Community Spotlight: The man behind the book of Blizzard

You read the exclusive chapter from Stay Awhile and Listen by David Craddock. Now, we chat with the author about putting the book together, including more tidbits from Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and StarCraft. Shacknews: Let's start it off with something simple: I know you have been a writer, having worked for IGN and also written for Shacknews. How long have you been writing about video games and the industry?

David Craddock

David Craddock: I started writing about games during college. I was a computer science major but found myself leaning more and more toward the writing track. Some bad college experiences left me burned out on writing code. When I wasn't writing articles on a volunteer basis for mygamer.com, I was reading Shacknews.com, this green-and-black website that rounded up gaming news. More specifically, I read Jason Bergman and his Late Night Consoling columns. I liked Jason's easygoing prose and looked forward to his features and late-night news. That summer, Jason announced that he was leaving Shacknews to take a position on the other side of the proverbial fence as a PR guy at 2K Games. I saw my opportunity and applied to the open position. just when I'd given up hope of getting an interview, Steve Gibson, then-owner of the Shack, called. He asked me about my writing samples and quizzed me on popular game designers. My brain froze up when he asked, "Who designed Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive?" Tomonobu Itagaki, of course, but I couldn't dig that up then. I ended up losing the bidding to a guy who, in turn, bowed out after a year. Once again I entered a bidding war for the Late Night Consoling post, and once again I lost--to one Chris Remo. Only, I didn't totally lose out. Steve and his business partner, Maarten Goldstein, liked my writing samples and agreed to let me try out for a contract writer position. I submitted my first article to Shack, a gallery feature about controversial games. My writing was rough, but I think the guys could see I was passionate. Remo actually took me under his wing; he'd critique every article I wrote and offer excellent advice for me to soak up. Thing is, I wasn't exactly a sponge back then. I was open to growing, and I did make improvements, but I was more eager than I was practiced. I needed time to temper my enthusiasm into a pliable craft. After I left Shack in mid-2007, I continued to grow, writing for IGN for a short time before entering into the freelance sector, writing for PlayStation: the Official Magazine, Electronic Arts, Good Old Games, Joystiq, Official Xbox magazine, and other companies. Writing for so many different outlets, each with its own style and guidelines to which I had to conform, helped me immensely. I'm still learning, but then, that's a process that never stops. I've come a long way since writing for the Shack, but I give credit to, and appreciate, Steve and Maarten for giving me my start as a paid writer. I do feel I should return some of those checks, but they believed in me all the same. I also want to thank Chris Remo for all the time he spent guiding my writing. Chris, your lessons did finally sink in! Shacknews: Stay Awhile and Listen is nonfiction, and you have written a few other nonfiction works. You've also written a bunch of short stories. Do you have a preference?

From left, David Brevik, Craddock, Erich Schaefer and Max Schaefer

Craddock: First let me take the easy way out and say that I enjoy writing fiction and nonfiction for different reasons. When I write fiction, I call the shots. I make the rules and, with the exception of stories that call for varying doses of fact mixed with the fiction, I create all the characters and settings. It's like I'm building my own playground and I can design the equipment however I want. But the truth is, I prefer nonfiction, even though I'm playing on someone else's playground. I realized this truth about myself four years ago when Rob Smith, then editor-in-chief of PlayStation: The Official Magazine, emailed me and asked me to turn around a complete history of the Metal Gear series in 24 hours. I loved Metal Gear and knew I couldn't turn down such an opportunity to talk about the history of a favorite series. So I called in sick to work and wrote for 12 hours straight. Did I miss a day's pay? I sure did. Was it worth it? It sure was. For half a day I got to sit alone in my apartment and write about the making of a game series I loved. I was so excited to share that information with readers, and I got the biggest charge when Rob sent me a PDF of my articles (he assigned me two more due to quick turnaround). I felt that same charge when I wrote retrospectives on King's Quest, Fallout, and other popular games for Good Old Games, and it was that charge that convinced me to carry my enthusiasm for writing about video game history to a bigger stage. Enter Stay Awhile and Listen, the first of many such projects you'll get from me. By now, I hope you've gotten to read chapter 8 of Stay Awhile and Listen on Shacknews.com. The chapter ends with Dave Brevik relaying to me how he converted Diablo to real-time over a marathon coding session. I sat across from him in a Starbucks, utterly captivated as he relayed to me how a genre of gaming was born. As I listened, I could see the scene unfolding in my head. Two years later, I wrote it. When I finished I shot up from my chair and cheered and pumped my fist in the air. Writing nonfiction is a lot of work. A lot of work. But the charge I get from writing about how games are made and about the people who made them is unlike anything I've ever felt before. These stories aren't just about video games. These are stories about creative people, driven people, who overcome obstacles in their determination to realize their dreams. Sharing those stories is more addictive than Diablo 2's perfectly honed slot-machine formula, and I am an addict who will never tire of the rush. Shacknews: You have obviously been fascinated with Blizzard for some time. You even wrote the "Last of his Kind" short story for a Blizzard contest in early 2009. How did the idea for the book get started idea, and why Blizzard as a topic? It seems like a massive undertaking.

