Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham came back to the company two-and-a-half years ago after being gone a little over a decade. Today, Adham talks why he left, why he came back, and what to expect in the future from one of the industry’s most revered companies.
So, what brought you back?
So, I’ll tell you the short version of the story. So, I ran the company for like the first 13 years as president and then later as chairman and VP of Game Design. And I left amid 2004, right before World of Warcraft launched. And I had been, along with Mike [Morhaime] running the company and game director of World of Warcraft up until that point. And so, we didn’t call it game director back then – there was no game director title – it was lead game designer. And so, I exhausted myself working seven day weeks, 14-16 hour days, for more than a year, and I loved it, but it turns out making an MMO and running Blizzard was two jobs in one.
What I should have done was taken a sabbatical. Refresh. And then come back. But what I did, instead, was I went off and started a quantitative hedge fund using computers and artificial intelligence, trading the stock market. And that was super fun too. Another really fun video game in a different sort of setting…
It’s a really big video game.
So yeah, but I knew that after about – it was after about two years, I knew I made a horrible mistake because I was refreshed. The models were done. They were running the market. That game was done, and I was looking, you know [at] the desire to get back to work on gaming again. It was there. But I was now committed to this new path. And it was fun too. And it afforded a really nice quality of life, and I had just gotten married and were working on having kids, but what I should have done was taken a year off and come back.
So, I was really just waiting for the right opportunity to come back, and that happened around mid-2016. The character of the market started to get a little squirrely and I got nervous that we were long in the tooth into a bull market and I didn’t want to leave my own money in, so I took my money out. Sent everybody their money back, said “Hey, we’ve had a great run.” Mike was one of our investors. He said, “Hey, why don’t you come back to Blizzard. We could use kind-of your super power of starting new things.” And I was, you know, there as fast as I could get back there. So, yeah, it’s been a joy actually, to come back to Blizzard – to have access to all these new IPs, all the talent we have. But to be able to start these new incubation teams, it’s like having all the benefits of start-up without any of the risks, nearly unlimited budgets, talent, and IPs. Super, super fun.
So, are you sort-of tempering your hours now so that doesn’t happen again?
I said that I would. But in practice, what’s happened is there’s been all this pent-up, coiled energy around starting the next new thing and me, coming back accidentally hit like a lightning rod. And so, it takes somebody at a certain level to unlock that energy, especially when you think about how successful our mainline franchises are. Feeding Hearthstone and Overwatch and World of Warcraft – it takes a tremendous amount of energy. So, starting all these new things has been super fun. I won’t say how many we’ve started, but I will say we’ve started a ton. All those teams are scaling, and many of them – not all of them – but many of them report to me. And I have a hard time saying “no” to cool ideas. And so you’ll hear us now say broadly, “we have more products in development, and more in the Blizzard pipeline across all platforms and all of our IPs, than we’ve ever had before, by far.”
Is that sustainable – you’ve got all these games that require tons of constant support – to keep growing?
It is. I’ll tell you why. If you think about Blizzard, Blizzard is fairly unique in our industry. There’s one or two other companies that have been around for almost three decades now. And it took us along time to go from one team to two teams. And the reason we were able to do that is because we had so many people on that first team that knew how we did things. And then as that team scaled, and as everyone on that team became bonafide long-term Blizzard developers – that lets you carve off a chunk of those people and start the next thing. Then you have two teams, and then another decade passes and those two teams have been around for 10 years with lots of very experienced seniors, you can carve off some of them and then start another two teams. And that’s a gross oversimplification, but you can look at our teams now. We have five public-facing teams: Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Diablo, and World of Warcraft.
Each one of those teams is between a hundred and three-hundred people. And each one of those teams has been around for at least a decade. So again, staff top-to-bottom with bonafide Blizzard developers, that lets us – and if you look at Overwatch, that’s how Overwatch started. Jeff Kaplan was the co-game director on World of Warcraft for a long time and he left to start something new, which eventually became Overwatch. Tom Chilton – so, this isn’t commonly known, but we do talk about it – Tom Chilton left World of Warcraft a few years ago. He’s on something new. Dustin Browder left Heroes of the Storm. He’s on something new.
On different projects?
Different projects. So our best and brightest – top tier and super seniors – many of them have now moved on and taken some of their best friends and bonafide Blizzard developers to start up these new things. We can do many at the same time, because we have five very large, very experienced Blizzard teams. It puts us in a pretty unique position to be able to do that at scale and start that many things that quickly.
How did you get into gaming?
