J. Allen Brack is now the president of Blizzard Entertainment, but he used to be the executive producer of World of Warcraft. With the online game’s 15th anniversary coming up, he has a lot of insight into its past and future.
Brack has been busy with his eventful transition to Blizzard’s boss, which has included the underwhelming response to the company’s mobile project Diablo: Immortal and major layoffs in February. But managing Blizzard’s major franchises, including World of Warcraft, would have been more than enough to keep him busy.
I interviewed Brack at a Blizzard event in Irvine, California last week. Along with his important new job, he has been a key part of World of Warcraft’s development since joining Blizzard in 2006, a position he took after working on the first Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies.
I wanted to ask Brack about his experience with World of Warcraft, both as a player and as someone who worked on the game. I also asked him about his start as Blizzard president.
GamesBeat: You’re in charge of all of Blizzard now, but you have a big footprint in the Warcraft universe. Is it hard to pay equal attention to all of Blizzard’s franchises?
Brack: I played every Blizzard game. I’ve played thousands of hours of Diablo. I’ve played lots of StarCraft before I worked at Blizzard, lots of StarCraft after. Played a decent amount of Overwatch and Hearthstone and Heroes. I’m a fan of and have played all the games, even though I worked on World of Warcraft for so long. World of Warcraft will always be close to my heart. It’s the game I’ve played the most in my life, just in terms of number of hours. It’s also the game I worked on the longest in my career. It’ll always be a special place. But I’m a true fan of everything we do.
GamesBeat: I’m sure you don’t want to say that any one of your franchises is the most important.
Brack: I love all my children equally.
GamesBeat: But do you think we have a Blizzard as we know it today without Warcraft?
Brack: I think it would look very different, for sure. World of Warcraft is a huge game that really changed Blizzard. The day that World of Warcraft launched, Blizzard had 300 employees. Today it has 4,300 employees. It’s a very different company. It’s allowed us to do different and amazing things. It’s hard to imagine the size and the scope and the scale of some of the games Blizzard has been able to do without World of Warcraft. It certainly is a huge footprint on what Blizzard is today.
GamesBeat: We have these anniversaries, the 25th for the entire Warcraft franchise, and 15 for World of Warcraft. What goes into the decision-making about how you’re going to celebrate these big milestone years?
Brack: I don’t really think there’s a great answer. We started talking about the 15 year anniversary and the 25 year anniversary, I want to say, really seriously, about two years ago. We knew we wanted to celebrate the 15 year anniversary of World of Warcraft. We’d done a physical statue for subscribers for the 10 year anniversary. That was a very difficult process for us to get done. We didn’t want to do something exactly like that. We wanted to have it be broader.
We knew we wanted to do something that had a physical piece, and so you saw John talk about the Ragnaros statue. That piece came together pretty quick. But in thinking about — there’s lots of ideas. There’s a lot of things you can do, that you can decide to focus on. Wanting to have Warcraft have its moment, and World of Warcraft have its own separate moment, that ended up being pretty important.
GamesBeat: You have all these pillars — Hearthstone, Overwatch, World of Warcraft. How do you view Classic? Is it part of that World of Warcraft pillar? Or do you think of it as its own new pillar within the company?
Brack: It’s part of World of Warcraft. It’s not unlike any different expansion or patches. We’ll have this piece that comes with and is part of your existing World of Warcraft subscription. We see it definitely within the World of Warcraft universe.
GamesBeat: Your transition has already been really interesting. At BlizzCon some people were upset about the Diablo: Immortal announcement. Since then there have been layoffs. Has the transition been more difficult than you were expecting?
Brack: It’s been difficult. I don’t know if it’s been more difficult than I was expecting, but it’s definitely been challenging. The important piece is what the teams are working on, the future for World of Warcraft, the future for all of our different franchises, the future for the Diablos and the Overwatches of the world. If I didn’t believe in the future for those franchises — I think we said publicly that we’ve got more games that we’re working on now than at any other time in the history of the company. I’m a big believer in what the teams are doing and that future we’re going to create.
GamesBeat: Mobile is a giant market. How do you make products for that market while keeping your core, more PC-focused fans happily? Especially in America, where sometimes mobile is perceived differently than in countries like China.
Brack: I don’t think it’s a requirement that we try to make every game work and speak to every single player. If you’re not a mobile gamer — our goal is to get you to try it and give it a chance, but every game is not going to be for every person. The mobile device is its own platform, similar to PC, similar to console. If you think about the different games you have on console, there’s a bit of a different flavor to a lot of games you have on console than you have with hardcore PC games. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be a good, authentic experience for the Blizzard games we bring to that platform, but it’s not trying to replicate the PC experience.
GamesBeat: Speaking to platforms, you released Diablo III on Switch not too long ago. I really enjoyed that version. What was it like to work with Nintendo on that? Are you happy with how that came out?
Brack: We’re super-happy. Nintendo’s been a great partner. We’re a fan of that platform, a fan of Nintendo, a fan of the Nintendo IP, a fan of the Switch. It’s a really good platform and it’s really fun to play on. Different games have come about that are good experiences. Part of it is Nintendo love, plus thinking that the Diablo experience would be great on that platform. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I loved it.
