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

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.

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From 1997 to 1999: Blizzard North's Steady Descent Into Hell

Blizzard North worked steadily on Diablo II for the next three and a half years. In that time, they developed a working relationship with Blizzard South that was often productive, but also sometimes quite adversarial.

Erich Schaefer

What kind of developed in '98 and '99 was our relationship with Blizzard South. We were sort of an independent studio, but we also sort of reported to them. We never really had a real structure between how we were supposed to operate. They were starting to get pretty big and working on a couple titles. They, at one point, were sort of trying to run our games. They flew teams of people up, and said, "Here's what you guys got to do. It can't start in this Irish countryside, because that looks too much like Diablo 1. It's got to start, blah blah blah." And we had some big fights over what we should do, and if they had any say in what were doing at all. And they were pretty contentious. But, what developed from that was, we sort of formalized the arrangement, and we created what we called Strike Teams.

This was throughout the whole company. There'd be a Strike Team of lead guys, designers and some of the best minds that were not working on a game, and there'd little council of advice to the game. So there was a strike team for World of Warcraft that me and a few other guys were on, from a few of the different teams, and we would meet every month, maybe every two months, with the leads of the game and say, "Here is a problem we have with the game, and here is one suggested solution." And that system made it all much more friendly. It was like, "OK, they are bringing up a problem, and if they have a problem, it's legitimate. They're not telling us what to do, but it's a legitimate problem. And how can we fix this?" Well, they also had to offer at least one solution, as part of the strike team process. And I think it was a neat way that really helped all our games, and it really helped us get along with each other, to create a strike team process that would just, made up of other teams, to help on the team in specific.

So, there was a Strike Team of guys down at Blizzard South, and every month or two, or maybe sometimes just a phone call, they'd come up, we'd really argue, it was a lot of yelling and a lot of stamping feet and stuff, but, the structure made it work out.

It was through Blizzard's Strike Teams that Bill Roper became involved with Diablo II's development. Roper eventually developed a strong working relationship with the Schaefers, and would join them when they left to form Flagship a few years later. I reached out to Roper, but he did not respond to requests to participate in this piece.

Erich Schaefer

At first, we had another producer from Blizzard South that came up to help us out. I won't name names, because it was a pretty negative experience. We ended up not trusting him, and saying, "Look, we don't want him in the office anymore.' And then they sent up Bill, which, again, we were like, "We don't want anybody from down there coming up here and telling us what to do.' But, we sort of fell in love with Bill immediately, and I think he liked us, and I think there was a lot of good trust going on, and it worked out great.

Bill Roper, now Vice President/GM of Disney Interactive

Max Schaefer

He was enthusiastic about the game, and enthusiastic about what were doing, and positive about it. It was less about, "Hey, I'm going to enforce the will of Blizzard South,' it was like, "Hey, this is a cool game, let's do cool stuff with it.' People respected that. We also wanted to do cool stuff with it.

Erich Schaefer

Bill had such concern for the player, too. He was almost always the voice of the customer. So, when we were talking about what our business models were going to be, or what we were going to include in the packages, he was such a great advocate for, "Look, let's just do everything we can to please our fan base.' I think company-wide, he was great for that.

Max Schaefer

He was suffused into every aspect of it. We all would talk about these things all the time. We had a lot of discussions. Everyone was passionate about what we were doing and what was going to happen with it. And so, literally every topic was discussed to death, and Roper was there all the time for that, and was definitely, he was a big voice in virtually every decision big and small.

In "Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I," David Craddock's history of Blizzard, Erich Schaefer also talked about the battle over Hardcore Mode - the new mode intended to introduce permanent death. Schaefer remembered, "We made Hardcore happen, and everybody loved it, but there was controversy, especially from Blizzard South, thinking that once [players] actually died, they'd hate us, hate Blizzard, hate Diablo. But we kept fighting back, saying, 'No, they'll know what they're getting into. Yeah, dying will suck, but it will add a lot of excitement for some people.' I think it was a great decision. When I asked him about that argument, he said, "Blizzard South thought players would be super pissed off to lose a character due to lag, bugs, exploits, etc. We had played the game so much at that point, though, we knew it was a winner."

In addition to providing direct feedback on the progress of Diablo II, Blizzard South contributed in other ways as well. In particular, they had a large hand in the development of Diablo's lore, occasionally to the chagrin of Blizzard North.

Erich Schaefer

We didn't really have almost any story in mind at all, other than you are following the guy from the first game, who stuck the gem in his head. You just got to track him down and kill him at the end. That was the entirety of the story. Really, it was Blizzard South who was tasked, their film department, it was called Blizzard Film Department back then, I think, they were tasked with making cinematics for the game, and they really in making the cinematics invented the story. We really had very little to do with it. At times, we thought their story was very strange.

But, in the long run, I think it was a collaboration between our sort of setting the tone and populating the world with recognizable and unique looking characters and things, and them turning it into a story. It was kind of contentious. At times we hated each other, thought the other guys were screwing up the whole game. But in the end, I think it was very strange, and probably wouldn't work out very well, but it ended up almost everyone liked it, and people like yourself just say, "rich story." It didn't really. If it were just me, it wouldn't have had a rich story at all.

