The past year has been one of the rockiest in memory for PC gaming paragon Blizzard Entertainment. The maligned announcement of Diablo: Immortal at BlizzCon 2018 was just the beginning of a tumultuous year of news like Blizzard cutting hundreds of jobs despite posting record profits, rumors of Activision's increasing cost-driven influence, and an enormous international controversy when two Taiwanese casters and a pro Hearthstone player were banned when said player used his post-match interview to call for Hong Kong's independence from China.
At Path of Exile's ExileCon fan convention in New Zealand this weekend I had the chance to speak with Blizzard North's founders and Diablo creators David Brevik, Erich Schaefer, and Max Schaefer to get their opinion on Blizzard's recent controversies. That interview, which includes their opinions on Diablo 4's announcement, Blizzard's past and present, and China's turbulent games industry, will be posted in full on PC Gamer later this week.
During our chat I asked Brevik, Erich, and Max Schaefer, if it was hard watching a company that they helped build embroil itself in controversy over the past year, and if it felt like Blizzard had "sort of" changed.
"It's not 'sort of' changed, it has completely changed," Brevik contested, noting that the only original Blizzard developers who remain are senior art director Samwise Didier and senior vice president Allen Adham, who Brevik still chats with regularly.
"The old Blizzard is gone," Max Schaefer added. "When we quit, there was like 180 employees total. There's thousands now. The whole empire is different, and Activision didn't have any influence. At that point it was just Blizzard and then some anonymous corporate owner, Vivendi or whoever. That was it. And so now [Blizzard is] a video game empire that has to appease shareholders and all that sort of stuff."
That change in the values and culture of Blizzard Entertainment isn't anything new. It's something that "happens with companies all the time," Brevik said, and is a natural part of any company growing into a massive corporation.
Brevik and the Schaefer brothers all stated that even during the development of Diablo 2, there was a constant battle over its gory, satanic aesthetic between Blizzard North and Blizzard Entertainment, the main branch of the company that was originally founded by Mike Morhaime, Allen Adham, and Frank Pearce. But as Blizzard continued to grow after the success of Diablo, Warcraft, and StarCraft, it became harder for the trio to focus on creative design and avoid corporate bureaucracy.
"I think the biggest thing is we didn't talk about shareholder value," Erich Schaefer said. "We didn't talk about Chinese government and what they might want. The only thing we ever talked about was what we wanted to do and what the fans would like. It's obviously not the case anymore, for better or worse. I don't blame them. They're a giant corporation."
"You can't be that big and be as free-wheeling as we were, and one of the reasons we left was to be more self-deterministic and not be beholden to some monstrous organization," Max Schaefer said. "Nothing ever stays the same. We would not have survived [Blizzard's] growth in any form by staying there. It would have just driven us crazy because it's just all we want to do is have a team and make the games we want to make. That's possible in the small group like Blizzard used to be and it's not possible in a media conglomerate empire thing that they have right now."
Though Brevik, Max and Erich Schaefer left Blizzard back in 2003 and never had to deal with the modern challenges of Blizzard's enormous global presence, especially in esports, I was curious how they felt about the whole controversy over Blizzard banning pro Hearthstone player Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai—especially because all three have experience in publishing games in China and working with Chinese partners. Brevik acted as an advisor for Path of Exile's Chinese release, and both Schaefers have worked with Chinese investors and publishers on their various games.
"First of all, sometimes you wake up in the morning and you're just in a no win situation," Max Schaefer said. "And I think that, to some extent, that's what happened with [Blizzard]. There was no clean way out. And I think they kind of bungled it, obviously, but there was no way they were getting through that without some controversy."
With regards to rumors and fear that Blizzard was buckling under pressure from the Chinese government or Blizzard's publishing partner, NetEase, Brevik said that sounded "like a conspiracy theory."
"Because of the structure of Blizzard now they think with their wallets first," Max Schaefer speculated. "I think that kind of led the decision making more than anything, and they'd maybe underestimated what people's perception of that would be."
"Again, Blizzard was in a no-win situation," Brevik said. "If they don't punish, then what? They're just going to become this free speech platform for any kind of political movement that anybody wants to take up? They had to do something, but was it perfectly handled? Probably not. I mean, that's why they apologized."
My full interview with David Brevik, Max and Erich Schaefer, and more coverage of Path of Exile, including its new campaign called Path of Exile 2, will be published later this week.
Update, 6:00pm PT, 17/11/2019: This story originally misinterpreted a quote by David Brevik to be in reference to J. Allen Brack when it was meant to refer to Allen Adham. We've since fixed the error.