Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II: Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels, the second book (available now for pre-order) in the trilogy Blizzard and Diablo-themed trilogy, picks up right where the first book left off – when Diablo went gold. Although the early years of Blizzard North and Blizzard Entertainment were filled with plenty of drama and happenstance, the two were riding high after the tremendous success of Diablo. In Book II, author David L. Craddock recounts the making of Diablo II, StarCraft, and miscellaneous projects leading up to the departure of Blizzard North founders David Brevik, Max Shaefer, and Erich Shaefer in the summer of 2003.
A tale of two Blizzards
Much like the Diablo series itself, the story of Blizzard North and its relationship with Blizzard Entertainment (which the former referred to as “Blizzard South”). The two studios couldn’t have been any more different, which was reflected in everything from their respective approaches to game development to their views on disposable drinking cups.
At first glance, the two Blizzards may have appeared to be at odds with each other, and perhaps more than a little dysfunctional. Blizzard North prized its creativity and fostered an organic attitude toward game development. It came up with “Blizzard South” to indicate that the two studios were equals. However, Blizzard Entertainment didn’t appreciate the nickname, and regarded itself as the organized parent of the two, after creating the hit games Warcraft II and StarCraft. Its goal was to someday become the Disney of video games backed by a multitude of different worlds and characters.
“Blizzard North just wanted to make cool games. Blizzard Entertainment wanted to build an empire,” explained Craddock.
An ongoing rivalry appeared to have been simmering the whole time. One of the most prominent examples was when Diablo III director Jay Wilson said, “Fuck that loser” on Facebook when David Brevik said in an interview with Diabloii.net that it was not the game he would have made. This was in 2012, seven years after Blizzard North shut down.
However, Craddock explains that the troubled relationship was less about animosity and had more to do with competitiveness. Both were creative and successful, and each insisted that its way was best, so they fought fiercely for their ideas.
The two studios were in competition from the day they met. According to Craddock, representatives from both companies would frequently compare their games to their rival’s – pointing out how theirs were better – throughout the interview process. But ultimately, it took both of them to make Diablo the groundbreaking franchise it became.
“It really took both Blizzards to make Diablo and Diablo II special,” said Craddock. “Diablo started as a turn-based, single-player RPG that was basically a graphical roguelike. It was Blizzard South that said it should be in real-time with multiplayer.”
At the same time, Blizzard North’s organic approach led to features such as socketable items, Runewords, and hirable mercenaries, which were all added late in Diablo II’s development. Blizzard Entertainment also played an integral role in testing and giving it extra polish.
“Blizzard North put tremendous personality into Diablo,” he added, “but without Blizzard South and Battle.net, I think it’s fair to say that Diablo would have come and gone.”
Struck by The Lord of Destruction
However, the rivalry eventually got out of hand, which caused the relationship between the two to reach a breaking point. As studio heads complained about their counterparts, their attitudes trickled down to their employees. Craddock likened it to hearing your parents talk about something at a young age and then taking on those opinions for yourself.
Those differences are illustrated with an incident when Blizzard North proposed an especially brutal opening for Diablo II, where demons come in murder and rape the citadel occupants. Blizzard Entertainment was quick to reject the idea, and rightly so. But, perhaps driven by a desire to be cool and edgy, Blizzard North was more willing to push the envelope by leaning into dark and uncomfortable themes than its southern counterpart.
It also didn’t help that Blizzard North became a very secretive place. Brevik and the Schaefers were very protective of their company, game, and employees, doing everything in their power to prevent Blizzard Entertainment from exerting undue influence on them. They became a kind of “iron curtain” for the studio.
This had lasting repercussions, especially after the three were ousted by Blizzard’s parent company David & Associates in 2003. Blizzard Entertainment took control over North, but didn’t know who any of the key people were. One example includes Jon Morin, who programmed the “paper doll” system that allowed different equipped items to show on the character avatar. Morhaime and others didn’t know who he was or what his contributions were, and he felt slighted by that.
The loss of Blizzard North’s influence was plainly seen in Diablo III. While Craddock is a big fan of the third game, it’s impossible to overlook the obvious shifts. Although the graphics and artwork are pleasing, they clearly came from the same studio that worked on World of Warcraft. Additionally, the narrative borrowed a great deal from Diablo II, in what Craddock describes as an effort to “out Blizzard North Blizzard North.”
Additionally, Diablo III’s tone felt out of place in some scenes. For instance, there are soldiers joking around in Act III as they battle against Azmodan and lay there dying. This is a typical move from Blizzard Entertainment, which is known for including funny responses when players click on units in the Warcraft and StarCraft strategy games. That’s not to say Blizzard North was humorless since it later added the secret cow level, but it knew when to play things straight.
