Blizzard Entertainment President J Allen Brack on Diablo, Warcraft and 30 years of gaming

From World of Warcraft to Overwatch and Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment creates some of the most iconic and lucrative video game worlds in existence and this year celebrates 30 years in business.

Newshub spoke to Blizzard Co-Founder Allen Adham and Blizzard President J Allen Brack over Zoom during Blizzcon, the company's Blizzard celebration showcasing its games and announcing what comes next. 

The event, which usually packs out a California convention centre with tens of thousands of fans, took place entirely digitally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brack told Newshub the move online wasn't an easy one.   

"I'm a shy, nerdy, introverted geek and, you know, to be surrounded by people who love the communities and love the players and love the stories that we tell really is a recharge moment for us... giving up on that was a real challenge," he said.

Fittingly for a milestone anniversary, almost every high profile announcement at the event harkened back to the glory days of the now decade-spanning company. From fan-favourite characters from 1997's original Diablo making their way to the yet to be released Diablo 4, World of Warcraft's (WOW) 2007 expansion the Burning Crusade receiving the Classic Edition treatment to a 'Resurrected' edition of Diablo 2

However refurbishing old favourites comes with pitfalls, which Blizzard learnt the hard way when Warcraft 3 Reforged - an extensive remake of their seminal strategy game - was widely panned by both critics and fans upon release last year.  

"With Warcraft 3 Reforged, I think we tried to see what it might look like to go further. And we realised, obviously, we realised that maybe isn't the right approach," said Adham.

Diablo 2 Resurrected Mephisto art.
Diablo 2 Resurrected art. Photo credit: Blizzard

The company seems to have taken lessons from their missteps, with Adham promising a lighter touch when it came to Diablo 2 : Resurrected.  

"This is the Sistine Chapel of action role-playing games. You don't repaint or improve a Da Vinci painting, you can only restore it. You can make it high fidelity, but you don't mess with something that is that historic." 

While some 'quality of life improvements' in the underlying tech of the game, he promised its soul would go untouched, with primarily visual upgrades and reworked ingame cinematics.

"I think players will see that the game is very true to the original. It's just more beautiful," said Adham.

Before taking the company's helm as president in 2018, Brack joined in 2006 to work on World of Warcraft's first expansion, the Burning Crusade. So announcing at Blizzcon that it will soon be playable in its original form in WOW Classic was particularly nostalgic. 

"As a person who's continued to play WOW for many, many hundreds of days total, thinking about some of the things and the design ideas that we introduced in Burning Crusade that are still with us today in modern WOW is really awesome," he said.

World of Warcraft - The Burning Crusade: Classic screenshot.
World of Warcraft - The Burning Crusade: Classic screenshot. Photo credit: Blizzard

World of Warcraft is one of the most successful game franchises in history, running for over 15 years with over 100 million lifetime subscribers and producing billions in profits.

When Blizzard launched in 1991, video games were still a relatively niche form of entertainment; now they're the most profitable form of media on the planet. Much of the growth fuelled through 'microtransactions', where aspects of a game's content are gated behind small payments. 

There has been a growing pushback against microtransactions from the gaming community over the past decade and Brack says being conscious of what value is being derived from their games is always top of mind for Blizzard. 

"You can see games that are hyper ethical and are trying to really deliver a huge amount of value and be very transparent with how they do their monetization," said Brack. 

"And then there's the complete opposite side. You see things that are just stomach churning and you can kind of be like, 'wow, how is it that you're able to think about doing that?'"

Blizzard ran into heat when it attempted a 'real money auction house' in Diablo 3, which allowed players to trade and purchase in-game items for actual currency, but was felt by many to undermine the core of the game.

The real money auction house was closed in 2014 and Brack says they've learnt to be very careful when determining what real money buys in all their games, but in World of Warcraft in particular. 

"WOW is a game where you're peacocking and you're showing the achievement that you have through how you look. And so we have to be really careful and really specific about a very small, limited number of things that we say, look, you can buy these things straight up." 

Developing and maintaining always online game worlds over decades doesn't just involve massive amounts of money, it also requires huge investments of time, and that can be punishing on the people who work on them.   

'Crunch', a  term for punishing work hours in order to finish a games development has been widely reported and heavily criticised across the game industry, with Former Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime claiming in a 2019 interview Blizzard 'evolved around' crunch but that it was 'unsustainable'.

When Newshub asked Brack about Blizzard's approach today, Brack was open about its use but insisted it was used very sparingly, and that in his view a healthy work/life balance for employees creates better games. 

"I think there's stories that are proven on the diminished efficacy of crunch over time. And so it's one of those things that I think it's a tool. I think you can use it for short periods of time," he said.

"I think it can dramatically improve the amount of quality that you have. But it is a tool and you've got to be very conscious in terms of how you think about it and how you use it." 

Diablo 2 Resurrected pre-alpha screenshot.
Diablo 2 Resurrected pre-alpha screenshot. Photo credit: Blizzard

Outside of games, Brack sent a clear message at Blizzcon by wearing a rainbow-themed Blizzard shirt and opening the show not with any franchise announcement, but a video celebrating the diversity of the company's gaming community. 

"Everyone wants to see themselves in the media, in TV and games and shows and they're kind of consuming. And the stronger connection you have with those characters, the greater the emotional impact that it can have and the more welcoming it can feel to you. And so, we work to try to have the games that we have represent society and the world that we live in," he told Newshub. 

Adham agreed, saying Blizzard's central mission statement ever since their founding back in 1991 was using their games to connect their players to not just the stories, but each other.   

"In some small way, our aspiration is to make the world a better place through gaming, by bringing all these sort of different people together to share this common love and maybe share a common understanding in the process."