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Video David Craddock and Two Blizzard North Co-Founders Answer Your Questions (Video) 40

In this video, we talk with author David Craddock about his investigation into the early days of game studio Blizzard for his new book, Stay Awhile and Listen. He's joined by Dave Brevik and Max Schaefer, two of the co-founders of Blizzard North. They talk about some of the ways in which making video games was different back in the early '90s -- and the ways it's similar to making games today. They also discuss the importance of having lively debates, and how one of those arguments led to Diablo being a real-time action game, instead of being turn-based. (This is the first half of an extended interview -- part 2 will be available on Monday.

Jeff Boehm : Alright. Gentlemen, I am not sure if you are familiar with how our Slashdot interviews work, but typically what we do is, we ask for questions from the community, which we’ve done, and then we take the best of those, and sometimes mix in a few of our own, which we will be doing today, and then put them to you guys to answer.

David Craddock: Sounds good.

Jeff: So if everybody is ready, I would like to start off and just ask, this is more for David C, first of all, David Brevik, can I call you Dave?

David Brevik: Sure.

Jeff: Okay, so I will call you Dave. And David Craddock, I will call you David. Because we don’t get confused. So it seems that one of the early things about Blizzard is that, particularly I am thinking of Blizzard Entertainment, it started as a way to port games for various consoles, various different things, and then they really hit upon Warcraft as the one that they wanted to get started with. Now is that, I know from reading about project Condor that that was kind of a watershed moment – was it the same with Blizzard Entertainment?

David Craddock: Yeah it was. Allen Adham had a dream of starting his own game company, and one of the ways you got started in those days, and David, Max might be able to attest that how the developers are doing that today, trying to get your AAA company off the ground but you signed up for it, games on one system to other systems. And that was typically pretty well _____1:52 but you could ramp up enough money to start building a team, maybe stopping some way to start working on your own projects. And Allen actually grew up on the BBS scene, bulletin boards with Brian Fargo, and by the time Allen was ready to start his company, Brian was already running Interplay and was able to give him his first new contracts and actually supported him when he said, “Hey, I want to do my own thing. I want to do a PC real time strategy game.” And that was of course Warcraft.

Jeff: So Dave and Max, you guys went through that as well, you went from just the three of you, you two plus Erich, up to five and then up to seven. I was curious, at what point did you guys feel like you were a legitimate complete gaming company?

Max Schaefer: I don’t know if we ever played god there. I would like to say we did what we had to do at the beginning of the company, we didn’t do ports necessarily, but we did quite a few Game Boy and Game Gear little games that qualify as cutting your teeth in this, but I think that one of the things that went well for us was we timed things fairly well. I think when we started Diablo was right about when we were ready and able to do something completely on our own, a PC game.

Jeff: Dave, is that how you feel about that as well?

David Brevik: Yeah, I think we had different jobs at different video game companies before starting Condor and through those connections we were able to get contracts to do some like Max was saying Game Boy and Game Gear and Sega Genesis games. And those connections really allowed us to cut our teeth and develop a staff and get some training and finish games. And to go through the actual exercise of making something and finishing it, which is a difficult thing to do. And then getting it published and stuff, and go through that routine and develop some technology that we could use not only just in this game but other games. It also gave us the time to flesh out ideas and make the best one rise to the top which was Diablo.

Jeff: How do you think that contrasts with development studios growing up today, if there is a similar group of three, or five, or seven guys who want to meet together and make video games, do you think they are having an easier time or a tougher time?

Max Schaefer: Well, now they make mobile games. So it is actually not the same. Sorry I have lost video, my laptop crashed so I am back on non-video.

Jeff: Okay.

David Brevik: So yeah I agree with Max. I think that it is in some ways, it is easier than ever to make a game and publish it on your own, which wasn’t really even an option before in the days when we started. You really needed a publisher because it was all brick and mortar stores, so unless you get a distribution network, it was really really difficult to get your stuff published. So you really needed a publisher. Now, you just store up on the internet and anybody can download it. Which is a lot different than it used to be. So in a lot of ways it is a lot easier but it’s also a lot harder, because games are harder to make, there is more expected from them, it costs a lot of money to make them, they are technically more difficult to make. There are all sorts of things that make it more difficult today than it did back then. But then things like, oh you put it on, it is on the iTunes store and you just need to download it and a couple of guys made on iTunes or if anyone made a mobile game and millions of people are going to download it and play it. So in a lot of ways it is easier. But it is very competitive, and if you want to make something AAA super high quality, it takes a lot of time.

Jeff: Several of our users had questions for you guys specifically as industry veterans, what you would recommend for breaking into the games industry today?

