Blizzard's Mike Morhaime Talks Loot Boxes, Battle.net, Mobile, And More
At BlizzCon 2017, I spoke with Blizzard president and co-founder Mike Morhaime about a smattering of various Blizzard items, from loot boxes, Diablo's curious absence at the show, to new frontiers from the wizards behind some of gaming's most iconic titles and IPs. Blizzard's head of story & franchise development, Lydia Bottegoni, also chimed in on some critical aspects of the company's processes and future.
Talk about the growth of Blizzcon, the changing stages, and how that’s all played out.
Morhaime: Well we’re at capacity right now for the convention center. We’re basically using all of it. 1.2 million square feet. We did grow attendance this year by about 10,000.
So we’re somewhere near 37,000?
Morhaime: I’m not sure of the figures. Something in the 35,000 range?
Here’s a question that I’ve been wondering for a while: What’s the deal with the Battle.net/Blizzard app? We were Battle.net, then we were Blizzard, then we were not Blizzard, then we go back to Battle.net. What happened there?
Morhaime: We really struggled with branding, where what we found is if you have more than two brands competing, it gets really complicated. And so Battle.net as a brand started competing against Blizzard and the franchise name for mindshare. So [we] wound up with this sort of awkward situation where we’re sending people to Battle.net to get information on all of our games instead of Blizzard.com, and so our first instinct was ‘you know what? let's just start working on Battle.net.’ And we found that eh, there’s value in the Battle.net name. The problem with Battle.net [is] what do you call the Battle.Net app? The Blizzard app? Okay, that’s fine and everything, but the platform still kind of wanted a name and so like the Battle.net account, they wanted that to be your Blizzard account and your Blizzard balance and everything, but again, the platform was still a thing and everybody referred to it as Battle.net, and so where we landed was just, you know, let’s just call it Blizzard Battle.net. And then you have Blizzard represented even when you’re talking about the platform. So I think that’s… And you can abbreviate Battle.net and whatever, but eventually, that little icon in the top is gonna say Blizzard Battle.net, and that’s what we’re gonna be able to refer to the platform as.
So it’s got it all in there now?
Morhaime: Yeah. Kinda like Blizzcon. If we called this… Well here’s another example. We had an event in China a few years ago. The year we skipped Blizzcon. We said, ‘Well, what should we call it?’ and we ended up calling it the Battle.net World Championship. Harmless enough, right? Battle.net World Championship ended up being the brand that we promoted for the event, and so it actually took pole position relative to World of Warcraft Arena World Championship, World of Warcraft WCS Championship and even Blizzard, because Blizzard actually wasn’t even there, so you went to the BWC website and there was this logo that we created for this thing and that’s what you were looking at, and so it’s like that’s not on strategy. Blizzcon is perfect because you’ve got Blizzard already there. We sort of stumble along the path, but eventually we get there.
You’ve got the Activision section in the app now. Does this open the door to seeing Call of Duty on there? Or is Destiny sort of one of them?
Morhaime: We’re just taking it one step at a time right now. This was really about we have the opportunity, we knew the Bungie guys wanted to create a PC version of Destiny 2, and we thought is this something that we think our Battle.net players would like to have on the platform. We’ve always had a ton of respect for Bungie. We’ve always thought Destiny 2 was going to be a great game, and we really want Battle.net to be a platform where you go for premium games. We’re not looking to have a ton of games on this platform, but we felt like if we were ever going to put a third party, not that this is really a third party, this is an Activision game, but if we were ever going to put a non-Blizzard game up on the platform, Destiny would be right at the top of that list. And so we did a lot of soul-searching and said, "You know what? We can do this as long as we can keep the branding clear, because it’s not a game developed by Blizzard." That’s how we landed at the distinction where we’ve got the Blizzard games and we’ve got this one that actually is not developed by Blizzard, it’s actually published by Activision, and so the branding needs to be clear, and it is. I think our players really appreciate being able to play with their Battle.net friends.
What’s your philosophy on the whole Loot Box situation? That comes up every day now. Where do you fall on that one?
Morhaime: You’re talking about gambling?
I am talking about crates that can give you random items when you open them.
Morhaime: I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with crates that give you randomized items. I think that whatever the controversy is, I don’t think Overwatch belongs in that controversy.
Is there a line? Like, you’d say you wouldn’t make pay-for-power an element of the crates? As long as it’s cosmetic it’s cool or is there…?
Morhaime: Well, it’s definitely something we’ve avoided. I think another element, in terms of the gambling question, the question in terms of that is whether or not you’re actually… There’s an element of converting back into real-world value. I think that’s a critical element, and that element does not exist in Overwatch loot crates.
