Feature

An Interview With Blizzard President J. Allen Brack

by Andy McNamara on May 28, 2019 at 09:50 AM

When Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime announced his retirement last year, the mantle passed to new president J. Allen Brack. After years over overseeing World of Warcraft, Brack now brings his years of experience to lead Blizzard into a new era. I sat down with him to hear his thoughts and Blizzard's process and we can expect in the future.

Previously, your main focus was World of Warcraft. Now you have a new focus: watching over all of Blizzard's games. How has the job transition gone?

I mean I’m a fan of all the things that Blizzard’s done. I’ve put thousands and thousands of hours into Diablo. Lots of time into StarCraft, both StarCraft when it first came out and StarCraft II. I’ve been a fan of all the games that Blizzard has made even before I worked at Blizzard. It’s not easy to love all my children equally, I guess as it were. In terms of the job, I think it’s been pretty hard honestly. But one of the things we’ve said is that we have more games we’re working on now than in any other point in the company’s history. And that’s very exciting. Being able to see those products, see those games, see those things that the team’s really excited about – that’s what gets me up in the morning.

What do you think you bring to leadership at Blizzard that's different than Mike Morhaime? What different priorities do you bring?

I think Mike is a great human and he’s a good friend, and I have just a tremendous amount of respect for him as a human and a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s accomplished. One of the things I would say that’s happened is we’re investing more in games, to create more games, to create more content. We have lots of people in the community, we have lots of fans, and they’re all hungry for the things that we can create, and so we want to give them more of that. That’s been the internal, and I think the external company message as well. Really, we’re focusing on games, we’re focusing on development.

When you talk about refocusing on games when you’re working on development, I know you’ve mentioned console and mobile as ways that you could expand reach. Can you comment at all about any of your plans or what kind of franchises or anything like that that you would love to see move in those directions?

One of the things that I think has been lost in that [question] that you just articulated is we’re not going to become a mobile-only company. We are PC. We have strong roots in console from the very early days, but we’ve been a primarily PC developer for a very long time and that’s not going to change. You know, a lot of us are very big fans and have the PC as our most favorite platform, and so PC is going to continue to be a huge part [of Blizzard]. Console has been a huge part in the recent Blizzard history with Diablo and Overwatch and now Diablo Switch coming out as well. We think those are great platforms for those games where it makes sense.

Mobile is a huge gaming platform. It’s the largest gaming platform. So can we create some authentic, cool Blizzard experiences on that device? We think we can. And we think it can be very cool. I’m excited to talk about or see a lot of how Diablo Immortal goes and how the fans react to it, and people who actually play the game, and then decide what the right next move is on our mobile future. But we think the franchises, the characters, and the worlds that we have, we want to see them in a lot of places. We want to see them on mobile. We had a Warcraft film already. We’d like to see more. We’ve got books and comics and different kind of things that we’ve done. It makes me think that the franchises are large enough and are worthy to be experienced by more.

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn’t bring up the fact that I would play the sh-t out of a World of Warcraft battle pet mobile game. You have the assets!

We’ve talked about it for years. And there’s a little bit of kind of a weird thing of like, “Hey, do you want the way that you play battle pets [on the PC] to be on mobile? Do you want that to be the only way? How do we think about it relating to the main game?” We haven’t really come up with a great answer, obviously. But that is something we’ve talked about for many, many years. Because I think to a lot of people, the pet battle gameplay is a little bit ancillary, it’s a little bit of an auxiliary experience. Some people love it, and it’s that’s the thing that they do. But I think there’s a lot of, "Hey, if I could do that on my phone that would be cool because I’m not going to do that on my PC because I got other stuff to do when I’m sitting down at my PC." We obviously haven’t figured out the right way to do that yet. But it’s something we have talked about for a long time.

Blizzard has spent a lot of time in the last few years investing in esports as a venue, as an avenue for reaching players with your games. Do you feel like the recent cutbacks in the publishing group is from an over-reach in the esports realm? Do you think esports is still the future of Blizzard and Blizzard games?

Great Question. You know, we think of esports as part of the product. Part of the game experience, right? It’s a way to engage as a fan with the game when you’re not playing. Similar to kind of a lot of these other things we’re talking about, whether it be a linear media or books or comics or things like that, this is another way to experience [our games]. In a case of something like Overwatch, and I’m a big believer in esports and kind of what that future is. The thing I did after Blizzcon last year was watch all the esports that I wasn’t able to see [during the show]. I’m a huge fan of esports, I’m a huge believer in that as an engagement medium with the players and a way for players to kind of see, from a competitive standpoint, the best in the world. And from a streamer experience, just to see other people and other personalities kind of interact with the game and the fans.

In the case of Overwatch league, that’s been a big investment for Blizzard. It’s been a big focus to try to really do something that’s never been done before. Create a league, like a sporting league, with a lot of parallels to real traditional sports, but in the esports environment and have city-based competitions and local competitions around, essentially, a game that’s played over the internet, and to do that globally. We’re super impressed and proud of how last season went. This season is already even larger than the last season, and we’ve added more teams. 

The Overwatch Homestand was interesting.

Yeah, the Overwatch Homestand was just two weeks ago, and we’ve got one planned later this year. I’m a big believer in that and I think the current generation that is growing up has grown up with streaming from day one, has grown up with tablets, has grown up with Twitch, has grown up with a lot of different – has grown up with YouTube, and a lot of ways to just engage with content, and they like game content. That’s the thing that they want to watch more than I think the traditional kind of TV or sports program.

