There's always something new to learn in any profession, no matter how long one has been involved in it. The art of game design is no different. Even for the veterans, the pioneers, and the legends, there's always something new for them to learn every day. After decades in the business, there's still something new out there.
This is no different for Blizzard North co-founder David Brevik, one of the most respected names in the business. In 2016, he departed from Gazillion Games as its CEO, citing unhappiness with being on the business end of development and vowing to return to what he loved most: designing games. That has led to It Lurks Below, a dungeon crawler with world building elements. While originally intended to be an indie game with a small team, that team soon became Brevik and only Brevik.
That has led to some new learning experiences, something he was happy to share with Shacknews over coffee at this year's Game Developers Conference. Brevik talks about It Lurks Below and what's gone into its development. He speak about learning different aspects of game development, including taking online courses to learn pixel art. He goes into what it's like to be a solo developer (with occasional help from his daughter) with a Twitch channel where he can take feedback in real time. Lastly, Brevik reflects on his 27 years in the gaming industry and ponders all that has changed.
Shacknews: It's great to hear that you're back into game development. I've seen the art style, thought it was really good. I didn't know this was your first time working on the art side!
David Brevik, Blizzard North co-founder: First time! I took a couple of classes online on pixel art and I have a 15-year-old daughter who's extremely talented at art. She helped me out a bit.
Shacknews: Is she looking to get into the gaming world herself?
Brevik: She is! Actually, she's done this... there's this program called Girls Make Games. Her team has won two out of the four years that it's existed. She says she wants to work in video games, especially as an artist. And... we'll see. She's 15, so you know, those things change often.
Shacknews: So tell me in your own words, what is It Lurks Below about?
Brevik: For me, it's really about... I've played an absurd amount of Minecraft. I played a lot of this game called Starbound that I really liked. And I played a little bit of Terraria, but I had problems with the UI and I could just never get into it, but I've watched many people stream it for hours and hours. I really enjoy watching other people play it, but I just don't like to play it myself. And all of these games lack something, the depth that I was looking for. I love the world, the randomization, I love all of these things, but they just felt kind of shallow and goal-less. They're kinda sandbox-y games without much point.
For me, I wanted to put a structure on top of it, tell a little bit of a story, make it an RPG, give the thing depth, have character classes. So the idea of just taking that kind of Minecraft kind of gameplay and crossing it with Diablo, where I have random levels, random monsters, random loot, I just wanted to play that game. So that's where the idea came from, playing these games and looking for something a bit more RPG-ish.
Shacknews: What made you decide to go this alone, rather than gather up a band of hungry developers?
Brevik: I don't really know why I did this. I'm not a control freak. I like getting input from all sorts of people when making a project. But I got inspired by a few indie devs, like this gentleman that made Stardew Valley, made it by himself, for instance. I thought "Wow, that's kinda cool." And then my friends Erich [Schaefer] and Travis [Baldree], these two guys that I worked with for a long time, they made this game called Rebel Galaxy. And it was just the two of them. I thought "Yeah, I could do this with a really small team." I just came from a company with hundreds of people. I don't want to do that anymore. I want to go small. I want to go indie. I knew that and I thought I could do it with a team of five or something like that. Then I started prototyping the thing by myself and I thought, "I think I can do this by myself. I'm kinda enjoying doing this by myself." So I just kept doing it by myself. It wasn't any kind of conscious decision. I always planned on hiring a few people and making a small team. But then as I got going, I was just enjoying it so much, I kept going that way.
Shacknews: But you know how many hours go into making a game. We hear about crunch all the time. So you know the late hours that go into developing a game. Was that a concern for you at all?
Brevik: People don't really know me very well, but honestly, I'm a workaholic. I always have been. If I'm not careful, I could, not exaggerating, literally work all of the time. Sleep three hours and work the rest of the time. Because I love what I'm doing so much, everything else doesn't matter in a lot of ways. But I have a family, a wife, and things like that, so I have to be able to balance that, so in a lot of ways, it's good for me to have this balance of people around me and things to do other than just work. However, that said, any spare moment, I am working. I work 100 hours a week, easily, just because that's what I enjoy doing.
