Diablo 2’s 19-year anniversary is upon us. The game that shattered sales records when it launched on June 29, 2000 and it went on to leave an everlasting impression on the gaming industry. To help mark the anniversary of this seminal game, we spoke with David Craddock, author of the upcoming book, “Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II.”
The sequel picks up where its predecessor leaves off, covering the rise and fall of Blizzard North while taking a deep look at the development of the Diablo trilogy, particularly the second game.
Like its predecessor, Diablo 2 helped define what an action role-playing should be. However, the success of the previous game transformed Blizzard North into a new studio. While the original Diablo team was comprised of 15 people, its sequel had between 45 to 60 developers with varying technical backgrounds working on it.
“I think you can look at Blizzard North circa Diablo 2 as a company that’s going through puberty,” said Craddock. “They were older and more confident, but they were still finding their voice.”
Growing Pains at Blizzard North
As detailed in Craddock’s first book, Blizzard North was essentially in the Wild West when it developed the first Diablo. In fact, lead artist Michio Okamura didn’t even have a computer before he started at Condor (later renamed Blizzard North) and had to learn to use one while making art for Justice League Task Force and Diablo.
The company quickly grew as it hired new developers to work on the sequel, and some had more experience in the games industry than the original founders. Although everyone got along relatively well, there was a clear split between the newcomers and the old guard in terms of experience.
Craddock believes the company was in a good place overall, but it was experiencing growing pains. New talent also meant bringing in different expectations and ideas, which helped transform Blizzard North’s culture and methodology. Some of these aspects are reflected in the game.
“If you look at Diablo 2, there are a lot of conflicting ideas that happen to click,” Craddock explained. “The game still has a creepy vibe, but it’s also much more vibrant than the first game. There are dungeons, but you spend most of your time running around outside.”
Development Crunch from Hell
With Diablo and Warcraft II being back-to-back hits, the combined entity of Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North (which we’ll simply refer to as “Blizzard”) appeared to be a near unstoppable powerhouse. But things were vastly different behind the scenes, where everyone was still on the edge of their seats, wondering if the next game would break them.
Blizzard had publically established a “when it’s done” policy when releasing games, shown by how Diablo missed both the Thanksgiving and Christmas release periods in 1996, but the studios still worked constantly to develop their games. These factors, along with high expectations for Diablo 2, led to one of the worst development crunches in the history of Blizzard until World of Warcraft.
The crunch period lasted approximately 18 months for programmers. That was seven days a week, working 12-16 hours a day or more. People curled under their desks for power naps, then got back up to code, draw, or test. By the end, “everyone was kind of there out of solidarity.”
Craddock recalls the story of one programmer who went out to dinner once a week with his wife. She ended up having to order for him because he couldn’t focus on the menu. Some people had breakdowns after the game was finished and left the country to recuperate.
Not even the artists, who usually finish first, were exempt from the insane crunch. Instead of moving on to start work on the Lord of Destruction expansion, they were pulled into working on Diablo 2 because a game so massive needed tons of testing. It didn’t help that new features were continually being added during the crunch, which in turn needed to be tested.
According to Craddock, there are artists who, to this day, cannot play Diablo 2. They’re proud of the game, but it was also one of the most grueling professional experiences of their lives.
But despite the pain and suffering, even those who absolutely hated the crunch admitted that it was probably necessary. The near constant churn of ideas led to features such as Mercenaries being added at the 11th hour. No one would have ever said it was a good idea to work 18-hour days for almost two years, and many didn’t think it last as long as it did, but great ideas were born from it.
The long crunch period turned Blizzard North into an accelerator for ideas, which was both good and bad. It wasn’t unusual for developers to pull up the latest build of the game and see features that weren’t there the day before. While some delighted at having things they never would have thought of, others were upset by how there was no mechanism in place to keep track of the ongoing changes.
Diablo 2 didn’t have much of a road map to begin with. Although the first game had a 10-page pitch document so that the company would have something professional looking to present to publishers, the developers didn’t even follow half of it. By comparison, the sequel’s design document was about half a page long and was left forgotten in a desk drawer soon after work began.
