On February 19, Blizzard hosted BlizzCon Online, a digital event that gave the studio a chance to update fans on its upcoming projects, including the anticipated Diablo IV and Overwatch 2. It also gave Blizzard a chance to announce a remake of Diablo II, called Diablo II: Resurrected.
I interviewed Blizzard president J. Allen Brack and Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham during BlizzCon Online, taking the opportunity to ask about the state of its biggest franchises, Vicarious Visions’ future, the studio’s plans for mobile gaming, and the lessons it learned from Warcraft III: Reforged’s chilly reception.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
BlizzCon goes digital
GamesBeat: We’re doing BlizzCon online. Does it feel weird?
Allen Adham: The whole year is weird, though. The whole last 12 months has been bizarre.
J. Allen Brack: I agree with that. In a world where we’re all working from home. I’m sitting at my dining room table right now, and have been for the last year. It’s a pretty amazing thing. I’m super-proud of what we were able to deliver. There’s a lot of love and energy that went into creating the opening ceremony. I hope that came through for players and for fans. We’ll see how the rest goes. It’s been an odd chunk of time for me.
Adham: We’re definitely feeling missing the interaction with the players. The energy of seeing 40,000 people in front of you is one of our favorite parts of BlizzCon. We definitely miss that. But in terms of the digital presentation, it’s something we’ve been doing for years.
GamesBeat: Right. You’ve always broadcast BlizzCon pretty extensively in the past. Did that give you a leg up compared to some other conferences as far as transitioning into an all digital event?
Brack: We’ve had, for the last 10 years, percentages of BlizzCon that were online, as Allen mentioned. We’ve tried to continue to bring more and more of the show to the people who can’t be part of the Anaheim convention experience. This is just another piece of that, having the entire show online. We’ve had people, for a decade, where that’s the only piece of BlizzCon they’ve had, the online digital piece.
GamesBeat: I was surprised to see Overwatch 2 not get much time on the main stage during opening ceremonies. Instead, its reveals happened at a sperate panel later. Can you talk me through that decision?
Brack: A lot of that was about what the team wanted to do and what the team wanted to focus on. We could talk about releasing a new hero. We could talk about releasing different maps. But it felt better and more holistic for the team, for people who are interested in Overwatch 2 to have a bit more than we could do in a 10 minute opening ceremony piece. There was quite a deliberate decision by the team to say, look, we want to give an inside look into what’s going on and what we have planned for Overwatch, what we’re thinking about as it relates to Overwatch 2, how that’s going to extend, and how Overwatch 2 is shaping up.
Adham: Blizzard is comprised of many different teams, and we don’t all speak and act with one voice. One of our greatest strengths is our diversity, and that goes all the way through to our individual teams. They have a tremendous amount of agency in what they choose to do and don’t do. It drives us crazy sometimes, but it leads to a bunch of great games.
GamesBeat: For a while it seemed like Diablo was the least important franchise, and now we have three Diablo projects upcoming. That’s a lot of Diablo. Is there a concern about oversaturation for that brand, or do you think all these games will be able to coexist?
Brack: There are many gaming franchises that fall into this, but there is no shortage of love and desire for more Diablo content. And so there has been that concern that’s been raised internally. We’ll continue to look at it and watch it, but it’s something that we’re so far away from today. It’s not something that is really keeping me up at night. There’s so much stuff that the teams are working on, so much lore and story and gameplay that they’re crafting. I think there’s so much love and desire for Diablo that people are going to be really excited about it no matter what platform they engage on, or if they engage on all of them.
Adham: They fit together quite nicely if you think about it. Immortal on mobile, when it’s likely to release, and Diablo II: Resurrected, the beautiful homage to the past, and the amount of time we expect people to play Diablo II: Resurrected relative to Diablo IV, which we envision as maybe the next lifestyle game in that franchise, running hopefully for years. We believe, actually, they fit really well together and support each other well.
GamesBeat: Vicarious Visions has become a part of the company recently. What exactly is its role? Is it with Diablo II?
Brack: We started to talk with some of the folks at Vicarious about two years ago. We’ve had the idea of doing a Diablo II: Resurrected, or what has become Diablo II: Resurrected, with the idea of them leading some of the work on the remaster. It’s been a joint co-dev in that I think roughly, it’s fair to say that the Vicarious folks have worked on the front end and the Blizzard teams have worked on the back end and the Battle.net integration. Blizzard does not have a long history of working with other studios. We’re relatively insular. One thought we had from the very beginning is, it would be a shame if we worked on this game together, if we solve a lot of the cultural integration, technical problems of working effectively, and then at the end of Diablo II we just said, that was awesome, thanks a lot, good luck with whatever your next project is.
As time has moved on, it’s always been [thought] it would be great if this team, that then has a lot of knowledge about Diablo, a lot of understanding, a lot of working closely with the people who are in charge of the Diablo franchise at this point, were able to continue to help out in some way. We have some percentage of the team that’s working on the Diablo II remaster, and some percentage of the team that’s working on Diablo IV, and we’ll continue to have them work on Diablo going forward.
