Blizzard Entertainment is the the division of Activision Blizzard that’s brought us games like StarCraft, Diablo, and World of Warcraft, and it turns 25 today. Its chief executive is Mike Morhaime, who was one of the three original founders who started the company during the golden age of PC games.
The company started in 1991 as Silicon & Synapse, with Allen Adham, Morhaime, and Frank Pearce as its founders. They started out as work for hire, making games for Interplay Productions. But now they’ve grown into a 4,000-employee powerhouse, with $1.6 billion in the 12 months that ended September 30, the leading subscriber online game in World of Warcraft, a 30 million seller in Diablo III, and two growing esports with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (a card battler) and Heroes of the Storm (an online multiplayer strategy game). Throughout the ups and downs, the changes in ownership, a transition in power in which Adham turned the reins over to Morhaime, the company has outlived the competition.
And Morhaime has seen it all.
GamesBeat interviewed Morhaime last week to catch up on 25 years of history and Blizzard’s outlook for the future. We did a joint interview with me and GamesBeat contributing writers Heather Newman and Kevin Hovdestad (Heather, in fact, asked most of the questions).
We talked about the creation of Blizzard, how it got its final name, the transition to CEO back in 2004, how Blizzard handles game cancellations, and, perhaps most important, how Blizzard developed and held to its focus on making quality games for gamers. And we also talked about Blizzard’s future, the emergence of esports, and the importance of diversity.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Mike Morhaime: I was looking at a story in the L.A. Times back in 1994 with Allen Adham, right after we announced the Davidson acquisition. That might have been our first interview with [Dean Takahashi].
GamesBeat: I think so. I’m looking at that story now, too. It was such a small deal at the time. $6.75 million.
Morhaime: It seemed big at the time. But what’s kind of cool is that you both look exactly the same.
GamesBeat: If you could quickly summarize what you remember now about how you guys got started, how you met each other? I know it was in college. It was you, Allen, and Frank, right? What stands out for you now, about getting together with them?
Morhaime: We had two classes together. I was studying electrical engineering and he was computer science and engineering. My last year at UCLA there was this quarter we had two classes together and we became really good friends.
I didn’t meet Frank until the first day, when we opened the company. Frank and Allen were friends from school. They might have had some classes together. Used to go to the arcade together. Allen viewed Frank as a passionate gamer. He was also a computer science and engineering major.
Allen was the instigator. He recruited me to leave my job at Western Digital and Frank to leave his job at Rockwell. Allen also had a couple of other friends that were still in school. We subcontracted them to do some work. He lined up some work with Interplay and we opened the doors.
Interplay hired us to do some ports of their games to the Mac or the Amiga. We did the Amiga version of Lord of the Rings. That was a game Interplay put out on the PC. That was probably the first project I remember working on. Frank did most of the work on that. Allen and I just pitched in occasionally.
GamesBeat: I remember playing and writing about that game, the PC version.
Morhaime: We all did some of the work on it. I wrote some utilities to convert the artwork so that it would display on the Amiga. It’s funny. There was one piece of art that was somehow missing from what Interplay gave us, the Ring itself. Frank actually had to draw the Ring.
GamesBeat: It’s the same way people get in the industry today.
Morhaime: Probably? Back then, you had PC as the main gaming platform, and then these other platforms that big companies like Interplay would hire little developers to do conversions for. Nowadays, it’s probably the mobile platforms that are creating a lot of opportunities for small developers. With a very small team you can create compelling content and reach a large audience.
GamesBeat: The thing that sticks in my head from that time was Allen saying, “We like making games that make your palms sweaty.”
Morhaime: [Laughs] Our first console game was RPM Racing. We started and released that project in that same year we founded the company, 1991. It managed to get on shelves by the holidays. That was also published by Interplay. And then the sequel was Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing, which is a much better game that we did a few years later.
GamesBeat: What do you recall about striking out on your own, leaving the Interplay work behind?
Morhaime: Chaos was really just a name change. It didn’t signify much. Although right after we changed the name, we sold the company to Davidson and Associates and changed the name to Blizzard. Even before you get there, we were doing original development of console games. You had Lost Vikings and Blackthorne and Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing, Justice League Task Force.
Lost Vikings and Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing were pretty critical games to us. We got some acclaim as a result, some video gaming awards. Those are the games that impressed Davidson and Associates and led to the merger talks. In February of 1994, that’s when we sold the company to Davidson, changed our name to Blizzard, and started working on Warcraft.
GamesBeat: Where did the Blizzard name come from?
Morhaime: We had such a hard time finding a name that everyone liked and wasn’t already a registered trademark from somebody. The main reason we changed the name from Chaos was because someone was already using the name Chaos Technologies. We went back to the drawing board, brainstormed a bunch of stuff.
