In Their Own Words: An Oral History of Diablo II With David Brevik, Max Schaefer, and Erich Schaefer

Fifteen years after its original release, the creators of Diablo II recount the battles with Blizzard, the year of crunch, and the shower ideas that became some of roleplaying's most enduring pillars.

Retrospective by Kat Bailey, .

A little more than fifteen years ago, Blizzard North set to work on what would become one of the most popular and enduring action RPGs ever - Diablo II.

Finally stable after the success of Diablo, Blizzard North looked to create an even bigger sequel. The project's principals included David Brevik, Max Schaefer, and Erich Schaefer - Blizzard North's co-founders and the designers of the original game. They eventually found themselves mired in an overwhelming project, one that they spent nearly a year working 18 hour days, seven days a week to complete.

Here, in their own words, is the story of the development of Diablo II, and what it was like to be at Blizzard North in those days lasting from early 1997 to mid-2000.

January 1997: The Aftermath of Diablo

Diablo was released on December 31, 1996. It was met with critical acclaim, validating a difficult development process that had put Condor on the brink of insolvency several times. Following their acquisition by Blizzard and the subsequent success of Diablo, the newly-renamed Blizzard North began looking ahead to the future.

Max Schaefer

It was a very weird time for us, because we signed to make Diablo first as an independent contractor. We were not part of Blizzard when we set out to make Diablo, and about halfway through they decided to buy us out. But that really changed the project entirely, so we almost started over halfway through, because now we were part of Blizzard, we didn't have any budgetary constraints like we did before.

And then they added on the whole concept of doing to it, so it was a time of intense change and action. All I remember in the aftermath was that it was so foreign to us the way that it kind of blew up before we put it out, that we were all kind of waiting to see what happens now. I remember that sense of, "Well, what happens now?" That's the thing I remember most about it, is the anticipation of this great unknown sequence of events that was now going to take place.

Erich Schaefer

Yeah, I remember the immediate aftermath. We were crunching trying to get it done leading right up to Christmas Eve. We took Christmas Day off, and then came back in on the 26th thinking, "OK, here we go, let's tackle the rest of the bugs, let's try to finish this thing up." And I remember that that morning it turned out we were pretty much done. There were no more deadly bugs. So, we were like, "OK. We were sitting there on the 26th, kinda, we're done, what do we do now?" And that just felt weird, because we were in such a daze from such a long crunch to get the thing done. Should we just send people home? Should we take the week off? It was kind of a weird haze going on and nobody knew what to do.

So, we did end up pretty much taking the rest of the week through New Year's, then came back and said, "Well, I wonder what's going to happen."

Max Schaefer

It was no foregone conclusion that we would do a Diablo II. In fact, I think that we had decided that it would probably be fun to try something else. But, with the obvious popularity of Diablo 1 and lack of a clear idea of what else to do, I remember we did make a pretty quick decision that we were going to launch into Diablo II, and do it in a way that addressed some of the issues that were coming up in Diablo 1. We had no idea that people were actually going to play this game, much less try to cheat it. I think we kind of launched the advent of cheating in internet games.

Erich Schaefer

It didn't take us too long to get to [the point of wanting to make Diablo II]. I think, as I recall, and this is a long time ago now, I was sort of always pro-Diablo 2. Even at the end of Diablo 1, I had a big wish list that sort of turned into the Diablo II design document of what we would do from there. So, I figure it was more relief that everyone else got on board from my point of view.

David Brevik

We were all really happy with the success of Diablo. It was much more successful than we imagined it would be. But, we were kind of ready to move on to Diablo II because of some of the problems with Diablo 1. When we made Diablo 1, we just put in, and we made it multiplayer about six months before we released the game, and it was peer-to-peer, not client-server, which means that every computer is in charge of all of its own information, including your character, so, it could easily be hacked.

And when we made, we knew the Internet existed and all this kind of thing, but it was like, if someone wants to hack their game, it's fine. They can ruin their own experience. But, then we realized, oh, crap, they can take that hack and they can put in on the internet, and now everybody has it. It wasn't just one person who was going to ruin their experience. So there was a real desire after seeing some of the feedback and seeing what was going on with the hacking to fix this in a real way. Given that, the team was pretty excited about moving on and working on a second version that we had the time to do a better job. We could do more as far as streaming levels, we could do more as far as keeping it in the world in a more cohesive faction, as well as put in running and some of these things that we really wanted that didn't make Diablo 1, but were things that we wanted all along. And, so, I think the team was really eager to do that.

So it was an exciting time. People were really happy with the success. Things were really good for Blizzard in general. StarCraft was on the horizon, so it was a really fun time.

