Chapter 8 finale -- Condor and Blizzard lock horns over Diablo

By David Craddock, Oct 31, 2012 9:00am PDT

In part 2 of our exclusive look at chapter 8 from Stay Awhile and Listen, we went behind closed doors to take part in Condor's "work hard, play hard" culture. Today, Condor and Blizzard Entertainment lock horns over how Diablo should play.

* * * * *

While the team plugged away on the projects that kept the bills paid, Dave and Erich spent hours each day holed up in Dave's office hashing out Diablo's design. Their first order of business was to retire the game's design document to a desk drawer. They had written the document to attract a publisher with deep pockets. It had served its purpose.

I would say our style was iterative. A lot of developers say that, but I don't think they mean it to the same degree that we did, which was: Get something on-screen and work on that until it's fun, decide why it's fun, and do more of it; or decide why it's not fun and do less.

    It was really about starting with small moments and honing those small moments, and then building a game from that. That style meant we could change things very fast.

      - Erich Schaefer

      Whipping up a whole dungeon crawling with monsters and treasures seemed a lofty starting point, so they picked out the elements that made up the game's backbone and built up from there.

      The very first thing we did was Erich made one rough room out of tiles. We had a crude tiling system and sprite cutting tools in place, then our very first animations followed.

        Those were the very first objectives: getting something on-screen and then playing with the sizes and perspectives to get the action to look right, as well as making sure the squared tile area was based largely on X-COM as far as the way that game did its tiles.

          - David Brevik

          Dave reverse-engineered X-COM to gain a better understanding of how it ticked. Gameplay took place over a grid of tiles, and each character and object occupied a single tile. Dave also studied X-COM's selection box, a tool players used to move troops around using the mouse. He decided that Diablo would utilize the tile-based grid as well as mouse-driven commands, which made the game easy to grasp. With a single mouse click, players could traverse the dungeon tile by tile, pick up items, open menus, and whack monsters.

          Also like X-COM, actions such as movement and combat would unfold over turns, much like a game of chess.

          We fiddled with all sorts of things, but basically it was, "my turn, your turn, my turn, your turn." We were going to have items that boosted speed, and then we said, "Well, if we're going to boost speed, we should probably break this down into points." So we said, "Okay, if moving from here to here costs 10 points, then moving diagonally should cost 14."

            We ended up doing this whole point system to try and get you to move, and it started to get pretty complicated.

              - David Brevik

              A distinctive personality emerged as the game matured. During its early stages, Diablo had no multiplayer components that provided safety in numbers. Players entered the dungeon alone, armed with their wits, a handful of gold coins, and the magical items they found along their journey. Caution, planning, and an eye for tactics were the keys to survival. Standing in place, players could scout out upcoming bends in corridors, sort through their inventories, and plan their next move. Invariably, though, they would have to take a step, and the monsters—dusty skeletons, bipedal goat men, and demons bent and clawed and slavering—emerged to greet them. Heroes who charged in quickly found themselves boxed in. Since each tile held only a single character, surrounded heroes couldn't slip away. They carved a path to freedom or died trying.

              Diablo's single room slowly spread outward, growing into small dungeons where nightmares walked and treasures sat twinkling. The team's excitement grew as pieces such as the first—and at that early stage, the only—player character fell into place.

              While I was working on NFL Quarterback Club, the other artists were just getting started doing some preliminary models and getting characters made. They had the first Warrior player character, and he looked like a big guy in a tin can suit: all chrome, super shiny armor.

                At the time it looked amazing, but in hindsight, I think the more Mad Max, one-shoulder-pad, down-to-earth look ended up being a much better direction to go with him.

                  - Eric Sexton

                  Trips to the kitchen to fill up on caffeine and munchies became powwows to discuss progress and new ideas. Karin Colenzo, a friend of Dave's from college who came aboard as an office manager to supplement her paycheck as a counselor, started out collecting resumes from applicants and filing miscellaneous paperwork before learning that anyone and everyone at Condor was invited to submit ideas.

                  Everybody did have a say, and everybody wanted everybody's perspective, even mine. They'd say, "Okay, you're not the hardcore gamer who programs or who does art for us, so you have a casual perspective. What do you think of this?" and "What do you think would make the game fun?" They actually wanted my opinion, and that was kind of neat.

                    We wanted to make a really great game, we wanted it to succeed. Everybody had that common goal, and everybody had the same passion for what was going on. There would be days where we'd meet in the kitchen early in the morning, and someone would bring in donuts. We'd eat donuts and talk about the game, or game ideas, where the game could go.

                      - Karin Colenzo, office manager, Condor

                      Even in its embryonic stage, their game was fun and rewarding. Limping through a dungeon with a single hit point remaining only to stumble across a pack of monsters, formulate a plan that accounted for every eventuality, and emerge alive and in possession of a shiny new weapon or ornament brought a rush of satisfaction.

                      Doubly satisfying was the reality that the other games paid the bills, but Diablo was all theirs. There were wrinkles in the turn-based system that needed ironing, but once they smoothed out the mechanics, Diablo would make for an eerie, deeply strategic, and damn fun experience.

                      After playing an early build, Blizzard Entertainment didn't see things quite the same way.

                      Our company was saying, "We're going to take on this developer, Condor, and we're going to publish their game. It's called Diablo." And for a couple of months we were working on it not knowing that it was turn-based. When it came out that it was turn-based, we said, "No, that sucks."

                        We actually took a vote. They said, "Raise your hand if you would buy this game if it were turn-based." I think two people raised their hands. Then they said, "Raise your hand if you would buy this game if it were real-time." Everybody raised their hands. Allen went in and called Dave Brevik and said, "Look, you've got to make this real-time."