Allen got attached to the name Ogre. For a little bit of time it was going to be Ogre Studios. But we were already part of Davidson and Associates, and Jan Davidson hated the name Ogre. She didn’t like the way that would sound to her shareholders, who thought they were investing in an educational software company, and now they’ve got this thing called Ogre. She’s like, “Can you guys please pick something else?”
I think Allen just started going through the dictionary. He came up with Blizzard and we all loved it. It’s just a cool-sounding name. Some of the other names—I think Midnight Studios was one. I’m not sure what else. But Blizzard floated to the top. It came up pretty clean when we did the trademark search. I’m happy we landed on that.
GamesBeat: How did you distinguish your roles as you moved onward and upward, between you and Allen and Frank?
Morhaime: All three of us were programmers. Allen was our visionary leader, lead designer, lead business guy. I was a support programmer, production lead, IT and operations. All the non-development stuff came to me, keeping everybody’s computers working. We didn’t even have a network then. We were just passing around floppy discs. But if we needed computers I’d go to Micro Center or order equipment and get it all set up. We didn’t have an IT department. It was just me.
Frank was coding, and he also did double duty as a receptionist, sort of? His desk was near the front door. If the phone rang it was Frank’s job to answer it.
GamesBeat: What led to Warcraft becoming your first project as Blizzard?
Morhaime: We’d probably just come back from CES or something, where we saw Dune II and thought, “Wow, this is really cool.” Or maybe they’d just released Dune II, I don’t remember. But we got really enamored of realtime strategy. Dune II was just a single-player game, but we realized that a game like that where you could play against another person would be so cool, so much fun. We all loved fantasy, so we set it in a fantasy universe. It didn’t take a lot of selling the idea. We all immediately felt like that could be something special.
GamesBeat: This gets into much later, but I was wondering where you guys picked up the ethic taking such a hardline focus on quality — shipping games only when they’re done, killing an awful lot of games that you never even announced. That distinguishes Blizzard today. How far back does that go?
Morhaime: There’s a bunch of key moments that reinforced how important quality was, when we were faced with decisions. There’s always intense pressure to be done on schedule. “If we don’t get this thing out by this date, so and so magazine won’t be able to put us on the cover.” There’s always pressure to do that.
Thankfully, Allen was singularly focused on making sure that we fixed the issues with the product and made as good as a product as possible. If we knew there were problems we needed to fix them before we released. It wasn’t about those opportunities, because additional opportunities will always come along.
The very first time we were faced with an issue like that was with Lost Vikings. We’d been working on the game and the team felt like we were pretty much done. We’d completed all the levels and finished everything.
Brian Fargo, at the time, played everything Interplay put out. He took the game home and played through all the levels and had a bunch of notes and feedback for us. He thought the levels were too difficult. He thought the Vikings looked too similar. They were all drawn from the same palette on the Super Nintendo. He wanted us to redraw them, do an art pass. We didn’t really have the resources to do that, so he offered some Interplay resources to do it.
As a developer, you’re so attached to what you’ve created. My first reaction was, “What? It’s fine the way it is! It’s not too hard. We’ve been playing it. It’s not too hard.” But Allen had a very different attitude. He said, “Brian’s right. He’s right about all of this stuff.” We took the time and addressed his issues. We made the levels easier, so it wasn’t as frustrating. We let one of their artists come in to redo the Viking art. We wound up with a much, much better game.
Going through that process and seeing where the game was before and how much better it became as a result of that additional effort was a huge lesson to us. We carried that forward, always. Getting that feedback from people who weren’t inside the development team, but knew how to make games, was incredibly valuable. Addressing that feedback and going through an iterative process, especially toward the end of development, could really move the meter in terms of quality. We’ve done that on every game since.
GamesBeat: One thing I’ve noticed as you’ve moved through your later titles is not only maintaining that high level of quality, but also putting together games that appeal to an audience that’s as broad as possible. And sometimes in genres that were pretty hardcore before you got there. World of Warcraft, if you compare it to the difficulty of playing Everquest, or Hearthstone compared to other CCGs. Was that a deliberate strategy as you moved forward? Do you feel like there are still genres to work on like that – hardcore experiences that can be made more friendly for a mass audience?
Morhaime: We do always approach our games from a standpoint of—We’re trying to make these games for everyone, even if they’re not already familiar with a genre, and especially if they’re not already an expert at the genre. We want anybody to be able to play a Blizzard game and have the tools they need to enjoy it. We apply that to everything we do.
It’s part of our values – easy to learn, difficult to master. Having something that is easy to learn doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have depth. It can still have depth. You just don’t have to throw all the depth at the player when they first sit down.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like any genres are particularly ripe for that at this point?
Morhaime: I’m sure there are. Right now our next big launch is going to be Overwatch. That’s certainly not a niche genre, but our game is a little bit different. We’re going after the team-based multiplayer FPS. There’s not a lot of games focused on that right now. We’re trying to make it something that’s as accessible and enjoyable for everyone, no matter your skill level. It’s opened it up for people like me who aren’t that good at FPS normally. I have a great time playing Overwatch.