But the truth is, Diablo II suffered one of the worst crunch periods in video game history, leaving many (including Brevik) completely burned out. Although the Lord of Destruction expansion released a year (almost to the day) after the launch of Diablo II, Blizzard North pretty much lost its direction after that.
Development on various prototypes languished. One of the most prominent was “Project X,” which went through a multitude of iterations across three years, including being kung fu RPG, a superhero-themed game, and a sci-fi version of Diablo before ultimately being canceled.
Closing the gates to Blizzard North
Blizzard North’s closure was pretty much inevitable after Brevik and the Schaefers left, the details of which are covered in gory detail in Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II. Everyone there at the time agreed that the three were the foundation of the studio and that the company wouldn’t survive without them.
According to Craddock’s interviews, if the three could go back and change anything, it would be to keep the team smaller. Blizzard North had employed nearly 70 people by the time Diablo II shipped, which grew to the low 100’s by the time they left. They never wanted to have a giant, unwieldly studio, and it became too much for them. After leaving the company, they all went on to found small gaming studios such as Runic Games. Brevik’s newest game, It Lurks Below, launched on Steam earlier this year.
But the legacy of Diablo II lives on. It might be the only PC game from the era that is still sold in brick-and-mortar stores today. To put that into perspective, the game launched when the first PlayStation was the dominant gaming console, and it’s still available as we approach the launch of the PlayStation 5.
The game also remains as a prominent touchpoint as Blizzard develops Diablo IV. This time, Brevik is more optimistic about the upcoming game and how it is looking to better embrace a gritty experience.
Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II: Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels releases on Kindle on December 10, with a paperback version available in early 2020. Below is an excerpt from the book.
Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II: Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels Excerpt
The following excerpt comes from Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels by David L. Craddock. Available for pre-order on Kindle devices and apps, Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II continues the epic history of Diablo developer Blizzard North and World of Warcraft developer Blizzard Entertainment.
MAX AND ERICH Schaefer looked around the conference table and asked what their visitors from Blizzard South thought of their idea. The awkward silence was so thick, so total, Harley Huggins could have heard a pen drop.
Harley was one of a handful of cinematic artists from Blizzard Entertainment who had flown to San Mateo for a kickoff meeting with Blizzard North. The one and only topic on the agenda was the creative direction for Diablo II‘s cinematics. The cinematics team had been passionate but fledgling over StarCraft‘s development. Heading into Diablo II, Harley, Duane Stinnett, Matt Samia, and the others were determined to get organized. That meant coming up with a production pipeline, creating and tracking assets, and writing a script for a cohesive story in advance rather than at the last minute.
“One of the driving forces behind that was we were going to make a movie eventually, and we needed to get organized so we could do that,” said Harley. “We wanted to show that we could tell stories and not just do vignettes.”
As North’s leaders and artists outlined their idea for the game’s introduction, the visitors’ excitement turned to incredulity. Although accounts differ, many in the meeting insist that one of the predominant concepts was to show demons running rampant through a citadel, setting it aflame and corrupting the Rogues headquartered there. Any Rogues that escaped corruption would be raped.
One of Entertainment’s artists spoke up: There was absolutely no way that concept would fly. North’s leaders objected by reassuring the visitors that the cinematic would be done tastefully. Harley asked if North was serious. Max reiterated that the cinematic was important because it showed the depth of hell’s depravity.
“I wanted to ask, ‘How do you do that?’ I don’t know how to ‘tastefully’ show a demon raping a woman.”
“Obviously, it wouldn’t have been graphic, it would have been suggested,” said Max Schaefer. “But I think thematically, that was stretching it, even if it wouldn’t have been graphic. Knowing myself, I probably argued that we should keep it.”
The meeting adjourned, and North’s team took their guests out to lunch. When they reconvened, the visiting artists put their collective foot down. No rape scene, graphic or otherwise. Their counterproposal was to use Diablo II‘s cinematics to tell a story that paralleled in-game events. Their reasoning was simple: There was no way to render out every possible combination of helms, gauntlets, boots, rings, and weapons worn by players in a cinematic. Doing so would have required Blizzard South’s cinematics team to come up with thousands of models to display.
“It was better to approach the story from kind of an outside perspective, and that’s really why the cinematics run parallel to the story,” said Dave Brevik. “They give flavor to the universe, but the direct story was in-game where you can interact with everything.”
