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Thursday, October 5, 2023

How Blizzard Transforms Its Fans Into Employees

Ion Hazzikostas was fairly certain that Blizzard had broken World of Warcraft. He and his guildmates were deep in the ancient sanctum of Ahn'Qiraj, face to face with the delirious cosmic gaze of the eldritch god C'Thun. The dusty tomes of the Warcraft legendarium imply that C'Thun is one of the most powerful beings in the universe; he commands an army of obsidian golems and routinely devours raid members whole with one of his many toothy maws. Still, the amount of damage he was soaking up seemed a bit overtuned. Hazzikostas spent endless evenings getting blown to bits by this grim divinity, and his guild had little progress to show for it. C'Thun still stood, sweatless and indomitable, as the armor repair fees mounted in his wallet. Eventually, Hazzikostas had had enough and sent his complaint up the chain at Blizzard Entertainment to World of Warcraft lead designer Jeff Kaplan.

"He graciously responded, and over the following months and years I would regularly send in bug reports and feedback regarding the game's design," said Hazzikostas. "In 2008, I was looking to move on from my law firm and hunting for other legal jobs, and in the course of that I also decided to send a résumé to Blizzard, just to see where it might lead. I ended up getting sent a written design test, then flown out for an interview."

"The rest," he added, "is history."

Today Ion Hazzikostas is the game director of World of Warcraft, a post he has held since 2016. The man who once logged endless doomed attempts to topple the fulcrum of celestial power, who raged at those unseen developers for their balance oversights, is fixed on the other side of the Rubicon. Here is Hazzikostas at last weekend's Blizzcon, talking with his hands about the black citadel of Torghast in a crewneck emblazoned with the Shadowlands logo. Imagine that: To be seduced by the magic of Azeroth—to live it and breath it—and now serve as its author.

"More and more game companies are tapping into that ecosystem nowadays, but 20 years ago when Blizzard was starting up World of Warcraft, recruiting top MMO guild leaders to be members of the design team was, I believe, an extremely unusual move," said Hazzikostas. "It reflected and helped reinforce a culture that continues to this day, where our games are living worlds that evolve as the product of an ongoing dialog with our community."

Blizzard celebrated its 30th anniversary last weekend, which means that the venerable publisher has spent more than three decades beguiling a legion of superfans in every discipline; Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, Overwatch. Today, the halls of 1 Blizzard Way are filled to the brim of veterans just like Hazzikostas—those who entered the gamer-to-developer pipeline and made it out the other end in one piece. It is, perhaps, the most authentic, headstrong expression of fandom; loving a video game enough to put your own portfolio on the line to see, once and for all, if you are capable of making it a little bit better.

Over the years, this transition has become part of the backbone at Blizzard. It goes all the way to the top. Just look at J. Allen Brack, who serves as president of the company. Once upon a time, he too was a halcyon video game producer with a taste for Blizzard's ancient CD-ROM golden years—the first Warcraft, the first StarCraft, the first Diablo, back when the company's directory listed about 50 people. Like Hazzikostas, he fell in love with World of Warcraft, while he was working on the ill-fated LucasArts MMO, Star Wars: Galaxies. (The fate of that game, which was tanked by a series of disastrous creative decisions, is another story entirely.) But the prospects of a Blizzard job felt different, he explains. Like it was his best chance to explore his true limits as a developer.

"My interview was right after the first Blizzcon," he said. "I really felt like Blizzard was, and is, a haven for how games should be made. A lot of the leaders in the company are video game creators. We kinda understand the player ethos."

Brack touches on a refrain you hear constantly the longer you spend around the games industry. Blizzard is not the largest or most profitable publisher in the business. (In fact, it's not even in the top five.) But traditionally, it has carried a bespoke milk-and-honey aura that none of the other major players—not EA nor Ubisoft nor Microsoft—can muster. It's hard to say why that is. Obviously, Blizzard possesses some remarkable gameplay bona fides; the company's multiverse is beloved and untouchable, and it often seems like everyone who identifies as a gamer has at least one Blizzard franchise that they obsess over. But there's also this strange, ethereal quality to its mystique—as if the studio represents the game-dev equivalent of Shangri-La. You feel it from the moment you step onto the Irvine, California, campus and stand under the bronzed Orc warrior who guards the circumference of gray, sunbathed office buildings. Even if you have no vested curiosity about 3D modeling or AI or any of the other grimy challenges that come with building a video game, you'll still feel like joining the cult.

Cora Georgiou would know. She tells me she majored in communication in college, and never expected to work in a gaming studio. After graduation, she got involved in the Hearthstone esports scene where she commentated on tense playoff matches between wordless grandmasters, but had grown fatigued of the inconsistency in contract work. That's when she saw a posting for a Hearthstone design job. Georgiou suspected that she'd be out of her depth, but resolved to shoot her shot anyway.

"I was used to being the expert in the room, and now I was the small fish in a big pond. I went into every stage of the process not expecting to get further, and then I was offered a job and it was very, very real," she said. "I was moving across the country to do something that I didn’t let myself really think I would be able to do."

Georgiou believes that her passion for Hearthstone—hewn through five years of travel, tournaments, and interminable shifts in the broadcast booth—has helped her handicap for the elements of game design that she's learning on the job. She may not be a balance maestro or a C# wunderkind, but she does know how much the community hated the Patches meta. Sometimes, that's more than enough, and certainly enough for Blizzard who saw her as essential to their staff.

"You know how design philosophy has changed over time. You know which mechanics worked and which didn’t. You know what separates a good theme from a great one. You know exactly which designs we’ve already done," said Georgiou. "This is just knowledge that we pick up over

time because we love playing so much. We know what we love most about playing Hearthstone, and what we don’t."