Max Schaefer

All our decisions were based on gameplay and look and feel and what are cool skills, and then you go back later and say, "Why would you be out in the desert, why would you be then in the rainforest? Well, there should be something leading you across these landscapes." So the story kind of comes afterwards, and it fills in the gaps between what was entirely gameplay decisions, which is probably the right way to do it, because you don't want to sacrifice your gameplay to fit a pre-conceived story. Ultimately, this is a game, and you are the hero, and you're creating your story, and it really isn't about the lore, and it isn't about who you're chasing or whatever. It's about your heroic conquest through this world. So, like Erich says, story was not our strong suit at that point, and we did definitely rely on Blizzard South to help us out with that quite a bit.

Erich Schaefer

The most famous [instance of Blizzard South defining the story] was actually Diablo 1, where, I don't know, within the last month, before we were going to ship, they sent us up the final cinematic, and it was our hero, who has just won the game, taking the gem and shoving it in his head and becoming Diablo. We were just floored. None of us had any idea that that was what they were working on. We had never been consulted. Suddenly, we were all just struck by, "Our hero dies? Is this a good ending? What is even happening here?' Again, it was pretty contentious, but we liked it enough, and it was just weird enough, and it was too late to do anything else.

Max Schaefer

The cinematics they did were undeniably cool looking, so we were like, we'll just roll with it.

Erich Schaefer

But, they were shocking at times. And then, immediately, in Diablo 2, the first set of cinematics they had was set, well, I think the first one we saw, at least. I might have this a little bit wrong. But there's a little person holding a...

Max Schaefer

It was a cocktail. He was serving customers in some weird bazaar in the desert, that was, again, completely made up out of nowhere.

Erich Schaefer

I remember us thinking, "Oh my God, they're doing it again. They're creating this story with these characters that had no basis in the game whatsoever." At that point it was just kind of funny. People were a little concerned in the office, but we were like, "They're just running off, doing their thing,' and again, it ended up all coming together, and we started to... we'd squeeze in a little. We'd say, "Come on, guys. This has nothing to do with the game." But other things they made, we would then adapt to characters in the game. So, it kind of went back and forth. But it was a very strange process where we almost didn't talk to each other at all and just presented each other with, "OK, here's your cinematics.' "OK, here's your game.' Then we tried to reconcile them in the end.

From left to right: Rick Seis, Divo Palinkas, Jon Morin, Theodore Bisson, Michael Dashow, Eric Sexton, and Stefan Scandizzo (Photo credit: Karin Colenzo-Seis, used in Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II)

In the Trenches: The Day to Day at Blizzard North

Blizzard North had grown quite a bit through Diablo II's development, but in many ways it was still being run as a startup. This led to more than a few conflicts on the staff.

Erich Schaefer

As the project progressed, the team got bigger and there got to be more cliques. I think there was sort of a feeling, and none of this was super hard, but it was like, the early guys maybe feeling like new guys were coming on and were advancing above them. As the project got bigger, we would hire artists that were now leads. So, we would say, "Hey, I know you've been on this project a long time, but we hired a new guy, and he's now in charge of what you do."' All that kind of thing always causes consternation. So, there were cliques. For instance, the old guys versus the new guys. I don't think we handled those very well.

Max Schaefer

We sort of had an older style office, too, where we didn't really have pits of people working. So there were a lot of private offices, and it was kind of a long walk from one side of the office to the other, so there was sort of like region based factions, as well. It was just like one end of the office versus the other end of the office just because that's who people talk to all day, and they would perceive things to be kind of randomly coming from the other side of the office, and who the hell were those guys anyway. And we were young guys with no management experience, and we were just kind of wild-eyed watching this happen and wondering what to do about it.

Erich Schaefer

There was a bit of a problem with over-success. When we were making Diablo 1, all of us were making, like, thirty grand at most. We weren't paying ourselves very much. Once we got bought out by Blizzard, or the Blizzard parent company, we got a nice raise; but as StarCraft did well, a lot of money started to pour in, and a lot of it turned into royalties. So, we suddenly went from all of us just kind of getting by to a lot of us are getting big stacks of money. A lot of us were getting six figures, big bonuses were going to a lot of people. Then people started saying, "He hasn't been here as long as me, why is he getting so much money? I worked on this game that we're getting the money from, and this guy just came on."

We probably didn't handle that very well. Even between Blizzard North and Blizzard South there was, "Why are Blizzard South guys getting bonuses from Diablo?" And then, it actually worked out really well the other way, we started to get really good bonus numbers from StarCraft for ourselves at Blizzard North. And everything kind of went well, but that much money flowing in from nothing, and we didn't know how to distribute it. I think we did a good job, but that caused a lot of, I don't know, people wondering where they stood and what was going on. I think that caused some strife in the office.

