah. I think that, almost two years ago at BlizzCon that I announced that we were going to do WoW Classic. It was something that the fans had been asking for for a long time.

We said that we weren't going to do it. And then, throughout the beginning part of 2017, we sort of figured out how we were going to do it. So announcing that to BlizzCon was honestly one of my career highlights. It was really unexpected. It was really something that no one had thought that we would ever do because of our comments about it.

To then kind of come full circle here, it is almost two years later, and to just see the massive amount of excitement, the massive amount of passion, the huge number of people returning, both people who have played it in the past, as well as people who had never really had the opportunity to experience what the early days were really like ... It's been--this phrase resonates, but it's inadequate--it's just been hugely satisfying and hugely gratifying to see the passion of the fans and to see the community come together like that. But it's been a peak career experience, for sure.

So taking a step back and looking at your rise to your position now. What were your ambitions and what were the key areas of focus that you identified coming into this leadership role in Blizzard?

I think the thing that was really most important--and I think is why Mike [Morhaime, co-founder and former president of Blizzard] ended up choosing me for this job--was the fact that Blizzard is really a developer-led organization and that the products and the game focus that we have [is there], throughout all the leadership levels and is really important and really strong.

And so one of the first things that I did was to bring Ray Gresko on as the chief development officer and then add Allen Adham to the executive team to really make the percentage of people who are making games and have recently made games just a lot higher. There's a refocus on our core and a focus on what has made Blizzard's great, which is our games. And so that's really the kind of the very, the start of what we tried to do.

Throughout this year, we've looked at all the various projects that we've got going on. We've looked at different things that we were doing that we felt like we should do more of. We looked at different things that we were doing that we felt like we should do less of. And we've come up through this launch of WoW Classic, which has been just a great moment for us. And we were at the Overwatch League for season two and getting ready to head into the end of the year with BlizzCon. So it's been a pretty good ride here.

For people who may not have a clear vision of what Blizzard is trying to do now, what would you say about recent shakeups at the executive-level, layoffs, and the kind of direction the company you want to take it in?

I think the important thing that is true, has been true traditionally, and is going to be true going forward is that we are a values-driven and a values-led company, and we make a lot of our big strategic decisions through that lens.

Stepping back, I think, anytime you have a founder who has been in the chair for 28 years, I think that it is normal and natural and reasonable to have some fear, uncertainty, and doubt around how we're going to continue to go on going forward.

What I think is important for people to know is the values that have built this place and built Blizzard are still the same values. We still prioritize gameplay first among all. We still focus on delivering great player experiences and a great community focus for everything that we do, and that couldn't be more important as we look to the future.

What I think is important for people to know is the values that have built this place and built Blizzard are still the same values

Obviously as a company you want to grow, and you do that by embracing new ideas and exploring new opportunities. How do you balance doing that versus maintaining what your fans believe your identity is? A great example is Diablo: Immortal. On paper it's a smart way to tackle mobile gaming, which is big in many territories so you can't ignore that [market]. It makes sense for Diablo to be the product that moves you into [that space] because it's a good fit. But at the same time, it clashes against the identity people know Blizzard to have, and what fans love Diablo as, which manifested in the reaction.

I think the thing that we did a poor job of when we announced Diablo: Immortal was contextualizing what we think the future can be and what we think of mobile in particular. And I also think the key thing that was lost, that we did a poor job double emphasizing, is we are a PC developer first. And then we look for other platforms that we think are awesome that can support the types of game play experiences that resonate with the type of games and values that we want to put forth into the world. And the example of that is, there was a little bit of a backlash when we [announced] that we were going to port Diablo 3 to console as well.

We ported it to both the Xbox and PlayStation platforms. Last year we announced Diablo for the Nintendo Switch. And the reason for that is because we think that that's a great game that can really work really well on those platforms.

If we think about what mobile was going to be for Blizzard in the future, we think that mobile doesn't have to be a lesser-quality experience. We think that we can make Blizzard-quality games. We think that we can have Blizzard values around monetization, and we think it can be a great experience. And Diablo: Immortal is a game that we've been working on for quite a few years at this point, and we're happy with how it's coming along. We're looking forward to having the players see it whenever it's ready to go.

But first and foremost, I think the thing that did not get communicated, and I can't say enough, is that we are a PC developer that also looks for opportunities on other platforms.

You want to emphasize that you're a PC-first kind of developer and company and publisher. Do you understand the resistance from fans, then, when they're like, "Yeah, but this is a mobile thing, and that's not who you are."

