How Diablo 2 Evolved from Gothic Horror to Epic Fantasy

In an exclusive chapter from 'Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II,' Blizzard North's developers recount the making of Diablo 2's desert-themed act and reflect on how the sequel's look and feel differed from the bestselling original.


The following is an excerpt from a near-complete edition of Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels, now funding in ebook and paperback formats on Kickstarter. Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II chronicles the making of StarCraft and Diablo II, and reveals never-before-known details about cancelled projects and the history of Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North.

Disclosure: David L. Craddock is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the longreads editor at This post is not considered an endorsement of his book, or its crowdfunding campaign.

Chapter 9: Lay of the Land

They said, "Yeah, we're making Diablo II." And I said, "Sign me up." -David Glenn, artist, Blizzard North

We changed the very nature of combat. The sense of committing to each step, and the anticipation of horror, disappeared. -Michio Okamura, artist, Blizzard North

Diablo always felt very limited, not grim, to me. There was no sense of being in a world; you were just in a tiny town and all of the dungeons underneath it. -Stieg Hedlund, designer, Blizzard North

BIT BY BIT, pixel by pixel, Diablo II took shape. Blizzard North's team worked in fits and starts: the broad outline for a hero one day, visual direction for one of the game's four Acts another. Dave, Max, and Erich would make a plan for the month, or the week, or the day, or the hour.1 Iteration was the driving force behind the game, as it had been on Diablo. Act I's pastures and fields were meant to be big, but if one felt too big, they would give it a haircut, shaving off tiles here and there.2 If it felt too small, they'd drop tiles back in.

There was no concrete plan, only a vision: Like Diablo, but bigger and better.

Act I's mosaic of pastures, caverns, and blood-splattered temples began in the Blood Moor. By virtue of being the first area of Act I in which players encountered monsters, the Blood Moor was also the game's opening zone. It came together in piecemeal fashion, like everything else at Blizzard North. Tiles were added as quickly as Ben Boos could paint them. Other ingredients were placed with care. "I wanted players to be able to jump right into the game and start running around and fighting monsters," Stieg Hedlund explained.

Act II of Diablo 2 was set in a desert, marking another departure from the first game's bleak, dreary dungeons.

A game's first area functions like a platter of appetizers, giving players a taste of surroundings, quests, enemies, and items. The Blood Moor is inhabited by zombies, quill rats, and the fallen to introduce players to a range of monster types. Zombies are slow, dumb, and hit hard. Fallen are quick and cowardly, threatening in large numbers but not packing much of a punch individually, and apt to turn tail and run when their buddies start dropping. Quill rats are a fraction more nuanced. They attack from a distance by firing barbs that players can see coming, but can be tricky to dodge unless players possess a skill such as Slow Missiles, an Amazon ability which reduces any projectile's speed to a crawl.

"This gave the player a good variety of challenges as well as introducing some of the main themes that would occur again and again, with many variations, of course," Stieg continued.

While the Blood Moor contains a deliberate set of monsters, other regions are populated via algorithms that draw from a deep pool of enemy selections. Some may appear, while others may not. "Occasionally we would meet with art directors," Erich Schaefer said, "and those guys would compile lists based on what we were asking for. To flesh out an Act and say, 'We need at least six monsters for this outdoor area. What are we going to do?'"

Erich oversaw the character artists, managing the group with his signature hands-off style. On most mornings he'd stroll into the office drinking coffee and browsing a newspaper. When he finished, he'd amble from cubicle to cubicle, office to office, chatting with artists about their recent creations. "He'd talk about animation, see what you did yesterday, stuff like that," Chris Root recalled. "Eventually that got to be where it was taking all morning to do his rounds, we had so many artists working on multiple teams." Occasionally Erich passed out lists of monsters to create, though descriptions tended to be vague so artists could let their imaginations run wild.