Craddock played Diablo during the internal beta.

Craddock: Oh, man. Haven't thought about that story in a long time. That was fun to write. The idea was to give a background story to one of the NPCs in Tristram. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it, as it's worth checking out if I do say so myself. (And I do. So go read it.) I was introduced to Diablo by my Uncle Brad, who'd met the Blizzard North guys through roller hockey. He sent me a copy of the single-player Diablo beta, which was an internal-only perk until Blizzard included it on a demo disc in a Windows 95 magazine. Remember how you could only move as fast as a walk in Diablo? Well, on a 66 megahertz machine, my characters moved even slower. It was like wading through chest-high water, but I didn't care. I fell head-over-cloven-feet for Blizzard North's gritty and grimy slot machine. I played so much Diablo that I'd see map grids burned against my eyelids when I closed my eyes for sleep. In June 2000, Uncle Brad flew me to San Jose to spend a week with him as a graduation gift. One of the activities he promised was a trip to Blizzard North's San Mateo office. As you can imagine, visiting Blizz North was like walking on holy ground. I met Dave Brevik, Max Schaefer, Kenny Williams, and Rick Seis, who showed me the game room and let me play an import PS2. This was a good two months before the console released in the States. Fast forward to 2007 and I was living in the Bay Area looking for freelance work. I pitched an article on stereoscopic 3D graphics in games to Official Xbox Magazine, and Uncle Brad brandished his rolodex to put me in touch with Eric Sexton and Kelly Johnsons, artists on Diablo and D2. Eric and I became fast friends. We'd go out to lunch and play video games at his place for hours. During one of our visits, I had an idea: What if I could get Eric and Kelly to reach out to their former coworkers and organize a game of Diablo 2? I mean, how many gamers get a chance to play a game with the developers who made it, much less call them friends? Then, an even better idea occurred to me. Why not write a book on Blizzard North? Shacknews: How did you go about setting up the interviews with the appropriate parties? Craddock: Eric was enthusiastic about the idea of a Blizzard book and helped me reach out to Matt Uelmen, Joe Morrissey, and a bunch of other North alumni. Uncle Brad gave me Dave Brevik's phone number. I cold called him one night during dinner. He waited for me to finish stammering my request before agreeing. Through him, I reached out to Max and Erich Schaefer. Things just kind of snowballed from there. The guys I talked to enjoyed our conversations and agreed to call and email around to see who else might be interested. Anyone they couldn't find, I looked up through Facebook and LinkedIn. I was able to meet with most of the guys in person, since a lot of them still made games in the Bay Area.

Craddock worked on Hellgate: London with some ex-Blizzard North folks.

