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J. Allen Brack has been president of Blizzard Entertainment for just a few weeks. But I wouldn’t call him a whippersnapper, as he has worked in games for 24 years and he’s a black belt in a Korean martial art, Tukong Moosul. Brack took over from Mike Morhaime, who cofounded Blizzard in the 1990s and propelled the Irvine, California-based company to the top of the video game industry on the strength of hits such as World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, and Overwatch.
In the crazy world of angry gamers, Morhaime stood out as a voice for reason and kindness. At a games industry gala, he thanked me for 25 years of game industry coverage. He engaged with fans through the company’s annual BlizzCon event and occasional speeches. During the height of the Gamergate controversy in 2014 and afterward, Morhaime advocated kindness to gamers and those who make games.
Brack admired those qualities in Morhaime while working for more than 12 years at Blizzard, and he hopes to maintain the high standard for quality. Late this week, he’ll face the fans at Blizzard’s annual Blizzcon fest in Anaheim, California, where he’ll have to show his gamer cred.
Brack joined Blizzard in 2006, and he was the executive producer for World of Warcraft, which is still the No. 1 subscription-based online role-playing game in the world.
Under Brack’s direction, World of Warcraft still entertained millions of players worldwide and received a steady stream of substantial content updates, including multiple expansions that rank among the fastest-selling PC games of all time. Brack has also led all philanthropic initiatives associated with World of Warcraft, resulting in Blizzard’s donation of millions of dollars for important causes such as disaster relief and children’s healthcare.
Brack also held multiple roles at Origin Systems, working on the Wing Commander franchise, and then at Sony Online Entertainment, working on Star Wars: Galaxies (an MMORPG like World of Warcraft). I talked with him about his new role and how he hopes to continue Blizzard’s legacy and make awesome games at the same time.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did you become a black belt in Korean martial arts?
J. Allen Brack: Great question. My previous life was a game studio in Austin, Texas. I just sort of randomly wandered into a studio that was very close to the office. I’d seen it for a couple of years. I watched one of the classes. It was a very traditional Korean martial art. The founder of that style had grown up in a temple. He was the very–almost like a movie type of thing, where you have the recluse who grows up in the temple and then comes to America and starts a martial arts studio. That’s exactly what happened. I did that pretty intensely for more than five years.
GamesBeat: Has that come in useful at Blizzard at all?
Brack: [Laughs] It tends to be much of a talking kind of culture, as opposed to a martial artist type of culture. It’s mostly been good for me just through the discipline and the stillness, the ability to focus. That’s the biggest thing I took away from my martial arts training.
GamesBeat: How many years have you been at Blizzard now?
Brack: It’ll be 13 in January.
GamesBeat: That’s the majority of your working life in games, then?
Brack: It’s about half. A little more than half, actually. This past October I crossed my 24th year in the games industry.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you’ve wound up in this position. Did you have any challenge going from working inside the company, usually on one game, and then elevating above that to look at the whole company, at what’s good for the company across a bunch of games?
Brack: One of the things I think is part of the special magic, or one of the parts in the secret sauce at Blizzard, is the way we think about Blizzard as of a higher import. By that I mean, a lot of times — there’s always resource contentions. There’s always, “Hey, this person is good. What team should they go to?” Our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs. The things we want to do are always bigger than the things we can do.
One thing we’ll cauterize around is, what’s the right thing for Blizzard? In my previous life, if I’m in a conversation with some other team and we’re having resource contention, or deciding what the right thing is for people, or what the right priority is — what’s the right thing for Blizzard? When you elevate that, the right decision becomes a lot easier to understand. There’s this thought that everyone serves Blizzard. Everyone is working for the betterment of Blizzard.
I worked on World of Warcraft. I worked on another game as well. But really the, most important thing was, what is the right thing for Blizzard? That’s built into a lot of the cultural decisions we make.
GamesBeat: Sounds like an real-time strategy game.
Brack: [Laughs] Well, that’s where our roots are, for sure.
GamesBeat: If you had to explain what kind of culture Blizzard has, how would you go about that?
Brack: Blizzard is a very values-driven place. One of the things that I really like is, the values we created — which I’m sure you’re familiar with — they try to be non-aspirational. They try to identify who we are on our best days. They’re more articulated around what we’re already trying to be. The reason that’s important is because if you’re already living the values, and you’re already making decisions through that lens and through that framework, it becomes a lot easier than if you have some really disparate values that have nothing to do with your culture.
I think about that. I think about Blizzard being extremely collaborative. I think about Blizzard being very aspirational and wanting to always make excellent, really awesome things. A lot of that translates into the mission statement of wanting to create epic entertainment experiences. These are a lot of things that are parallel with the culture and are reinforced by the values. That helps Blizzard be what it is.
GamesBeat: I had a strong reaction to the story Kotaku ran about sexism at Riot Games. I doubt you want to comment on Riot and their issues, but I think we’ll eventually get around to a question you can answer here, if you’ll hear me out a bit. They were on a list of companies that won awards for having the best workplace, a great culture, a very strong culture. They seem to have had this blind spot that came up in that story. They were edgy. They were trying to be different, trying to be unique. I think I remember a line in one of the stories that popped up later, that they didn’t want to be boring like EA or Blizzard.
That’s interesting to me. You guys have your culture. I think you know what your culture is. You probably know who fits and who doesn’t. Do you have to be careful about things like these blind spots, making sure that the culture is really what you think it is?
Brack: I think the answer is always. That’s not only true of culture issues. I think that’s true of really anything. One of the things that, going back to our values — one of them is to learn and grow. In the same way that we’re always trying to iterate our games, always trying to make our games the best we can be, we also actively try to think about how to improve the culture and how to actively work on improving the culture in the same way we improve our games.
I think about some of the issues in the industry that have come up. There’s a lot of talk around different issues, and there should be. The tech industry does not have a stellar reputation in certain areas where you’re representing the underrepresented. We’re trying to take steps forward with the underrepresented. Personally that’s a very important mission for my team, and an important mission for me going forward as well.
I don’t think anyone really wants to be a jerk to other employees. No one gets out of bed wanting to be a jerk. They want to try to do their best thing. But a lot of it is education. A lot of it is having specific things that we do in terms of trying to manage that. We did a — I don’t remember what we called it last year, but we’re calling it the Diversity Nexus next year, this safe space at BlizzCon for different LGBTQ groups, for different women’s groups. Anyone who feels like they need that space.
We have a LGBTQ council at Blizzard. We have a women’s council at Blizzard that advises different teams on how they can be better. I think if you look at Overwatch, Overwatch is trying to be an extremely inclusive game. Without commenting on the Riot article specifically — there was a Google story this past weekend, so this is not a thing people are not talking about — our view is that we want to continue improve on the culture in every way that we can, just like our games.