Blizzard got big by figuring out how to get noticed

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Blizzard is one of the most famous game developers around the world, and during a panel at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas last week, Allen Adham shared some secrets to the studio’s success.

The lead designer and original co-founder shared how the company has amassed millions of fans over thirty years of creating games.

“People know Blizzard today, but if you go back far enough, we were just a small indie developer. They didn’t even call us Blizzard.” Thirty-two years ago, the company was called Silicon & Synapse and “nobody knew what it meant or how to spell it.”

Adham remembers that he always made great games, “but they didn’t make it until Warcraft 1 laid the groundwork for Warcraft 2.”


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To be noticed

The problem is discovery. If people don’t know your game, “How do you do it?”

Back then, people bought toys from retail stores, which were a chaotic mass of boxes. “How do you get someone who scans all this product to take your game off the shelf?”

For Blizzard, the answer was big, giant heads on the box. Adham recalls that all the early games had progressively larger heads on the covers – a technique to attract attention from buyers.

“We wanted to get through quickly.” Blizzard wanted to “connect deeply and emotionally with players.” Players who would understand and love the game on offer.

Warcraft was high fantasy. “We didn’t want to pay for an IP,” admits Adham. “We tapped into a common folklore.” He advised the audience at the DICE Summit when he did the same: “Do your thing.”

“The players understand it very quickly. If they love it, they connect deeply.” And the studio would follow up with high science fiction for Starcraft. Adham says Diablo has a biblical tone. Overwatch is their take on superheroes.

When creating worlds, he likes to borrow the rule of thirds from Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series. “A third on the nose, a third improved and a third new.” The formula has served Blizzard well when creating intellectual property in established fictions.

The most important thing is the first look at a game. “If you can make them fall in love with your game right away…” Something the Blizzard co-founder returns to time and time again is making the strongest first impression and letting the audience he loves respond in kind.

Grows up

Success brings its own challenges. Adham recalls, “In the early days, we had to focus. Doing less makes your game better because you focus on doing more.” Today they face a problem of too many resources. He quotes a quote from Steve Jobs that “Saying ‘no’ is all about focus.”

There are twelve key design principles that are part of the secret to Blizzard’s success, and are shared across genres. “It’s in our DNA to make a lot of games, a lot of different games. That’s how we still think. Making great games is part science and part art.”

He teases the audience of developers and executives with an example, saying that all twelve will take a long time to cover.

‘Gameplay first’ sounds simple, but Adham says it’s very complicated in practice. “We prioritize, above all else, the core gameplay. Make the core game appeal to as many people as possible.”

“Chess is a game you can teach an eight-year-old to play in five minutes.” But replayability lasts a lifetime and the game has been around for ages.

Adham encouraged the audience to think about the motives behind the game. “Everyone wants to feel heroic. We play games to make you feel good about yourself. Let your players feel amazing.”

Thirty-two years later, Blizzard is playing the big game. Says Adham: “Ideally, our games would be played for ten, twenty years.”

“As we think about the IPs we want to create in the future,” he notes that things have changed in thirty years. “We are talking about welcoming everyone. That makes game design more difficult — and the IP.” But Blizzard’s head of design is confident that they will continue to make games that audiences love at first sight.

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