Fun fact: I got to work with Michio Okamura, Eric Sexton, Kelly Johnson, and some other ex-North guys on Hellgate: Resurrection, an overhaul of Hellgate: London featuring a new story, content, and new mechanics, all layered on top of what was, in all honesty, a very promising foundation that just needed more time and a cash infusion. I interviewed with those guys and they hired me to rewrite the entire script--over 250 quests. I had a great time working with some of my game industry heroes, even though the parent company laid off most of us after we'd finished our work. Shacknews: In going over your site and the Q&As you had with some of the individuals in the book, I get the impression that the project has snowballed to be a bigger undertaking than you imagined. In a post on your blog back in June, you had The Velvet Hammer as Chapter 7 and now it is Chapter 8, so you seem to be adding new chapters as you go. Craddock: Stay Awhile and Listen (SAAL) definitely blew up. Draft one ends at Blizzard North's closure in 2005. But Diablo 3's release this past May opened my eyes to a better angle. SAAL covers both Blizzards, but focuses on Blizzard North for two reasons. One, that team was the originator of the Diablo series, and that's the series I wanted to cover. Two, Blizzard Entertainment's head of PR told me that the company declined to participate in the book, but wished me luck.

Patrick Wyatt

To get the inside scoop on Blizzard, I got hold of Patrick Wyatt, Blizzard's fourth hire and a major influence on Warcraft, StarCraft and the Diablo series. Thanks largely to Patrick's help, my Blizzard contracts snowballed through all of the company's games and, finally, through Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo 3. And that's the important distinction: Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo, not Blizzard North's. SAAL charts the growth of the two Blizzards by focusing on Diablo. Through examinations of Diablo's development, we chart how each Blizzard changed in terms of culture, development styles, and long-term goals. The downside of the book's significant increase in scope is the time it's taken me to write it. I intended to release the book yesterday, Halloween 2012. That obviously didn't happen. I'm just one guy writing a book and trying to pay the bills, so I haven't been able to dedicate every waking moment to the project. And believe me, I would if I could. So, I bumped it to 2013, and in true Blizzard fashion, the book will be done when it's done. I decided to reveal a chapter in place of releasing a full book because I thought those looking forward to it deserved some sign of progress. Also, you don't work on a project for years without wanting to show it off! Shacknews: How many people have you interviewed for the book? And out of all of those, who was the most compelling person to interview? Craddock: I've interviewed approximately 80, and the list is still growing as I fill in holes I missed the first time around plus flesh out seven more years of history. Readers will get to hear from all sorts of movers and shakers at the two Blizzards, plus hear from periphery "characters" that influenced the main personalities along the way. For example, Dave Brevik and the Schaefers met at a clipart company, FM Waves, where they made their first game. I interviewed their bosses there to gain insight into the Condor cofounders' formative years in game development. As for the most compelling interviewee, everyone I talked to was excited to share their perspective so that's hard to narrow down. If I have to choose one, I choose Dave Brevik. For our appointments, I'd meet him at his office and we'd cross the nearby train tracks and walk a few blocks to the local Starbucks for coffee and conversation. On the way, we'd catch up: Games, family, whatever came up. I enjoyed our catch-ups as much as I enjoyed the "business at hand" talks where I shoved a recorder in his face. (Just kidding. I placed the recorder between us on the table. I did shove it in his face during the walks back to his office, though.) Shacknews: Did anyone outright refuse to be interviewed? Craddock: Some did. Others agreed, but on condition of anonymity. Blizzard North was a family studio, and by that, I mean everyone who worked there grew extremely close, like family. And like family, there are some rough patches. Not everyone wanted to recount those. Shacknews: What is something that you learned that surprised you the most? Craddock: If you didn't know better, you'd think such genre-defining titles as Diablo and Diablo 2, still regarded as the best action-RPGs ever made, had been carefully planned out inch by inch, byte by byte. Well, after talking to so many developers from Blizzard North, I do know better. Dave Brevik and Max and Erich Schaefer defined both their games as a perfect storm of ideas that just happened to congeal into two of the most addictive and involving games ever released. Over and over, I learned that the guys stumbled on many of their most significant innovations by sheer luck.

The Horadric Cube in Diablo 2 was a 'happy accident.'