                          - Duane Stinnett, artist, Blizzard Entertainment

                          When Allen Adham had approached Condor with an offer to publish Diablo, he had been adamant that the game play out in real-time, not a slower turn-based system where players could take as long as they pleased to think their way out of predicaments. Every step forward in Diablo, every moment spared to paw through backpacks or scout ahead, should carry a do-or-die feel.

                          Dave, Max, and Erich nodded along to Allen's arguments but refused to budge.

                          I think we had some initial reaction that we didn't want to be told what to do. That was a characteristic of our company: We were fiercely independent. We wanted to sink or swim on our own merits, and we definitely didn't want to like someone else's idea.

                            - Max Schaefer

                            Allen and his team argued that real-time experiences were more intense and memorable, pointing to their WarCraft strategy game as an example. The best WarCraft players survived and thrived because they made calculated decisions under intense pressure when enemy forces stormed their base from all sides. Dave, Max, and Erich volleyed back by reminding their publisher that Diablo was intended as a rebirth of the dungeon hacks Dave had become addicted to during college. Rogue, Moria, and other dungeon hacks proceeded according to turns, so Diablo would as well.

                            By the late spring of 1995, neither Condor nor Blizzard had given an inch. Allen decided to unsheathe his most potent negotiating weapon.

                            There was this thing we called the velvet hammer. Allen Adham was the guy that would bring out the velvet hammer, and it was this slow tap, tap, tap, because all the changes that needed to happen with Diablo had to be sort of negotiated.

                              You can't just boss people around and say, "Hey, you're making a game, but we want you to make lots of changes to it," because game developers by and large don't listen to stuff like that. They want to do their own ideas.

                                -Patrick Wyatt, programmer, Blizzard Entertainment

                                Allen tap-tap-tapped his way to a compromise: Why not ask the Condor team what they wanted for Diablo? Dave and the Schaefers agreed and called a company meeting that same day, a Friday. The team filed into the kitchen, taking up chairs and boosting onto tabletops and counters. A spirited debate ensued.

                                I remember the bosses having a meeting and saying, "What does everyone think about making this real-time?" At the time, turn-based was still really popular. It was a viable way to go. There's something to be said about being able to sit back, eat a sandwich, and click through the game as you want.

                                  - Eric Sexton

                                  Our open minds were our greatest advantage at that very early phase. The thing to remember is that real-time wasn't even in the picture for the computer RPGs we grew up on, like the roguelikes. So even though we could all recognize real-time as an inevitability, to be told "the future is here" was still a little shocking.

                                    - Matt Uelmen

                                    It was like, "Hold on. We've got to consider what real-time means." It means you're not going to be able to sit there messing with your inventory when you're in the middle of fighting monsters, so we had to think about how it would really impact the game design, what we're trying to do, and what the play experience would be like.

                                      But for every objection that we would come up with, there was a pretty good counter.

                                        - Max Schaefer

                                        There were enough people that were passionate about going real-time because they thought—and rightfully so—that turn-based was old. You could make arguments that there were still turn-based games out there, but in general, it felt old.

                                          So enough people felt strongly enough about going real-time, and so did Blizzard South, which added considerable heft to the decision.

                                            - Rick Seis

                                            When talk died down, the guys called for a vote. An overwhelming majority spoke up in favor of real-time. The bosses adjourned the meeting and conferred in Dave's office. Democracy was all well and good, but there were technical restrictions to consider. They called up Bill Roper, their producer down at Blizzard, to discuss the situation.

                                            Blizzard South suggested we make it real-time after we sent them the first build that was this turn-based version. We argued, "No, we're making this game." But they finally wore us down—it probably only took an hour or so over the phone—to the point where we said, "Okay, we'll give it a try, but it's going to be really hard work to do. It's going to take a lot of time, and we're going to need some more money for the project."

                                              - Erich Schaefer

                                              After everyone left for the weekend, Dave sat down at his computer and pulled up Diablo's code. He scanned through and hit on something. The game was written so every action—movement, combat, quaffing a healing potion—took up a certain amount of time. Monsters moved immediately after the player initiated a command. Once the time to perform an action expired, the game turned back the clock and the player-monster turn cycle began anew. All he needed to do was whittle the time between actions down to nothing.

                                              Dave began to type. The sunlight filtering in through his window grew faint, then faded to night, leaving him suffused in the glow of his monitor. Occasionally a breeze sighed through the window, rustling the blinds and fluttering the hockey posters hanging over his two desks. He never once looked up.

                                              A few hours later, he built a new version of the game, took up his mouse, and played.

                                              I can remember the moment like it was yesterday that this happened. I was sitting and I was coding the game, and I had a warrior with a sword, and there was a skeleton on the other side of the screen. I'd been working on all this code to make characters move smoothly, doing a whole bunch of testing, and we'd talked about how the controls would work. We wanted it to be visceral. Click and swing, click and swing. We wanted it to automatically happen: If you clicked on the monster, your character would go over there and swing.

                                                I remember very vividly: I clicked on the monster, the guy walked over, and he smashed this skeleton and it fell apart onto the ground.

                                                  The light from heaven shone through the office down onto the keyboard. I said, "Oh my God, this is so amazing!" I knew it was not only the right decision, but that Diablo was just going to be massive. It was really the most defining moment of my career, as well as for that genre of gaming. A new genre was born in that moment, and it was really quite incredible to be the person coding it and creating it. I was just there by myself coding it up. It was pretty incredible.

                                                    - David Brevik


                                                    Tomorrow, come back for an exclusive interview with author David Craddock that includes questions submitted by fans.

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