Diablo's creators talk about Blizzard's past and present, China, and Diablo 4's reveal

(Image credit: Blizzard)

That Blizzard president J. Allen Brack opened this year's BlizzCon 2019 with an apology is proof that this year is one of the most controversial in Blizzard's entire history. Despite the release of World of Warcraft Classic and the announcement of Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, the year was largely dominated by sweeping layoffs, cancelled games and esports leagues, and an international controversy involving Hong Kong Hearthstone pro Chung 'Blitzchung' Ng Wai.

When it was announced that Blizzard North's founders and the creators of Diablo, David Brevik, Erich Schaefer, and Max Schaefer would be attending Path of Exile's fan convention last weekend, it was a rare opportunity to talk to Diablo's original creators about their opinions on Diablo 4, Blizzard's latest controversies, and get some of their rare insights from working with Chinese publishers.

PC Gamer: So let's talk about Diablo 4. I'm sure like that must have been a bit surreal seeing it announced considering the role that you all had in creating Diablo? You must have some opinions.

Erich Schaefer: I think we definitely do. But, on the other hand, we quit and 10 years later they released Diablo 3. That was weird too. But by now, for me, I don't follow it that closely. I definitely watched the trailers and everything.

Max Schaefer: If they do something that's bad for Diablo it still hurts, and if they do something good it's kind of cool. So the mobile announcement was not a good time, you know, but I think maybe Diablo 4 has turned it around. 

Erich Schaefer

(Image credit: Runic Games)

Erich Schaefer left Blizzard North in 2003. Together with his brother and David Brevik, the trio started Flagship Studios and developed Hellgate: London. When that company collapsed, Erich and his brother started Runic Games and created Torchlight and its sequel. Erich then left the company in 2014 to start Double Damage Games, which released Rebel Galaxy and its sequel, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw.

What was your initial reaction to it?

David Brevik: For me it was a little bit strange. I stream with my wife often—and so everybody's been asking me, oh, what's your Diablo 4 opinion? When they announced it that night, we didn't stream because I was like, I gotta take a day to at least process this.

I think that in a lot of ways it's very similar to a game that I would design. I think that the direction that they're taking was kind of the direction we wanted to take with Diablo 3 when we'd started designing it, which was more of a very social kind of experience, a kind of a hybrid between ARPG and an MMO. That's what I ended up making with Marvel Heroes. A Diablo Marvel Heroes seems like a natural fit to me. It seems like they're kind of going in that direction. But it's still early and who knows what's exactly going to happen and what decisions they'll make.

MS: Apart from the structure, it was just nice to see a little bit of a darker tone, a little bit more graphic, a little bit more shocking and grim. And I hope that they go through with that and don't hold back because I think the tendency of Blizzard lately, especially with Diablo stuff, is to try to turn it to PG instead of an R-rated thing and they really should be pushing the other way.

That was the thing that really stood out to me watching that trailer. It was gory, it was dark, it was profane. It brought me back to playing Diablo 2. You guys seem to be feeling the same way?

MS: Yeah, I mean it fits the game. It's not gratuitous, it's not doing it just for the sake of being graphic. You're going out and slaying demons. That's not a sanitary thing. It's going to be gruesome, blood flying and guts spilling. It's not a pretty thing, you know?

It feels like a direct response to the criticism that Diablo 3 wasn't dark enough. How did you feel about Diablo 3's aesthetic, personally? Was it Hell by way of Disney?

ES: Yeah, I was the art director for Diablo and Diablo 2, and I did not like the new direction on Diablo 3. I'm always a little [bothered] that Blizzard tries to keep things more mass market family friendly. We had these fights with them all the time when we were working on Diablo 1 and 2.

MS: We had to push to get it to where it was.

ES: Yeah, definitely a lot of bang up fights.

DB: We had some really dark stuff in Diablo 1, though. We ended up actually pulling some of the stuff out because it was too much.

Now I'm curious. Was there anything that you remember specifically?

MS: I remember from Diablo 2, there were naked dead bodies in the river and it was just a little bit too like, yeeeah, I don't know that I want to even be looking at that.

DB: Wasn't there flaming upside down crosses and some stuff in Diablo 1?

MS: Yeah, we had some just overtly satanic imagery that wasn't cool.

ES: Did that not stay in? I never know what actually made it in and what didn't. 

Max Schaefer

(Image credit: Runic Games)

Max Schaefer left Blizzard North to co-found Flagship Studios in 2003 with his brother and David Brevik. After that company collapsed, Max and his brother founded Runic Games and made Torchlight and its sequel. Max left that company in early 2016 to start Echtra Games, which is currently developing Torchlight Frontiers.

