David Brevik gives honest thoughts on the gaming industry and how he remained passionate about making games.
Note: You can find the original article published in Slovak on www.sector.sk.
David Brevik has been developing games for almost 30 years, and best known for the legendary action RPG Diablo and it’s sequel Diablo II. He co-founded the studio Condor alongside Max and Erich Schaefer, which later became Blizzard North. Brevik later left Blizzard and co-founded Flagship Studios, once again with the Shaefers and other former Blizzard North members to create Hellgate: London. He later moved on from the fantasy genre to the comic book world and brought free-to-play MMO Marvel Heroes.
During the Game Access conference in Brno, he took the stage to deliver a postmortem look back at his work on Diablo. We had the opportunity to talk to him about his groundbreaking successes and even some of the less fortunate projects. He gave his honest thoughts on the gaming industry and the reasons why he decided to found an independent game company and develop a game all by himself.
During your career, you’ve brought many iconic videogames in different studios. What’s the secret of staying in the business for so long and creating so many titles?
Passion, really. It’s kind of fundamentally who I am and what I want to do with my life and I love making games, I love entertaining people, I love the process of making a game and I love making things that bring people together, they enjoy, they entertain – that just means the world to me. And so to be in the industry that long, you have to be passionate about it, 'cause it’s kind of grueling.
You are best known for your work at Blizzard North. How different is game development now compared to that era?
Right now I’m president of a game company called Greybeard games. The entire company consists of me and so I’m making an indie title all by myself right now. So it’s so different than the way that I’ve done things in the past. I’ve made games by myself before, but it was way back in the Sega Genesis/Gameboy days. So it’s been a really long time and game development has changed so much. One of the things that I’m doing with this, is that I’m doing early access, which I had never done before and that process of doing early access has been fascinating – it had been wonderful – being able to have your game out there and get feedback from people, update it – you have to have an agreement with the people that are doing this. You’ve got to finish the product, you’ve got to make a bunch of patches – I’ve patched the game 160 times in the year. And that process of making the changes, seeing it grow and doing it with players that are playing your game and putting it on Twitch and getting reactions and interacting with people on Twitch when they’re streaming it and playing it for the first time – the way that you develop games now is so different than the way it was before. We used to have to go to trade shows to see these kind of things. I’d sit back behind everybody and watch everybody play my game and take notes furiously for two days and that was the only feedback I would get. So it’s really fun to be able to have this open experience that’s very different than the way that I’ve developed games before. And the opportunities are just amazing now – there’s so many people that can make games all over the world and such fantastic tools to do it with – not that I’m using any of the tools, but I know there’s lots of people that use these tools – and so we’re seeing an explosion in the amount of games and the kind of games that we can create and I think that’s good for everybody.
In your talk, you’ve mentioned that the first concept for Diablo was much different than what was later released. Why did you decide to make all these changes?
Well, this happens every time I make a game. Making a game is kind of a strange experience, it’s a little bit like writing a book, because you kind of make this outline and then you fill it in, and so I have kind of a skeleton of what I want the game to be, but as I’m building it, I’ve come up with new ideas or better ideas and so then it changes. And as that changes, the entire game can change, so it can be much better. And often when you design something, it’s not very good, right? It comes out and it’s like, "Oh it wasn’t as good as I imagined it in my head.” Or, "Hey, this turned out like I like it but nobody else likes it. I’ve got a change it so that other people like it too.” And so kind of getting that balance right means that things change as you go. And sometimes things like going from turn-based to realtime [combat] – it’s the right decision and the game’s better because of it. And obviously you can continue to make these decisions and at some point you’re going to run out of time and money, but as long as it fits and you’re lucky enough to do it, then as soon as you make the change, you make it better.
And now in hindsight, do you think all those decisions were good?
No (laughs). You make good decisions and bad decisions, but it’s different now than it was then. Now games change radically. I mean, all you have to do is look at Diablo III for an example. Diablo III, the way that it launched, that it had the real money auction house and things like that - versus the way it is now, is night and day. The game has just changed so incredibly much and there are many examples of this. And so I think that back then [when] the game came out, we were lucky to get a couple of small patches where we’d fix some bugs and then that was it. And then we moved on to a second version or an expansion or something like that. So because of the nature of the way games are today – the games are different at any given point in time.
And does your work on Diablo still affect your work today?
Yeah, I get to go to Brno because of it (laughs). So yeah, everyday people ask me questions about Diablo and talk about Diablo and I love doing it, so it affects my day-to-day work in positive ways. There’s really no drawback to it. I get recognition from the press, which brings attention to any of my new projects. I get to put things like that on any kind of marketing material. If I’d wanted to get a job somewhere, it would help me get a job, so in a lot of ways Diablo is everything to my career and I love it.