"... there were people that put signs on their doors, "Bring Back Body Parts' for weeks, months even, where people were upset about the decision that we were going to take those out." - David Brevik

None of us knew what we were doing, either management wise or game development wise. We were making it all up. But the biggest challenges were related. These things at the time were not obvious. Nowadays there's a million online games where you can join with your friends, but the idea of, what is a chat room, how do you sit there before you go into a game, all those things were things we had to invent from total scratch, and that was some of the biggest challenges and some of the biggest fights, just because they were so hard and unexplored territory. Another example, not to technical, was the skill tree idea. These things were all invented and had to be hashed out at the same time as growing this big company, and at the same time we're working too hard, just because of time mismanagement. So, it was very stressful times with very hard challenges and no real examples to point to in the real world. I think we invented so many things. The atmosphere was very tense and stressful a lot of the time.

David Brevik

In terms of arguments around the office, there was a lot of controversy over [body parts]. One of the things that we had thought about doing was putting in the parts of the beasts that you killed, that they would drop their hearts or organs or claws or whatever, and we ended up going away from it. It was too gruesome, and we ended up taking it out, but that was a very controversial decision. And there were people that put signs on their doors, "Bring Back Body Parts' for weeks, months even, where people were upset about the decision that we were going to take those out. Because, a lot of people liked them, but, it was pretty graphic, so I can see why we did it. But, it was not a popular decision, and it was not a super popular decision with me. I thought it was gruesome but pretty fun.

Erich Schaefer

Mostly that was Blizzard South pushing back on when we got too violent, or let a little nudity creep in.

Max Schaefer

They were a PG company, and we were an R company, I think was the way it went.

Erich Schaefer

We would kind of try to push the limits and see how bloody and crazy we could make this game and just let our imaginations go wild, and they would try to rein us in. Body parts was a great example, though, where, it just felt too gruesome while we played. It just didn't feel right that there would be so much emphasis on these. And you could pick them up and put them in your inventory. And so, Blizzard South, as I recall, were the first people to complain. We pushed back immediately, because we do whatever we want to do, except, then, as we played, it didn't take long, after a week or two as body parts proliferated in the game, it just didn't sit well with any of us. I remember me specifically saying, "Yeah, you know what, these guys are right, let's redesign that whole idea.' Kind of the contrary, though, was my favorite skill of all time was Corpse Explosion, where you would just target a corpse and it would explode in bloody violence all over the screen. And that one people were a little taken aback by, especially, again, Blizzard South. But that one was so fun that it was the opposite, they realized after a couple weeks, "OK, yeah, that does fit the game.' It's gruesome but funny, and not gruesome like I'm carrying around hearts and lungs.

Max Schaefer

Yeah, I remember another example of that was the controversy over this monster Andariel in the game, who was, she was in a state of undress, to some extent, and the guys down south were sure that this was going to cause immense controversy, and there was going to be Congressional hearings and all this bad publicity and stuff, and we did push back on that quite a bit, and said, "Hey, no, it's just plain cool looking.' And sure enough, she shows up on magazine covers and never heard a single bad word about it. We also always wanted there to be more controversy about our game, but for some reason, I think we came just under the bar, and avoided any real critical mention of our content.

David Brevik

Some of my fondest memories were around the April Fool's jokes. After Diablo 1, and during Diablo 2's development, when we were developing StarCraft, and StarCraft was behind schedule, as well, and everybody knew it. And so, at the beginning of April, I gathered everybody together in the company and said, "OK, as you know, StarCraft is behind schedule, we all know this, and it's got to make this year. So, we are all going to move down to Southern California for the next few months and try to help out and complete the product.' And everybody believed me, and then later in the day, I told everybody it was an April Fool's joke. And somehow, I still got them.

The most controversial April Fool's joke that we ran was that we were going to do random drug testing, and people flipped out. Anyway, we had a time cards one. There were a whole bunch of pretty good ones. I can't recall them all. That started around the beginning of Diablo 2 development. Eventually they stopped falling for it, and then we laid off for a couple years and then sprung one on them again.

Max Schaefer

We spent so much time at the office that we had to engage in recreational activities while at the office, because we didn't have any time. There was no time at home, there was no weekends. It would change from time to time, because we would get sick of something, but I remember at one point we all got RC cars and would go out into the parking lot and race them just to blow off a little steam. But we had to do our recreation together, because we had so much to do, and we were so far behind immediately, that we knew we were going to be spending our lives, basically, at this office. So, I just remember the fun things that people would start to do, just to blow off some steam and to recreate in the intervals that we had.

Erich Schaefer

I think my favorite thing was just playing the game. A lot of the team would play the game a lot, and then towards the later process, a lot of the Blizzard South guys would play it a lot. And that's why, we kind of knew that things were going really well, because so much of the team would stay around at night, even if they didn't have anything really more to do that day, and just play with the guys down south. And just the sheer amount of feedback they would send up from these sessions just felt great, and I think to this day it's always a great sign of how you're development's going: is the team playing the game you're working on, or are they playing other games? If they're playing the game they're working on, things are going real well.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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