An Oral History of Diablo 2


We’ve seen a lot of coverage (often by us) about the early days of Blizzard North and the creation of Diablo I and Diablo II. The most extensive documentation (thus far) came from David Craddock’s book, Stay Awhile and Listen, but since volume one only went up through the launch of Diablo I, a new oral history of the creation of Diablo II has info that will be new to most readers.

It’s published on something called, and it’s an oral history of the creation of Diablo II, with extensive quotage from the principles, including Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer, and David Brevik. The entire five page piece is very worth reading, with a lot of detail about how D2’s new features evolved, money and power struggles as Bliz North tripled in size, the battles/collaboration with Blizzard Irvine trying to “PG” the game, making up the story on the fly (mostly to match the weird stuff Irvine was putting in the cinematics), battling hacks and cheats once D2 was released, and much more.

An Oral History of Diablo 2. Some quotes to whet your appetite:

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.

David Brevik: 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.

Click though for a few more quotes and share your thoughts in comments. I remember a lot of these issues from covering the game at the time (god I’m so old) but I know a lot of you guys weren’t even around or weren’t following the series in 1998-2000 when D2 was under development, so I’m curious what the newcomers take away.

Level Design

David Brevik: One of the things that we wanted to do that never got done in Diablo II was that we were trying to design this thing called Town. You know, my idea was to get into a world, and you don’t leave the world. I wanted to try to break that reality, break that illusion that we’re not in a contiguous world. I wanted you to start in that world, not start in the chat lobby, but start in that world. And Town was going to be a glorified chat room where you could move around, but you could still go to the pub and chat with people, or go to a vendor, and then you would go to a specific person and you would travel to Act 1.

So, you never left the world, and that was kind of one of the things that didn’t make it, but that was one of the things that we wanted the most, that I personally wanted the most, which was, I really wanted this kind of, more of an immersive world feeling to the game than we had, and make it more expansive. We’re not just in the dungeon beneath this town, that there’s a big world out there.

Erich Schaefer: That sort of reminds me of another challenge we had. The gameplay was fine in the dungeon in Diablo 1, but we were bringing it to the outdoors with just wide open fields. We asked ourselves, “What are the boundaries? What are the obstacles?” If it’s just a field, there’s no real tactics where you move around. So we put a lot of work into what should the sizes of these outdoors be and giving them boundaries and borders that made sense so you didn’t want to wander forever. So we came up with all kinds of weird low walls that surrounded a lot of our outdoors that don’t really make any sense. I remember at the time a lot of people were very negative on it. It was like, why couldn’t we just hop over the walls? It’s going to drive people crazy that we’re limiting their area. I thought it was a big concern. Turns out, it felt really natural, and I don’t think it ever got brought up again. The idea of taking it to the outdoors was one of the big early challenges.

Skill Trees

Erich Schaefer: At some point early on we went with the skill tree idea. We didn’t start with that. That was a brainstorm by Brevik again. He was like, “Hey, let’s make skill trees that are similar to tech trees in [Civilization II],” which I believe we were playing at the time. So that sort of set the pace. Then we started to think, “OK, what would be on the trees for these various characters? Should they have shared abilities like they did in Diablo 1, or should they have their own skills entirely?”

I think one of the cool things, before I get to the specific classes, again, I think we kind of came up with this. I’m sure there’s examples, but at least for ourselves, of, the warrior classes use spells just like the mages. So, before that, warrior classes in RPGs would just come in and hack on guys. Maybe they had some ability or something, but they didn’t have a raft of skills they would commonly use like we ended up doing in Diablo 2.


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.

We’ve mentioned this many times in the past, especially when people complain about D3’s story. It’s surprising, but almost the entire story of D1 and D2 came from the cinematic team and others at Bliz Irvine. The devs at Bliz North made the game their designs created the atmosphere and settings which were obviously factors in the story, but all of the larger story, the point by point “moving across the world” details, and all of the cinematics were entirely created by story and cinematic guys in Irvine. So you’re free to hate on the “Butterfly Queen kills Cain” and other unpleasant aspects of D3’s story, but you can’t do so by saying that the D1/D2 Bliz North devs made a better story.

Another interesting tidbit in the oral history talks about how the grudgingly realized they were not going to make their 1999 release date on D2. They were crunching all that year and killing themselves to make the December release, and it was largely the strike team from Bliz Irvine that convinced them it was never going to happen. So the Bliz North guys eased back and geared down a bit, took some time off around the holidays, before ramping back up to finish the game in early 2000, in time for the June release.

The original Panda fortress.

The original Panda fortress.

Our infamous visits Blizzard North adventure took place in December 1999, when we were the first media or fans (both?) to get several full days of play time and full access to the studio and the devs. As the oral history says, they’d hardly even started working on Act Four (Hell) at that point, and almost all the development of the last act took place in the few months before release.

We actually saw that in progress. One day during our Bliz North visit I was talking to David Brevik in his office while he was playing the newest content, which was Act Four. And he was stuck in town, and kept calling in other devs to talk about it. If you recall from D2, after you killed Mephisto you went through the hell portal which took you to the Pandemonium Fortress, but once there you had no portal back to Act Three. In that early dev stage there wasn’t a waypoint yet in Act Four town, and there weren’t any NPCs there (yet) either, so David was just stuck in the town with an INV full of gear, a staircase down to the dungeon, and no way back to Act 3 or anywhere else. Which struck the devs as funny, and certainly illustrated their “design as we go, fix problems as we find them” development philosophy.

Tagged As: | Categories: Diablo 1, Diablo 2, Ex-Blizzard, Interviews


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  1. Damn good.And looking forward for Stay Awhile and Listen Book 2. David, where?

  2. i heard the audio awhile ago, but i also read this for awhile

  3. One of the things that he did that was really good for design for us was the way that he sort of set up the spreadsheets, because we used Excel to do all the data. And the way that we set up the balance, and the way that we did skills, I think [Stieg Hedlund] really brought that with us. So, we were able to put in more content with the way that he designed the way that we were going to do the data stuff for the levels and the difficulty, and things like that. That was definitely a big factor as well, because he helped to contribute in many other ways with design on all sorts of stuff, from monsters to whatever, all sorts of things. A lot of the radical ideas, more radical design ideas came from either myself or Erich Schaefer, I would say, the most.That's the magic right there imo. Organize the data so you know wtf is going on.

  4. That was very interesting. I didn't know that Irvine did the cinematics and story of D1 and D2. But that's interesting and yet confusing. I understand they were trying to put into D3 some blood from Warcraft world like oversized silly bosses, fairy tale NPCs like Butterfly queen ( I really hate how Cain died and even more do I hate that it was in-game cinematic which was pretty terrible ). But what's the most interesting is the thing "design as we go, fix problems as we find them". It is interesting in a very negative way in my opinion.

  5. That Erich Schaefer quote about making open areas was a big deal at the time. There are no open areas in D1 other than in the town and some parts of the dungeons, except you always have a wall not too far away and usually choke points and such.

    There were some big open spaces in Act One, but somehow they didn't *seem* that big and open since the tilesets were the green grass and marshy patches and small trees. It was Act 2 that really felt big and open, and so many players talked about their eagerness to get out and just run around those big wide open bright deserts. 

    I remember doing just that when I first got to Act 2 while playing at Blizzard in 1999, completely disregarding that "kill Radament in the sewers" quest (which one dev watching me play tried to correct me on) since I just wanted to feel the freedom of racing around a wide open desert space, since it was such a novelty in an ARPG at that time.

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