Chapter 8: Part 1 -- The foundation of Diablo

By David Craddock, Oct 29, 2012 9:00am PDT

Setup for Chapter 8 - The Velvet Hammer: In September 1993, programmer David Brevik and artists Max and Erich Schaefer pooled their scant resources to found a game studio, Condor, Inc. Securing meager contracts to develop Justice League Task Force for the Sega Genesis and NFL Quarterback Club '95 for the Game Boy handheld, Condor's income was just enough for the guys to start growing their team. As they worked, they hoped to one day devote resources to their dream project: Diablo, a turn-based game set in randomized dungeons where players fought demons and searched for magical treasure.

In a happy accident, Dave Brevik met Allen Adham, president of Blizzard Entertainment, at an industry trade show in 1994. After Blizzard released the well-received WarCraft: Orcs & Humans, a strategy game that played out in real-time rather than over a series of turns, Blizzard's parent company asked Allen and his team to scout other projects and publish those that showed promise. Intrigued by Dave's description of Diablo, Allen visited Condor with a small crew in early 1995 to hear more.

The visitors saw potential in Diablo and gave Condor the green light. Their dream game was a go.

* * * * *

It was our theory early on that you've got to get the best out of people you hire, and making games is really, really rigorous and demanding. It's mentally and physically demanding to make a competitive, innovative, good game. You have to make an atmosphere where that can happen.

    - Max Schaefer

    So the guy interviewing me, he's got his feet up on the table, no shoes on, and I'm thinking, Yeah, this is what I want to do. I don't want to work somewhere where I've got to wear a suit and a tie. I want to be lounging around with my shoes off playing video games.

      - Eric Sexton, artist, Condor

      We all pile into the kitchen because it's the biggest space we have. People are sitting on the tables. Now we're going to make the decision on whether Diablo is turn-based or real-time. I would say probably 90 percent of the team wants it real-time. Dave doesn't. I don't. But pretty much everybody else wanted it real-time.

        - Rick Seis, programmer, Condor

        * * *

        By the end of February 1995, Dave Brevik and Max and Erich Schaefer had hammered out the final draft of their publishing contract with Blizzard Entertainment. Functioning as publisher, Blizzard would dole out $300,000 to fund Condor's descent into Hell. Signing on the dotted line hit Dave like an adrenaline shot. Diablo, the game he'd dreamed of making since high school, was poised to rise from the depths of his imagination and become virtual reality. The boost faded as he and his partners assessed their situation.

        Blizzard's six-figure sum wouldn't flood Condor's bank account all at once. As per the standard agreement between publishers and developers, paychecks would trickle in as Condor met milestones over the one-year development they projected for their game. To meet those markers, they needed to hire more programmers and artists. To do that, they needed at least one additional project to fill the void left by Justice League Task Force, which the team had just wrapped up. As luck would have it, the guys knew just who to call for work.

        Max and Erich had worked on a Super Nintendo version of Gordo 106 for [Nintendo publisher] DTMC. Matt Householder was their producer there, so when he was at 3DO, we were able to get some work from him to do a football game for the M2, the second generation 3DO machine.

          We started working on that in the very early stages of the M2's development, and the system was super advanced for its time. The graphics were unbelievable; at that time they were way beyond anything else.

            - David Brevik

            As a producer at The 3DO Company, Matt Householder's job was to woo quality game developers by offering them lucrative development contracts in exchange for creating cutting-edge games for 3DO's platforms. Dave, Max, and Erich set up a meeting with Householder to pitch just such a game—a 3D football title for the M2 featuring four-on-four contests set in fully rendered stadiums and a camera that zoomed along behind players to follow every teeth-rattling tackle and mad dash to the end zone.

            Householder instantly saw the appeal. The advanced game would sack the droves of cartoony 2D football titles available on Nintendo and Sega systems. Plus, he knew the Condor team had the experience to pull it off. Dave Brevik had written Super High Impact for home consoles in just shy of three months while at Iguana Entertainment, and Condor had released a version of NFL Quarterback Club on the Game Boy and Game Gear handhelds earlier that year. Satisfied, he gave Condor the green light and offered a contract for $500,000 spread over several months of milestones.

            Throwing the M2 project into the mix gave Condor three balls to juggle—the M2 football game tentatively entitled NFLPA Superstars, a second edition of NFL Quarterback Club for the Game Boy and Game Gear portable systems, and Diablo. More projects meant more money, but they also meant more bookkeeping, a chore neither Dave, Max, nor Erich cared to undertake. They knew just the guy for the job.

            In 1994, I had been advising Max and Erich and invested some money in Condor. In February 1995, I passed the California Bar and I was trying to figure out how not to go work for a law firm. Condor needed someone to help come in and run the business side of things. I was a natural fit, so a couple of months later, I came in to run the business so they could focus on the games.

              Condor being a small company, I had great opportunity to get involved with game production as well. Everybody chipped in to do what was necessary to get the game done.