GamesBeat: It’s not ridiculous to assume that more Nintendo collaborations may be coming?
Brack: It’s not ridiculous. We’d like to have — we think of it as another platform. It has some unique properties that the Xbox and Sony platforms don’t have. Thinking about what games make sense for that type of console is something we’ll never stop doing.
GamesBeat: Going back to the Warcraft celebration and your history with World of Warcraft, as we’re getting to the anniversary, what are some of your favorite memories as a player of the game?
Brack: I’ll always remember the first time we beat Ragnaros in my guild. Certainly the different — getting Kael’thas down for the first time? Kael’thas was such a hard boss during Burning Crusade, or at least for our guild it was. We’re not super great as a guild. Getting Kael’thas down was an awesome experience, the different attunements that needed to happen. Probably one of my favorite achievements that I’ve ever earned is the Undying achievement, which you got for doing 10-player Naxxramas without any players dying during a boss encounter. That was an awesome experience, to really get that done. There were quite a few seconds when we were fighting the last boss that we didn’t think we were going to be successful, but that was an awesome experience.
GamesBeat: It’s funny you brought that up. My friend just talked to me about how he also got that Undying achievement back in the day.
Brack: It’s a great achievement. It’s a super-fun achievement. Just how it all came together — there was a moment in the very last minute of the fight where the fight was coming unglued, like some raid fights do. We just had to guess as to how the group was going to spread out, and if we spread out correctly, we might have a chance, and then if we didn’t, it was going to be a wipe and we’d try again next week. But we spread out correctly and that was good.
GamesBeat: And how about working on the game? What are some of the highlights in that history?
Brack: I think the work that the team did to create the different game systems and iteration, the kitting of Legion, will always be a special memory. If you think about wanting to bring back Illidan and have different artifact weapons and have the world quest system, the lore around all those different pieces, that’ll always be a really awesome memory, not only creating the game but also playing it after it was all done. Doing the patch for Argus was obviously one of the larger patches that we’ve ever done, one of the more challenging from a technical — making sure everything would work from a visual perspective, having the broken pieces of the world. It’s interesting. I spent 13 years working on World of Warcraft, so there’s a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of adventures in there.
GamesBeat: One thing I find interesting is this sort of redemption of Mists of Pandaria. At the time people were pretty hard on it, and now, when people talk about favorite expansions, that comes up a lot.
Brack: I’d agree.
GamesBeat: I know when I leveled through those zones, they’re some of my favorites. Is it gratifying to see that even sometimes content that didn’t get its due at the time can still have this second life?
Brack: That’s one of the great things about celebrating the anniversary. Certainly Mists of Pandaria was the most misunderstood expansion. But going back, the kitting of it and the theming and the artistry of the zones is some of my favorite, honestly. The art team in particular, and the zone and level designers, did such an amazing job on the world of Pandaria. That was a super fantastic experience. We always had, for a long time — we wanted to have a class or a race where you chose whether you went Horde or Alliance. It was cool to finally have that be the expansion where we could do that.
GamesBeat: Going back to Legion, which was the last expansion we’ve seen everything of — the jury is still out on Battle for Azeroth — but already people seem to revere Legion. I sense some pride there when you talk about it. Do you think that expansion was one of WoW’s highlights
Brack: I do. Everyone will always have their favorites depending on when they joined and who their friends were at the time and what different content they experienced. Everyone always has their favorites. But the thing I like — everything coming together really cool together in that expansion, with your artifact weapons and the class overhauls and the different custom class quests you got. To have your class really — something we’d also had as a long time idea of, when do I become a hero of my class? How do I become the champion of the hunters, the champion of the warriors? If you think about back in the 40-person raid days, when you were doing Molten Core and things like that, you would often have your class lead in the guild. This is the lead for the mages, take your direction from that person. Recognizing and putting some of that thought, some of that spirit into the game felt like it really came together in an awesome way.
GamesBeat: World of Warcraft has been popular for a long time. You can’t compare it to many other games. Should we expect its future to play out much as it has the past several years? The two-year expansion cycle with three major patches? Or do you think there will be a shakeup or something different happening in the future with how development on World of Warcraft goes forward?
Brack: That’s something we’ve experimented with a lot over 15 years. That’s what we think is the right thing right now. The big inflection this year is going to be Classic. That’s a huge piece that’s going to be midway through the cycle, coming out at the end of August. That’s pretty exciting. We’re always looking for what the right thing is from a development standpoint, the right thing to do in patches, the right thing to do in expansions, how the story all comes together. Again, it’s a circuitous process. It comes together quite organically. But we’re always open to thinking about different things we could have done or could do.
We talked about Legion and having that be a really great — both the game, the systems, and a really great package of patches also being really good. There’s always all these could-haves, should-haves. Should we have made Argus its own expansion at some point in the future? That’ll be always with us. Obviously we chose not to do that and that ended up being pretty good, but certainly we were thinking about it. We’ll continue to think about it and continue to experiment.