Erich limited team gatherings to once a week. Evan Carroll, one of the character team's newer hires, would read over lists, sketch out rough drafts of enemies that appealed to him, and get feedback. "Mine were pretty freeform," Evan said. "I wasn't a particularly good pen-and-pencil artist or draftsman at that point, but I remember everyone was invited to just throw their ideas on the table. And this was for art meetings in particular. That tradition continued throughout the entire development, and that continued on through Diablo III, also."

"We'd have a character-team get-together, and it was really democratic," Anthony Rivero agreed. He recalled a time when Stieg Hedlund had mentioned needing a creature for the swamps. Something that could fly, Stieg told him, and resembled an insect. "That was pretty much the description I got," Anthony continued. "They called it the mosquito demon, so that's what I concepted."

Act II's Arcane Sanctuary was inspired by Robert Jordan's 14-book Wheel of Time series of epic-fantasy novels.

Of the many characters he created, the tainted remains one of Phil Shenk's favorites. Known within Blizzard North as "the big head," the large, gorilla-like demon has a characteristically large head crowned with curved horns. At close range, the big head slashes with its claws. After taking damage, it backs off and spits lightning orbs. When players deliver the killing blow, the big head rocks back on its heels, one clawed hand pawing at its throat while blood pools at its feet, then collapses. "That was the first monster I did when I came to Blizzard. His death animation was so dramatic," Phil said. "That was fun. I was so fired up when I first got there, and I had access to all these tools. I just wanted to make a monster. I know for me, I just fell in love with the process of making stuff, and put more work into it than I had to."

No monster went from concept to completion without passing Blizzard North's trial by fire. Whether in meetings, hanging around someone's desk, or talking over coffee and snacks in the kitchen, developers deliberated every component of a character from its look and animations to suggested behaviors. "We were a very argumentative group. We would constantly play the builds and we'd all talk about them every day," said Max Schaefer. "It wasn't about people sticking to particular responsibilities. It was an open environment as far as giving input. Everyone would key in on something that was bugging them, and we'd debate it."

Once a character had been drawn and animated, its creator would team up with a programmer to talk implementation. Artists tended to have ideas for how it should move and attack. In devising Diablo II's paper-doll character system, Phil Shenk and Jon Morin decided that corrupt rogues should sprint onto the screen, startling some players while giving observant ones who caught movement at the borders of the screen a moment's notice to react. Artists and programmers also had to consider the game's expansive environments. To avoid giving players the upper hand, many monsters have a broad "awake radius"—a distance at which an enemy becomes alert to the player's presence—to ensure they take notice of players long before players can spot them. "You'd be able to walk slowly and see a monster at the edge of the screen, and you could just turn and run off if you didn't want to deal with it," Phil said. "That was one of the concessions, to have the corrupt rogues be more aggressive."

Every encounter in Diablo II has two solutions. Fight, or flight. That choice had existed in the first game, with a caveat. Every character, from heroes to the Lord of Terror itself, moved no faster than a brisk walk. Players had to factor their less-than-harried stride into their odds of survival, while also minding their surroundings. "One of the great things about Diablo's DRLG [dungeon random level generation] was that there was a very tactical consideration for the layout," said Michio Okamura. "You had to figure out what kind of situation you were in, get behind a doorway, make sure you weren't in an open hallway or a huge open chamber. You had to think about these things."

Diablo's dungeons tended to be gloomy and small--the perfect tone and size for that game, but not for its sequel.

Early in Diablo II's development, the team knew that larger environments called for faster ways to get around. Marching had worked for Diablo's oppressive cells and pits, but trudging across field after field would grow tiresome. In answer, the team introduced running, an action that went under the design knife several times. One early implementation let players dash in short bursts, just long and far enough to get out of harm's way. A later design used an encumbrance stat to determine how slowly or quickly they could sprint. Lighter armor translated to quicker speeds, while heavier gear slowed movement but increased defense. Still later, the team dropped encumbrance and implemented a stamina bar that depleted as players ran.