Erich Schaefer

We moved offices a couple of times in that period. I'm not sure exactly when the happened, but I think we finished Diablo 1 with about 14 or 15 people on the staff, and then finished Diablo II with about, I'm going to say about 45. And I think there was a pretty steady ramp. We didn't immediately hire up a ton of people to get going. I think it was sort of a steady ramp up during the Diablo II development.

The original Diablo.

The number one personality was definitely David. Without him, there's no way this could have ever happened. He was the fearless leader of us all, and drove the development day to day, especially when things were going weird or we had to get back on track. So, I think, to me, he was the shining leader that made this thing work out. He had the technical skills to get anything done when we did have a hump, when it, oh, it turns out we were going to make this game a multiplayer game, or we were going to turn this thing that started out, famously, people talk about as a turn based game, it became real time halfway through, and it only took Dave about a day to do that.

We had a great crew of artists that I loved working with. Michio Okamura was our character artist, and just loved working with him. We went back and forth with character designs all the time. He designed the original Diablo himself, and most of the monsters. We actually hired him when we were doing superhero games, and I don't think he had any job experience before that. We were doing the Justice League Task Force game, and he could kind of draw superheroes. So we kind of based that art on his drawings, and then he transitioned right into the Diablo stuff really well.

Rick Seis was sort of Dave's right hand man, programmer, great guy to work with.

The 2002 Blizzard North holiday party. From left to right: Bill Roper, David Glenn, and Max Schaefer. (Photo credit: David Glenn, used in Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II)

Max Schaefer

It was a different time then. We hired a weird mix of friends of ours from the past and guys we had just met. [Erich] mentioned Michio... Michio didn't work a computer. He did line drawings that we would turn into things, and he did character designs, all just by hand. He was a tremendous artist. We hired other people that had rudimentary computer skills, but it's not like today, where you come out with a Master's degree from some university in some of these topics. Everyone was sort of self-taught and just winging it. It was a very colorful group of guys, and we were all doing this for this first time, and we were all just seeing where it went. So it wasn't like, again, today, where half the staff has worked on other major titles, everyone is super well-trained and specialized. It was definitely more free-wheeling back then.

But, it was really tight at that time. I think as we grew into Diablo II, we got a little bit more into factions and issues and troubles, but back in the early times when there was just the 14 of us, or whatever it was, we would hang out together after work, and we would play NHL Hockey tournaments on the Sega Genesis in the office.

When there's only that many people, you know everybody, you talk to everybody every day, you hang out after work, and that was... I remember that being very good times. A lot of those people, it's funny, are still in the business today. I think that we kind of represent an old guard, but there's a lot of those guys are still making games and still doing this as a career, even though, when we started that, nobody had thought of this really as a long term career.

Erich Schaefer

One guy we should definitely mention too, that Max still works with to this day, is Matt Uelmen. He did all our sound effects and stuff back in the day, too. He came on early, maybe our fifth or sixth hire, even though we weren't sure we even needed a sound or music guy. But he kind of hassled us so much that we finally hired him, and he's just a great guy to work with, and we still work with him to this day, at least at Runic. Just a brilliant musician. Usually the smartest guy in the office on a lot of topics. But just also the classic music guy. He has a lot of eccentricities and personality quirks. He was also an incredibly good tester. He could figure out how to exploit or break your game better than anybody.

Max Schaefer

We hired a lot, we had to fill out a staff quite a bit at this point, so there was Stieg Hedlund as a designer, the Scandizzo brothers, lot of guys. Yeah, I'm just thinking back. It got a lot bigger for Diablo II. It was a lot bigger task, and we were trying to do a lot more. We had to get a bigger office, and then we got a bigger office than that, after that. So, yeah, it was a time of growth. Probably a little bit more management than we were used to.

Erich Schaefer

None of us had any management experience, and kind of still don't. We did a lot of things wrong. I think the classic thing we did wrong was just mis-managing the time and the scheduling, and we started to crunch to finish the game, what, a year or two, a year and a half before it came out, thinking that, hey, we're pretty close, we're four months away if we can really push and get this thing done. And then after about four months of crunching we were nowhere near, and we had to call an end to the crunch for a while. So, that was just classic time mismanagement and just a bad prediction on our part. Happens all the time, but I think that was one of the worst examples of all time that I'm familiar with.

Max Schaefer

It all kind of stems from, you start into a project like this, and you realize all the cool things that you can do. And we're like, well, we have the money and the time now, so why not add this feature or that feature? And it just adds up quickly, and all of a sudden, a two year project becomes a three year project, and like Erich says, we spent way too much time crunching at the end. Actually, some of the darker times was the end of Diablo II, just because of the growth of the company and the growth of the project to the point where everyone was having to work seven days a week, all waking hours, for almost a year.

