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Blizzard got big by figuring out how to get noticed

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

The chief design officer, and original co-founder, shared how the company accumulated millions of fans over thirty years of game-making.

“People know Blizzard today, but if you go back far enough in time, we were just a little indie developer. We weren’t even called Blizzard.” Thirty-two years ago, the company was called Silicon & Synapse, and “no one knew what it meant or how to spell it.”

Adham recalls always making great games, “but they didn’t break through until Warcraft 1 set the stage for Warcraft 2.”

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Getting noticed

The problem is discoverability. If people don’t know your game, “How do you break through?”

At the time, people bought games from retail stores, which were a chaotic mass of boxes. “How do you get someone scanning all this product to pick your game off the shelf?”

For Blizzard, the answer was big, giant heads on the box. Adham recalls all the early games having progressively bigger heads on the covers — a technique to get attention from shoppers.

“We wanted to break through quickly.” Blizzard wanted to “deeply and emotionally connect with players.” Players who would understand and love the game being offered.

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 doing the same: “Make it your own.”

“Players get it very quickly. If they love it, they connect deeply.” And the studio would follow with high science fiction for Starcraft. Adham says Diablo is biblical in 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 building intellectual property across established fictions.

Most important is the first look at a game. “If you can make them fall in love with your game instantly … .” Something Blizzard’s co-founder returns to again and again is the making the strongest first impression and letting the audience that likes it respond in kind.

Getting bigger

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 cites a Steve Jobs quote that ‘Saying “No” is about focus.’

There are a dozen core design principles that are part of the secret to Blizzard’s success and cut across genres. “In our DNA is making lots of games, lots of different games. That’s how we still think. Making great games is part science, but also part art.”

He teases the audience of developers and executives with one example, saying all twelve would take too long to cover.

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

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

Adham encouraged the audience to think about play motivations. “Everyone wants to feel heroic. We play games to feel good about yourselves. Let your players feel amazing.”

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

“As we think about the IP’s we want to craft going forward,” he notes things have changed over thirty years. “We talk about welcoming everybody. That makes the design of the game more difficult — and the IP.” But Blizzard’s chief design officer is confident they will continue to make games that audiences love at first sight.

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