DB: Yeah, I always forget too.

MS: I mean, there were still naked bodies on stakes, but it fit. We tried to stay away from naming what religion is what and when it got too specific, it was like, let's just genericize it a bit, throw some more naked bodies and blood at it, and we're good.

ES: But I think that the art direction is great on the new one. I'm really excited. I still have a little bit of fear that they didn't show a ton in the trailer. I don't think they want to commit to anything yet. I don't know. I don't feel like [Blizzard] is just doing whatever they want, here. I think it's still kind of corporate driven.

DB: It's so far away [from release], I think.

ES: Yeah. And they really seem to want to put it out there a little bit and get the reaction this time. They don't want to scare anybody or anything. But I do love the art direction.

What about the direction Blizzard is going with multiplayer? Diablo 4 seems a lot like an MMO. David, you did it with Marvel Heroes, Max, you're doing it Torchlight Frontiers. Is MMO-fying action RPGs the future of the genre? 

DB: That was the original design for Diablo 2. We were going to have a Battle.net town, it was part of the Battle.net thing. You never left the world, you were never in a chat room. It was one of the things we were trying to do and we ended up running out of time.

So that's where the Battle.net chat system had to fill in?

DB: Right, we just had Battle.net channels and things like that. But we were going to basically make those in the game, so you're still kind of in a chat channel but it was in the world you were in with, like, 25 other people in an instanced to town. That was the original design that we wanted to do but never got around to it. So then with Diablo 3 we were like, we're going to go full MMO-style ARPG and that was originally what we started working on. And then we left and [Blizzard] redid the whole design.

I actually didn't know that you guys were working on a Diablo 3 before you left.

MS: It was maybe about 12 months. It was really early. It almost didn't look like anything yet.

DB: We had to make a new engine. It was our first 3D game.

MS: New engine, new everything. We had concepts. We made some sample levels, but it wasn't fully formed enough that it would have resembled its final form. It was like we were just getting stuff in and working and running around.

David, you were tweeting at Blizzard asking them to hire you back so you could share your ideas. Did Blizzard ever reach out to you?

DB: No. I mean, I talked to Allan [Adham] there just on and off all the time anyway. I just talked to him last week, but he's the only person I know there, besides Samwise.

MS: Pretty much all the old guard has gone.

That's got to be kind of weird. There's this company that you guys helped build with this core group that was so much the identity of Blizzard, and now a lot of them, including you, have moved on. How does that make you feel? Does it feel like Blizzard has sort of changed?

David Brevik

(Image credit: Game Developers Conference)

After leaving Blizzard North in 2003, David Brevik co-founded Flagship Studios along with Max and Erich to develop Hellgate: London. When that studio collapsed, Brevik joined Gazillion Entertainment, becoming its president and creating Marvel Heroes. In 2016, Brevik left Gazillion to pursue indie development. His latest game, It Lurks Below, released earlier this year.

DB: Oh, it's not sort of changed. It has completely changed.

MS: The old Blizzard is gone. When we quit, there was like 180 employees total. There's thousands now. The whole empire is different, and Activision didn't have any influence. At that point it was just Blizzard and then some anonymous corporate owner, Vivendi or whoever. That was it. And so now [Blizzard is] a video game empire that has to appease shareholders and all that sort of stuff.

ES: I think the biggest thing is we didn't talk about shareholder value. We didn't talk about Chinese government and what they might want. The only thing we ever talked about was what we wanted to do and what the fans would like. It's obviously not the case anymore, for better or worse. I don't blame them. They're a giant corporation.

MS: You can't be that big and be as free-wheeling as we were, and one of the reasons we left was to be more self-deterministic and not be beholden to some monstrous organization. I don't think there was any regrets about it at all.

The times they are a'changing.

DB: That's what happens with companies all the time.

David, you've expressed concern publicly about Activision's influence over Blizzard. Tell me about that.

DB: It doesn't really personally affect me, but yeah, I think that they have quite a bit of influence there. I think that especially now with Mike [Morhaime] gone, that the people there don't have the relationships or the power history to have the same political clout that they used to.

So you think there's not a lot to stop Activision from exerting influence where they want?

DB: Yeah, I would assume that it's very much a very different relationship than when [Mike Morhaime] used to be there.

It must be hard to see a company that you guys built from the ground up now just change into something different.

MS: Nothing ever stays the same. We would not have survived [Blizzard's] growth in any form by staying there. It would have just driven us crazy because it's just all we want to do is have a team and make the games we want to make. That's possible in the small group like Blizzard used to be and it's not possible in a media conglomerate empire thing that they have right now.

ES: I've had three companies since then, so it's pretty distant to me. It doesn't bug me much and I don't think a whole lot about it.