GamesBeat: When you took over and Allen left, what kind of adjustment was that for you? It always seemed like he was the more outgoing one. You were more in the background. What did it mean to be the guy in front, moving into public view?
Morhaime: There’s a few different ways to answer that question. One is, when Allen stepped down as president of Blizzard, he didn’t disappear right away. He continued to be very involved. He was able to focus more on development for a little while. He was very involved in the early days of World of Warcraft. It was more of a transitional phase in terms of Allen’s involvement.
My role did change, though. I became the main point of contact with our parent company, with the sales organization. For several years after Allen’s departure, though, I did continue to be very involved in development. I continued programming and everything. There was a point after Warcraft III where I had to give up programming and focus on running the business, making sure that everything was going well across the whole company. I definitely miss those programming days.
GamesBeat: What do you think is going to be different about the next 25 years of Blizzard’s growth and development, compared to the last 25 years? Do you see changes coming?
Morhaime: There are always changes in gaming. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer. I’m excited that we have these great gaming platforms – PC, console, mobile. It seems like gaming is becoming more and more of a mainstream activity, which I’m very excited about.
We’ve watched esports grow from being something that, for us, really started out being popular in Korea—We saw that explode with StarCraft. We always believed that esports would eventually grow in popularity everywhere. In the last couple of years we’ve gotten to see that happen. Things like our Heroes of the Storm tournament being broadcast live on ESPN last year. We’re continuing the partnership this year with another Heroes of the Storm tournament. We’ve started to see broadcasters, publishers, tournament organizers, everyone start to take notice of the explosion of Esports.
I’m excited about the Warcraft movie coming this summer. That’s been a long time in the making. It’s finally here this year. That’s a big milestone.
GamesBeat: I’m sure a lot of people up there have their fingers crossed to see more movies coming down the pipe after that one.
Morhaime: Nothing could make me happier.
GamesBeat: If there was one thing that Blizzard as a company could change or affect in the video game industry over the next 10 or 20 years, what would you want it to be?
Morhaime: Right now, people still aren’t very nice to each other online, as a general rule. If we can help to make the interactions between folks online safer and more friendly, that would make it all more fun and more gratifying for everyone.
GamesBeat: What’s interesting is you’re the second person to say that to me today. Maybe there’s a groundswell coming.
Morhaime: One solution is, “Oh, let’s just not let anybody talk to each other, because they might upset each other.”
GamesBeat: The Hearthstone solution.
Morhaime: Well, yeah. For certain games, like Hearthstone, that works great. But I also thing that you want to be able to go online and interact with people you don’t know. You want to create meaningful connections sometimes with people you don’t know. Some of the greatest stories I’ve heard come from people who met playing World of Warcraft, whether it’s guildmates who became friends, or people who met their significant others online. I want to see that type of connection continue as well. We’re going to do our best.
GamesBeat: Do you think there are trends in the industry itself that are going to force you to change the way you do business? Certainly this concept of players being along for the ride with you, in a more unified way, during testing and the prelaunch period has become more of a fact of doing business. Do you see things like that, things that will change your development process?
Morhaime: We’ve been making a strong effort at Blizzard to partner with our community along the way, to keep them better informed about our plans for our games. Especially after a game gets released. I feel like it’s no longer just Blizzard’s game. We become a sort of curator for this experience that has millions of stakeholders who all care deeply about how the experience evolves.
By including our community in the process of determining how these games evolve and how we solve game-related issues, we get to better solutions. We create a sense of partnership with our community along the way.
GamesBeat: Do you see that evolving in a significant way over the next few years?
Morhaime: It’s a work in progress. There’s been a proactive effort on the part of our development teams to handle this in different ways. On the StarCraft II team, David Kim has been sending out a weekly blog post that started during the Legacy of the Void beta, talking about the state of balance in the game. That’s continued post-launch. It’s created a healthy dialogue around potential solutions and potential balance changes we might make. If you look at the Overwatch team, Jeff Kaplan has been doing a video blog talking about the state of the game as we proceed during the phases of beta. Our players like the increased transparency that’s provided.
GamesBeat: You talked a bit about your affection of the number of platforms we have to choose from now, between PC and console and mobile. Is VR an area you’re interested in going into?
Morhaime: We’re very interested in VR. It’s a cool technology. There are still big challenges in terms of making that into something that can have mass-market acceptance. At this point we’re probably in a mode to watch very closely and see how we can apply that technology to Blizzard games or experiences. I don’t have any plans to announce at this point. It’s exciting, but there are still some big hurdles to overcome before it becomes a focus of ours.
