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Blizzard’s prodigal son returns

How one of Blizzard’s co-founders left the company, why he decided to come back and what it means for the future.

Blizzard Entertainment’s most passionate fans know the names of many of the top people who have worked on the games they love. They’re familiar with Mike Morhaime, the studio’s president who usually speaks on stage during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon.


They’re fond of Chris Metzen, the outspoken former senior vice president of story and franchise development who retired this fall after more than 20 years with the company. Many have probably even heard of Frank Pearce, the less public-facing chief development officer at Blizzard who was one of the company’s co-founders, along with Morhaime.

But those two weren’t the only co-founders. There was a third, one whose name has faded to a distant memory for many over the years, confined to brief mentions in Wikipedia entries and often overlooked entirely. His name is Allen Adham, and after over a decade away from Blizzard and game development as a whole, he’s coming home.

World of Warcraft art Blizzard Entertainment
"In hindsight, leaving Blizzard was probably the biggest mistake I made in my life."

'The genesis of Blizzard'

Allen Adham always wanted to make games.

He started coding in high school, learning alongside one of his best friends, Brian Fargo. As high school wound down, Adham decided he wanted to go to college and Fargo shifted into game development, creating Interplay Productions, a studio that would become known for some of the best role-playing games of the ‘80s, like The Bard’s Tale series and Wasteland.

Adham enrolled in the computer science program at UCLA. During his summers off from school, he took jobs coding games for Interplay and other companies. Adham ended up working on a bunch of PC titles that went on to become classics, such as Demon’s Forge, Mindshadow and Global Commander. And as he neared the end of his college career, he came up with a plan for what was next.

Allen Adham
Allen Adham
Blizzard Entertainment

"The engineering department in UCLA was large," Adham says. "It was at least 300 in computer science, and probably double that if you counted electrical engineering. You knew who the really smart engineers were. So I had this idea that if I could talk five or six of them into starting something instead of getting hired off piecemeal to the Microsofts and IBMs, that we might be able to do something fun and different."

At the top of Adham’s list of recruits was a duo he had identified as two of the best engineers in his class: Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce. As they neared graduation, he went to them with his pitch, and they bought it.

"They were crazy enough to think it was a good idea," Adham says.

The company that would become Blizzard came into existence the day that Adham graduated from UCLA. Back then, they called it Silicon & Synapse.

Frank Pearce makes explicit what Adham’s story suggests: "Allen is the founder of Blizzard, not a founder."

"Allen is the genesis of Blizzard," Morhaime adds. "He’s the one who recruited Frank and I to even think about doing any of this."

All three of these founding members went on to be crucial parts of Blizzard’s early years, as the company searched for firm footing.

From Superman to World of Warcraft

"Back then, the organization was so much smaller," Pearce says. "Everyone was involved in everything that we were doing."

This wide range of duties encompassed the founding trio. Though they now hold exec-level positions with high-level responsibilities, in the ‘90s Morhaime, Pearce and Adham were all writing code for games. Morhaime also handled purchasing anything the company needed from the local Microcenter department store, as well as working IT for the company. And Adham stepped into the role of handling business deals and helping figure out the top-level design choices for each game they were working on.

"I think we used the title executive producer," says Adham. "For the first 10 years of Blizzard, I was programming and doing what we’d now call game directing."

Adham, Pearce and Morhaime all display a lot of fondness for these early days of Blizzard, when the company was tiny and every member of the team was close-knit.

Mike Morhaime
Mike Morhaime
Blizzard Entertainment

"When the company was small, and we were all young and didn’t yet have families and mortgages; it was so automatic," Adham remembers. "We would go to the gym at lunch, or go to Burger King and come back and sit around in the office in our shorts and socks and t-shirts and talk about what games we were playing. It was all just so easy."

One of the company’s customs was to make a trip to the local Babbage’s and Software Etc. stores once a week. In addition to buying new games, the young team would obsessively check the stores’ top 10 seller lists.

"Every week, we’d go and get the top 10 list and look to see what the most popular games were," says Morhaime. "We just dreamed about one day having a game on that list."

The company’s dream finally came true in 1994, the same year it changed its name to Blizzard Entertainment, with the release of The Death and Return of Superman. The studio was three years old at that point, and it was its fifth game. But it also marked a turning point for Blizzard.

In 1994, the company was about to explode. It began releasing hit after hit, beginning with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans later that year. Warcraft 2, Diablo and StarCraft followed, as Blizzard quickly transformed from an obscure console-focused studio into a beloved PC game developer.

As the company grew in size and popularity, Adham continued taking on bigger and tougher projects. In 2000, he stepped into his most daunting role yet: lead designer of Blizzard’s new massively multiplayer project World of Warcraft. While Adham was excited to be involved with the ambitious undertaking, the closer the game got to completion, the more drained he felt by the process.