So, I go all the way back. I go back to – I’m going to date myself now – but I was born and grew up before Pong existed. So, you know, playing Pong was the start. Dragon Quest, you know was where really fifty cents in the arcade to play Dragon Quest. And then, of course, all the in-betweens: Space Invaders, Defender. For me, as a freshman in high school, one of my friends had a TRS-80, and one of them had an Apple II. You know, one was black and white, and one had – they said it was eight colors, but it was really only six because two of the colors were black and two were white. So that was definitely a marketing stretch. But I managed to talk my dad – who’s an engineer – into buying an Apple II.
So I could play games and then I started coding in basic because it was super interesting. And then by my sophomore year in high school, me and a good friend of mine, Brian Fargo – Brian founded Interplay – Brian and I used to pirate software together when games were on floppy disks. And a little crew, of you know, fifteen-year-olds, we would all get together and there were so many games every month, and as kids we couldn’t afford them all. We would just use FID, you know, F-I-D, to copy each other’s games. When Brian went on to work, he was a few years older than me, he went on to work at a company called Boone Corporation. I would come in and I would play-test for them. So if you look at the – you remember Bard’s Tale?
If you look at the screenshots on the back of Bard’s Tale, what you’re seeing are my characters.
And you’ll see one of them named “Omar.” So that’s my brother, he was my mule. I would always send him in first to get killed if I wasn’t sure what was up ahead. So I started play-testing for Boone, while coding at home, an amateur programmer. And Brian went on to start Interplay around the time I was a senior. I’d gotten to know many of their engineers. And I started using their game engines to write games for Interplay, including converting Demon’s Forge and then Mine Shadow, and some of these old, old titles.
I went onto college at UCLA, and my summer job – I would take three months out of each summer, and back then, a single college kid for three months could convert a game, or write one from scratch. So, I did a couple for Interplay, then moved onto Datasoft and The Software Toolworks. And in my sophomore year, just decided I was going to design a code and have friends draw the art. And the first game I ever made that was mine was called “Gunslinger.”
So, Gunslinger was mine. It was an adventure game. You know, back in the day, you’d type, “go north.”
Yeah, yeah. Like Zork?
Like Zork with graphics. And that’s how I got started, and that’s around the time I met Mike and Frank, and others. There’s others from UCLA that aren’t part of the sort-of lore, but James Anhalt and Pat Wyatt, we were all computer science and engineering friends together. And I managed to talk them all into coming and starting Blizzard with me. And this craziness all ensued. And had no idea. I still look around, and I don’t know how all this happened. It’s just too much for any one person to understand. It’s pretty nuts.
So, what’s been the biggest challenge since you got back to Blizzard – coming back into it.
Yeah, so I’m starting to see it, but the scope and scale of everything we do, right. So the fidelity of games and game systems now is very different than it was a decade ago. The team sizes back then – you could ship a game: Diablo II or StarCraft – you could ship a game with 40 people in a couple of years. If you really wanted to go crazy, we made an MMO with around 60 people in five years. These days, you want to do an open-world game, you know, Red Dead I think has over a thousand people on it.
So, as we think about the projects we want to work on, that’s very different. The other is, when I left: WoW was really the first really live-service game that Blizzard had done, and I left right before we went into that mode. So, these days, you can’t make a game, put it in a box, and then maybe patch it once or twice, maybe do an expansion, and then you’re on to the next new thing. In many ways, making the game and publishing is really just the beginning of the process. And then, if you’re successful, that’ll exist live for a decade or more, and content and live ops and your teams actually grow, and get bigger, if anything, if you’re successful. Then it’s hard to move off and start to do new things.
For me, those are the two biggest ways that I think I have to think differently about the future. But fortunately, in my job, mostly what I’m tasked with doing is building teams, starting the next new thing, getting them to right before launch, and then right when all that hard work has to start and someone actually has to do a real job, I get to hand it off to somebody else to do all of that, and then just help make the next new thing. Hopefully, I won’t have to move too far away from that act of game creation. Those two halves – we broadly sometimes talk in terms of “starters” and “finishers.” I enjoy the act of creation and that process of starting and we have a lot of people at Blizzard that are very good at coming in and sort of polishing things to a perfect, finely tuned, running live, and growing them from there. That’s not my super skill.
What’s a genre of game that Blizzard hasn’t tackled that you’d like to see?
So, that’s a tricky question, because if I told you the answer to that, you’d know what we are working on next. Here I’ll tell you this, I’ll give you a broad answer. I can tell you – as the guy in charge of incubation and helping us think about new products – I play a ton of games. I play around four hours a day, probably. Two in the morning – on desktop. I wake up pretty early so, I play most PC and console games of any sort of size or coolness whether they’re big marquee titles or indie titles, you can bet I’m playing them. Then in the evenings, when my wife is home and would murder me if I played games all night long, I play mobile titles. I play a lot of both and so, I play just about everything. The recent ones – Red Dead’s been awesome – God of War (the most recent installment) was really inspiring. Some of my favorites going back a ways, The Last of Us – now, I don’t mean to suggest that Blizzard is thinking about those types of games. Those are big teams and narrative teams are different…
We’ve played a ton, as you might guess. PUBG and Fortnite, the survival games, Rust, Day Z. A little indie title called Subnautica, that was really interesting. In the mobile space, I’ve played over a year of all the Supercell games, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Boom Beach. These days I play a lot of Galaxy of Heroes.
