The fifty-second episode of The Diablo Podcast features Flux interviewing Max Schaefer, CEO of Runic Games. In this interview Max answers numerous fan questions about his time with Blizzard North and the earliest version of Diablo III, talks about his reaction to playing the Diablo 3 Beta, compares Torchlight 2 to his earlier ARPGs, and much more.
Sorry about the sub-par audio quality on this one; it was recorded in the break room at Runic Games in Seattle, and the echo from the walls resulted in a lot of whine and white noise. We’ve cleaned up the file a bit in post production, but the best to be said is that you can understand the voices.
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A few quotes selected from throughout the conversation. These are grouped by subject, and are not strictly not chronological from the recording.
Blizzard North’s Unrevealed Titles
Flux: So back in 2000, everyone in the office was working on D2.
Flux: And after D2 was finished you guys split into 2 teams?
Max: We kind of always wanted to split into 2 teams. but it’s notoriously difficult to do that. it sounds like it’s easy but it’s really hard. We decided that would be a good time after d2 to split into 2 teams. Half the people worked on Diablo 2 expansion, half started working on some other projects.
Flux: What makes it so hard to split? You have to hire more of everything?
Max: Yeah, but specializing… You really like working with one guy, or you want someone to do something they’re really good at. But they’re working on the other team, now. And it’s really hard to have the same person on two teams; division of responsibilities. Both project leads need something done quickly, sometimes, and the person can’t do both.
Flux: Did any of those Project Xs get to the prototype point?
Max: They all got to prototype, but that’s when you decide if you’re going to continue working on it or go in another direction. This sort of thing happens in every game company, You decide if it’s going to come out and be awesome and reveal to the public. But it’s not like we always hit everything right the first time. So yeah, there was some experimentation, but it didn’t work out.
Flux: What kind of game was the most developed Project X? In the same genre as Diablo 2?
Max: *pauses* Somewhat… I mean it wasn’t like a pinball game. *laughs* It depends on what iteration we’re talking about. There were lots of different versions.
Flux: Mike Dashow had concept art on his site for a while, from an unreleased Blizzard North project. And it looked like an RPG sort of RTS, with four different races and they were like lizard people and dragon people and others. Does this ring any bells?
Max: Oh yeah yeah yeah, I remember this. It was all um… I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about our… stumbling approaches to making two games. I don’t want to get in trouble for saying anything I shouldn’t but… we had probjects that involved dragony lizard people. *laughter*
Flux: Well that’s half the games released… *laughing*
Max: And you can just fill in the details with your mind. *laughing* Just outsource the details…
Blizzard North’s Diablo III
Flux: Do you remember your early plans for Diablo 3? Were you making an effort to expand the world and change a lot of things just to make a difference from Diablo 2?
Max: Well, it was 3D, and it was an MMO, and it had open world areas. We felt that exploring those avenues, and MMOizing it, was probably radical enough, and that we could keep some of the old conventions intact.
Flux: You probably thought about new areas… the game world got a lot bigger. In Diablo 2 there was a map and all these areas the characters refer to from their origins and such, that are never seen in the game. Even though the world was much larger, with desert and jungle and even Hell. Did you guys plan a lot of new areas in Diablo 3, and think about how those would fit into the world map and story and such?
Max: I’m going to let you in on a secret here about all the Diablos. We basically said, “Let’s go to really cool looking places and then figure out how it works in the story later.” *laughing*
Flux: But every game development works that way…
Max: Yeah every game works that way. But that’s totally what we did.
Flux: So you have concept artists working away and creating all kinds of cool levels. You want an icy area, or you want overgrown plants coming through the walls… so then you’re like, “let’s look at the lore and the story and try to find any way to make this stuff fit in?”
Max: Yes. *laughter*
Flux: I think a lot of fans think it all comes out of some notebook of lore and it’s all logical and carefully developed.
Max: *laughing* That’s what Tolkien does. That’s not what we do. It’s all about making cool stuff.
Flux: On your first version of Diablo 3. Obviously it didn’t get finished, but do you think you would have been happy with how it would have looked? Given the capacities of 3D engines in those days?
Max: I think the guys now are making it look a whole lot better than what we were making.
Flux: I wasn’t a big fan of early 3D games. So polygony. I thought Everquest looked horrible, after 2D games like D2 and Ultima Online.
Max: We didn’t want it to look lke Everquest, that’s for sure.
Flux: WoW did much better in getting an artistic look and style, but it’s still fairly low polygon count.
Max: It would have been a challenge to make it look good in those days. But on the other hand, you can do things in 3d that you can’t do in 2D.
Flux: One of the things we talked about last time, was the earliest version of Diablo III. And you said it was originally designed as an MMORPG. It seems like… for instance, we were playing Torchlight 2 earlier with 5 people in the same game, and it was just crazy. With a lot more people it would be just chaos…
Max: It would be unplayable.
Flux: So how did you think about D3 as an MMO, with lots of people in the same areas and massive spells?
Max: Through the magic of instancing. *laughs*
Flux: So you would have divided it up into lots of different worlds, and had some big Raid type events?
Max: Yeah, more or less. And in areas for Raids you’d just make sure your levels and monsters were designed to accomodate that. We’d have somehow compensated for the fact that… when you go back and look at Diablo 2, the skills were much less over the top than they are today.
Flux: Well, you had some like Lightning Fury that filled the entire screen with lightning bolts.
Max: Yeah. We’d have had to work on the particle effects and such.
The New Diablo III and Torchlight 2
Flux: I talked to Travis about the learning curve in Torchlight 2. How much you guys feel you can expect players to be familiar with. The conventions of the genre. Diablo 3’s early game is very noob-friendly, but maybe to the point of boring more experienced players. How do you feel about the learning curve and how you handled it in D2?
Max: There’s a moment in any game, a variety of moments where people might quit. Where they get frustrated and put it on the shelf and say they’ll get back to it later. But they never get back to it later. So you want to eliminate those moments in your design. Especially from the first half hour of your game. And I think the Diablo 3 team is doing really well at avoiding anything offputting to new players.
Flux: You recently played some Diablo 3 beta, after Blizzard sent you guys a bunch of beta invites. What did you think?
Max: It’s awesome. There’s a certain thrill in letting someone else do all the hard work of making Diablo III. Because it’s an enormous project. A gigantic undertaking. It’s also weird, to see someone else making something that you were a part of for so long. It’s also just a tremendous relief to see their twists on things.
As anyone who’s played the beta knows, there are a lot of twists on some of the archetypal things from Diablo. From Diablo I especially.
Flux: You’re in Tristram, you’re fighting the skeleton king…
Max: Yeah. And it was fun to see those things again. I really enjoyed what they’ve got there.
Flux: I’d say Torchlight 2 is much more similar to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3 is. You’ve got skill points, manual stat points, skill trees, potions, etc.
Max: Yeah, we continued from Torchlight 1 with a lot of those. We didn’t feel like it was a system that was fixed, that needed to be all changed around in the sequel. We preferred to spend our time making a bigger and better game world, with more dungeons, more interesting monster types, and less about reinventing the game functions.
Flux: Jay Wilson was quoted in the last issue of PC Gamer, and he said that the first version of D3 that he played — which I guess was in 2006, with mostly the work done by the team after you guys left Blizzard North — Jay said that it felt a little like Diablo 2.5, that it was maybe too reverent of Diablo 2 and didn’t break enough new ground.
Max: I just played their beta. It was awfully reverent to Diablo 2. *laughing*
More information about the history and production of The Diablo Podcast, as well as an episode guide and cast of characters, can be seen in The Diablo Wiki.