GamesBeat: What do you expect to be the next big change that affects the way people play games? We’ve gone from single-player to online multiplayer to massively multiplayer over the past 25 years. We’ve changed the capacity in terms of how people can interact with each other and build communities. Are there other game-changers like that you see on the horizon?
Morhaime: I feel like there’s still a big opportunity in mobile beyond just casual games. I’m not sure we’ve figured out what that is yet.
GamesBeat: From a company culture point of view, how did you hold it together for so long? You’ve worked together for a long time, whether it’s you and Frank or you and a lot of other people, apparently without driving each other crazy.
Morhaime: The biggest key to that is having a shared commitment to quality. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is providing the best experience possible for our players. When you focus on that, and especially when you’re able to achieve that—Everyone feels such a sense of mission and accomplishment. That keeps us together, keeps us going.
It’s beneficial for our teams to be able to go out to BlizzCon and interact with our most passionate players. They get to see firsthand how the work they do impacts real people. That provides so much fuel and energy for our teams to go back and continue working really hard. We don’t want to let these people down.
GamesBeat: Blizzard has a preeminent position in the industry right now as far as the ability to influence the future of esports. With how much growth has happened and all the things occurring to make that a mainstream entertainment choice, what kind of effort do you see Blizzard making to keep that going? Will you choose to be at the forefront of esports, or do you want to focus on game development?
Morhaime: We’re at a stage where you can’t really distinguish esports from game development anymore. If you’re going to create a competitive game and it’s going to be popular, you have to have an esports ecosystem around the game. For us it’s all part of delivering an epic entertainment experience for our players. It’s a key part of our strategy going forward.
We’re increasing our investment in esports to make sure that the production quality of these tournaments is high. We’ve learned a lot by having esports be a central part of BlizzCon all these years. We’ve been able to leverage that experience in things like Heroes of the Storm on ESPN. If that were our first tournament, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve the production quality we did last year. I don’t think ESPN would have been as impressed as they were or as interested in working with us again this year.
Esports is just going to grow in importance and popularity as it relates to games. I agree with you. It has the potential to achieve a much higher mass-market reach. It’s really fun to watch.
GamesBeat: What do you think is going to be the greatest challenge in that process? You still have a good portion of the mass audience, and even of gamers, that hasn’t bought in to the idea.
Morhaime: One of the challenges is to really humanize it, to let people get to know the players more. That’s where you start forming an attachment to people, finding people to root for. The Olympics does this really well. A lot of Olympic sports aren’t that popular, but when the Olympics comes around, they do such a good job of telling you these human stories about the athletes. It gives you an appreciation for what they’re able to accomplish. They can tell you a great story around the competition. We need to get better at that.
GamesBeat: Are there things you can do as a company, given your impact on the genres involved at this point, to help with some of the issues that are still on the table for Esports? Diversity is one that comes to mind. There are very few really competitive women players. It seems that as you’re broadening to a wider audience, having a variety of folks standing up on stage can only help to bring in a broader audience of viewers.
Morhaime: It’s a good point. There’s also a point of–Being able to reach a wider audience with the games themselves will naturally help that. We try to make games that are accessible to a wider audience. You can hopefully use a Blizzard game as an entry point into a genre. As we’re able to expand and reach a more diverse audience, you’ll automatically see a more diverse group of people entering Esports.
GamesBeat: What do you think are going to be some of the biggest challenges the company faces in general over the next two years?
Morhaime: One challenge we’re facing right now, and this isn’t going away—Just the volume of content we’re producing and the number of games and platforms and regions we’re supporting. It’s on a much greater scale than we’ve dealt with before.
If you go back five years ago, before we launched StarCraft II, from a game operational standpoint we were almost exclusively focused on operating World of Warcraft. Now we’re operating six games that are all delivering content to our players. We’ll have multiple releases this year. Just being able to do all this stuff simultaneously at a Blizzard quality level—That’s not easy.
GamesBeat: It seems like a scary part of the job. If you guys stick to that history—I remember at DICE one year that you talked about cancelling eight games one year. To cancel a game in this day and age—it seems like the scale is the thing that makes it scary.
Morhaime: Scale has been a big challenge. I’m actually very satisfied with the progress we’ve made over the last few years as far as being able to scale up the organization of the business and being able to level up leadership across all of our franchises. They can focus on operating and developing content for each of those games. We’re in pretty good shape.
I’m very excited about 2016. The games we’re working on are excellent. But it’s not going to get easier as we release more games. It’ll just get more complicated.
GamesBeat: How do you balance that? You’re undoubtedly working on new IP for further down the road, as well as other forms of entertainment like esports and movies. Do you have sunset plans for games that have been out for a while? Are there policies as far as when you might pivot a team from one project to another?
Morhaime: Those types of plans aren’t one-size-fits-all. There’s no policy for how we do that. It’s driven by what our players want and what our games need to continue being the best they can be.