2020 was inarguably a year of chaos. People got sick, companies went under, the paradigms of the working world shifted in countless ways -- and that was all before June. But 2020 was also a year when people came together in unexpected ways.
Nostalgia emerged as a binding element. People leaned into hobbies like knitting, baking bread, sharing recipes and -- at least here in Australia -- an unexpected resurgence of '80s-style roller skating.
For many, it was the perfect time to revisit some of their favorite old video games. That was certainly the case at Blizzard Entertainment.
Two weekends ago, during BlizzConline -- the new, socially distanced version of Blizzard's iconic annual BlizzCon convention -- I had the opportunity to sit down with Blizzard president J. Allen Brack and senior vice president Allen Adham to discuss the past, the present, the future and how sometimes they all kind of blend together.
Given our thirst for nostalgia, it's little wonder that revisiting old hobbies became one of the most popular pandemic pastimes. For some, that meant busting out battered old board games or watching their favorite TV shows from the '90s.
For Blizzard, it meant looking back at the company's best-loved intellectual properties. Over the course of BlizzConline, lead producers and developers touched on the old, introducing remastered versions of old titles including Diablo II: Resurrected and WoW: Burning Crusade, as well as modes like Hearthstone Classic.
But none of that was planned to capitalize on the nostalgia burst -- in fact, it was more of a happy accident.
"Most of the things -- with one exception and I'll say the exception is the Blizzard Arcade Collection -- that we are working on, we were working on before the pandemic," said Brack.
"These are not things that you can just kind of say 'Hey, it's retro time, let's go back in time and get in the Wayback Machine and make it all work.' We've been working on Diablo II remaster for more than two years now. And so it's sort of fortuitous."
Diablo II, especially, is one of those games that's continually had a full force of players and modders since its original release in 2000.
"We think about it as one of Blizzard's greats," said Brack. "[We thought] it'd be awesome to give this the Starcraft Remastered treatment where we take this game and up-level it in terms of graphic fidelity but really preserve the core of what makes it great, and be very intentional with that."
Thirty years ago, nobody at Blizzard could have predicted a pandemic would keep them all indoors and home. Twenty-one years ago, nobody on the Diablo II team could have predicted the remastered version would land in this open time slot where revivals and reboots are king.
The pandemic forced Blizzard, headquartered in Irvine, California, to transform how it worked, on a scale that encompassed everything from infrastructure to working from home.
"I think the thing we did really early on, that was a really a North Star for us, was we had to prioritize employee safety as the No. 1 thing," said Brack. "And once you start with that lens, a lot of decisions get made for you -- a lot of what I think of as the right decisions."
"When it was clear we were going to have to do some amount of working from home, we had individual teams take a couple of days here and there as experiments to say like, 'Hey, what breaks when you work from home?'"
But supporting employee wellbeing in a pandemic sometimes means doing things outside of the norm. For some, it's ensuring they have the right technology and infrastructure to work from those dinner tables. For others, it's ensuring they're well-equipped when it comes to, well, the bathroom.
"There was the mass toilet paper shortage. For whatever reason, everyone decided that that was going to be the hot commodity," said Brack. Using contacts from the four Blizzard buildings, the team bundled up care packages -- including precious rolls of toilet paper -- to distribute to employees so that nobody was left without.
On a more social front, the dev teams are regulars at virtual karaoke -- and to nobody's surprise, they bond and communicate via games.
"J and I were on the Overwatch executive team not too long ago," said Adham, one of the first three co-founders of Blizzard Entertainment. "We did pretty well. J's a really good healer. But we have some really good players … they got to beat up on us, but we could win a couple."
Now that BlizzConline has come and gone -- and vaccination rollouts are bringing back some sense of normalcy -- it might be time to start looking forward again.
At Blizzard, that means ensuring the releases of all its BlizzConline announcements go well, but also working toward bringing more unique IPs and games into the world.
"It's worth pointing out we're now pretty much out of things to remaster," said Adham. "So going forward, you can expect to see some new stuff."
"We used to release a game and maybe patch it once or twice, then we were on to the next game. Now we're in this new always-on live operating world … So that means that dev cycles are longer, dev teams are larger and the demands of running our existing successful games are larger -- it takes longer now to get the next new thing out," said Adham.
"But just to be crystal clear, our development pipeline today is as rich as it's ever been. And we have new teams working on new games, new game types."
The future also brings into question what the landscape at Blizzard will look like from a working perspective. Will they remain a socially distanced company now that the infrastructure exists to support it?
"We've got a percentage of people who would like to continue working remotely forever, we've got a percentage of people who can't wait to get back into the office, we got a percentage of people that really want some sort of flexibility," said Brack.
"I don't know where we're gonna end up necessarily, but I think it's hard to imagine that we go 100% back to the world where everyone has to be in Irvine. And I think it's a natural progression ... We've made progress, irrespective of the pandemic, to try to ensure a way to be able to have a little bit more flexibility."
As for the future of Brack and Adham themselves? BlizzConline is one of the peak stress times of the year for Blizzard, so it should come as no surprise that they're ready to take a moment before getting back into the work.
"I'm going to put the fireplace on in the backyard, ah, have a glass of wine and tomorrow … I'm going to relax and play," said Adham. "There's this new game out called Valheim that I started playing last weekend. It's a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to relaxing and just unwinding with some gameplay."
Aren't we all.