David Brevik: I will say the same thing I always said, which is: If you are passionate about doing something, do it. It is a very simple formula. Figure out a way to make games. Bring some friends, even online or whatever. If you are a programmer, find an artist; if you are an artist, find a programmer - you can team up and actually make something. That’s really the best way that you are going to be able to break into the video game industry. It is to show off experience to somebody that says, hey, this is a you will learn so much going through that process alone that you will develop your skills and whatnot if you are really passionate about it. It is not really even work, it is just fun, if it is something you are passionate about. And if you really desire to do it, just get up and do it. It is like any other craft, if you want to write books like David, then write books - it is the same kind of thing. If you want to make video games, make a video game.

Max Schaefer: Yeah, one of the cool things about the video game industry, is you don’t need a factory, you don’t need any special machinery - you need the computer, that you probably already have sitting at the desk in the living room. And all you need to do is put your time into it. Like Dave says, just make it. Don’t think of it as getting a job, you are probably not going to get paid before you’ve done anything. But just do it, like he says. And there are plenty of online resources - there are game engines that are available now, that can give you a headstart. But yeah, just do it. Do it before you don’t think of it as breaking into the industry, you know, break yourself, break yourself in.

David Craddock: Now that’s one common thread I picked up in talking to a lot of you guys who would send, we would get applications from students who would say, “Well, here’s what I did in my senior year”, but you would say, well, okay, but what did you do? What was your project? I mean this is a group project, how do we know what you did? Where is your initiative, you were just making games after class, nobody told you, you had to, or you would fail the course.

Jeff: Alright. That should give some helpful advice to budding game developers in the audience.

Max Schaefer: The other thing is to identify what it is that you like to do. Are you an artist? Are you a programmer? Are you a sound guy? There are so many specialties now in the games business that there are very few people who do everything. And a lot of people have a certain predilection for one area – figure out how that applies in the video game industry. Learn the skills that those people do. That’s again something you can do on your own. But it is so specialized now, it is not like when Dave and I started out where everyone did everything.

Jeff: That makes a lot of sense. Another thing that has always struck me about Blizzard and particularly reading about your early design problems, is that both you guys and Blizzard Entertainment seem to have an enjoyment of arguing about the various design decisions, this arguing on to death. I was wondering, do you consider that a bug of the designing process? Or a feature? And how do you corral that into something useful?

David Brevik: It is not a bug today. It is true even today that the best ideas rise to the top. And so if you want it making a game is a group effort. There isn’t a single individual that’s responsible for a game. Or there is, very rarely; 99% of games it is group effort. So getting input from other people is not a sign of weakness, but it is a sign of strength. Coordinating and working together maybe a little loudly, that’s first words, is a method of making sure that the best possible design. The best possible game comes out of all this hard work. And so, I think that it is definitely not only necessary but the words used can be gentle or not but the actual process of debating what the best game design is and what the best features are, in the end, I fully believe that the best ideas rise to the top.

Max Schaefer: Yeah, but for the best ideas to rise to the top, they have to be articulated and massaged, and tested and gone over. That involves like Dave says, a little bit of arguing. But you know, arguing shows passion and it shows people with ideas. So I came to enjoy those. I still enjoy those arguments. I had them yesterday.

Jeff: David, did you find a similar attitude as you progressed through Blizzard’s life, that debate was always lively and welcome?

David Craddock: Absolutely. I think that gave rise to some of today’s core tenets of Diablo and Warcraft. I mean, there was a push and pull over converting Diablo to real time over the way we would select and execute spells in the game. I know that in Blizzard Entertainment when we working on Warcraft II the debate arose whether or not to use roads in it. One you had to build roads, all these lines going through the pastures and you can only put buildings adjacent to roads. And one thing Allen Adham said was well we can’t just let them build them anywhere. Because what if someone were to build a barracks right outside of your base. And they said, well then that will be cool, because that is a strategy. And so there was just this constant back and forth, I think at both, I mean obviously given all the memorabilia, I am behind today, the games are well known for the best of years that it was at the top.

Jeff: It seems that way. Now that you mention that, when I read about how Diablo was originally turn-based, that really surprised me. I was not aware of that, growing up playing the game just from the side of it, it was really it struck me as odd. Not because it is necessarily a bad idea just because it is so antithetical to what I have always known about Diablo. David, I really enjoyed reading the explanation that you gave about sitting down over the course of a weekend and basically turning it from turn-based to real time - would you walk us through what that was like? And how the feel of the game contrasted between those two states?

David Brevik: Sure. I think that it was a very lively debate for an extended period of time, and eventually you know, we went with real time. But originally like you said, it started out as Diablo was turn-based and it was based on a game some games that I played at college on Unix machines that were Rogue like games _____13:44 in particular and you were the @ symbol attacking the letter K and you know, I really loved those games.

