Anyone following gaming discourse over the last year will know that Blizzard Entertainment has been a common focal point for heated discourse. In addition to facing backlash for the surprise reveal of Diablo Immortal–a mobile spinoff of the action-RPG–the developer also experienced a significant number of layoffs in early 2019. However, the most pressing issue they’ve faced thus far is the controversy regarding Hearthstone pro-player Ng Wai Chung (Blitzchung), who was penalized for using his platform to show support for the citizen protests in Hong Kong. The negative response to Blizzard’s actions was widespread and far-reaching, even prompting members of the U.S. Congress to respond to the recent events in the gaming world.
But at BlizzCon 2019, the developers sought a fresh start by publicly addressing the company’s missteps and admitting fault. Following Blizzard president J. Allen Brack’s opening statement at BlizzCon 2019, GameSpot spoke with Brack in an extended interview regarding the developer’s recent year, and where they’ll go from here.
So you started BlizzCon 2019 by making another statement about what was going on over the last month. Can you talk about why it was important to start off the show by addressing what occurred with ‘Blitzchung’ and the recent Freedom Hong Kong protests?
Brack: I think it’s probably not a secret that it’s been a hard month for Blizzard. It’s been hard a month for the community, and it’s been a hard month for the employees. I think there’s been a lot of confusion, and a lot of misinformation and challenges that everyone has had to go through. So, frankly, we never had a conversation saying that we weren’t going to take a moment to talk about it because to not at least have a really straightforward conversation with our community would have appeared extremely tone-deaf in my mind. So it was the right thing to do, and obviously, we felt very strongly that we had to do. Otherwise, it would have been hanging over us for the rest of the show.
Following your BlizzCon statement, there were people online who felt you didn’t say enough. Specifically, to directly address Ng Wai Chung directly. Do you have any comments about that?
I haven’t actually read or seen the criticisms from what was said this morning at this time. Very early on, one of the very first conversations, when we made our statement, was about walking back the penalty and restoring his winnings. We actually had a personal conversation with Blitzchung and we apologized to him for how this had gone. No one was happy with how we ended up here. This [statement] was more about what everyone was thinking, what everyone read, and what everyone has heard about the situation. We sort of had to reset and readdress what our values were about that have somehow have been lost. That overall narrative about what really happened had sort of been lost in the last month.
There’s been a lot of concerns for Blizzard throughout this year, and those feelings come from both the community and from employees at Blizzard as well. This feeling of uncertainty was palpable, especially when coming into this year’s show. Do you empathize with people who have voiced their concerns publically, and do you see where they’re coming from?
Oh, it’s easy to see that. Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of the things that has made Blizzard really successful is that we’re members of our own community. We play all of our own games, we’re fans of all of our own games, and we play other games as well. We’re gamers, and so it’s easy to empathize with the community because we are them, we are our own community. I really think that’s one of the strengths of Blizzard. But there’s another piece to that too, which is that we place value in the belief that every voice in our community matters. It is about you voicing your opinion loudly and often–whether you agree or not. So there’s an internal culture of expression, whether that is in the agreement or disagreement with the games that we’re making or not making. So I wasn’t unhappy with people, employees even, expressing themselves following what happened [with Blitzchung]. I felt that’s the culture of Blizzard at work.
The Freedom Hong Kong protest outside BlizzCon 2019.
If we take a look back at last year’s BlizzCon, there was some controversy with the reveal of Diablo Immortal. In that instance, it seemed like fans came expecting something else. Did you feel that it was important to address that by giving people what they wanted this time around?
Yes, I did. We talked for many, many months about how we were going to do the opening ceremony this year and what was the right flow. One of the very early ideas that we decided was to immediately lead the show with Diablo IV. We actually wanted to lead-in from the countdown to Diablo IV, which is something we had never done before. So we’ve done nothing but get more committed to that as time went on. We felt that was the right decision. With the other announcements that we had, they weren’t going to be heard until we announced Diablo IV, so people really feel good about it. I hope people feel like it’s delivering on a lot of the things they want for the next game.
I thought it was interesting that Diablo Immortal didn’t get a mention during the opening ceremony, even though the game is here at the show. I actually got to play it myself before this interview.
Well, we wanted me to keep the focus on Diablo IV. When we start to think about the core Blizzard audience, a lot of them are going to watch the stream live or attend the show. They’re very much in tune with what Diablo is–from Immortal, Diablo III, and Diablo IV. But when you present a new game, it can potentially create some confusion for branding. So very early on, we decided this presentation is going to be about Diablo IV. There’s going to be several big announcements that we’re going to have, but Diablo IV is going to have its own space in the Diablo universe. We didn’t want to create any kind of confusion.
So I wasn’t unhappy with people, employees even, expressing themselves following what happened [with Blitzchung]. I felt that’s the culture of Blizzard at work.
Certainly, Diablo IV is going to be a PC and console-based design from the ground up, and I think it’s going to speak to that audience. I’m glad to hear that you played Immortal. I actually played it too and I think it’s actually coming along very well. I think it’s going to be fun and I really like the idea of Diablo as a mobile game. I think there are going to be different audiences for both. There will be an overlap with some and I think it’ll just be up to people to decide how they want to engage with different kinds of games. I certainly think a lot of the hardcore players will be on PC and console, but the goal is not necessarily to have everybody play both [Immortal and IV]. There’s going to be people who really resonate with the mobile game, and that’s going to be great for them, and yet there’s going to be people who are really interested in the PC game, and that’s going to be great for that as well. But some people are going to play both, and I’ll put myself in that camp.
It seems that the big lesson to take away from last year was that it’s important to set expectations for Blizzard fans?