Ultimately, the stamina mechanic made the cut. Players received a few extra stamina points each time they leveled up, and spending experience points on health increased stamina as well as life points. Making stamina a finite resource introduced tactical options. Early in their adventure, when their stats were low, players would need to save running for desperate scenarios, or for when they wanted to dash through a previously explored area to get to the next region.

Despite shifting from dungeons to the great outdoors, and the addition of fast-paced mechanics such as sprinting, traces of Diablo's bleak atmosphere remain intact. Lighting changes as day cycles to night. Players run and fight under clear skies one minute, heavy rain the next. "When you played the game at night and could only see a few feet in front of your character—oh my God," said Kelly Johnson, recalling one instance of exploring a pasture in the dead of night as rain hammered down. "You were inching your way into this huge black field, and a monster would suddenly appear five feet away from you," he remembered.

For some developers, the difference in atmosphere was almost tangible, and not entirely for the better. "There were certain things in Diablo II that were better than in the previous game, but we did recognize that we were losing the first game's scarier elements," Erich admitted. "You could run around in Diablo II and even run away, but in Diablo I, you had a fair amount of combat that you were going to be forced to complete to exit the level simply because the monsters [walked] faster than you. They could often hit you because you were so slow."

Although players started out with a shallow pool of stamina, they eventually gained so much that walking was no longer necessary. Running requires players to hold down a button while they click, but the game includes an option to default to running, a tacit admission that walking will eventually be unnecessary and turgid. "Tactically, it became very boring," Michio said. "You could pretty much run through anything. That, I think, was our big failure in Diablo II."

When possible, the team tailored special encounters to account for actions such as running. At the terminus of Act I, players encounter Andariel, one of Diablo's lieutenants. Towering over players with goat legs, spiky red hair, and tentacle arms ending in claws, Andariel was one of Kris Renkewitz's demonic brain children, and the personification of one of his artistic ideologies. "What I tried to explain to them, and to everybody that came on board after I came up with this design element, is that it wasn't about the bracelets, the shoulder pads, all this stuff," Kris said. "It's about the silhouette the character makes on the game."

Andariel's silhouette is distinctive. Her great height sets her apart from player-sized monsters such as zombies and Big Heads. As she walks, the claws extending from her back sway and flex like scorpion tails. "The silhouette will drive our game mechanic because now she has a different game mechanic than any character that had been in Diablo at that time," Kris continued. "I said we shouldn't make everything so vertical; we should try to make a few things horizontal. We need something fat, something squished, something kind of blobby, something with lots of spikes around it. All these different attributes that add to unique silhouettes."

Diablo's dangerous and salacious succibi.

Phil Shenk did a second pass on Kris's design. Where Kris's take on Andariel was a severe, scary-looking demon, Phil retained some of those elements—hair standing at attention and tapered to a point, clawed arms, hoofs instead of feet—and sexed her up, stripping away clothing and bestowing nipple piercings that connect to a chain dangling from bare breasts. "Erich had given me a list," Phil remembered, referring to an Excel spreadsheet that listed the types of monsters needed throughout the game's four Acts. Small, Medium, and Large were three categories. Spell-casting and Melee were two others. "And then one of the categories was Topless," Phil said. "They said, 'Yeah, we need a certain number of topless monsters,' because they'd all liked the succubi in Diablo."

Andariel is formidable, dealing heavy damage at close range and spraying poisonous mist in a wide arc when players retreat. She's weak to fire, however, giving them an edge. Another key feature of the battle is a pit of blood in the center of her lair. Players can break into a sprint and goad Andariel into chasing them around the bloody pool, pecking away at her with ranged attacks until she falls. In the game's story, her death lifts the pall hanging over the beleaguered Rogue Encampment, and paves the way for players to hitch a ride in a caravan heading east.

Fighting Andariel made for a fitting end to Diablo II's first Act, which drove home core differences between the original and its sequel. Where Diablo was vertical, the follow-up was horizontal. Bosses in the first game generally consisted of large, square chambers where players and the big bad pounded on each other until they died; the sequel's first Act varied between spacious outdoor and cramped indoor environs, and Andariel's lair positioned its pit of boiling blood as a tactical advantage to players who chose to exploit it.

