Allen Adham on Blizzard's 'lesson in hubris', an 'almost' perfect game and a future under Microsoft 

Allen Adham on Blizzard's 'lesson in hubris', an 'almost' perfect game and a future under Microsoft 

From World of Warcraft to Overwatch, Blizzard and its gallery of genre-defining games has dominated the interactive entertainment industry for three decades. 

Now, with a drawn-out acquisition by Microsoft finally clearing regulatory hurdles, another 30 years of dominance could be in reach. 

But the company's good news on the corporate front comes following a series of setbacks in recent years: high-profile staff departures, revelations of toxic workplace culture and hostile player reception to both game direction and monetisation practices in later releases.

Allen Adham, co-founder of the company, sat down with Newshub following the company's annual 'Blizzcon', its first in-person event since 2019. Asked about the lessons Blizzard learned in the last four years, in an exclusive chat, Adham was candid about issues but emphatic a page has been turned. 

"We're coming through a period: COVID, some of our culture challenges, and then this transition between Activision to Microsoft. All of that is sort of behind us now. We're a better company for it and a stronger company for it. It's not our first round of challenges. Having been around for 30 years, we've had our ups and downs."

Allen Adham is one of Blizzard's three co-founders.
Allen Adham is one of Blizzard's three co-founders. Photo credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

Founded under the name 'Silicon and Synapse' in the 90s, Blizzard's first breakthrough hit was Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, which birthed the world of Azeroth and laid the narrative foundations for much of its future game catalog. 

Reflecting on the immense scope of Blizzard's current games compared to that title, Adham says a key challenge for his developers is not being distracted by a game's scale and instead focusing on core principles.  

"Whenever we think about making something new, one of the things we try to teach our designers is a value we call 'concentrate the cool'. Don't try to do all the things. Concentrate on the coolest core element," Adham said. 

"For example, chess is an iconic example of an almost perfect game. It's strategically deep while being very simple with only six pieces. And you can explain it to a kid in 5 minutes. That's one of the challenges that our teams have to just sort of psychologically overcome and think about starting something new."

Much of Blizzard's success has come from leveraging audience attachment to its expansive game lore by iterating familiar worlds into new genres. The real time strategy of Warcraft grew into a massive online multiplayer RPG, World of Warcraft, and then into card battler Hearthstone.

However, Allen acknowledges this kind of adaptation comes with its own pitfalls.

The pivot to card battling in Hearthstone from real time strategy in Warcraft took some players by surprise.
The pivot to card battling in Hearthstone from real time strategy in Warcraft took some players by surprise. Photo credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

 "The other side of that coin is what our players expect from us. We see it when we announced Hearthstone, the audience wasn't expecting a card game using the Warcraft IP. There's always this period of disconnection." 

This 'period of disconnection' was most obvious in a widely-memed moment in 2018, when Blizzard announced Diablo Immortal, a free-to-play mobile version of their iconic action RPG at gaming convention PAX, in lieu of unveiling Diablo 4, setting off a tense interaction between developers and the audience.

"You see what happened with the Immortal amount of mobile in front of a PC audience. They wanted Diablo 4. Those unexpected things, in the long run, charm and delight and expand our audience. In the short run, we compete against our own sort of player expectation and our own internal expectations."

While Diablo Immortal and Hearthstone both built thriving communities after an initially lukewarm response to their reveals, Blizzard's iterative approach hasn't always been successful. 

The company ceased support for Heroes of the Storm, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) starring Blizzard's expansive roster of heroes, in July last year. 

Heroes of the Storm failing to cut through in its genre has a particular irony as the entire MOBA space was virtually birthed from a fan-made mod to one of Blizzard's earlier games, Warcraft 3.

"You get a couple of opportunities every ten years or so to jump on a new trend. The ideal circumstance for us is to see something emergent, get into it quickly and be category defining. We're very proud of Heroes of the Storm. It's an amazing game, extremely high quality but we were third in that space behind Dota and League of Legends," explained Adham. 

"For us it was a lesson in hubris. Just making a good game isn't enough. You have to make it quickly."

Heroes of the Storm struggled to break through in a crowded genre.
Heroes of the Storm struggled to break through in a crowded genre. Photo credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

Adham contrasted Heroes of the Storm's failure with the success of team-based multiplayer shooter, Overwatch.

"Overwatch is a slightly different lesson. Overwatch is what it looks like when you move into a crowded space but you have clear ideas on how to meaningfully advance the state of play," he said. 

"You're seeing this beautiful, colorful, optimistic view of the world and characters…you're like, ‘wow, this is totally different from all the other squad-based shooters with all these grizzled old war veterans fighting in these rubbed out dusty, war zones’."

While advancing the state of play is always his goal, Adham admits being creatively agile when you're running a multi-billion-dollar, multinational corporation with over 17,000 employees isn't easy.   

"In the early days, dev teams were five or ten people and the cycles were six months. So the speed with which you can try new things, us and others, there are all kinds of crazy innovative games constantly coming out." 

"Now at the triple A level it's taking four, five, six, seven years to build games at that scale in high fidelity. The teams, of course, are much larger. The rate of innovation in this space is not what it used to be."

While budgets, timelines and team sizes continue to bloat in the high budget 'triple A' arena of game development, Adham says smaller studios creating 'indie' titles can afford to be more dynamic.

Tight-lipped about what Blizzard's next game will be, Newshub pressed him on where he was drawing inspiration from for the future. Adham highlighted multiple game of the year award winner, Hades.  

Hades from Supergiant games won Game of the Year at the 24th annual D.I.C.E awards.
Hades from Supergiant games won Game of the Year at the 24th annual D.I.C.E awards. Photo credit: Supergiant Games.

"You look at that and you realise that's a comparatively small team building something at really  compelling speed, it’s highly replayable, concentrated in its coolness and its moment-to-moment gameplay was exceptional, right? So you look at that and think - ‘what would that look like if Blizzard were to take that on at scale’?" 

Whether the company’s future lies in creating its own take on the Hades format remains to be seen, the only certainty is its course will be shaped by Blizzard's new partnership with Microsoft.

Asked how he plans to balance the creative autonomy of Blizzard within the corporate structure of the world's second largest company, Adham was optimistic about the new bosses.

"I think that Microsoft may be one of the best partners that you can possibly be attached to," he said. 

"I actually think that there's a pretty good chance that they empower us and improve us. And with their model, they own other first party studios. We're not the first through their model because we can see how they operate with the other companies. They trust, they give agency, and they hold them accountable. That's exactly what we're looking for."

When it comes to his message to any jaded Blizzard fans who think the company’s best days are behind them, Adham has a short and sweet reply. 

"We continue to work on all kinds of cool new things. Stay open minded, keep checking out our games and I think you'll be surprised."