And those games were turn-based, so I didn’t ever it was basically this is going to be a graphic update of those kinds of games. And you have to realize that at that time, not only were RPGs dead, but also there were no real time RPGs, RPGs of real time never really mixed together. So when the idea came up, and it was destined just like taking strategy games and making them real time, they said, oh, why don’t we take the RPG and make it real time? Like are you out of your mind? What are you talking about? That ruins everything.

So that debate went on for a while. And then eventually I thought that was going to take a long time and we were a little strapped for cash and so we managed to persuade them to give us a little extra time and money to make sure that we can change this to real time but they would take more development time to do this. And I can really remember it vividly still even today. One of my crowning moments in my life really is the moment that you say okay well, I am going to get to work on this, I am going to change it to real time and see what it’s like to knock it up and see what was _____15:20.

And then I can still remember taking that cursor which was a giant block that was modeled after XCom at that time, so whacking this monster and having the guy walk over there and swing his sword and strike down the skeleton. It was like: Yes! It was glorious. The skies parted and the rays of sun came down. And the angels went oooooh. I was like God I can’t believe how good this is. And so I knew right away after we added this, I thought that was going to take me a long time. I was able to code it in a few hours and for us to get it up and running. Instantly I knew that it was the right decision in the right time.

David Craddock: I have to tell you Dave, I remember you telling me that story during one of our conversations at Starbucks. And I was so excited to write it, like that was almost like okay I am going to write this one down, because I have to structure this scene plain in the middle and I guess I have to put words around it. I had the same reaction like, yes, when I finished that part, because I got a lot of feedback. That was the end of the chapter that I released for free last fall and it went over so well. It is definitely one of my favorite stories from talking to you and researching the book as a whole.

David Brevik: Thanks.

Max Schaefer: That’s one of my favorite stories too. That was when we knew everything was going to be okay.

Jeff: So it was also interesting that you brought up Rogue like games. One of our readers actually specifically mentioned those and NetHack in particular and wanted to know what parts of those games that you specifically like, that you felt were really fun and wanted to bring over? And which elements did you feel like maybe they were a little too tedious and you wanted to do away with?

David Brevik: Max, you want to take that?

Max Schaefer: I am sorry, ask the question one more time.

Jeff: What Rogue and NetHack, games like that, they kind of provided some of the inspiration for Diablo; how did you guys decide which features and elements were good and interesting and you wanted to bring those over, versus the ones that were maybe a little tedious and you wanted to leave behind?

Max Schaefer: Well, I think the big thing is it is not really necessarily what was tedious and what wasn’t, but we had the capability with the technology all of a sudden to bring these things to a much more graphical glory. You know, we were 3D modeling and animating characters at a time when that wasn’t really happening very much. Especially with RPGs, especially with real time RPGs. So we wanted to we almost video edit, for us it was like, it was closer to making a movie of what we had played all these years as text and rudimentary graphics, you know a lot of 2D stuff and like giving it a life that it didn’t have before through visual mediums, and sound and music. Just really bringing them up to date in that sense. I think from my perspective, we wanted to capture the fun of those games and a lot of those dynamics but in a much more modern way.

David Brevik: Yeah, I agree and also feel like let me give this, it is a good example of exactly what Max is talking about, that I can think of, which is that, the items in a lot of those games would have weights, like how much you could carry which is based on the weight that the item had, right. And you had to like add up how much you were and if you were overweight, it became slower, and it is like _____19:03 and it was kind of tough. Anyway we wanted take that and wanted to bring that concept but we wanted to present it in a graphic way. And that’s how we came up with our demon for instance, and having larger objects which would take more weight take up more space, and smaller objects took up smaller amounts of space.

And so that is just one way in which we kind of changed it from this nerdy math oriented with fractions kind of mentality, we did use in a computer lab, versus now you can visually represent that, see that, and it becomes more of a general audience thing that people can grasp. So I think that there is a lot of cases like that where we took what was maybe a little bit a slog before and added graphic elements to it to bring it forward. But we kept a lot of that, we kept weight in a lot of way, and it was an important part of the game. Some of the things that we got rid of and we actually debated were things like whether or not the character should eat, and things like that. Food was very common back then, and it was like, oh my guy has died of hunger or whatever you know. We didn’t want to go down that path. There were a few things like that a few minor things like that we changed.

Max Schaefer: Yeah, one of the tedious things was your character setup too. One of our goals was that when you turn on the game, within about a minute or two, you’d be getting a skeleton as opposed to the old school RPGs where you would set up your character for a long time and he would be rolling dice to get there, various stats that didn’t really have any knowledge of what they meant, plus you have played a lot already, and so we wanted to kind of dispense with that, just get you into this game and teach you these mechanics and layer these mechanics after you are getting skeletons. The time to hit a skeleton was incredibly important.

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David Craddock and Two Blizzard North Co-Founders Answer Your Questions (Video)

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