As development wore on, more differences came to the fore.

Andariel met Blizzard North's qualifier for more topless monsters, in abundance.

MAX SCHAEFER WAS energized. While his brother Erich had spearheaded work on Diablo with Dave Brevik, Max had headed up a small team assigned to develop a 3D football game for 3DO's M2 console. The football game was important. The contract Dave, Max, and Erich had signed with 3DO meant more funds to hire more employees. Still, aside from talking over decisions with Dave and his brother, Max, and the team working with him, had to watch Diablo proceed apace from the sidelines. Selling Condor to Davidson & Associates in early 1996 had freed them from the necessity of contract jobs, and had given the M2 team the opportunity to dive into Diablo.

When Diablo II rolled around, Max was eager to play a bigger role. The only question was what, exactly, that role should be. "I was the background art director," he said. "I organized all the background artists and we'd sit and talk and debate about how it would all go together, what the levels were going to be about, how they worked, what needed to be fixed, and all that. It became more a job of organizing and managing the team."

Erich, who had presided over background art on Diablo, was willing to let his brother take point on Diablo II vistas while he managed the character artists. "We can't work on the same thing together, because as brothers, we just fight too hard," said Erich.

In the sequel's embryonic phase, Max channeled his degree in environmental design to build small prototypes, sandboxes in which developers could test classes, monsters, skills, and other features. Max and Ben Boos, at that time the only artist working on environment artwork, established a practice that carried on as the team filled out. "We pored through all kinds of history books and architecture books looking for moments in time that had a cool style to try to capture as an environment," Max said. "Doing all of that appealed to me a lot."

Act II hosted Lut Gholein, an Arabian Nights-style city bordered on all sides by rambling deserts. "One of the things I did right at the beginning of development was to re-read all of the story and lore created in Diablo and consider how it fit together," Stieg Hedlund said. "I created two things based on this: a timeline, and a map. When the Acts were created, I worked with the world team to establish what the different areas would be, what sort of terrain and features each would contain. Once levels started to come online, I would set which types of monsters needed to spawn in each."

Dave Glenn was the chief architect of Lut Gholein and its sandy dunes. Joining Blizzard North in January 1998, Glenn had studied architecture in college but cut his teeth on programs such as AutoCAD and 3D Studio on his own time. The schools he attended neither supplied nor taught such software. He was curious and driven, so he taught himself. Specializing in architectural illustration—imagery that conveys the idea of a space to be built—he had taken a job at Michael Sechman & Associates, a firm that made art assets such as presentations and animations for clients, in 1996. One of his first jobs came out of left field: Building 3D structures for an early version of SimCity 3000, assets that Maxis jettisoned when the team failed to get their proprietary 3D game engine up and running.3 That was fine with Glenn. By early 1998, he'd landed his job at Blizzard North.

Blizzard North's Mike Scandizzo (left) and Kelly Johnson looking dapper at Blizzard Entertainment's 10-year anniversary bash in March 2001. (Photo courtesy of Karin Colenzo-Seis.)

"I met with Matt [Householder], Max, and Kris, and then just kind of a round robin meeting with other people. I remember thinking, Wow, these guys released a game, knocked it out of the park, they're doing really well financially—but they don't really know what they're doing," he remembered, laughing. "It was just kind of chaotic, a little loosey-goosey, but I thought it was great because it was my first game job."

Glenn found plenty of room to stretch his legs—and his creative muscles—at Blizzard North. Max Schaefer had built a small prototype for Act I's monastery, and Ben Boos was cranking out tiles. The rest of the game was a blank slate. Act I didn't even have a town, the encampment where the last vestiges of the rogues made their final stand. Glenn dug in, working on two Macintosh computers: One to render backgrounds, another to work on something else while the first workstation cranked away. His first assignment was designing elaborate fountains that would be placed in the Rogue Monastery, the final region of Act I where players would fight their way down to Andariel's lair. To build fountains, he first had to construct the room they would be found in, bake in lighting—typically in a single direction so all shadows were consistent—and then render out the room. Glenn also pioneered the use of set pieces, pre-arranged tiles that formed tapestries, statues, wood carvings, particular corners of rooms—any number of items that Diablo II's algorithms would place together, whole, to give levels more visual flair.

