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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, .

The Aftermath: Lords of Destruction, Patch 1.10, and Lessons Learned

Work began on an expansion pack for Diablo II almost as soon as it launched. It would be released the following year, and a steady stream of new features would contine into 2003 with Patch 1.1.

David Brevik

We almost always had planned on doing an expansion, and it started pretty rapidly, because the totally project length was maybe 14 months or something like that. So it was probably right around mid-summer that it really started in earnest, and we put people on it and we started making the new act and stuff. I think there were some ideas and concepts for it even right away, things that we want to fix. But the first focus was trying to fix some of the bugs and trying to stabilize the service and giving people a little bit of time off and a break, because people were burnt out. I was extremely burnt out. I think that that was really where the focus was for a few months after Diablo II.

Max Schaefer

We basically felt that we had left something on the table from Diablo 1 by not doing an expansion. We had farmed out an expansion for Diablo 1 that didn't turn out very good and wasn't a very good experience. So I think we had it in our heads that we weren't going to leave that opportunity on the table again, and that it would be relatively easy to do an expansion for Diablo II. So I don't recall there being any, "Hey, should we do this" or "shouldn't we do this." We knew we were going to roll off of Diablo II. And after we got caught up on sleep and repairing our familial relations, we knew that we were going to roll right into it.

One of the main goals we had in the expansion was to really plan it out so that it wouldn't go spiraling out of control, and really endeavor seriously to make a project on time and without this crazy crazy crunch at the end. So I think we kind of put the reins on being ambitious with expansion of the expansion as we went. We tried to stick to the script and hammer it out in a reasonable amount of time.

Erich Schaefer

Yeah, we learned some tough lessons on Diablo II that I think those guys really applied nicely to the expansion. I think almost everybody remembers Diablo really remembers the expansion and after the 1.1 patch. Honestly, that's how I remember it, too. I blur in my mind what was in each. But, we made some really great improvements, fixed up a lot of balance issues. I think it was just worth the continued effort we put into it that whole time to make it a great game. It was fun, and it sold well, but there was a lot of problems with the initial release, and that fixed a good many of them.

Runewords.

David Brevik

[Runewords] were just one of the features that we had been working on and that, because we had these socketed things, we could come up with letter arrangements. They were thinking of different types of items to socket into things. I don't know who came up with it, but the idea that we're going to make these words out of them, and different words turn the item into something else. I was not involved in those designs, so I don't exactly know where they came from.

I thought it was fascinating to have these, to not just know what you were socketing, but have this puzzle associated with the socketing game. I think that this hearkened back to other roguelikes where, in many roguelikes, the potions that you find or the scrolls or the items will all be unidentified, and you don't know what a potion is until you actually quaff it, and then you kind of find out. And then, once you've discovered what it is, it'll be labeled from then on. So, it was random each time, the purple potion in one game would be invisibility potion, but it would be poison in a different game. You didn't know what it was, and I loved that aspect of adventuring and trying to figure things out, and the mystery associated with those kind of things.

Capturing a little of that mysterious spirit in a game, especially in Diablo, was something that I always was looking for, but though we couldn't do it exactly the same way, I like the idea of experimentation and mystery around things, so the audience finds out how to craft and discover unique things about the game. So I love the idea of runewords, simply because that's the mystery that I think adds so much to the game, trial and error and discovering new stuff. It's so exciting to find recipes and whatnot, that's always something in gaming that I really enjoy, discovering the unknown. And you don't really have very many of those things as much anymore. Most people won't put them in the game, because they end up on the internet in ten seconds, so then it just becomes a hassle for people. People are upset that the interface isn't clear. It's kind of an era gone past, you know, games really don't do those kinds of things anymore, because they don't want to frustrate the players. The players want more instant gratification and ease of use than they did then. It was just a different time in gaming.

Max Schaefer

I think 1.10 added some longevity to the gameplay experience with the runewords and what have you, and the expansion pack really bumped the content level over the top. At that point, you had seven character classes that were fully fleshed out to play, you had a lot of really cool environments and a lot of dungeons and different kinds of monsters. It really kicked the amount of content over the top. And then, the other tweaks tightened the whole thing up. As a whole, it was a pretty good game.