Typically, what happens, when that process starts, someone will come to me evangelizing passionately some new game or game type idea that they have so by no means are all our games coming from me. And then I partner with them to help develop those ideas and then we take those to what we call product strat and in that room are guys like J and Ray and (Jeff Kaplan) and Tom. There’s about a dozen of us and we evaluate kind of the coolness of the idea and the people bringing the ideas and how those fit into our kind product slate, and that’s how things get started at Blizzard.
So, with all the incubation, and even going back, how many games never saw the light of day that were past concept stages, that there was stuff there?
We have roughly a 50% success rate. I do a presentation internally for Blizzard and for the Activision companies at large, sometimes our brothers and sisters at King or Activision, Treyarch, Sledgehammer, Infinity Ward, they’re curious to hear how our incubation process works. I have a slide where it shows a curtain, you know, and how does Blizzard consistently make great games and it shows a picture of Blizzard covered by a curtain, and the next slide is this terrifying-looking clown. The truth is, behind the curtain, it’s a horror show. But most people outside of Blizzard don’t realize around half of our titles don’t see the light of day. So, people who think we’re a consistent company, we’re only consistent in that we only release the really amazing games. The other ones – and the public’s heard of some of them, most people know about Titan, most people know about Ghost, most people have heard (if you go further back) Warcraft Adventures, less so the other ones. Some we’ve kept under wraps and some not. The interesting thing about almost all of our failures, they almost all lead directly to the next success. So, Titan lead – one to one – to Overwatch. Nomad – which most people haven’t heard of – lead to WoW. That’s a repeating pattern. We honor our failures, learn from them, and they almost always directly lead to the next blockbuster title. That’s kind of the dirty, behind-the-scenes truth of how we make games at Blizzard.
What’s your favorite non-Blizzard game of all time?
I would probably say, what I think is the best game ever made was EverQuest. For me – it was terrible in many many ways, the user interface, the difficulty curve, you couldn’t see at night, there were so many things wrong with it – it was so good in its sense of immersion and it was the first time I’d ever played a game in my life where I would completely lose myself in the game. The world felt like a world and I remember running across zones when I was in my low teens just going, “Oh my god I’ve been playing this game every day for a month and I’m just now getting to run across these zones.” The world is big and it’s scary and it’s awesome. Dungeons were scary and real and then the social aspect of it that came into play. I played many MMOs before that, this was he first time that I really got the sense of, “This is a virtual world.” EverQuest was the clear inspiration for World of Warcraft. Even now, when I think about virtual worlds, I go back to EverQuest and tell stories about my experiences there.
So, with games like Galaxy of Heroes, what do you think about gacha systems and five-star loot box kind of deals?
For me personally, as a player, progression systems and collections systems, they work well on me. I like collecting things and I love that particular IP. Gacha systems in general, I think they’re OK. I know that on premium products, you know, PC products, there’s a strong push to remove them. I think in the mobile space, it’s a balance. If you look at something like Hearthstone, I would say we’ve done it well with Hearthstone. It feels organically correct to that product. The difference between payers and non-payers isn’t so bad that the non-payer feels compelled to monetize. So, you’ll catch up pretty quick, you can get all the cards, and you’ll be competitive even if you never spend a penny. For me, that’s an example of a gacha system that works pretty well. The practically reality is, in the mobile space, on free-to-play games, gacha systems generate more revenue by an order of magnitude than direct purchase. That entire industry is at risk if gacha systems go away. But, there’s a right way to do it and there’s a wrong way to do it. Hopefully, we do it in the way the still stays true to our ethics.
What’s your favorite thing about working at Blizzard?
There’s so many fun and interesting people who share that same passionate, die-hard, love of gaming. It makes me a little sad that, in the United States, those of use that are hard-core gamers are still – it’s not quite as mainstream as it is in some other countries. We heard stories, like in Korea in the hey-day of StarCraft, if you wanted to marry a man’s daughter you had to first beat him at StarCraft. We dream of the day here where gamers are the rock stars of broad society. We’re not there yet but hopefully, we’ll get there soon. Most of mainstream America doesn’t yet know that this business is bigger than Hollywood. Esports is one of the initiatives that I think will help raise that as people realize that as many people or more watch esports than the NFL. The young generation, of course, coming up they consume a ton of entertainment content and game content – specifically esports and Twitch, other venues. I just like being a gamer with other gamers.
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