Diablo 2's Horadric Cube, a box that lets players cook up new items made from a mishmash of others, started out as a quest-only item that players used to put together a special staff in Act 2. Then the guys said, "Hey, we should make item recipes that players can use to craft their own gear." There are tons of these happy accidents revealed over the course of the story, and even though I'd gotten a good grasp on Blizzard North's development style early on, I was always surprised to hear the guys admit that they were just feeling their way along the whole journey. Shacknews: What question(s) did you want to ask but couldn't? Or, what questions were dodged? Craddock: I never felt like I stepped out of bounds by asking any sort of question. Everyone I spoke to was fairly to completely open. Some interviewees opted to pass or share information off the record, and I respected those decisions. Honestly, though, most people were very open and didn't shy away from the tough questions. Shacknews: What was the single most difficult task in writing this book? Craddock: The difficulty of researching, tracking down contacts, traveling for interviews, transcribing, writing, fact-checking, editing, and rewriting, all while juggling other responsibilities. That remains by far and away the most difficult task for this project. This sucker's not bringing in any money yet, so I've got to balance writing the book against writing to bring in money. Juggling so many different projects does add to my stress level, especially when bills come due. But, I firmly believe that each of those projects contributed to my growth as a writer. Without them, I wouldn't have the chops to write SAAL. Shacknews: Is there any one person most responsible for the feel of Diablo 1 / 2? Why has the feel of those two games never been well-replicated in any of their post D2 projects (Hellgate: London, Torchlight, Gods and Heroes)? Craddock: You can credit Dave Brevik with the idea for Diablo, but he'd be the first to tell you that he was by no means solely responsible for its success. My favorite thing about Blizzard North was its open atmosphere and culture. Anyone could come forward with an idea, as the chapter I released on Shacknews demonstrates.

Diablo 1 & 2 were a 'labor of love' by the people that made the games.

Michio Okamura conceptualized most of the monsters you fight in the game, and the player characters as well, but other artists such as Kelly Johnson, Ben Haas, and Pat Tougas animated them, imbuing them with personalities. Erich Schaefer modeled all the backgrounds, and Rick Seis helped him devise algorithms to generate random dungeon levels, a factor that so greatly contributes to the game's replayability. Guys from Blizzard Entertainment fought to make the game real-time and were the chief architects behind Battle.net, a service without which Diablo likely would have come and gone without much notice. Many hands were involved in making that game, and Diablo 2 as well. No one person called the shots. That openness resulted in a labor of love for the people who made it, and a collection of ideas that melded together extremely well. Shacknews: This chapter was obviously about Diablo, and you shared a few Diablo 2 snippets in the Shacknews stories. Give us a good tale from StarCraft. Craddock: The guys at Blizzard Entertainment fostered a fun but highly competitive atmosphere. They weren't so much interested as one-upping each other as they were making the best games ever. If your work didn't match up, the piranha effect, as the programmers called it, kicked in. You and your work were chewed up and spit out. They didn't devour subpar work out of cruelty. Everyone there was simply passionate. Only the best would do. Gage Galinger, one of the coders on StarCraft, told me about his first day on the job. One of the chief engineers came up to him and said, "We need a parallax scrolling star field." Parallax scrolling is a camera technique that makes background objects, such as a field of stars, scroll slower than foreground objects, such as space platforms where players build. Gage felt intense pressure to write solid, clean code, and it's a source of pride to him that his code swam the piranha-infested waters and made it into the game. I think readers will enjoy stepping into the shoes of such passionate people. Think of Gage the next time you play a StarCraft match set on a space station!

World of Warcraft started as a squad-based game based on the tabletop title Necromunda.