Adham: It’s a testament to how well that joint development is going. One of the things we’ve found through this development is that we share a lot in terms of culture. In fact, Luis Barriga, the game director of Diablo IV, came from Vicarious Visions. We have senior Blizzard developers who’ve gone back to Albany to work at Vicarious Visions. One of our greatest challenges and opportunities at Blizzard is we have these beautiful rich worlds we’ve created, and now platforms with PC, console, and mobile, and so many ideas that we’re excited about. This will help us make great games with a common culture and a great bunch of friends on the east coast. It’s a win for everyone.
GamesBeat: Is Vicarious Visions now tied exclusively to Blizzard properties? Would they ever be tasked with remaking a different Activision brand again, like another Tony Hawk game?
Brack: I don’t want to say never, but that’s not the plan. The plan is, for the foreseeable [future], they would be dedicated to Blizzard properties in some way.
GamesBeat: Warcraft III: Reforged was the last big remake project from Blizzard. It’s had a rough time. What lessons were learned there, and how are they being applied to Diablo II?
Brack: The biggest lesson is around the initial talking to the fanbase, talking to the players about what Warcraft III was going to be. When we talked at the first BlizzCon where we announced Warcraft III: Reforged, one thing we highlighted was that we were going to go through and do all new game cutscenes. As that work progressed, and as we started to see that come together, it didn’t really feel like Warcraft III. It felt like we were trying to make a different game at that point. We backed off of what that is, and at the next BlizzCon we said, hey, we were going down this path, and we’re going down a different path now. We want to try to preserve what Warcraft III feels like.
I don’t think we did a great job of communicating that message, of making sure that players understood what Warcraft III: Reforged was trying to be. One thing that was great about the StarCraft remaster, and if you watched the opening ceremony you heard me directly refer to it, [is that] StarCraft is such a beloved game, and the one button press that is in StarCraft Remastered even today that allows you to switch between how it looked on the day it released, how the old game looks, versus the remaster, I think that was an important and great decision by the team to implement that. That’s something we’re implementing with Diablo II as well, to really make sure that you continue to preserve that authentic feel, because you’re going to be able to swap back and forth between the old version and the new version at any time.
GamesBeat: Are you happy with where Reforged is now, or are there going to be more updates to that title in the future?
Brack: There’s going to be more updates. We’ve talked about how the various tournament systems are not where we want them to be, and there are additional features we want to continue to think about and add. We have a team that’s continuing to work on Reforged.
Worlds of new and old Warcraft
GamesBeat: On the World of Warcraft front, there was a leak that happened a couple days before BlizzCon, spilling the beans on the reveals. What’s the reaction like inside when that happens? Were you upset?
Adham: [Laughs] Yeah, we go into blood rage!
Brack: One of the things for Blizzcon for us is the desire to give an experience and a gift to our players, and we really think about crafting the message to give players that experience, to give players that emotional feeling when they see, oh, hey, it’s the next chapter of the game that I love, or the next set of content, or a new class for Diablo IV. Pick any of the various things we announced today during BlizzCon. That’s no different than any BlizzCon. I will say that it’s hard for me personally, and this is something I kind of tell the company if and when there are leaks for this. The reason that there is such emotion around it is because there are so many people that care. We’re in a fortunate position to have millions of people around the world who are so hungry, who are so desperate for what we create. You can look at it as a negative, and you can be super aggro about it, but I think the net is, people care and are interested. That’s the message that you should take away from it. Which is a great message no matter what.
GamesBeat: Shadowlands had a good launch. Now that we’re a few months in, what’s the state of World of Warcraft? Is Shadowlands going above expectations? How does it compare to the last expansion?
Brack: Shadowlands is going great. We’re happy with it. The team has done such a great job on both the art, the story, the design, everything that’s coming together. They took a lot of lessons and great hits from previous expansions and iterated on them into a great place. Something that I continue to say with pretty much every expansion, and it’s no different this time, is that the world and the way the art has come together in this expansion is just mind-blowing. For them to have such different artistic themes with each one of the zones is such an awesome experience. The team did such an amazing job.
Adham: The player feedback we’ve gotten is that things like Torghast and Shadowlands in general, it’s the best received expansion in a decade.
GamesBeat: There’s also Burning Crusade coming to World of Warcraft Classic. I have to imagine, back when that came out the first time, that was an exciting time at Blizzard, having such a megahit on your hands. Is it kind of nostalgic releasing that again?
Brack: It is for me personally, because it’s the first Blizzard game I worked on. To be able to have that announcement come out and think back to getting that game done, all the decisions that happened, and to also think about, what are the systems that were implemented in that very first expansion that we still hold true today. Heroic dungeons is a signature feature of WoW expansions at this point, but they were introduced in Burning Crusade. Flying is such an awesome experience that you get at max level. Once you unlock flying and you can fly around the world. That was also introduced in Burning Crusade. To see those things we thought we be good ideas, and for them to be good ideas and extend through the modern game since that moment, it’s a great feeling.
Adham: Some of us that are old school WoW, myself included, who then left the team and moved on to other games, there’s this playful competition between the old guard and the new. Seeing both of them out there today, players choosing what they want, is fun to watch. How the different approaches to game making compare and contrast.