Yeah. I wasn’t exactly targeting Overwatch loot crates, but…
Morhaime: Yeah, but I think that’s an element. If you’re going to talk about those things, then you have to look at as, "Well, are people trying to make money doing this?"
No Diablo at all at Blizzcon. What’s the deal there?
Morhaime: We gave everybody a heads up on that one. We love the Diablo franchise just as much as anybody. We think it’s a core Blizzard franchise, and we are actively thinking about and working on the future of the franchise. We just aren’t ready to talk about it yet.
Let’s talk about the WoW story. Was Chris Metzen involved at all with creating this chapter?
Lydia Bottegoni: As far as I know he wasn’t, unless he laid some groundwork before he left.
Morhaime: Yeah, I don’t think he was very involved in this one.
Bottegoni: Yeah, I don’t think so. The intro cinematic, he was not involved with us from the time of that.
Morhaime: I mean he had definitely left his imprint on the franchise for sure.
Bottegoni: And frankly on the team. The team that executed against that without Chris in the office currently, no question a lot of the infrastructure there and the people and the ethics and the passion, a perfect legacy, no question.
Morhaime: What’s really interesting, because I’ve worked with a lot of very talented and strong-willed people in the past, and when you’ve worked with people like that for many years, even when they’re not in the room, you kind of know what they would say, and it’s almost like they keep contributing for years.
Bottegoni: In the team, there’s definitely the sense of Chris’ll watch this, he’ll still grade us, there’s still an expectation. It still has to meet that mark.
Morhaime: What're the words you’ve used to describe it?
Bottegoni: Oh, yeah. We were trying to figure out how to describe what his influence was, and I said creative shaman of the company.
Morhaime: Yeah, that’s nice.
Bottegoni: Is that the right way to encapsulate it?
Morhaime: He actually really enjoys being a civilian and being able to watch what happens and the things they announce, and I think he is having a lot of fun doing that. But it’s always great to hear positive feedback from him.
Speaking of new stuff, what kind of genres or game styles are on the horizon that you want to get into that you may not have yet?
Morhaime: We’ve got a number of projects that are incubating, a lot of ideas, so I can’t talk about any of those. I think from a platform perspective, we definitely see mobile as a big opportunity, and so there are a lot of ideas that we have that are specifically targeted at mobile. Not everything, but some of those. But you know, our guys play a ton of games across all platforms and we’re always trying to think of what’s next. But I can’t give you any specifics.
Is there any chance anything is going to be coming for the Switch? I know that you probably get this one a lot. When am I gonna get to play Overwatch on my Switch?
Morhaime: There are a lot of Switch fans at Blizzard.
What at Blizzcon are you the most excited about?
Morhaime: Well, I was really excited about opening ceremony, because there’s just so many cool things that we knew, we’d seen, and I was just really looking forward to sharing those with the community. So that was a ton of fun to watch and hear the response. Now, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. I get to spend a lot of time watching the esports finals, so that’ll be really cool. You have to check out some of the stages. It, they’re really awesome. The new Starcraft 2 stage is particularly awesome and the Overwatch arena is just a great use of that space.
Bottegoni: For me, opening ceremony is always, it’s teary eyed every time. And I also think it’s fun that there’s so many more panels this time, and because it was referenced a lot on stage this morning, the term deepdive or get into more of the details, there are a lot of people that really want to get into the weeds on really specific questions around what’s really going on with the game and the expansions and the new characters. And there’s a lot of panels that are really in the details this time, so people have an opportunity to really get in there and get focused on the stuff that they care about.
Morhaime: There’s some really cool ones too.
Bottegoni: And then the voice acting stage is always one of the really fun ones. It always just, it’s a personal favorite for no other reason than that it’s just really fun and lively.
Morhaime: That stage is one of the sort of stages that was notorious for not being part of the virtual ticket I think in the past, and so the new virtual ticket covers all the stages.
Bottegoni: So if you haven’t ever gone to that stage, it’s a fun one.
Morhaime: It is fun. They’re pretty funny.
When are we going to see Warcraft 4?
Morhaime: I don’t know.
World of Warcraft Classic. How did we get here?
Morhaime: Well, it’s not a secret that our community has been very passionate about this particular topic. We listen to all the feedback. When they first started asking about it, the World of Warcraft team kind of looked at what it would take to implement something like that, and it’s not trivial. You can’t just go back to the original code, because the code base has just evolved so much since and there were a lot of problems with the original code, the original infrastructure. I mean, we had a rough first couple years with World of Warcraft. But you know, they kept at the problem and they feel like they found some good solutions. It’s still gonna take a ton of work, but we actually think it will be pretty cool to give players that experience.