Unfortunately, the boons of having two workstations were negated by long render times. Max Schaefer had been using an ancient version of StrataVision, an art program designed for Macs, that could take up to twenty hours to render images.4 The bigger the image, the longer one computer sat out of commission. Rendering was only one step. After a background image was rendered, artists had to open it in Photoshop and cut it into tiles. To make matters worse, their version of StrataVision did not include the right camera to expedite the process of orienting scenes from Diablo's trademark isometric perspective.

After two weeks of ponderous output, Glenn went to Max and asked to make a change. "I spent a few days working late doing side-by-side comparisons," he remembered. "I'd render one thing with Strata and another thing with 3D Studio Max. After two or three days I said, 'Look, I can do this in thirty seconds while Strata takes twenty hours. Why are we doing this?' And they said, 'Okay, yeah, let's all use 3D Max.' Things got done way faster."

Glenn surveyed Blizzard North's rough framework for Diablo II's four Acts: Irish countryside, desert, jungle, and hell. He joined meetings with Max Schaefer and Ben Boos, exclaiming over architecture and history books to spitball more scenery and décor for Act II. Their notions started out rather generic: sand, and sand, and more sand. Regions solidified as more information trickled in. "We'd get the basic layouts, then we'd get the quests," Glenn said, "and as the quests trickled in we'd brainstorm, 'Okay, where could this take place?' Sometimes it was predetermined, sometimes we'd just sit around on a Monday morning and brainstorm. It was a pretty loose structure, which was a lot of fun because you could just come up with something wild and crazy."

The environment team played to their strengths. Glenn had ideas for structures, and Ben supported him by painting set pieces that complex objects such as palm trees and oases, as well as tiles smudged with dirt, mud, or sand. "Prior to Dave Glenn starting, I was working all by myself, and I won't say I was panicking, but I was hit with a tall order," Ben recalled. "And along comes Dave with an architectural background, and the timing was beautiful. I was building up the essence of the act, the flat tiles and the palette, and in steps Dave and slabs of wall start flying up. Next thing you know we have towns and shops and palaces and walkways. It was amazing."

Diablo 2 was more colorful than the original--in more ways than one.

Glenn applied what he'd learned helping to finish Act I's town to construct Lut Gholein. A town should be just large enough to feel alive, he knew, yet small enough that vendors, healers, and other essential townsfolks were easily accessible by players. The last thing players wanted to do in a town was run around searching for vendors. They wanted to get in, stock up on supplies, and return to the action. For inspiration, he turned to Mos Eisley, the bustling desert town in 1977's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and pictures of Volubilis, a Roman city in Morocco erected from mud bricks on a foundation of stone that Max had dug up in research. Over several weeks, a large inn, a palace topped with a dome built from colored tiles, and stalls covered in canopies came to life on Glenn's computers.

"I went through reference stuff and I found a lot of these medieval Northern African towns: tight, narrow streets with lots of vendors," he said. "I built these vendor huts that they didn't do anything, I just wanted the feel of a crowded desert sort of town."

"The palace and the dome were all Dave Glenn," Max added. "I remember I collaborated on some of it and even did a tiny bit of modeling for the city walls and the general look of the palace."

Max and Glenn became friends as well as friendly rivals. On any given day, they went from shouting at each other over politics to going out for lunch. Quite early into their friendship, Max made peace with what his growing environment team represented. Glenn and Ben Boos had been a vanguard. Over the next several months and years, other talented environment artists such as Alex Munn, Marc Tattersall, and Alan Ackerman joined up, fleshing out Diablo II's world and concretizing the role Max, as team lead, should play.

