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Guest Article: Remembering Blizzard North and Diablo II

Posted 16 Jul 2008 by

Ex-Blizzard North employee Mike Huang wrote a guest article about his time at Blizzard North. We originally posted it in our guest articles section in 2006, and resurrected it into the new blogger format in mid-2008, when we reposted it to accompany an interview we conducted with Mike about the announcement of Diablo III.

Click through to see Mike’s full take on the new game in the series he worked so long on.

Remembering Blizzard North and Diablo II

Guest Article by Mike Huang
Originally posted: February 9, 2006.

In August of 1997, I was a kid fresh out of the university heading off to what was then a dream job—working for Blizzard North, the development team behind Blizzard’s smash hit Diablo. I always knew I was going to work in games, but I thought that I would be working on console games rather than PC games.

PC games in those days were so rife with problems before Diablo released—you had to make boot disks, load the right memory manager, make sure the graphic card had a VESA compliant chipset, else you were hosed. Then along came DirectX, and most of that went away. Diablo was one of the first games to utilize DirectX, and what a difference it made. To this day I’m convinced that Diablo wouldn’t have sold as well as it did had Blizzard not been forward thinking enough to realize the usefulness of DirectX.

When I arrived at Blizzard North, development of Diablo II had just begun. The character classes and a rough list of their abilities had been drafted out, as had the basic story structure. The programmers had been prototyping a voxel-based engine prior to my arrival, which was thrown out in favor of the more traditional sprite based system. Art was converted over and production on Diablo II truly began.

When I started, I was given 3 T-shirts and a couple of copies of Diablo. For those curious, the three t-shirts were the standard black t-shirt with blizzard logo on the front and back, and 2 Blizzard North exclusive shirts—one in black with the Winged Demon on the back, and one in white with the black knight on the back. It wouldn’t be long before these Blizzard T-shirts became a sort of uniform for me, and by the time I left Blizzard 6 years later, I had enough T-shirts to go into to work for a month and never wear the same T-shirt twice.

Blizzard North’s office building was situated next to a boat marina. There was a cafe downstairs and several smaller companies scattered throughout the office park. Rumor had it that Hotmail (who happened to be above our office before they got bought by Microsoft) had wanted to sublease some of Blizzard North’s office space, and Blizzard North had refused on account of us losing our ping pong and foosball room.

Being in the Marina had it’s share of good and bad—walking under the freeway (where the homeless would sometime sleep) was a fast way to get to Toys R’Us and the fast food restaurants on that side of the freeway, but it also meant that every so often, for no apparent reason than being where we were, we’d have a blackout. It was always on the office building side of the freeway—our suspicion was that a tall truck coming down the two-lane road that led to our little office hit a electrical pole or snagged the cable, leaving us in darkness. Depending on the time of the outage, this either meant an early lunch, some time at the mini-golf arcade down the street, or an early dismissal. Or people would break out the playing cards and the MTG decks.

The Diablo II team grew quickly after my arrival. I had expected to be the new employee for a while, but artist Phil Shenk would start just a week or two after me. Almost 18 months later, what had been a mostly empty office space with plenty of room to expand would be filled to the point where supply closets were being converted into offices. It was late ‘98 when it was decided that Blizzard North was going to make a Diablo II expansion pack concurrently with the game and we were going to split into two separate development groups within the same office, and in January of ‘99, the search began for a new larger office space which could house both the Diablo II and Diablo II Expansion teams. By the middle of March, we had moved into a new office in San Mateo. A large creative space, it would not be long before solutions for walking the long corridors between offices would be found. The Razor scooters became the new method of transportation for the lazy—crashes at a blind turn near the kitchen were relatively common.

Making the rounds in news this week are the pictures of Google’s snack room. I tell you this—they don’t compare to Blizzard North’s 2 kitchens which were kept as wonderfully stocked as a convenience store. Soda? Check. Beef Jerky? Check. Instant Ramen? Check. Oatmeal and Granola Bars? check. Fresh Fruits? Check. Chocolate, Candy, Snacks and Chips in no less than 20 different varieties? Check. If that wasn’t enough, appearances of waiters on wheels and pizza for dinner became commonplace as well. Were it not for the Blizzard North offices not having a shower, I imagine that some employees might have never gone home.