In 2003, Adham got married, shifting into the family man role that seemed so at odds with what life at Blizzard had been in its earliest years. In January 2004, burnt out and tired, Adham decided to leave the company.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard Entertainment
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

The hedge fund game

By this point in time, well into Blizzard’s growth and on the verge of an explosion in size to handle the needs of a live game like World of Warcraft, Morhaime and Pearce had moved into more traditional executive roles. Though they were sad to see Adham leave, neither was particularly shocked by the news.

"We’ve always been good friends, so I was really happy for him," Morhaime says. "But I would have hired him back in a second any time he wanted to come back to the company."

Frank Pearce
Frank Pearce
Blizzard Entertainment

Pearce was focused on Blizzard’s other big project at the moment, StarCraft 2. But he says with satisfaction that Adham had "set the course for the [World of Warcraft] team and project to achieve a successful outcome.

By the time Adham left, all the core design on the MMO was finished. What was left was play balance, quality assurance, polish and infrastructure building — all pieces of the process that would require long hours of crunch to get the game out by the end of 2004. Adham was confident in the Blizzard team’s ability to pull this off, but he wasn’t eager to be part of that crunch himself anymore.

But Adham’s intention wasn’t to go make games somewhere else either. Instead, he left the game industry altogether and moved into the financial sector, creating a hedge fund based on quantitative analysis.

Adham says his new career path was "fun too, in a very different way." For the first few years, especially, he thought he might love it just as much as game development.

"My outlet for creative game development was the quantitative models that ran the fund," he says. "If you think about it, it’s just another big form of video game. Keep track of dollars and cents, get a high score."

Over time, however, the rush of making money for the hedge fund wore off, and Adham found himself missing his old friends. He continued playing every game Blizzard released, and spent as many of his free hours as he could spare on World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft screenshot
World of Warcraft
Blizzard Entertainment

When Adham talks about how much he played World of Warcraft during his days running the hedge fund, Pearce pokes fun at him: "It turns out when you’re running financial analysis out there, you’ve got a lot of spare time."

Adham laughs, but he doesn’t disagree. "That’s the beauty of quant," he says. "If your algorithms do their jobs, they run pretty autonomously. So yeah, I played a lot of World of Warcraft."

By 2007, Adham desperately wanted to return to Blizzard, but he also felt committed to the new business he had created.

"I’m free to say it now," he says. "In hindsight, leaving Blizzard was probably the biggest mistake I made in my life. What I should have done was just take a sabbatical. I’ve been eager to come back for a decade now."

Adham finally decided that 2016 was the year to make his return to Blizzard and game development because of changes in the stock market. As he studied the data being created by his hedge fund’s algorithms, he saw something he didn’t like.

"Without getting into the gory details, I’m not super [bullish] on the stock market over the next few years," Adham says. "Given that, I thought it would be a good time to wind down the fund and return everyone their money, as I intended to take my own money out of the market."

Adham did just that. And his next step was to call up Morhaime.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard Entertainment
"When people ask to meet with me, it’s usually something bad."

Return

"When people ask to meet with me ..." Morhaime pauses for a second, laughing to himself, and then continues, "it’s usually something bad."

The moment he got a call from Adham asking to grab lunch and talk, two distinct questions ran through Morhaime’s mind: 1) What is wrong? 2) How can I convince him to come back to Blizzard? Morhaime went to the lunch prepared to go into what he calls "sell mode" in an attempt to woo Adham back to the company.

Before he could start selling, though, Adham did the same.

"It was all about Allen convincing me that we should take him back," Morhaime says, laughing again. "It was a pretty easy conversation."

StarCraft: Ghost

StarCraft: Ghost

Take an in-depth look at what happened to Blizzard’s most famous cancelled project.

To facilitate Adham’s return to Blizzard, the studio went through what Morhaime calls "this pretty elaborate process to reacquaint Allen with the company." Much had changed in the 12-and-a-half years since he left. In 2004, Blizzard was around 400 people spread across two projects, World of Warcraft and StarCraft 2. In 2016, the company has ballooned past 4,000 employees and has six tentpole games, each with its own dev team, plus new projects in the works.

While Adham had a lot of teams and projects to learn, the most exciting for him was reintroducing himself to the much larger team now working on World of Warcraft. Eager to show off how much he loved the game, he got in front of the 300-person team and made an announcement.

"I bet them that I had more achievement points than any of them," he says. "I told the team that if any of them had more achievement points, I would buy them a drink. As the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized that it was a stupid bet to make."