An artist's rendition of the Ways in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time fantasy epic. (Photo courtesy of Wheel of Time Wikia.)

"I made some stuff in Act I: some stone walls, the river," Max said. "And in doing that, I just realized, I'm not as good at doing this as these other guys are. It was a humbling time where I realized that my usefulness to the company was not necessarily going to be making artwork. But it was also really kind of exciting and cool to know that our people could make stuff a hell of a lot faster and better than I was doing it. After a while, we were really cranking stuff out. I think for me, the fun was the design and process of figuring out what you were going to do and how it would all go together, [rather] than the actual physical creation of objects."

Max was not the only one to observe a gradual changing of the guard. Michio Okamura had been the creative force who had illustrated the bulk of Diablo's characters, including the devil whose name and blood-red visage adorned every game box and game disc. While he still turned out dozens of character illustrations on Diablo II, lending guidance and collaborating with artists where needed, he had a number of reasons for seeking a different role on the sequel's character team.

"I wanted to make sure we didn't have a single person forcing their vision on people," Michio explained. "We didn't have official titles at the time, so I wasn't the lead artist, though I was functionally the acting lead artist. I later elected Phil to be the lead artist since he had proven to me that he had the drive, skills, and talent to be the lead artist for the project in my place. I like working collaboratively. We had other artists coming in. Mike Dashow came in, Kris Renkewitz. Instead of me feeling like I had to put everything together then pass it off to other people to finish off, we had this fun collaborative effort. It was like, 'What are you going to do?' and 'Oh, that looks great. You should do that.' For me, one of the things I wanted to do is show that there's a world beyond just the dungeon."

Diablo 2's Sorceress. Render by Michael Dashow.

DIABLO II's ARTISTS scaled back on the amount of sand players would have to run across, but not the size of Act II. "The idea was, let's just make a huge desert and that'd be kind of fun to just go get lost," Glenn said. "We put the whole set together, got lost, and said, 'Well, this isn't any fun. We're lost in the desert.' So, we'd have to scale back. We'd say, 'Okay, let's make the desert kind of big, but not so big that you can't follow the edge and take it to the stairs up a cliff to the next area.'"

Set pieces such as stone carvings, palm trees, and temples only did so much to break up the monotony of staring at boundless expanses of sand. Glenn and the rest of the environment team kept things interesting by coming up with thematic settings such as temples and outright weird venues such as the Arcane Sanctuary, a maze of narrow, twisting stone walkways floating in midair against a starry backdrop. The Sanctuary was based on the Ways, an otherworldly network of tunnels from author Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels. "Stieg had written an idea for some crazy, supernatural place," Glenn said, who looked to Jordan's epic for inspiration. Glenn proposed that the starry background be changed to a gigantic, swirling portal that flashed shades of green, but the team ran out of time and moved on to other work. "Dave Brevik put in the Defender star field as a placeholder and said, 'Until we get something better, we're just going to leave this in here.' And it ended up staying," he said. "We shipped with the fucking Defender star field scrolling through the Arcane Sanctuary."

The Sorceress, Diablo II's third hero class, complemented Act II's exotic milieus. Much of her look and feel was defined by Mike Dashow, a character artist who started at Blizzard North in February 1998. "Somewhere in the process, Erich said, 'Okay, this guy knows what he's doing; he's doing a good job. Mike, we'd like you to do the Sorceress,'" he remembered. As was his customary approach, Erich supplied Mike with a few descriptors to get him started. A female magic user, Egyptian in appearance, and wielding mastery of fire, lightning, and cold, the disciplines that would comprise her three skill trees.

To design the Sorceress, Mike referenced Phil Shenk's Amazon and went in the opposite direction. Where the Amazon is muscular and Nordic in skin tone, the Sorceress is willowy and bronzed by the sun. The Amazon is blonde and wears her hair tied in a ponytail; the Sorceress lets her flowing brown locks fly loose. The Amazon's chest is ample; the Sorceress is flatter, and her armor exposes her midriff.