Alec Dawson, another Hearthstone developer who previously broadcasted tournaments for the game, mentions that in total, there are five former competitive players on his team. Sometimes, thanks to their sixth sense for hidden synergies in the cards, they can flag an overpowered combo long before the other developers catch on.

"[They can] tell you what's going to be broken when the next set comes out. They'll use their competitive side to break whatever you throw at them," said Dawson. "We actually had a recent hire come into our team-wide playtest and decide that he wanted to build his own decks instead. I only remember this because in our QA report it was pointed out that one player used an unassigned Mage deck and then went 13-1."

Allen Adham, one of Blizzard's co-founders, says it's crucial to keep new blood like Georgiou and Dawson rotating into the company's brigades. A superfan's instincts can challenge the orthodoxy established by those who've been around a project since pre-Alpha. As Adham puts it, game development is a bit like cocooned in a spaceship. You're bouncing ideas off the same handful of people everyday, and sometimes an injection of fresh blood may be in order to break up the echo chamber. However, Brack also mentions that sometimes, a grognard's perspective on what a game needs can be equally skewed. A hire that has 300 days played in World of Warcraft doesn't necessarily ensure that they'll be a great developer. "Someone who is really hardcore is not going to understand the first-time user experience, or someone who's a 35-year-old dad coming into the game," he said. "You need to screen for that."

Naturally, everyone I spoke to for this story is exceptionally proud of the culture they've built at Blizzard. Georgiou notes that she expected to have a subsistence career, clocking in and out for little more than financial fulfillment. "You grow up hearing stories from your parents about how they hate their jobs and they can’t wait to retire," she says. "I would probably be working in news radio somewhere in the Midwest right now if I didn’t start playing Hearthstone when I was 19. It quite literally changed the trajectory of my entire life."

Her devotion is resonant, and yet, lately it's been easy to doubt if Blizzard still holds the same gilded reputation in the public imagination as it did throughout the last 30 years.

Simply put, it's been a turbulent few seasons for the company. Yes, there have been missteps in the design department; the previous World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth, earned a tepid reaction, and the dysfunctional rollout of Warcraft III: Reforged caused an out-and-out debacle due to some egregious oversights. But frankly, those software issues are small potatoes compared to the simmering intra-office unrest that's leaked out of Irvine. A number of high-profile executives have recently departed the company, including founding father Mike Morhaime, who quickly formed his own studio called Dreamhaven. In 2019, the company brutally reprimanded Chinese Hearthstone pro Blitzchung after he made a Hong Kong solidarity statement during a Blizzard broadcast and was forced to forfeit his prize money. (That incident incited a walkout among some Blizzard employees.) A few months prior, Blizzard laid off 800 of its employees while simultaneously reporting $1.8 billion in profit, which was received as a nakedly callous entrenchment of the leadership's priorities. Unsurprisingly, last year Bloomberg reported that there was a germinating union movement within the company, targeting pay inequity within the corporate structure. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Blizzard, is currently making 319 times the company's median employee pay.

All of these questionable headlines had a disorienting impact on Blizzard's pristine image. This crucible of game development—the utopia that Brack spoke about—suddenly seemed like it could not get out of its own way. In fact, I believe I speak for many Blizzard fans when I say that lately, I've been anxious that a new set of axioms, empowered by a different regime, will render the company as something closer to the other, more ordinary triple-A firms around the country. Perhaps the rent is finally coming due, 30 years later.

In particular, I asked Brack about the walkouts. I wanted to know his reaction to them, as well as his motivation to address some of the tensions that have rocked the company in recent years. As expected, he hit all the right notes.

"One of our values enshrined around the Orc statue is 'Every Voice Matters,'" he said. "It's not unusual for Blizzard to be extremely loud, extremely vocal, and extremely critical of the things that we ourselves do. Frankly, it was very on-brand for us to express those concerns."

"For us, it was a difficult period in the history of the company, and we certainly talked about how we're going to think about things and do better going forward," continued Brack. "But honestly, I look at that with pride."

It's heartening to hear that faith from someone who wields so much power within Blizzard's exclusive boardroom meetings, but these unsteady two years feel emblematic of a larger, more glacial shift at the company. After all, Blizzard is no longer the plucky independent studio it was in the beginning of the millennium. It has 4,700 people on staff, and has been joined at the hip with Activision since 2008. Many of those employees have wondered out loud if they're in the middle of a paradigm shift, and that some of the more cynical practices in game development were eroding away at the core Blizzard doctrine. Are these incidents a brief aberration? Or will we see an ugly union fight, more layoffs, and a fresh swathe of games that don't possess that textbook Blizzard polish in the future? I don't think anybody, even Brack, knows for sure.

All of this brings to mind something that Hazzikostas said when I asked why he's found such a lasting home at Blizzard. For him, it's not about the quality of the work, or the chance to breathe life into characters like Jaina and Thrall, or even the enviable clout that comes from being the man behind the curtain. Instead, he cited the atmosphere inside the Anaheim Convention Center every year for Blizzcon, as the floor buzzes with jet-lagged devotees from all over the world. Some of them have spent innumerable days and nights in the same Discord channel, grinding out levels and armor tiers until they approached immortality. Finally, they have a chance to put a name to a voice, and pick up the banter right where it left off in the burning sands of Ahn'Qiraj. After all, that is Hazzikostas' own heritage.

"It's a place of hope and optimism. That is the community that Blizzard has helped to foster for 30 years now," he says. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of making that possible?"

Hazzikostas is right. That energy has kept a steady tide of fans ditching their careers for a chance to join the mother ship; to touch the magic for themselves. Precious few companies are capable of offering dream jobs. Ironically, that's also why the stakes are so damn high.

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