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Comments 36

  • Avatar for jbobo89 #1 jbobo89 A year ago
    This was super cool. I always loved reading about how classics came to life and the people behind them. Diablo has come a long way.Edited September 2015 by jbobo89
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows A year ago
    Fantastic insights here, thanks for this Kat! Must have been very interesting getting the opportunity to talk about this stuff.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #3 link6616 A year ago
    This was fantastic. I don't have much to say though sadly. Diablo 2 never really wormed it's way into my heart.
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  • Avatar for Stepout #4 Stepout A year ago
    Love the article. I've probably put more time into Diablo 2 than any other game. D2 was the best diablo-clone (weird calling it that) for at least a good ten years. It wasn't perfect, but it was insanely fun. lol, remember how trading worked? You'd have to type in the name of the trading room you assumed would exist, so trade, tradepost, trade2, trades, tradez. Then walk up to one of the few other people in town and show them your gear, they'd call you a noob and then close the trade window. That was my experience most of the time anyway, and I loved every second of it ;)

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  • Avatar for PlatypusPlatoon #5 PlatypusPlatoon A year ago
    That was an insanely awesome feature. Another in the long list of reasons I love coming to USGamer!

    As a teenager, I assumed that Blizzard was some huge mega-corporation that "had their shit together", as it were; it's interesting to peel back the curtain and realize that Blizzard North was just a small group of close-knit friends and colleagues, flying by the seat of their pants. Their games were so polished, even back then, that I never would've guessed that the lead designers were constantly winging it.

    The more I read about David Brevik, the more respect and awe I have for him; he's probably right up there with John Carmack in the legion of Programmer Gods.
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  • Avatar for petera.kemmer18 #6 petera.kemmer18 A year ago
    Wow, I was actually there, and it's great to hear the big three talk about how intense it was! Very fair representation, IMO. It was nuts! :)

    Body parts forever!
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  • Avatar for FTLMantis #7 FTLMantis A year ago
    What an awesome article about an awesome game.
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  • Avatar for josephy.kuo30 #8 josephy.kuo30 A year ago
    Great read! Been getting more into Diablo 3 recently, and this article providing backstory on the previous games was really interesting!
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  • Several times while reading the article did I have the urge to rush and comment on how much of a fascinating read this is. I've probably wasted some of the best days of my youth on that particular game. Man, was it addictive. I wish there was a documentary out there, a behind-the-scenes of the making of a AAA game. I imagine it should be quite dramatic.
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  • Avatar for Sil #10 Sil A year ago
    A great read.

    I remember loving this game, still have the CD. Never played multiplayer so all these cheating issues didn't bother me.

    Having bought the original Diablo and having become fond of it, it was a given I would purchase D II as soon as available.

    At the time I was in awe of Blizzard North, and so fond of these amazing cinematics. Kind of funny to learn they were from Blizzard South.

    I tried to play the game a few years ago but could'nt adjust to the low res graphics again.

    But at the time, I found the game's atmosphere, the graphics as well as the great music, haunting and inspiring.

    This atmosphere I could'nt find in Diablo 3 and therefore never purchased the game. I'm sure D3 has lots to offer, but to me it's just another game.Edited 2 times. Last edited September 2015 by Sil
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  • I've installed and played Diablo 2 so much in my youth that I still have the original CD key memorized and can rattle it off like it's my phone number.
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  • Avatar for sudsampath96 #12 sudsampath96 A year ago
    Wow what an excellent piece Kat! I know video game sites are really enthusiast press, but this exactly the sort of coverage I want to see. Great job!
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  • Avatar for Murasama #13 Murasama A year ago
    I've always enjoyed these kinds of retrospectives when the actual principals/creators are involved where they provide first hand accounts and narratives. Thank you for getting actual interview time with these folks.

    And this is one of the best short retrospectives about the Diablo franchise with current input from the key Blizzard North principals and creators. I learned even more than what I previously knew from their candid insights on the organizational culture and clashes with their Irvine counterparts. Too bad you couldn't get an interview with Roper as he was one of those folks who believed in finding ways to reward players for their efforts.

    This stuff really ought to be made into a video documentary (20th anniversary project for someone to take on).
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  • Avatar for Feanor #14 Feanor A year ago
    Great article.
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    This is very nice one and gives depth information. Thanks and keep posting! Thanks again for the blog article .Edited August 2016 by darksouls3fans
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  • Avatar for enakawat #16 enakawat 11 months ago
    i love to play diablo. I had finished this games since diablo one with my friend air kangen water and finished all the dungeon. Can't wait for another sequel
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    Cool! this is my favourite game. Thanks for sharing... :)
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