                - Ken "Kenny" Williams, business director, Condor

                Ken was a friend of Max's and Erich's. He came in as an investor in the company and helped us. We didn't have anybody really working on our books. We didn't even really keep books other than, "Wow, what's our checking account look like?" and "Maybe we should write some of this down."

                  It didn't make much sense for us to become experts in business. It still doesn't make sense. There are lots of people that can help out in doing those kinds of things, and it's just best for us to get rid of all distractions so we can focus on creating a great product.

                    - David Brevik

                    After more consideration, the guys decided against spreading the workload across the whole team. To make significant progress on each game, they would need to divide their forces.

                    Diablo was very much up Dave Brevik's alley, and Erich was always more of an RPG guy than I was growing up. We played a lot of sports growing up, and I loved the idea of making a football game, so I definitely jumped at the chance to spearhead the M2 football game and make that happen.

                      At the same time, I knew that by doing that, we were helping to make Diablo happen. Diablo, for all of us, was the project we had the most emotional attachment to just because it was our project and it was something new, something exciting; whereas with making a football game, you're making a football game. There's only so much you can do with it.

                        - Max Schaefer

                        In need of an artist, Max drafted Kelly Johnson, who had been working on Diablo characters alongside Michio Okamura and Tom Byrne, to animate football players for NFLPA Superstars while Max handled stadium construction. Dave and Rick Seis were busy knitting ones and zeroes for all of the other projects, so Kelly vetted a friend of a friend, Brian Piltin, who had the programming chops to write the football game. Dave added to Condor's programming ranks when he reached out to Robin van der Wel, a buddy he'd known since high school. Robin had studied electrical engineering, but he'd taken enough programming courses in college to dive right into NFL Quarterback Club.

                        Brian, Robin, and Kenny got their feet in Condor's door through a combination of savvy and personal contacts, but they and every other candidate needed more than a solid skill set to land a job at the growing company.

                        Certainly you needed to be able to execute the job. But early on, everybody had to approve you before you could get hired. We wanted a love of gaming, and therefore a love of the job. Persistence typically goes along with that. We wanted people that wanted to work in games, and ideally would be someone that would stay through the good and bad times at the company.

                          Nothing bonds like a shared experience like that, like going through battle. That's my metaphor for it: Battle. There are some rough times, and there are some really, really amazing times.

                            - Rick Seis

                            Back in those days we didn't have big contracts to make games, so we said, "Okay, who do we really need? We need a programmer, we need one more artist." We didn't even think about hiring designers. There were just programmers and artists. Even bringing in a sound guy made us say, "Oh my God, that breaks the budget," just to bring in a guy who wasn't a programmer or an artist.

                              They were tough calls, and we didn't always have the money. But the guys who kept expressing interest—Matt Uelmen and Eric Sexton are great examples—made us think, Yeah, these guys are going to be good because they're just really interested. They seemed to really want to do it.

                                - Erich Schaefer

                                Eric Sexton might well have bumped into Dave Brevik two years prior when, in 1993, he chanced upon the opportunity of a lifetime: An internship at Iguana Entertainment.

                                I went in for three days to do this animation test for them. At the end, they decided that my skills weren't good enough to hire me, which was devastating because I really, really wanted to work there. I thought that'd be the best thing ever. It forced me to buckle down and turned me toward doing more computer-based art.

                                  -Eric Sexton, artist, Condor

                                  Sexton bounced back when a buddy hooked him up with a pirated version of 3D Studio, a program that artists used to render models and animations. Because the software was cracked, it came with no instructions. Determined to bring his skills up to snuff, he felt his way along and taught himself various commands and tools. When he needed a break from 3D Studio, he switched over to old standbys, Deluxe Paint and DAnimate, to fashion grisly animation reels. One of his favorite creations showed a robot stomping after a fleeing human and blowing him into bloody bits. Before the scene fades out, torrents of rain wash the spreading puddle of blood down a nearby gutter.

                                  In 1994, the same friend told Sexton about a job ad for a game artist at a startup in Redwood City. Sexton thought about mailing off a few sketches but dismissed the idea. Flexing his newly minted skills, he fired up DAnimate and rendered a 3D spaceship corridor bathed in neon blue light. Hours later he saved the scene to a floppy disk, printed off his resume, and drove to the address listed in the newspaper ad.

                                  I was just there to basically say, "Here's my resume. You guys were close by so I figured I'd hand-deliver it." They gave me an interview right there on the spot, saying, "Oh, hey, why don't you just come on in?" They were all hanging out. A couple of guys were playing NHL '94 on the Sega Genesis.

                                    I went into one of the rooms and it was hard to keep track of who was who because there were so many people coming in saying, "Nice to meet you." They're sitting there looking at my art and critiquing my art, and I was so nervous, but everyone was so nice.

                                      - Eric Sexton

                                      Sexton left the interview feeling upbeat. For a week he stayed close to the phone, expecting a call. None came.


                                      Tomorrow, in part 2, we go behind closed doors to take part in Condor's "work hard, play hard" culture.

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