Nonetheless, Adham then revealed the total number of achievement points he has collected in the MMO: a whopping 20,400 points, over two-thirds of the max number possible in the game. He asked for anyone who had more points than that to stand up. Only one person did.

"I know now that the person who stood up is the lead programmer on the achievement system," Adham says. "So I might have to call B.S. on that. But I promised the team I would buy any of them a drink any time they see me out and about."

StarCraft: Ghost
StarCraft: Ghost
Blizzard Entertainment

While Adham spent his first weeks back at Blizzard meeting each team and learning how the company is run now, his new position isn’t tied to any of the existing products. His official title is senior vice president, but Morhaime and Pearce also call him "the executive producer of incubation." Adham’s job is to make sure that new projects happen, and he calls it "the best job at Blizzard."

"I’m at the center of the process by which we start up new titles and incubate new ideas," he says. "I have Mike and Frank to thank for that, but I skip to work every day."

With Adham’s experiences during Blizzard’s first decade-plus so focused on directing, even before the "director" title generally existed in game development, this new position seemed like a no-brainer to Pearce. It was a spot that Blizzard needed filled badly, he says, and the company wanted someone it could trust.

"We are so spread thin in terms of resources to achieve even the current initiatives that we’re trying to pursue," Pearce says. "It’s very difficult for us to kick off and start new ideas and new projects. I don’t think we’d be able to find someone to focus on incubating new ideas that we just hired off the street, that hadn’t worked here before. To be able to bring in someone that we trusted, that had a passion for exploring new ideas — it was a really good opportunity for us.

"Then again, our success rate on projects started and shipped under his leadership is about 40 percent," Pearce jokes, referring to Blizzard’s long list of cancelled titles during Adham’s original tenure. The morgue of would-be Blizzard releases includes an adventure game called Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans and a stealth-action title called StarCraft: Ghost, whose long development history and eventual cancellation Polygon chronicled recently.

"40 percent is about correct," Adham says. "That 40 percent that gets through is pretty awesome, though."

Overwatch - Tracer hanging upside down Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch

On Blizzard’s future

Adham’s return to Blizzard comes at a time of transition for the company, as many of its long-time fans are wondering what’s next.

Many of the studio’s best-known personalities have left. Chris Metzen recently retired. Rob Pardo, who served as lead designer on World of Warcraft alongside Adham and after his departure, left the company two years ago and just recently announced a new studio.

The three lives of Blizzard

Blizzard Blizzard Entertainment

Two years ago, Polygon looked at Blizzard’s plans for the future.

And even many long-time developers who remain at Blizzard, like previous World of Warcraft game director Tom Chilton, have shifted to mysterious new projects.

"Chris Metzen was such a powerful creative force within Blizzard," Morhaime says. "Whenever somebody who we’ve all looked to for guidance and inspiration leaves the company, it has always created opportunities for other talented people to step up. It’s always ended up being a good, positive thing for the company."

When Polygon spoke with Morhaime and Metzen for a profile of the studio two years ago, they talked about Blizzard entering what they viewed as its third era, an era of new projects and of greater openness to different ideas and platforms. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm were the flagbearers of this fresh approach for Blizzard, and this summer’s Overwatch is the proof that it can work across an even broader range of genres and platforms.

"I really couldn’t be happier with how things have gone in the last two years," Morhaime says. "The announcement of Overwatch was so much fun for us, because we were so excited about the game and had managed to keep it secret. Nobody really expected it. And then the reception of the game has just been so incredible. People have responded really well to the diversity of heroes."

Hearthstone
Hearthstone
Blizzard Entertainment

For Morhaime, the attitude that helped Blizzard create projects like Overwatch and Hearthstone continues to represent the developer’s future. It’s what he believes will help the company continue growing its player base, along with increased efforts in esports.

Pearce says Blizzard’s main goal moving forward will be to figure out how to continue serving its audience while simultaneously expanding it. He believes mobile apps will be a major part of those efforts, pointing to the success of Hearthstone on mobile platforms, as well as the recent World of Warcraft: Legion companion app, which allows players to stay connected to the game even when they’re away from their computer.

As for Adham? As someone working specifically on new projects, he’s coy about what’s next.

"You don’t know me too well, but I have a pretty big mouth and get pretty excited," he says, laughing. "I’ve been coached not to say too much, especially given the role that I’m in. So, I’ll just leave it at: We are working on a bunch of cool new stuff."

Pearce prods him again: "You know, the jury’s still out on if it was a good call bringing Allen back. He’s only been here for two-and-a-half months."

Pearce and Morhaime burst into laughter, but Adham just smiles. "In a couple years, you’ll all know whether or not it was a good decision," he says. Babykayak