GamesBeat: When was the decision made that Classic would get Burning Crusade? I know when Classic came out, it wasn’t super clear what its future would be.
Brack: We’ve heard for years, even before classic was even announced, “Hey, we want to play classic World of Warcraft.” We also heard, “Oh, no, we want to play classic Wrath of the Lich King, classic Burning Crusade.” That’s been a thread out there from a player perspective. Honestly, doing something like a World of Warcraft Classic is really impossible to predict, what’s going to happen. If you think about playing World of Warcraft, if you played Classic both in the original time and on the re-release, games and times move on. It’s hard to know whether a classic remaster, something like that, is going to be sustained, if it’s going to be good. There’s no way to predict, is it a thing that people will try for a couple hours and say, wow, that’s just like I remember it, that’s great, and I’m not going to make it to level 60 again because I’ve done that enough in my life? Or is it going to be something where this is the world that they love, the classic Azeroth, something they want to continue to be a part of? There’s no way to know.
We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success with Classic, with people wanting to continue to stay in old Azeroth. I want to say, relatively quickly, we had an idea with the success, for WoW Classic, it makes sense that we would do a Burning Crusade classic. We’ve had that success and we’ve had ideas on how to bring that about technically. It’s come to fruition. Technically today, or maybe a couple days ago, depending on how much you were reading the internet.
Blizzard and mobile
GamesBeat: I know that following the success of Call of Duty Mobile, it’s become a philosophy at Activision Blizzard that its biggest franchises should have some kind of a mobile presence. We’re seeing that happen with Diablo. What can fans expect for a Warcraft or an Overwatch in terms of mobile features?
Adham: In 2018, when we announced Immortal, I think because we hadn’t yet announced Diablo IV, there was some trepidation from our players around whether we were pivoting. Just to set the record straight, the vast majority of our developers at Blizzard are on PC and console. Now, that being said, we think mobile is a fairly green field opportunity for a company like ours to make console quality games, authentic Blizzard games. You’ll see that for Immortal. People who got to play it in the technical test got to experience it for themselves, and were pleasantly surprised by how much it feels like you’re just playing Diablo, but on your phone. In the best possible way.
When we think about mobile going forward, it’s something that many of us now play in addition to PC and console games. And that’s Blizzard’s strategy. It’s in addition to our PC and our console games. It’s not an inflection, and it’s not something we’re doing instead of PC and console. It’s additive on top. Our goals with mobile are the same that they’ve always been with PC and console. That’s to make amazing epic games with beautiful moment to moment, and to deliver overwhelming value to our players, and to do it ethically. Hopefully there will be a lot more of that to come in addition to all the great things that we have planned and are currently working on, on PC and console.
Brack: In terms of specifics around future Warcraft games that you might imagine, I don’t think there’s necessarily one specific way to do things. I’ll bring up Warcraft as an IP as an example, which has had strategy games, real time strategy games, an MMO, a free-to-play card game, all within that Warcraft banner. And so when we think about creating an IP or creating a franchise, we think about the various games as entry points into that franchise. But there is a tapestry of games that we can imagine fitting into Warcraft. There’s a tapestry of games we could imagine fitting into Overwatch. It’s not just about, hey, how do we translate the existing experience that you know of to within that franchise. It’s also about what makes sense for that particular device and how it could work as well.
Adham: The developers leading the teams making our mobile games are bonafide Blizzard developers, all of them. When we announce our future developments, we’ve hinted at them in the last earnings call, but they’re being led by Blizzard developers. Wyatt Cheng is leading the Immortal team. They’re being led by Blizzard developers who are passionate about mobile gaming. This isn’t a commercial thing. That’s a side benefit of us making games that we ourselves really want to play. You’ll see that when we talk about our future mobile titles and you get to meet those developers. These are their passion projects.
GamesBeat: You’re working on a lot of big games right when the pandemic hit. What have been some of the biggest challenges for Blizzard during the past year?
Brack: The biggest thing is, you’re talking to a person who had been asked, for basically all my career, hey, I want to work from home! What would it be like for me to live in Montana? And I was always convinced that people needed to be together in order to create the great experiences that we have. If you think about walking down the hall, and I’ll use the proverbial getting coffee from the coffee room kind of example, Allen comes in and we start talking about some game that we were playing last night, or wasn’t that a great raid we had in WoW, or whatever the experience happens to be. How does that plus up what it is that we’re working on? Very organically. In the world where we’re forced to all be at home, it’s been challenging.
There have been some challenges and difficulty. If I think about the Shadowlands expansion, I’m happy with how that has come together and shipped and how the players have received it. But let’s not forget that it’s the first game we ever announced a release date for, and then we had to very quickly say, no, it’s not going to be ready when we said, we’re going to need an additional couple of months in order to get it. Some of that is purely the pandemic and how it is working from home, the challenges we’re having.
Adham: We’re mostly introverted gamers. In some ways we’re well suited to this. But at the same time, the loss of human contact has been tough on all of us.
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