Does that mean you make gameplay decisions based around watch-ability? I’ll use WoW as an example, “Hey! We’re not going to make changes to a class based what happens in Mythic Plus at the invitational’ and then something like Outlaw rogues happen, and then it affects the perception of the games and gameplay within it. How do you balance that? How do you deal with that?

It’s challenging. If we’re just talking about Mythic Dungeon for just a second, I love that. I mean it’s the most fun watching experience of World of Warcraft, again that’s another thing we’ve talked about for years. WoW is primarily a PvE game. How do we celebrate that? How do we bring that to be a little bit of a better experience than PvP, which is extremely hardcore? You really have to be educated in order to be a successful watcher in that mind. And so the advent of the Mythic Keystones, that was a great opportunity to say, "Hey, it’s five-person, it’s dungeons, it’s some of the stuff that WoW is best at, some of the most fun content." That’s the thing we’re going to push on and try to invest in. We have made a couple of changes to the game as a result of how things have worked out, but I don’t think those things are really effective to the majority of players.

You know, we’ve wanted to see different kind of class diversity, we’ve wanted to see different kind of people not making abhorrent choices on classes because of certain types of things. So those are the types of things that we’ve tried to weed out, is really just to weed out what we feel like is stuff that the teams feel like they have to do in order to be competitive, but is not really in the spirit of what the dungeon is trying to do.

I think that’s a challenge you have in both the kind of the raiding environment where it’s easier to be ranged, right? And in the audience, it’s easier to be melee and people will always take the easiest path at that kind of min/max cutting edge.

At the high end, certainly, everyone is at extreme min/max-er. And so those are the considerations for sure.

Blizzard
World of Warcraft Classic launches on August 27, 2019

So, what can we expect? Are we going to have any surprises at Blizzcon this year? I mean that is your bread and butter obviously, and last year I feel fans, perhaps I’m speaking out of turn, may have been left a little disappointed. I mean obviously, not every year can be the greatest year of all-time.

That’s true. We’ve experimented with different kind of Blizzcon things. We’ve had years where, you know, the original philosophy of Blizzcon was "we’ll have a Blizzcon whenever we have something specific to announce," and then we had gone several years in a row and then said "Hey, we don’t have anything to announce, let’s not do one this year," and that did not go very well for fan reactions. Okay, hey, now we need to do Blizzcons every year. And that means sometimes there’s going to be, you know, huge amounts of announcements, and some less so.

I think there’s a lot of lessons for us, specifically last year, to learn in terms of how to make a Blizzcon experience even better. And so, no details, obviously. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about at Blizzcon yet. We still actually haven’t all figured it out yet. We’ll see where everything gets as we get closer to the event, but it’s obviously an opportunity for us to talk about what we’ve been working on.

What is your commitment at an executive level toward new experiences? Do you consider that to be a focus? Do you consider just kind of like maintaining the brands you have? What is your goal as Blizzard Entertainment?

We’ve talked about how we’ve got more games in development than ever before. More games in development than in the entire history of the company. We also think that there are a lot of different types of games that can exist within the IP’s that we have. If we think about the Overwatch IP for example, we think about the Overwatch IP as being extremely large and extremely all-encompassing. Overwatch, the game people experience today, is just being a very small part of what that IP could be. We’ve seen with Warcraft starting out as a real-time strategy game, having a massive MMO, having Hearthstone, there’s been other projects that have been in the Warcraft experience that haven’t made it to market in the past,  like Warcraft Adventures. We think that a lot of these franchises have the ability to have lots of different types of games, lots of different types of experiences. Having said that, it was 18 years between the introduction of Diablo, which is the last Blizzard IP, and the release of Overwatch. That’s a long time to go without creating a new franchise. So we want to create more games in our franchises and we do want to think about new franchises as well.

There have been stories about how you guys are pretty brutal about the standards you expect when building new things. Do you feel that limits your ability to get games out there and to try things to be experimental within that space?

I do, actually. You know, if I think about lots of games that get made, and this is a question that comes up internally, like "Can we just make a small, little adventure indie game? And insert your favorite game that you’re kind of playing right now, we want to make a game kind of like this." I don’t know that that’s something the community would accept. I don’t know that that’s necessarily something that we would put as something that is a Blizzard experience when we think about what a Blizzard experience is. And so, it does limit us I think. I’m not saying we would ever do a smaller type game, but right now it’s hard for me to see how it’s the right thing for us to spend time, focus, and energy on making something that’s a little smaller to that same level. We have so many different existing games and games that we’re working on with lots of communities, that they’re not getting enough, right? They’re not getting enough content, they’re not getting enough games that they already want. And so that’s a tough balance on that piece for sure.

All the groups are hungry.

All the groups are starving. And how do you think about feeding everyone? Absolutely. And so, if I think about one of our biggest games that we have now but kind of got a lukewarm reception when it started, that was Hearthstone. Us releasing a collectible card game, people were kind of like, ‘Why are you wasting your time on this? You have all these other things you could be doing that I want.’ Now it’s obviously grown to be a huge franchise in and of its own right, and so I couldn’t be more proud of what the team has accomplished there. But I think we want to be able to see how any game that we make is going to become something that’s really beloved by tens of millions of players.