Blizzard South’s team had an idea for a narrator, a character named Marius, who crossed paths with “The Wanderer,” the Warrior hero from the first game who had killed the Lord of Terror and shoved the demon’s Soulstone into his own forehead in a noble but ill-fated attempt to contain the demon. Marius had the unfortunate luck to be in the tavern when it happened. With the town burning around them, Marius followed the Wanderer as if compelled. The two journeyed east, on a dark quest to reunite with Diablo’s brothers. Diablo II‘s cinematics would check in with Marius and the Wanderer between Acts. They would stay one step ahead of players, providing a story impetus to keep playing.
“We pitched that, and I think some people thought it was cool,” Harley said. “But I do specifically remember one person slam their head against the wall, and he got up and left.”
Stieg Hedlund had worn a neutral expression all through South’s proposal. When the artists had asked Dave, Max, and Erich what they thought of it, they had shrugged. Cinematics were Blizzard South’s territory. Stieg recalled gathering his materials and quietly leaving the room, without throwing a fit. “I didn’t like their direction, but what made me leave the meeting was that I had met with the Blizzard North management immediately prior to this meeting and given them my vision for the cinematics and they had approved it, but gave me absolutely no support in the meeting.”
The ending of Diablo, showing the hero shoving Diablo’s Soulstone into his (or her, if players finished the game with the Rogue) forehead, had blindsided Blizzard North’s team. They’d been mulling over endings when they had received a CD in the mail and had watched the cinematic it contained in shocked silence. The bosses had gone along with it, having had no clear idea for a conclusion anyway.
Their passivity aggravated Stieg. The Diablo franchise was Blizzard North’s baby. Surely they should be exerting more control. Instead, they were rolling over for a team who seemed more interested in making a short film they could submit for an Oscar than they were in telling a story that adhered to what Blizzard North wanted for their game. “I just felt that I had no input in the meeting, that Blizzard Film Department was being given the green light to do whatever they wanted, and that it was a waste of my time to sit in the meeting.”
Blizzard North’s bosses had judged pushback as useless, so they hadn’t bothered to try. “We tried working with Blizzard Film Department a few times,” Dave remembered. “They wanted creative control on everything. They had a vision of what they wanted to do with the cinematics, and we really didn’t have much, if any, input. We gave suggestions, and after that, they ignored us.”
“We’d come to a weird balance where we made the game we wanted to make, so they made the cinematics they wanted to make, and we just had to make sure everything worked together,” Erich Schaefer agreed. “I’m sorry to Stieg if we killed some great idea he had going.”
Stieg wouldn’t budge. Teammates at North would ask about his stance and his direction for cinematics, and he would tell them. According to Stieg, more and more developers sided with him until Allen Adham paid North a visit to discuss the issue. Stieg and several other developers from North, as well as the bosses, attended the meeting. He listened impassively as Allen spoke and then opened the floor for input from North’s team. Stieg saw the meeting as a song and dance.
“It was clear to most people from Adham’s highly aggressive and defensive opening of this meeting that he was in fact not inviting real discussion, but rather telling us to shut the hell up.”
Stieg got the impression that anyone who disagreed with Allen was welcome to find another job.
“Things were better once Adham left the company. He definitely gave off an us-versus-them feeling where we were outsiders and, his Blizzard South guys could do no wrong.”
Harley Huggins recalled that meeting as one of several instances where poor communication hampered what could have been a more productive collaboration. The two Blizzards operated like distant outposts: Technically under the same umbrella, but far removed geographically and ideologically rather than two halves of a whole. He remembered his team making overtures to communicate with Blizzard North as the cinematics were being produced, but getting little feedback. Erich Schaefer, admittedly uninterested in the narrative, would just hand-wave away requests for input and tell the team to keep doing their thing while North did theirs. That was all well and good until Entertainment’s cinematics team needed more information on the four Acts to inform their movies.
Oftentimes they needed feedback immediately. A lead at Blizzard North would promise to get back to them, but would forget, or simply go silent, leaving the cinematics team to make decisions on their own. From the cinematic team’s perspective, it often just became easier to make the decisions for themselves rather than try to engage their aloof and temperamental cohorts.
Late in 1999, Mike Morhaime informed the cinematics crew that Max and Erich Schaefer would be visiting for a meeting, and to prepare materials to give them an update on progress. Harley took point, setting up storyboards and character designs. Max and Erich came across as noncommittal.
“There was a lot of, ‘Well, are you sure you don’t need more time?'” Harley said. “I felt like they were really trying to fish for an opening so that they could say, ‘It doesn’t matter if the game’s not going to be ready because cinematics aren’t ready.’ I stuck to my guns and said, ‘No, no, we’re going to make it.’ They were really under pressure too. In general, there was really horrible communication between the two studios.”