Shacknews: You have something now, and you kinda had it during the Marvel Heroes days, but now more than ever, as opposed to the old days, you have a Twitch channel! You have an audience that can actually offer feedback. Tell me about you use your Twitch channel to aid in your development.
Brevik: This is actually one of the most important parts of the development for me and one of the reasons that I can do this project on my own. It's because of this interaction. First off, when you're making a game by yourself, I'm huddled down in my office in the basement, and I'm working away for a year and... it'll be a year and a half in the summer. You don't know what you're making. "Am I going completely insane? Am I just making a piece of garbage here? I'm not getting any feedback from anybody. It's fun for me, but what do I know? I'm just drinking my own..." whatever. Anyway, so I don't know what it's like. And then to be able to put it out there and get response and get a positive response, which is a big breath of relief, but also get that feedback from people in the community is so helpful.
One of the things we did when we released Diablo, was before we released Diablo, we put this game on a disc for PC Gamer and for Microsoft DirectX. And they shipped a bunch of these CDs, you can buy the little demo before you buy the game, if you bought the magazine or picked up the CD from Microsoft. We got such great feedback from that, that altered the game, actually. The hot bar was not vented before we got feedback from them. We put that in the last three months of development for Diablo. Getting that feedback is the most important thing, because I don't have all the great ideas. I want to hear feedback from people. I want to create the best game I can and the only way I'm going to do that is to get feedback from the community. And people that are passionate about it, that watch our streams, that enjoy the work that I've done and things like that, they'll ask me questions, I can ask them questions, I can interact with them, and they become ambassadors for the product. They're out there saying, "I'm really enjoying this, the developer listens, I'm giving great feedback. Hey, I saw one of my suggestions go in the game and that's really cool for me." Everybody wins, I feel. It's kind of that old CD demo on steroids, with instant feedback that didn't exist. I really enjoy that entire process and that was really important with me in Marvel Heroes. I want to do it even more this time with It Lurks Below.
Shacknews: Is there an idea, in particular, that you saw in chat that made you think, "This is really cool. I didn't think of this?"
Brevik: Yeah, there's been all sorts of things. From suggestions about new wand types, there are suggestions people made of different types of wands that I've put directly in the game. But there's been a lot of great feedback from people. "Oh, I didn't like this. I didn't understand this quest. Let me go ahead and change that." There's been dozens and dozens of changes that people have suggested, plus they find all sorts of weird bugs that I didn't really think about. Because when you're bug testing by yourself... hundreds of people find bugs much faster and do weird things that you never really thought of. So that's also really helpful.
Shacknews: This is something I always used to be told on the QA team. Think outside the box and try to do weird things, because the consumer will do weird things. Think like an end user, but go nuts, because you never know what they're going to do.
Brevik: Also, people play the game and stream it and I'll just lurk in the channel. I'll just watch what they're having trouble with. That's something we used to do at Blizzard back when we made Diablo where we would go to game shows and have the game playable at these game shows. I would just sit back behind everybody and watch everybody play, because I would see where they were getting stuck, what they were enjoying the most, and that feedback speaks volumes often times. And so that is also really helpful. I get to do that from my house now, instead of having to travel to a show.
Shacknews: Do you have an end goal in mind for the game? Because you mention you're a workaholic and you can just go nuts for months on end, but do you have a set goal for how long you want the game to be?
Brevik: I do. I have a set period of when I would like to release it. I'm thinking in the next few months that I want to wrap it up. There's plenty I can add after launch. I'll give updates for everybody that buys it. I'll continue to work on it, if it's successful enough. If it doesn't succeed, then I'll have to get a job and raise some money and make a small dev team. But if it's successful enough, I want to continue to work on it, add features, like someday I'd really like to add multiplayer.
Shacknews: I'd imagine that would be an entirely differnt workload in itself.