I think in retrospect, we had a very honest look at ourselves, post-BlizzCon, to look at the fan reaction. It's the task of trying to understand really deeply, that reaction.

We did not do a good job in assuaging our core fanbase that we're not abandoning PC for mobile and console. That part of the message did not get communicated in a way that I think, if we could go back, we would do.

It's not hard to understand the fan reaction of, "I'm a Blizzard fan. Blizzard, just keep making PC games like you've always done. Like I like. That will make me happy."

But, I think if you think about the world, and you think about games, it's hard to imagine how anyone who is a core PC Blizzard fan today also has not experimented with console platforms, or mobile platforms in their career, or in their life, rather.

Some mobile games are very good, and some mobile games are incredibly crappy, just like every other platform, and we do think there is an opportunity for players to play and enjoy the games that are at a very high quality level, that we really like, that we really believe in, in the Blizzard IP. That's the lens for Diablo Immortal.

If you're a core PC gamer, then there are not an insignificant number of mobile games that don't have a great reputation. We've seen these games, and we've played these games. We've played games that we feel like are predatory when it comes to monetization, that are not the most fun experience that we could imagine, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's hard [for people] to see how Blizzard is still Blizzard on that platform.

But, if we didn't think that we could make great games on a mobile platform, we wouldn't do it. Mobile games have been out for quite a while and Hearthstone is the only one that we have done so far. What has made it take so long is figuring out how we were going to find the Blizzard way of making a great mobile game.

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Are there ever discussions that are like, alright, let's do mobile but let's come up with something that doesn't have all the baggage of an existing IP, and all these people already invested in it.

Yeah, we have talked about that. We've talked about, "How do we think about new IP on new platforms?"

One of the things that we articulate with all of our IP is, each one of them is built and has been constructed to really support a lot more, not only different platforms, but different types of games, and different genres of game.

I'll give you an example of that. If you think about Warcraft, which is our most storied IP, it has supported a big giant MMO, it has supported real-time strategy games, and it's supported a collectible card game. So those are very different genres of game that have come out of the same IP, and we think that there is a lot of opportunity for having games, different types of games, in our existing IP. But, I think that you do take on a piece of player perception, of player expectations whenever you're talking about creating a new game on a new platform, for sure.

Is that kind of model of creation sustainable or feasible in a business sense? Something like Overwatch exists now because you went through this protracted phase of having Titan, reworking it, and having the ups and downs of development. The end result, many years later, is a game that has a really wide and powerful presence. But can you really afford to have that same cycle for each project?

I don't know that we at Blizzard have any choice but to do it that way. I don't know that there is another way for Blizzard. We really believe strongly that the team leadership has to believe and have an idea for a game that they think can be excellent. It's a very bottom up way of doing things.

Blizzard does not have a history of having Mike [Morhaime], or me or someone else at the top saying, "Hey, Blizzard should go make, insert type of game." That's not really how Blizzard works. How it works is a team of developers who really are passionate about a particular idea or a particular genre are given the space to create and iterate and deliver something that we think can be excellent. That's really how it's always been, and that's how it is today.

I'm trying to figure out a way of asking this without unnecessarily vilifying Activision. I guess my question is, are the business realities of today, such, and is your relationship with your parent company, Activision, such that, you can continue to operate that way? Is Blizzard autonomous enough to say, 'We don't think this is a good idea, so we're going to kill it, and we're going to go back to the drawing board … you may not see another game from us for five, 10 years, or whatever it may be?' Are you in a position where you can do that?

You know, there were a handful of questions that I had when Mike said, "Hey, you should think about taking this job." There was a handful of questions I had for him and a handful of questions I had for Bobby [Kotick, CEO of Activision], and the rest of the folks at Activision Blizzard. What you're touching on is something that it's really important to what it means to be Blizzard, both from a developer standpoint, as well as, frankly, a community and a fan standpoint.

Here's the thing I will say. We're sitting here and we are about to have the Overwatch League Finals, which has really been created in conjunction with some of the people at Activision Blizzard, and the desire that they have is the same as the desire that we have, which is to have our games exposed to and played by millions of players all around the world.

I think we have different ways to think about how we achieve that goal, but our goals are very similar and very aligned with them.

The worry from a fan perspective is, if there's ever a point where it does look like an Overwatch League can't sustain the kind of interest it needs, does Activision suddenly shift to, "Well, you've got to give us the next thing now," and that's where the clash of ideologies may happen, where it's like,"Well, we work in a way where you might not get another Overwatch for another 10 years." Are you still in a position where you call the shots on your games, and won't be told how to produce them or be forced to produce them in a different way to meet demands.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think that's the way that Blizzard has traditionally worked with this sort of a bottom up approach on what the games that we want to create and move forward are, and [that] is what's important. That's so intrinsic and so built in to the DNA of Blizzard, I don't know how Blizzard is successful any other way.