FROM THEIR VANTAGE points at either outpost, developers at the two Blizzards constantly speculated about and evaluated the other. They studied everything, from creative approaches and hierarchy to efficiency and culture.
Most of North’s team agreed that Blizzard South was the more efficient branch. They had the strike team. They had engineered Battle.net and jumped in head-first to help finish and spit-shine Diablo. South’s art style was more colorful, more cartoonish. In a word: Bigger, evidenced by the bulky armor and absurd muscles of characters in the WarCraft and StarCraft universes, inspired by Warhammer and Warhammer: 40,000, respectively.
North’s team saw themselves as more creative and quirky. They, and their games, were grittier, more off-the-cuff. Input could stem from anywhere, from anyone, at any time. They were, in a word, cooler, and that coolness was reflected in their games.
“We did have strike teams for Blizzard South products,” Dave Brevik said, referring to teams of developers at one Blizzard who’d test games made by the other studio. We had [one for] StarCraft, we had them for WarCraft III. They just weren’t really as formalized.”
Blizzard South’s strike team, made up of co-founders Mike Morhaime and Allen Adham, vice president of R&D Pat Wyatt, and other leads, viewed North’s input on their products differently than the feedback they gave North.
“Certainly from an intellectual standpoint, if we’re bossing them around all the time, it would be totally understandable if they would want to have some input on our games,” reasoned Pat Wyatt. “But we made all these great games that were great without their input, whereas they needed our help and involvement to build Diablo to be a really high-quality game. We already got plenty of feedback from our friends, family, and other testers. We already know what we want to do; we don’t need other people telling us what to do. We’re going to go make the game
To Blizzard North, the dividing line between their culture and Blizzard South’s had nothing to do with sports, politics, or even game development. The clearest difference between the two cultures could be seen in the microcosm of a vending machine. Karin Colenzo, office manager and de facto den mom to a lot of the guys, kept the kitchen stocked with drinks and snacks. She also bought paper cups in bulk so nobody had to keep track of mugs and glasses. “One of the famous things that was always said about down south was that they had a soda machine, and they would have to pay for sodas themselves, but they wouldn’t be provided with cups. Cups were not a free thing that were given to them,” said Mike Scandizzo, a programmer at Blizzard North.
“We got everything at Blizzard North. They were very generous. Snacks, drinks, everything,” said Marc Tattersall, environment artist. “Down there, they had a vending machine where you had to pay for sodas, and they had water. But there were no cups. You had to bring in your own mug. It was just a whole different mentality than we had up north. We used to joke around about Karin bringing them cups when we went down there.”
“There was always a desire to not become Blizzard South. We saw them as pussies in a way: no cups, having to pay for soft drinks, all this regimentation,” agreed Tom Ricket.
Managers and developers at Blizzard South knew why Karin brought cups with her when she visited the SoCal office. “We provided free soda!” Pat Wyatt exclaimed. “We don’t want five thousand paper cups to get thrown away every week. Just bring a frickin’ cup and wash your damn cup. Here’s free soda. What more do you want? I don’t think that was corporatism. I think it was more a desire not to go through 5,000 cups per week.”
Large-scale gatherings between both studios were infrequent.
“Blizzard North had a party at some bar. They hosted a party for everyone at Blizzard, and that was the first time I met anyone from that studio,” said Harley Huggins.
Chris Arretche, a QA tester at South, recalled one occasion when North’s team flew to Irvine for a meet-and-greet in the middle of summer. South treated their guests to an outdoor barbecue. The food was hot, but the weather was hotter: 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Everybody was just dying in the heat, so nobody’s really in a good mood. They’re cranky and have gone to their corners to try and find shade. It was a really awkward meet-and-greet. I remember thinking, Wow, this sucks. It’s too bad this happened.”
Though ill-timed, the companywide barbecue was important. It was one of the few times each year when Blizzard’s teams got a chance to mingle. Day-to-day communications took place over the phone or email, and tended to color each studio’s impressions of the other.
“North was a little bit different from Blizzard South,” said Frank Gilson, a QA tester later promoted to a producer in Irvine. “They seemed a bit more family-and-friend connected: So-and-so worked there because he was friends with such-and-such a person—a little more of that than is usual. They were a much tighter social network, the Blizzard North office.”
Studio leads from Blizzard Entertainment would stop by Blizzard North and then report back to Entertainment with details on projects. One sticking point was how North’s team referred to Blizzard. “The bosses maintained a sense of independence from Blizzard, who they called Blizzard South,” said Peter Kemmer, programmer at North. “They were going to run Blizzard North as their own company, the way they wanted to run it, and screw those guys if they don’t like it.”