David Brevik

It's funny because one of the things that people don't recall, and a lot of people today, especially younger people today, they don't even understand, is that the game was not super well-received when it came out, but when we put out the expansion a year later, that made a massive difference in people's opinions of the product. Because we were able to get a bunch of the bugs out, as well as improve and put in some critical new features that made the game much better, including a couple new character classes and a bunch of new items to get, polish the game better and put in new story... all of these really great features that added a lot to the product.

And then in 2003, the 1.10 patch changed a lot of things and put in synergies and all sorts of things. So I think that those kind of things, they see where it is, but they don't see the journey. They only see it now in hindsight as, "Hey, it was a classic, and it came out day one as this amazing thing." I think people still see that today, with, like, World of Warcraft. They go and play World of Warcraft, and they can't even imagine how different the game was when it came out versus now, right? How many things have changed, and how flying didn't even exist, and people were like, "What? I don't even understand what that means." Because they forget the journey that a project takes to get where it is, and they look at it with these rose-colored glasses, "Well, how is it today versus the way that it was when it came out?" They can evaluate it today, versus the way that it was.

And again, as you get further and further away from something you get these romantic notions about how wonderful something was, but then if you actually played it, you go back and go, "Oh, my God, I remember, I didn't like this, that, or the other thing." I think that still, there's more of a mythical whisper about how good it was versus maybe the reality.

It's a pretty big accomplishment to make such a well-revered game. People will still stop and talk to me often about how much they have playing the game, and they still have it, and they have fond memories. A lot of times now, it's like, "That was my favorite game when I was in fifth grade." I'm like, "Uh, uhat makes me old. "My dad and I played that when I was a little kid." I get that one too. So, it feels great to have been a part of that pretty magical experience. I feel super fortunate that I was able to do that and we're super lucky to be involved. A lot of times, success like that is all about timing and luck and all sorts of things, and, we were very very fortunate to be part of that. I'm super proud of what we created and super proud to be part of that team, something that most game developers will never experience.

Max Schaefer

It was pretty solid [after Diablo II] that this was going to be our career, that this is what we do, and that we couldn't continue to do it that way. It was going to kill us, it was going to burn everyone out, we were going to have massive turnover, we were going to hate our lives and what we did. I think we got away with it a little bit, but it was sort of a period where, whatever cool idea we had, we would cram into the game. And, there was not a whole lot of discipline as to trying to keep the bounds of the project within reason. I guess it had not come up before. There was not the opportunity to go spinning out of control like that.

"It's funny because one of the things that people don't recall, and a lot of people today, especially younger people today, they don't even understand, is that the game was not super well-received when it came out, but when we put out the expansion a year later, that made a massive difference in people's opinions of the product." - David Brevik

I think with Diablo 1, we were just so happy to be released from our budgetary constraints and to be working officially as a Blizzard company at that point. It was enough work to just get our original idea down and working that the project stayed pretty contained, and it wasn't really until Diablo II, where, we started to feel like, "Okay, we know we can make this sort of thing, now what kind of crazy things can we think of to do with it?" And that process just kind of spiraled out of control. And so, the big lesson was: Design within your scope, and within your budget, and within your size of your team, and don't just do every cool thing that comes up, because you're going to come up with a whole lot more cool things than you have time to implement.

It was such a wildly disproportionate success to anything that we could have expected or wanted, and then the whole way that we went from almost going out of business twenty times because didn't have any money and the milestone payments were late or whatever, going from there to having this giant franchise that you make... that people are still talking about today. It's just so inconceivable that you can't look upon it with anything but fondness at this point. Yeah, we screwed up and ground too hard for a while, and screwed up the schedules, and they were late, and there was little problems here and there with this and that, but overall, it's just all good, from my perspective.

Erich Schaefer

No regrets. It ruined a lot of lives, but it was worth it.

Thanks to David Craddock for providing the photos of Blizzard North. Concept art and sketches courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

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