Well, we don’t really try to tease what we’re going to announce. So really, it’s like people were just ready for another Diablo game. I think that’s one of the reasons why expectations were set so high last year. Like, they knew that there’s got to be a new Diablo thing at some point. But you’re right, it is about expectations. Games are only ready to be shown when they’re ready. So there’s a bit of a challenge with that in terms of figuring out if the game is coming along and that it’s ready for us to announce. There’s a lot to consider once the game is ready for the next stage. How do we best proceed forward, and will it be something that the community will really love? It’s always an interesting conversation to have. I hope we’re never in a similar position following Immortal’s reveal for our games again.
Both Diablo IV and Overwatch 2 were leaked online, which I imagine must have frustrating. Did that impact any of your plans for the show?
Yeah, so when you start to get into what BlizzCon is going to be about, we had already made the decision on what games were going to be shown and announced really early. I read something online, this was a couple of weeks ago, about how many announcements are going to be made at this BlizzCon. I’m like, “I don’t think you understand how long it takes to make games.” Not you, I mean, I’m talking about this random poster online. This is not just a way to manufacture an announcement. We really want to have a game demo that people feel really good about. So really, we just stuck to the same path as we had prior to our game announcements.
When looking back at this year, it seemed like just when Blizzard moved past one problem, it ran right into another one. Going back to earlier this year, the makeup of the Blizzard workforce had altered significantly following a round of layoffs. Can you talk about it was like for everyone at the studio to continue on and try to preserve the work that those employees contributed to the current slate of games?
I don’t know if I’ve said publicly, but that was the worst week of my life professionally. I think the important thing to communicate is the reasoning, the intent, and just conveying to everyone about, “How did we get into this place and how are we going to prevent ourselves from ever getting in this place again?” With how we set up the company, and the way you want to structure things going forward, we want to make sure that never happens. So that’s the thing that you just have to over-communicate and talk a lot with everyone that’s there.
I hope we’re never in a similar position following Immortal’s reveal for our games again.
We’ve got 4,000 employees around the world and 2,800 people in Irvine. So there’s a lot of voices to kind of communicate with, and to ensure that everyone understands what we’re trying to do. Events like BlizzCon can be galvanizing, I think, for the employee base. Because you can work by yourself for a long time on projects and not really understand whether they’re exciting or interesting to anybody but the people at the company. There’s going to be a lot of interest and excitement about all the announcements that we’ve made, so that can really be empowering for our developers.
Following those layoffs, has the working relationship between Activision and Blizzard been stable?
I think so. One of the things that they say loudly and often is the commitment that they have to us, and supporting our ability to make the games that we want to make. Bobby Kotick [CEO of Activision Blizzard] has said publicly a lot that he doesn’t want to tell any game developer what game to make or what game to not make. It’s not something where he thinks he adds value. And so for us, it’s about what are the games that we want to work on, what are the things we want to focus on, and how do we move forward in the best possible way?
Recently, especially in light of the recent events from the last month, there have been some concerns about Blizzard having less autonomy. A common concern expressed online is how much influence China is having on the company when it pertains to game development and community outreach.
This has actually been a thing that I think has been a little confusing for me, and certainly for a lot of Blizzard employees as well. I also think there’s a lot of confusion around our relationship in China and sort of the laws and practices there. It is against the regulations for us to [solely] publish our games in China. We must, by law, have a partner, and so we have a partner that we’ve been in business for more than 10 years called NetEase. We think they’re a very good partner, but they are the publisher [of our games] in China. Blizzard is not legally allowed to do a lot of the publishing activities and it is a requirement that the partner does that.
So the Weibo post (China’s most popular blogging site) is a prime example of that. The Hearthstone channel on Weibo is run by the publisher NetEase, it is operated by them. When they ran that statement on Weibo, it was not a statement that they asked us about. It’s not a statement that we believe in nor is it a statement that we would have approved. So that’s sort of being lost here when it comes to the controversy.
Sure, but do you still feel that Blizzard should have done a lot better following this controversy? After this happened, has there been an internal examination of your process of handling conflicts at Blizzard? If so, what has changed since then?
Yeah, we have a culture of learning. We have a culture of improvement, and we have a culture of iteration. This has exposed us to a whole bunch of things that need to go differently next time. I think we have said, this morning even, that we acted too quickly. Absolutely. Did we have the right constituents in the room to make the decision and to have the right time in order to be successful? [Brack shakes his head] Clearly, that’s something that we need to do differently going forward. Are the rules clear to everyone? Does everyone understand what the expectations are and what the penalties are going to be going forward? There was some kind of work to do for that going forward. I don’t think anyone is excited about this last month from that perspective. So yeah, things could be done differently.
This year’s BlizzCon could be seen as something of a gut check for the company, and for you as well. You actually became President a little over a year ago, and a lot has happened. So all things considered, how do you feel about Blizzard going forward from here?
Well, right now sitting in front of you, I feel awesome. I say that not having read too many responses on how this morning has gone, and actually, having not talked to too many people yet. But I feel like a lot of love and time went into the opening statement. A lot of love has gone into these games. Some of them have been in development for a very long time and so for them to kind of have their day, it felt that was a great hour this morning. That was certainly the intent. We wanted to say, “Hey, let’s have a great hour of all of your favorite games and all of your favorite franchises,” and hopefully, we’re delivering on what people want and what they’re excited for. So right now, I feel great about Blizzard. I might feel different as I talk to more people by the end of the day, but right now, this has been a day that we were working toward for a very long time.
One of the things I said this morning was that this is the weekend that we look forward to. That’s for multiple reasons; One is that we get to hear that direct feedback and really see the people that are fans of what we’re doing, and the other is for the opportunity to show these new announcements and really start to get feedback about what we’re doing. That I feel is really empowering.