“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.”