Shacknews: Obviously, you don't want to give away all the best parts, but how about a story from Warcraft 3 and/or World of Warcraft? Craddock: World of Warcaft didn't start as such. The team originally conceptualized a squad-based game based on a tabletop war-game called Necromunda. In the game, codenamed Nomad, players would build up squads of soldiers, upgrade their abilities, find new guns, and go online to challenge other players' armies. Others on the team favored an adventure/RPG more in the vein of Final Fantasy. Many of the team members were growing frustrated. Some wanted to settle on a direction and hit it hard, others didn't care for one direction or another and wanted to do something else. Two developers from the latter group were Kevin Beardslee and Bill Petras. They, like most of the guys at both Blizzards, were hooked on EverQuest and started to think, "Hey, why can't we make a game like this?" In fact, most of Blizzard's games came about because of games the developers enjoyed playing: Diablo was a graphical roguelike, Warcraft was meant as an answer to Dune II's lack of a multiplayer mode. On a Wednesday, Kevin and Bill pitched their idea for a better, more user-friendly answer to EverQuest to Jeff Strain, one of Blizzard's senior programmers. Jeff offered to bring it up to management at the next meeting. Two days later, Nomad was scrapped and the team started in on what became World of Warcraft. Shacknews: How do you think the aborted version of Diablo 3 (the one we have a few screenshots of) would have fared if it had been released? A classic ala Diablo 2, or too much 'more of the same' and it wouldn't have lasted? Craddock: This is a tough question to answer without getting into the thick of Blizzard North's work on Diablo 3. After Dave, Max, and Erich left Blizzard North in 2003, Blizzard Entertainment governed Blizzard North from afar and set the team's marching orders for Diablo 3: "Make it like Diablo 2." They gave that directive because originally, under Max Schaefer's direction, D3 was being built as an MMO, like World of Warcraft.

Max Schaefer and Brevik circa 2003.

So, Blizzard North scrapped that version of D3 and started out making what they referred to (some jokingly, some bitterly) as Diablo 2.5. Later, circumstances dictated a change in orders, forcing North to rethink their direction. By the time Blizzard North had made serious headway on the game, the studio was closed. Based on what I know, I think Blizzard North's D3 would have retained enough of D2’s spirit and mixed in new elements that it would have been successful and great fun, but maybe not as ground-breaking as D2. Of course, it was only about one-third finished, so who knows how things would have turned out? Shacknews: Based on what you know now, do you think D3 is a worthy successor to the Diablo franchise? Did learning everything about the development of the series influence your opinions on D3, and especially enhance any satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the product? Craddock: I think Diablo 3 did a lot of things right. Most of those things involve tweaks to irritating holdovers from D2. I like that I can pick up gold without clicking on it, that I can warp back to the surface when I hit the end of an optional area such as a multi-floor cave, and that each player in a party receives exclusive loot drops. Who among us hasn't seen a well-oiled team disintegrate into dogs fighting over scraps the moment Mephisto dies and vomits awesome loot all over the ground? I also like the health globe system because it adds more strategy to monster encounters. Do I go for a health globe now, or wait until things get desperate? The reasons I believe D3 won't hold up as well as D2 have to do with the game's shallow replay value. That shallow replayability stems primarily from the skill system. I like that the skill system encourages experimentation. It's nice to test skills and know that I can change my combination of abilities at a moment's notice. However, I don't see any reason to play each character more than once. If my friend and I play barbarians, and I like his skill load-out, I can just change my abilities around instead of start a new character. That's the crux of the issue for me. I receive certain skills upon reaching certain character levels. Skills are given to me. I don't choose them. In role-playing games, decisions are what tie players to their characters. Without any decisions to make, I feel no connection to my D3 characters. In contrast, I look back fondly on all my D2 characters, both the ones that held up through Hell difficulty and the failed experiments that barely crossed the finish line in Normal mode. They were mine. Then there's the itemization, that careful balance of rewards that determines when players find a cool item, and when they find an awesome, enviable, I'd-kill-to-have-that treasure. During my first time through the game in mid-May, I didn't find a single unique or set item. I didn't even find that many yellow items. Good Diablo players don't need super-duper-rare items to progress. In D2, the properties on blue and yellow items were such that I could progress quite far with them.

Craddock felt the auction house in Diablo 3 was a 'game-breaker.'

