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Blizzard leans into Diablo, Warcraft at BlizzCon for 30th anniversary

When J. Allen Brack first arrived at Activision-Blizzard in 2006, it was housed in a dour office park that belied the transformative changes happening within. Fresh off releasing “World of Warcraft,” the seminal massively multiplayer online RPG now celebrating its 17th year, Blizzard was in the process of becoming a cultural powerhouse. But looking at its nondescript collection of buildings in Southern California “you would never have known that it was a video game campus,” Brack remembered.

Today, J. Allen Brack is Blizzard’s president, and the publisher of hits including “Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” “Overwatch” and “Diablo” is very different. “Now we have an entire campus with a 15-foot bronze orc greeting you when you come into the front door,” Brack said.

In a video interview with The Washington Post, Brack, along with Senior Vice President Allen Adham, talked about where Blizzard stands as the company kicks off the latest iteration of BlizzCon, the annual fan event that like so many other gatherings in the covid era is being held digitally. Fresh off announcing a remaster of “Diablo II,” and with a multitude of other games currently in development, Blizzard hopes to turn the page on a two-year period racked by layoffs, fan protests and the covid-19 pandemic. It is doing so by doubling down on its core franchises, particularly Warcraft and Diablo.

Such franchises have been Blizzard’s lifeblood since the breakout success of “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans” in the early 1990s, not long after changing its name from “Silicon & Synapse” and beginning to develop its own games. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Blizzard continues to disproportionately rely on familiar names.

No game exemplifies this strategy better than “World of Warcraft: Classic,” which Brack lauded as a “huge moment” for the “World of Warcraft” community. A throwback to the original launch version of the game, “World of Warcraft: Classic” was expected to be little more than a novelty for longtime fans owing to its slower pace and lack of quality-of-life options. Instead, it was a hit that took even Brack by surprise.

“[T]o have these communities really migrate and be separate has been a big surprise to me. I think we thought we’d have a lot of people try ‘World of Warcraft: Classic’ and say, wow, that’s great. Now I have that and I’m gonna go back to regular [“World of Warcraft”], or whatever,” Brack said. “But we’ve seen a lot of people, millions of them, stick with [“World of Warcraft: Classic”] and are interested in what’s next for that community. And we have a lot of internal conversations about what the right thing to do for that going forward is.”

Such nostalgic successes are apt to continue to inform Blizzard’s strategy going forward. The company has already announced the release of the Burning Crusade expansion for “World of Warcraft: Classic along with “Hearthstone Classic,” which turns back the game to its original version in 2014. Brack also confirmed that additional mobile games based on established Blizzard franchises are in development. Even “The Lost Vikings” is getting a revival, with Blizzard packaging the puzzle-platformer alongside titles like “Rock N Roll Racing” and “Blackthorne” as part of a Blizzard Arcade Collection for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. All that’s missing is a return to real-time strategy, the genre that defined so much of Blizzard’s early history. In that regard, at least, times have changed.

“If you look at the history of gaming over the last 30 years, genres come and go,” Adham said, likening real-time strategy to the adventure genre. “We have a ton of ideas on how to maybe think about that genre — the real-time strategy genre — as something else, something new, and something evolved. And so we’ll see what the future holds there. But I’m not sure that RTS will remain as we think of them over the last decade or two decades, whether they’ll remain in that same, large number of units with lots of micromanagement [by players in the game] sort of tradition.”

Instead, Blizzard is focusing more than ever on Diablo, which has thrived since its debut in 1998.

“You know, when I returned to Blizzard about five years ago after taking a little time off, Diablo was one of the opportunities that we looked at in incubation, and there were so many cool things that we could do with it,” Adham said. “There’s just so much love for that franchise, both inside of Blizzard and with our player base; they were all just such obvious ideas, they just naturally fell from the heavens, so to speak.”