Brevik: It is, but I've done multiplayer things so many times now that the game is coded and ready for multiplayer. It's just that multiplayer, in itself, there's so many weird bugs and timing issues and all sorts of stuff that comes up when multiplayer. It's just too big of a scope by myself, especially while I'm funding the entire game by myself. At some point I want to release it and then, if it's successful enough, add multiplayer post-launch.
Shacknews: If the workload does become too much, because you have a lot of ambitious plans for after launch, do you feel like you'll hire on a few developers to help you out?
Brevik: Yeah, absolutely. If it becomes too much. There's no reason not to. The only reason I'm by myself right now is, because I've become a little stubborn about it. Now I feel like I've talked about it and I want to finish it. But I'm not really that attached to any of it, so I could hire an artist who can make better art than I'm making. I could hire a programmer who can help me out with multiplayer and porting it to other platforms. There's all sorts of things that can help me there. I can hire a musician to help me out with some of the music. There's a whole bunch of things I could do to improve my ability to focus on just running the game.
Shacknews: This is really fascinating to me, because you've been in the business for over 25 years, what have you learned on this project? You talked about getting into art, but what else have you learned about game development for the first time?
Brevik: There's been all sorts of little things that I've learned here and there for the first time. Learning how to make pixel art and critique my own art was a challenge, something I've never really done before. I've drawn art for a long time, but it's all been boxes and circles to make prototypes out of. But to actually iterate on art and continue to make it look better and not being satisfied with something, that process I haven't really gone through. That applies to music, as well. I'll write a piece of music, then I'll take a break for a couple of days, I'll come back and listen to it and, "Ehhhh... I like where that's going, but I like this a little bit more." That process of iterating on things; which is what you do when you're programming, you make a small thing, you work it, it wasn't good enough or the code wasn't flexible enough, you gotta improve it, go back and make it more flexible, or whatever. This happens all the time. Same thing happens for the game, you play the game, "I had this idea for this," you play it for a bit, "Eh, it's not good enough, I want it this way instead." That iteration process and applying it to everything I'm doing is definitely a new experience for me. I've never had to apply it to music, sound effects, or art before.
Shacknews: I'm still stuck on what you told me earlier about your daughter doing art for you. It's amazing! Game development is running in the family for you!
Brevik: Yeah, it's weird and there's a few people I know that have second-generation people in the game industry now. I've worked with these people. We're old now. We've got grown kids and they're working in the video game industry. So it's strange, but there's quite a few examples now. It's becoming more and more of a thing.
Shacknews: Going back to that whole '27 years in the industry' thing. You've been everywhere, from Blizzard North to a startup MMO to now your own project. How have your views on game development changed over the past 27 years?
Brevik: I don't think my views of development have really changed. I'm still super passionate about what we're doing. I believe in the video game industry. I'm super happy that it's extremely popular. The industry itself has changed so much. You can't even compare it. You can't even compare the industry today to what it was three years ago. So much has changed, much less ten years ago or twenty years ago. It's so different. When I started out, it was a niche geeky hobby and only the nerds played video games. Now, it's mainstream and there are millions and millions and billions of gamers. To go from a really small, closed industry to something this massive, where people walk around playing games all day on their portable devices and things like that. It's hard to even comprehend the amount of change that I've seen.
Shacknews: And yet still accessible, from the giant company making a AAA title to a small indie team making a passion project...
Brevik: That's really [due to] the advent of things like digital distribution. And all sorts of really easy-to-use engines, there's all sorts of ways that people can make games that they've never been able to make before, publish them themselves, and do all of these things, which is great in a lot of ways. It's also bad in other ways. The bad is that there are thousands of games released and most of them get lost. And the good is, there's thousands of games released and you get some real gems.
It Lurks Below is aiming for a summer release on PC. For those looking to help Brevik on his development path, be sure to follow Graybeard Games on Twitch and offer some feedback.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, GDC 2018: David Brevik on It Lurks Below, Solo Development, and 27 Years in Gaming
What online course did he take to learn pixel art?