Compare that to the D3 that launched in mid-May 2012. That D3 shipped with an auction house that felt designed to drive players to open their virtual or real wallets to acquire goods. I failed to progress on one occasion and reluctantly went to the auction house. Sure enough, I found something good and continued carving a path through the game's monsters. The problem with that is going to the auction house became a safety net. Whenever I got stuck, I could either grind old areas until worthwhile gear dropped. Or, I could go to the auction house and exchange gold for my ticket to progression--better armor, better weapons, gems, what-have-you. I even stopped upgrading my blacksmith and gem artisan because the auction house offered better solutions. That's game-breaking, both because upgrading became worthless and because I no longer felt empowered to play my way out of sticky situations. Blizzard has since made some adjustments to the auction house, but as long as it exists, D3's itemization, the heart and soul of Diablo, can never be fixed. It's not a slot machine if I can buy a jackpot. I have other qualms with Diablo 3, and many other aspects that I like. But to answer your original question: As much as I like D3, no, I don't think it's a worthy successor to D2. Without fundamental changes, it won't go down as memorable, long-lasting, and innovative as Diablo 2. And maybe that's okay. Today, gamers burn through new games and move on to the next flash in the pan. Maybe that's what Blizzard wanted. Me? I don't think so. Shacknews: How did you get a publishing deal lined up? What stage of the process was it -- early on, after you'd done a few chapters? Craddock: I'm living the American Dream, baby. I considered shopping SAAL around to publishers but I didn't want them to put the kibosh for the special format and others ideas I intend to implement. So, my wife and I started our own publishing company: Digital Monument Press, a publishing house dedicated to books of this nature. Books on games have been published before, of course. Masters of Doom was a major influence on SAAL, as were others such as Steve Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games and Tristan Donovan's Replay: The History of Games. But there's never been a publisher focused on video game books and only video game books. Until now, that is. Shacknews: Why did you decide to release it only as an eBook? Will there be a chance for a physical copy down the road? Craddock: We do hope to release SAAL as a physical book down the road, but I can't divulge those plans at the moment. All I can say is, if there's interest, show it, and we'll work to grant that wish. Shacknews: What did you learn from this writing experience? Craddock: To check, double check, and triple check everything. With the exception of the last few years, the events in SAAL happened decades ago, so nobody will remember an event perfectly. I'm also happy with the approach and format I crafted for this book--creative nonfiction, which reads like a novel, meets quotes so readers can get the skinny directly from the individuals who lived the events documented within the book. I love the format and plan to reuse it. More on that later. Shacknews: What sort of audience do you see showing interest in this book? Craddock: I wrote SAAL with several different audiences in mind. Readers interested in a good story that happens to involve video games will enjoy it, much like casual readers could pick up Masters of Doom and see it for an American Dream-type story. But the book will also appeal to gamers from different walks--those who simply enjoy playing games, experienced developers eager to know the history of two of the pioneers of their industry, and those considering a career in game development who want to know what it means to live, eat, sleep, and breathe a passion to make creative works. Aiming for so many demographics could easily cause a multi-demographic pileup, but I think I've avoided that. Everyone I interviewed was happy to break technical details down to easily digestible concepts, and those who couldn't left the breaking-down to me. As an example, consider the Diablo development details included in part three of chapter 8, released on Shacknews. The next chapter gets into more detail, but it's still presented in an accessible manner. If a certain reader happens not to care about such details, they're presented in such a way that they can be skipped without missing a beat of the main story. No matter your interest level in one area or another, you will find something (likely more than one thing) that will hook you and draw you in. Shacknews: What do you most hope readers will get out of this book? Craddock: That a group of passionate people, regardless of experience and backgrounds, can come together and create something great, something that continues to influence an industry and inspire new generations of creative individuals 12 years later. Shacknews: Are you going to be doing another book in a similar vein as SAAL after it is released? Craddock: Oh, yes. There are two more books waiting in the wings. The first is tentatively entitled Dungeon Crawls and Treasure Trawls: The Making of Rogue, Moria, Gauntlet, and Other Hack-and-Slash Hits. That book will be different than Stay Awhile and Listen. Where SAAL covers the history of specific companies and people, Dungeon Crawls devotes each chapter to a specific game and its developers. As for the second book, I can't go into detail. It's big, though. It tells a story gamers have been waiting forever to learn.
Tomorrow, we launch a contest to give readers a chance to win a digital copy of the book.