Mike's purview over the Sorceress extended to deciding how she would look wearing light, medium, and heavy armor, as well as how individual items would appear on her character filtered through the paper-doll system. "You'd know players would mix and match," he explained. "Like, when you pick up the such-and-such, that gives you medium torso, light arms, heavy shoulder pads... It was all this whole system of, at any given point, you're looking at any of three sets of sprites: the medium shoulder pads, the light, the heavy. Ditto with the arms, the legs."

The Sorceress's Frozen Orb in action.

The Sorceress' fire, lightning, and cold skill trees grew branches through the combined efforts of brainstorming and visual effects created by artists and programmers. Phil Shenk took point on animating fire. "I remember I really wanted to have good-looking fire, so I spent a lot of time on the fire that appears on the ground," he said. He created small, medium, and large pyres, looping animations so that every tongue of flame crackled and danced in a cycle that seemed organic. One of his favorite creations was flame that sprouted up on terrain. Firewall, one of the Sorceress's skills and a holdover from the first game, raised a wall of flames on the ground. Blaze, a new skill, caused fire to sprout from the ground with every step. Players could effectively paint with fire by casting Blaze and running in patterns. "I think that one was one that we just came up with because it just seemed like a cool idea, to just drop fire behind you," Phil said of Blaze. "The fire turned out to be a big hit because we could put it anywhere. We could spread it out in a radius or leave it in a line. We got a lot of use out of that."

Every skill required varying amounts of testing. One elusive element was its "click" factor. Each click of the mouse translated to one sword swing, one arrow loosed, one spell cast, one step taken. Players had developed the habit of mashing mouse buttons frantically in Diablo's heated battles, but Diablo II massaged the feature by letting players click and hold either mouse button to attack or move until they let off, saving their fingers cramping and their wallets the expense of new mice. Even so, frantic clicking was still allowed. "Does it work for both of those styles?" Tyler Thompson asked himself while programming and testing skills. "If I do Frozen Orb, does it work if I super-click? If I click and hold, does it repeat-fire? Every skill had to be tested for that."

Tyler pointed to Frozen Orb as one of the game's most difficult skills to balance. With every cast, the Sorceress sends out a spinning globe of ice that spits ice missiles in every direction before flying apart in an explosion of shrapnel. Frozen Orb was difficult test because it was a level-30 skill, meaning players could only unlock it once they opened up on the lowest and most advanced branch of their Cold skill tree. Every skill tree had between one and three level-30 abilities. The trickiest part of testing them was keeping versions of the game stable enough to unlock them. Diablo II's code was in constant flux, and each new version rendered characters from the previous version obsolete. Consequently, early-game areas and skills received more attention than late-game content. "We were busy trying to ship it, so we would make changes, and literally, it might take us two weeks to figure out what elements were affected by balance changes we would make in the game," Tyler said.

As part of his duties to design and test the Sorceress, Mike Dashow worked with programmer Ted Bisson on implementation. Mike put together artwork for Frozen Orb, pushed the files onto Blizzard North's servers, and gave Ted the go-ahead to write code for the skill. Then he waited. A short while later, Ted walked into his office with a confused look on his face. He had replaced all of the skill's ice particles with beach balls.

"There were beach balls inflating and deflating all over the screen," Mike said, laughing as he recalled his prank.

A Diablo 2 signing held at Hillsdale Mall near Blizzard North, June 2000. From left to right: Matt Uelmen, Karin Colenzo, Joe Morrissey, Rick Seis, Dave Brevik. (Photo courtesy of Karin Colenzo-Seis.)

SWIRLING STAR FIELDS. Glaringly bright deserts. Lush pastures. A diverse color palette. With each tile and new feature, Diablo II's identity revealed itself. It was still an action-RPG, but wrought more from epic fantasy stylings than the first game's genre-defining, horror-inspired motifs.