You know, I think the fact that a developer was put in charge of the company after Mike, and I think the fact that we promoted Ray Gresko to be the chief development officer really speaks to not only what Blizzard values are, but is also an indication that Activision Blizzard understands what's important to Blizzard.

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I love Overwatch and have been obsessed with it in a way I haven't been with any other Blizzard game, and I'm sure it's the same for many others. Creating new IP clearly works for you, but you also have this stable of classic games that fans really want more of, like StarCraft, like Diablo. What's your take on creating new versus leaning on the old? Are you still planning to explore the older stuff in the same way that you have done with a wild classic or is there still life in StarCraft and as well as whatever may come next?

You know, I think we're fortunate to really have now four giant IPs in the form of WarCraft, StarCraft, Diablo, and now Overwatch. And then you have Heroes, which is sort of a subset of an amalgamation of all of the kind of borrowings from all the pieces of the IPs.

And I think that is extremely powerful. I think going back to an earlier question where I talked about these IPs and the ability of many of them to support different types of gaming experiences, that's something that we're always going to look for.

I personally think that there are often characters and awesome stories and plenty of games and plenty of game experiences that we can create in our existing IPs. I think there's plenty of room and plenty of space for that. But I also think at the same time, you do need to be thinking about new things as well.

And so both are important. Fans want more StarCraft games. I'm a fan, I also want more StarCraft games. Fans want more Diablo games. I'm a fan, I also want more Diablo games. Fans want new IP, me too.

And so the things that we think about in terms of, "What IP we should use and how we should think about it?" the team has a lot of decision-making authority on that. But also we have to really think about what games and what IPs the teams are very excited about. What IP would work for different types of games.

I think the fact that we have these IPs that have these stories, time periods, any story of games that are with them--I think of that as an asset. I don't think of that as a liability. I think the ability and the desire to create new is also important, and we've proven that we can do it with Overwatch, and we'll prove it again in the future.

A first-person shooter based on StarCraft seems to have become Blizzard's white whale. There was a report recently of a project that was a first-person shooter set in the StarCraft universe being canceled, and of course, there was StarCraft Ghost. Is that idea something that you still want to pursue?

You know, I think one of the things that I would mention is there has been some recent press around games that we have not moved forward on, but internally it has been known that 50% of the games that we start actually ship.

And so the fact that we're not moving forward on this game or that game is sort of an indication that Blizzard is working as usual. I think most of the games that we've started and have never shipped for one reason or another, most people never even know their names outside of Blizzard. It doesn't really get a lot of attention.

So this is just sort of the normal Blizzard being Blizzard, frankly, when we evaluate games and decide what games are going to move forward and are not going to move forward. I'm a huge StarCraft fan personally, and so I look forward to future games in that universe. But I really think it's part of the creative process. The creative process is not linear, it's very circuitous.

Fans want more StarCraft games. I'm a fan, I also want more StarCraft games. Fans want more Diablo games. I'm a fan, I also want more Diablo games. Fans want new IP, me too

Final question, given the success of World of Warcraft and now of Classic are there any intentions to explore console for World of Warcraft? When it first came out there weren't that many successful MMOs on consoles, but now we have Final Fantasy XIV and a few others. It seems like the perfect time to try and explore that opportunity. Is that something that you're interested in?

Yeah, that's a great question. For me, I know whenever we're talking about games the camera and the controls are really for me fundamentally key about any type of gaming experience. What are the cameras? What are the controls? And if I think about World of Warcraft, it was really designed for a keyboard and a mouse experience.

And so, if you think about the number of abilities that you have--so the classes have 50 abilities at level 60--if you think about the number of items that you have an inventory and just how the UI works, like it's really built for a keyboard type experience.

I think the interest in Classic and the interest in other platforms for WoW means people are really interested in the world, people are interested in the gameplay. It's something we've talked about on and off honestly for more than a decade. Personally, I think that if we said we could do an effort where we did some class simplification and we slimmed down a lot of the abilities and kind of reworked a lot of how the inventory works, I could imagine that working. I do think it's a little bit of a different game, right?

Because we think about how you want the pace of combat to work and how you want your controls to work. That can be a little bit different for a console audience, but it is something that we've talked about for sure.

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