The basic premise was to have a cast of character classes with unique abilities and could run, then everything else was spun out organically from there. But even the concept of running was a topic of debate, as some felt that it took away from the slow deliberate pace of the original game.
It took some convincing, but running eventually won out as a legitimate form of strategic gameplay. Blizzard North ultimately wanted to build a world with Diablo 2, starting with the familiar pastoral lands that harkened back to the first game, then changing to wilderness, jungle, and desert environments with ornate cities. Diablo 1 was a vertical game, with a single town and dungeon. Its sequel would be spread out, which made running a necessary feature.
According to the Craddock, the chaos was almost there by design. For instance, the concept of socketing gems into weapons happened because Pete Brevik (David Brevik’s younger brother) walked into lead designer Stieg Hedlund’s office one day after watching Conan. He thought it would be a great idea to attach gems onto weapons so that they could do different things, and that’s how the feature came to be included.
“So much of game development just can’t be planned – at least not at Blizzard North,” said Craddock. He likened researching his book to finding out that a perfectly beautiful spiderweb was actually spun by a drunk and exhausted spider who shot webbing everywhere that happened to turn out amazingly.
In the end, the drama surrounding Diablo 2’s development proved worthwhile. The game had record pre-orders and Battle.net servers were overloaded at launch – something that launch day Diablo 3 players can relate to. The game went on to sell over 2.75 million copies worldwide in its first year, earning it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest selling computer game in history at the time.
But success came at a high cost. David Brevik was the visionary behind the first game, and everyone at Blizzard North followed his lead. One of the reasons he was so motivated to make a sequel to Diablo instead of an expansion was because he found it hard to be proud of the first game. Although he was proud of the team, he was disappointed by how it was torn apart by hackers who took advantage of the peer-to-peer nature of the game. He felt that the hacks ruined the game for the majority of players.
Therefore, Brevik felt that a sequel was the right move, using a clean slate and a peer-to-server client, which was more difficult to hack. Meanwhile, work on the Diablo: Hellfire expansion was outsourced to Synergistic Software, which led to immense drama that’s covered in the upcoming book.
Although it did turn out to be the right move, development took a heavy toll on Brevik. Craddock said that he confessed to being burnt out after Diablo 2 shipped and “mentally checked out” for the next couple of years. Brevik didn’t have much to do with the Lord of Destruction expansion, effectively making Diablo 2 Blizzard North’s final game.
However, Brevik did tell Craddock, “You should never set out saying that you’re going make ‘Game of the Year’ because then you’re setting the bar too high. You just want to make a game that you’re passionate about. But, when a game does well, it certainly makes you feel better about what you put your body, family, friends, and colleagues through.”
Brevik also admitted that he almost feels embarrassed when he sees Diablo 2 still sitting on Target store shelves today. So many games, consoles, and genres have come and gone since 2000, but Diablo 2 remains a constant.
Stay Awhile and Read On
“Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II” goes in-depth on the struggles Blizzard North faced while creating one of the most successful video games in history.
Heated (but friendly) debates around the Blizzard North offices included the use of the Horadric Cube to transmogrify the organs of slain enemies into different potions. It was an idea that had a fair number of supporters, but was eventually shot down by Brevik. Players would just have to content themselves with collecting the ears of defeated players.
Some artists wanted to have male and female models for each of the five classes, but Michio Okamura said no to the idea. It would have taken an immense amount of work to make ten models that used Diablo 2’s “paper doll” system, which showed each individual armor piece on the character within the game. It was clearly a feature ahead of its time, as it eventually made its way into Diablo 3 twelve years later.
“Everyone who worked on Diablo 2, regardless of whether or not they can even say its name today, was immensely proud of it,” said Craddock. “Even as tired and broken down as a lot of people were, they were very proud of the fact that they had built something that has endured.”
“Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II” releases later this year in both physical and digital formats. Similar to the breaks in the Diablo franchise, Craddock will likely take another long hiatus before writing the third book in the trilogy.