Early on, that tonal shift was a subject of constant debate and worry within Blizzard North. Despite his misgivings over what additions such as running took away, Michio Okamura liked Diablo II's tonal shift. In many ways, he knew, the original game's style and themes had been born of necessity rather than conscious design. "To a certain extent, what we did with Diablo was because of technological limitations and resource limitations."

"In Diablo, you had to size up your enemies," Kelly Johnson said. "You had to think, 'Okay, am I going to fight this guy here, or should I retreat?' In Diablo II, you could run in, try something, say, 'This isn't working,' and just run back out. There was less thinking involved in Diablo II. It was more about uber-armor, uber-weapons—it's all about the uber-ness. In Diablo, you were more tactical about how you played the game. You knew one wrong step could be lethal."

"Diablo was scarier and more tactical, but Diablo II had a broader audience," said Erich Schaefer, who admitted he was still torn on how running changed the feel not only of Diablo II's gameplay, but of its world. Objectively, he knew the change had been the right move. "People don't necessarily want more tactical battles. There's an audience for that, but I don't think it's necessarily the action-RPG audience. I think Diablo II was more popular due to the openness and the freedom."

From left to right: Bill Roper, Dave Glenn, Max Schaefer. (Photo courtesy of Dave Glenn.)

"I remember at one point, we had a pretty long discussion about what made Diablo so tense and why wasn't that element in Diablo II," Phil Shenk recalled.

"The reason that Diablo II doesn't feel as dark and gothic is because it's set outdoors," added Dave Brevik. Dave viewed the sequel's tonal shift pragmatically, breaking it down to pros and cons. "It is profound how different the gameplay is in this wide-open area versus the corridors of a dungeon. The strategies and gameplay, the motion on the screen, feelings that are evoked when you're playing outdoors versus indoors. It's not quite as dark simply because we're out in the green grass. Also, some of the monsters in Diablo II, there were quite a few that I don't think are as frightening as in Diablo. I think they're pretty neat, but a pack of bugs or a frog or something is just not as scary as the Balrog," he concluded, referring to the gigantic, winged demons inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe.

"I think Diablo was a superior game in its gameplay, but I think Diablo II was superior in creating a sense of world," Eric Sexton said. The Blizzard North team's collective desire to branch out in world design could be attributed in part to the games they were playing: sprawling epics like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64, and a growing stock of massively multiplayer RPGs such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. "I think Diablo II opened that up so you felt, Yeah, there's a dungeon here and I can go down and fight, but the dungeon is attached to a world. I can run past the dungeon and go elsewhere and feel like if I run far enough, I'll get somewhere else," Sexton concluded.

"We made a couple efforts to try to bring that feeling back in Diablo II, but they tended to make the game slower," Erich Schaefer went on. "People around the office, as well as Blizzard South and other people playing the game, had either gotten used to Diablo II's newer, faster style of play, or maybe that style was simply more fun than Diablo's. I think we gained more fun somehow in making the game faster, and after going forward a little more, there was no desire from almost anybody to keep experimenting with reverting."

Cover art for Stay Awhile 2.

This excerpt came from a near-complete edition of Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels, now funding in ebook and paperback formats on Kickstarter. Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II chronicles the making of StarCraft and Diablo II, and reveals never-before-known details about cancelled projects and the history of Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North.


1. Dave, Max, and Erich would make a plan: "In Their Own Words: An Oral History of Diablo II With David Brevik, Max Schaefer, and Erich Schaefer," US Gamer,

2. Act I's pastures and fields were meant to be big: Ibid.

3. assets that Maxis jettisoned when the team: "Full text of 'Sim City 3000,'" Sim City 3000 game manual,

4. Max had been using an ancient version of StrataVision: Doug and Denise Green. "StrataVision takes Mac rendering to higher level." InfoWorld, October 1991, page 76. (Author's Note: Early versions of StrataVision were infamous for creating beautiful scenes at the cost of long rendering times.)

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

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