I need to point out at this time that 1999 and 2000 were the Years of Hell, so while we were enjoying our new office space as well as our fabulously stocked kitchens, we had also entered into “Crunchtime Hell”. With a hopeful internal release date set at December of 1999, and a hopeful beta date set for November of 1999, most of the Blizzard North Diablo II team was pulling double-time, working weekends and occasionally sleeping under their desks in order to finish the game in time. Sleeping bags were issued to members of the Night Crew. Sometime during this year of crunch, we hired Peter Hu, a fan with plenty of ideas and suggestions about Diablo II and improving it, and he developed several things to keep the player interested in the long-term, including most of the patches (up until he left to work for Flagship in Fall of 2003). Synergy? Peter. Runewords? Peter. Perfect Gem Activation? Peter. Ethereals? Peter. Patch 1.10? All Peter.

But I get ahead of myself. That last struggle of a push ended with the first master candidates for Diablo II being made at the end of April, to be sent to Dublin to be localized (translated in other languages and fixed for country specific graphics) in time for an almost worldwide simultaneous release (there were some languages that took more time).

During the Development process of Diablo II, however, there were fans helping us build and refine the game—many of the new developers on Diablo II were fans of the first game (including myself) so we knew what we wanted to see in the game. We listened to the fans on the forums and from e-mails sent in (in the early days of the Diablo II website, I answered all of them personally). We listened and answered fansites’ questions during the regularly held fansite chats. Our goal was not to make a game that sold 5 million copies, but to create a game that was better than Diablo I, and all the imitations that would come between Diablo I and Diablo II. We wanted to make a game that could satisfy the casual gamer, and one that could satisfy the most hardcore gamer. We made that game. The proof is in the fact that Diablo II is still played on battle.net, almost 6 years after its release. The proof is in the fact that Diabloii.net still exists—8 years after its launch.

Some of you feel that Blizzard has given up on the Diablo franchise. Some of you think there’s a Diablo III in the works. I don’t know. I don’t work for Blizzard anymore, and I haven’t been there for years. I do notice that they continue to patch Diablo II with new features and items, so the Diablo universe just doesn’t seem very dead to me at all. There’s a very small amount of people at Blizzard now who actually worked on Diablo I or Diablo II or D2X. From D1 and D2, I count less than a half dozen.

A significant number of those developers responsible for Diablo and Diablo II have moved on to other places and other things. While it saddens me to know that Blizzard North is closed and gone forever, I take heart in knowing that the knowledge of how to make really great games at Blizzard is spreading to other game companies. Gamers of the future should have an even larger selection of high quality titles to choose from.

Some of you may want to know where some of these Diablo developers have gone so that you can know what products to support and watch out for if you’re giving up on the Diablo franchise.

I once asked former Blizzard North President David Brevik why it wasn’t “David Brevik’s Diablo II” when so many other developers at the time were prefixing game titles with their names. He told me: “The game is not just me. It’s the whole team. That’s why the Blizzard North logo is there”. Even so, David Brevik is the person I associate as being the heart and soul of Diablo, which is why I’m happy that he’s there at Flagship Studios with Bill Roper and lots of other Blizzard North alumni building Hellgate:London. If I started naming all of the employees and all their contributions to Diablo and Diablo II, this article would easily double in length. Let it suffice to say that you know these people, and they’re doing great work. I looked at Hellgate: London just a few months ago, there’s a lot there that the Diablo player will enjoy, and I’m really looking forward to playing it.

Michio Okamura, Eric Sexton and Steven Woo very recently started a game company called Hyboreal Games. Michio and Eric are Diablo 1 veterans, and Steven Woo is a programmer extraordinaire. They’re currently working with Jon Morin and FlipSideGames in developing a project. They haven’t released very much information yet, but I have great confidence in their abilities to make a really fun game.

At Castaway Entertainment, brothers Michael & Stefan Scandizzo, along with Rick Seis and the rest of his crew are also working on something that’s unannounced.

Battle.net was made for the fans of Blizzard—a free service to help connect with other game players. This was during a time when other companies were charging for multiplayer over the internet. This past December was battle.net’s 9th birthday, and there are still players playing Diablo 1 on it. I think that’s pretty cool. Two of Blizzard HQ’s programmers who worked on battle.net started a company a few years ago called Arena.net. They are the ones behind NCSoft’s Guild Wars (which you can play now, which also has good appeal to Diablo players).

Lastly, there’s also a number of people from Blizzard North who migrated down to Irvine and whose contributions will be found in World of Warcraft and future Blizzard products.

Whether Blizzard chooses to continue the Diablo franchise or not, Blizzard owns that property. They can do whatever they wish to it. The gamer has many choices out there—and thanks to the developers of Diablo and Diablo II, there will be a lot more games out there with a little bit of Diablo in them.

Disclaimer: This guest article is hosted by Dii.net.  The views expressed in this article are those of its author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.


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