Aiding Blizzard in its work with Diablo is Vicarious Visions, a highly-regarded studio most recently responsible for the acclaimed remake of “Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 & 2.” Vicarious Visions made headlines earlier this year when it was fully merged into Blizzard to serve as a support studio. Brack told The Post that Vicarious Visions has indeed taken a large role in the development of “Diablo II: Resurrected” alongside Blizzard’s “Diablo IV” team, calling it a “true co-development” as Vicarious Visions takes the lead on elements like the graphics while Blizzard focuses on tasks like server integration.

“This team has been working for more than two years on this Diablo 2 remaster and at the same time it’s been working on other games for our sister Activision publishing studio,” Brack said, noting that “Diablo IV” director Luis Barriga started his career at Vicarious Visions. “We’ve always had this idea that if things were going well that there’d be some sort of larger partnership, and now you’re seeing that larger partnership in action.”

With the help of Vicarious Visions, Blizzard hopes to avoid another situation like 2020’s “Warcraft III: Reforged,” which was widely panned due to missing features and technical issues. ”

The company learned a lot from ‘Warcraft III: Reforged,’ not the least of which is to make sure that we continue to under-promise and over-deliver, and I think players are going to see that with the Diablo II remaster announcement,” Brack said.

“Warcraft III: Reforged” was part of a particularly rough period for Blizzard. Early in 2019, shortly after Brack took the reins from outgoing-president Mike Morhaime, Blizzard laid off nearly 800 employees despite record earnings from Activision. Later that same year, Brack took the stage at BlizzCon to publicly apologize for the company’s handling of a controversy that began when professional Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung, better-known as “Blitzchung,” was punished for speaking out in favor of the Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government during a Hearthstone Grandmasters streaming event in Taiwan.

In looking back on his apology, Brack again expressed a desire to improve but continued to provide few specifics.

“The key point in that moment was the desire to do better, and for us to have a more thoughtful response as we move forward,” he said. “I always think it’s super important to learn from anything in your past. Whether it’s a success, a failure, a mistake, there’s always an opportunity to learn, and that was certainly a huge learning opportunity for us in the company.”

In the meantime, plenty of other questions still face Blizzard. It’s unclear whether fans are willing to embrace Blizzard’s mobile strategy in light of the backlash against “Diablo Immortal.” “StarCraft,” another nostalgic franchise, remains in limbo. Brack lauded the viewership numbers for the Overwatch League’s finals, which he said were the highest of any of the finals to date, but also acknowledged that the covid-19 pandemic resulted in a “huge, huge pivot” away from the league’s preferred home-and-away format as organizers rushed to adapt to lockdowns and travel restrictions. Nevertheless, Brack said “the trajectory is still very good” for the Overwatch League. During the interview, neither Brack nor Adham discussed any developments nor timetable on the game’s upcoming sequel, “Overwatch 2.”

As for next-generation consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, Brack said that it’s still the “early days” for the new console cycle. While “Diablo II: Resurrected” will be launching as a native release on Series X and PS5, Blizzard’s views on the platforms are still evolving.

“[Y]ou still have people who are really trying to get their consoles, right? You know, the ability they’ve had to obtain the new Xbox or the PlayStation has been limited,” he said. “But as time moves on, we’ll see players and we’ll see developers take advantage of new technology that comes with those things. … And you know, we’re console players as well. There are many, many people who are hardcore console players within Blizzard, and we’ll see what things make sense.”

Most of all, Blizzard must contend with its status as a truly global publisher, a far cry from its early days as a start-up working on the Amiga port of “J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1.” That means contending with an unusually complicated and charged political environment both at home and abroad, something that Adham acknowledges.

“[Our] mission statement is actually to bring the world together through epic gaming. And part of how we aspire to do that, in addition to making great games, is to provide communities that are inclusive and safe for gamers to come together,” Adham said. “And so we know around the world, there are many different viewpoints. Even within Blizzard, there are many different viewpoints. And so part of what we hope to do is to keep our communities and our platforms free from those types of conversations as best we can, and focus everybody on having a good time together, inclusively playing games.”

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