MS: I still want Diablo to be a thing and be good and popular because it's just fun to watch and see where it's gone. It's not trivial, that they're making Diablo stuff and we don't have to do the work. That's kind of cool, you know.

Right, you can just enjoy being on the other side of that.

ES: Also when I go out and make a deal or try to raise money or anything, Diablo is still my key thing. The fact that it's still alive keeps that effective.

Is there anything that you would just hate to see Blizzard do with Diablo 4?

DB: What, you mean like kill Deckard Cain? [laughs] 

Were you particularly chapped by that?

DB: I still am, yeah. Especially to a butterfly? That was ridiculous. Anyway, whatever.

MS: He's very salty about it.

ES: I kind of see that it's good either way. If they do really bad stuff then people say oh, but those guys [Brevik and the Schaefer brothers] were the true Diablo guys. But if they do good stuff that keeps the Diablo name alive and we're still the [creators of it].

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The other thing that was interesting about Diablo 4's announcement was the context in which it happened. It started off with J. Allen Brack coming on-stage and giving an apology because of everything that happened with Blizzard banning Hearthstone pro Blitzchung. What do you guys think about that situation?

MS: First of all, sometimes you wake up in the morning and you're just in a no win situation. And I think that, to some extent, that's what happened with [Blizzard]. There was no clean way out. And I think they kind of bungled it, obviously, but there was no way they were getting through that without some controversy.

A lot of people were very fearful of what role the Chinese government or Blizzard's Chinese publishing partners had in that decision. I know you've all worked very closely with the Chinese games industry before, how likely does that sound?

MS: We have no visibility into how much that actually happened, or how much they were just worried about that.

DB: It sounds like a conspiracy theory to me.

If anything, do you think Blizzard was just being overly cautious rather than responding to a clear threat to its business interests in China?

ES: It's really hard to know.

MS: I mean, like we were saying before, because of the structure of Blizzard now they think with their wallets first. I think that kind of led the decision making more than anything, and they'd maybe underestimated what people's perception of that would be.

ES: On the other hand, I like to think that if the Chinese government actually did lean on us back in the day, we would have said go screw yourself. I would do it today.

MS: If it was any government, honestly.

ES: Yes, any government.

MS: Yeah, this isn't anti-China. We go to China. I love China, but I don't want to hear from any government.

ES: It's the same as when Blizzard South would tell us to take out Andariel or anything, I'd always react like fuck you. I'm doing what I want to do. So that doesn't feel great to me if all the conspiracies are true. But again, I kind of agree that the situation was most likely mildly bungled, mildly trying to make sure [Blizzard is] appeasing people, but probably nothing concrete.

DB: Again, Blizzard was in a no-win situation. If they don't punish, then what? They're just going to become this free speech platform for any kind of political movement that anybody wants to take up?

MS: It could've been neo nazis next and it's like, well, if you don't punish them then... there's no win. It's a no win situation.

DB: They had to do something, but was it perfectly handled? Probably not. I mean that's why they apologized.

ES: That's a good point, too. We would want to do whatever we want to do, but we don't want to be a platform for every other voice. That's not important to me.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

So you agree with Blizzard's sentiment that post-match interviews shouldn't be used for political purposes?

MS: You could just say, 'Hey, guys, don't use your post match going forward, okay? Are we all in agreement?'

Obviously you each have different business interests with China. Do you think it's possible to have a global business that follows Chinese content regulations without having to compromise your integrity?

ES: It has been for me, but none of my [recent] deals required the game be released there. We were in that when we were doing Hellgate: London, we had a lot of censorship requests from China as we went along, which was a big pain in the ass, but we did it because that was part of our deals that it was going to get released there.

MS: That's also true of Germany too, you know. They have their own things that you have to do. Every country has got their things, and if it's too big a pain in the ass, you write it off. And [if not], you just switch out these monsters over here and move this around and it's okay, and everyone's happy. Germany is just as big a pain in the ass.

ES: Japan was the weirdest about my Rebel Galaxy stuff. They had the weirdest little censorship requests. You you would capture a space slaves or buy and sell space slaves, and that was completely out of the question. They thought it was human trafficking. But we're not really human trafficking, it's just a cargo unit. They were like, nope, you have to rename that. So we renamed it to 'alien prisoners' but they were still saying no, you're just trying to get around it. It's still human trafficking. Finally we called it 'alien specimen' and were like, is that okay? They're like well, maybe.

MS: "We don't like your attitude but okay."

ES: It was really back and forth and hands on about stuff that no one else ever brought up anywhere. It was just interesting. But still, we sucked it up and did what they wanted so I can hardly criticize anyone else.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.