And in terms of game development, do you still reflect on your experience from making Diablo?
Well, the game that I’m making right now - It Lurkes Below is very much like Diablo, but it’s kind of played from a “Terraria view”, but the mechanics are still the same – there’s random monsters, random dungeons, random items; so I think about it and work on those kind of systems still every day and it has an impact on what I do.
The isometric action RPG genre seems to be on the rise again and many developers consider your work on Diablo a main source of inspiration. How do you feel about that?
Well it’s flattering (laughs), amazing and I think that’s fantastic, 'cause I love the genre. I’m still involved and consult for Path of Exile and people come and ask me questions on making action RPGs, they send me e-mails and want feedback and things like that; so I just love being part of the community and seeing the genre grow, because I love it so much. And anything I can do to help is great.
Do you think there are games from this genre that may have even surpassed Diablo in terms of gameplay?
Well, it depends. I would say yes, there are some games that are better than Diablo. I think that Path of Exile is an example of a game that’s tremendously popular and it continues to grow and gets better and better; and so I think that there are some that are maybe just as good as Diablo and I think that’s also an individual taste thing. Some people think that Diablo III is the best Diablo, some people think Diablo I is, some people think Diablo II is - so it’s hard to even compare which one is better or not.
In the past you've seemed to be quite critical about Diablo III. What were your main issues with the game?
I think that there were a lot of design decisions that I would’ve made very differently than they made. And it was just because of the experience that I have with making the first two that I would’ve decided things differently with the third one. And then we had a design for Diablo III and we were kind of working on it before we left, and so the way that project was gonna go, was very different than the way it ended up. So is it bad, is it good? I don’t know. The reaction from the public was mixed, but so was the reaction from the public for Diablo II – with Diablo II it was kind of mixed reaction at first. Then the expansion came out, people liked it a little bit more and then once the 1.10 patch came out, then it really became this big, people call it “classic”. So I think that you can’t judge a game, it changes all the time. And Diablo III is in a place now that I think it’s much better than when it was released.
Is there something that actually pleasantly surprised you in Diablo III?
That’s a good question. Nobody has ever asked me that question before. Yeah, I think that definitely some of the action of the game feels really good, the sound effects, the visual effects and kind of the impact of the combat I thought that was really well done. And I like some of the atmosphere, where things crawl up the sides of pits and things like that. We dreamed of doing those kind of things when we were doing Diablo II and to see that as a reality, I think was really awesome.
We’re in an age when players have great expectations from games and they’re very vocal when they’re disappointed. That happened after the last Blizzcon, when people were hoping for Diablo 4 and instead Diablo Immortal was announced. How do you think this pressure from the players affect game development nowadays?
It does affect it. There’s not really a solution though. I think that as games become more popular, as social media kind of changes the way we communicate with people, you just have to be kind of buttoned up in you presentations and how your going to be able to market yourselves and your products; and it’s a different way to do things now and there’s going to be bumps on the road for a lot of people and I’ve had bumps on the road on my career too. For instance, when I made Hellgate, we way overhyped it and so the expectations were way too high when it came out and It was a big problem.
After Blizzard had announced Diablo Immortal, you were intrigued that they decided to outsource development to China. What’s your opinion on their decision now and what’s your opinion on the general concept of a mobile Diablo?
Well it’s kind of the same. I think that they announced Diablo Immortal poorly – in a wrong time and wrong place, but hindsight is 20/20 - it’s easy for me to say that. But I think that having Diablo on a mobile device is a good idea. It shouldn’t be the only Diablo, but having a Diablo on mobile sounds fun. Now whether or not it’ll be a good game, or what it’s going to be like, or how much will they cash grab, that everybody’s really afraid of, and is that going to be a factor? I don’t know. I don’t think so, I mean Blizzard really hasn’t acted that way in the past, so I can’t imagine it’s going to be. And I’m just going to wait and reserve judgment 'till I can actually play it. Maybe it’s the best mobile game of all time. I don’t know, nobody knows. We’re going to have to wait and see.
Apart from Diablo Immortal, Blizzard hasn't released any information about a possible sequel to Diablo yet. If you were given the opportunity, would you be interested in working on this series again?
Yeah, absolutely. People ask me that all the time, but Blizzard has to come to me and ask me so (laughs). They haven’t contacted me.
Is it just that easy, to just reach out and ask you?
Yeah, it’s just that easy.
Do you think that could happen?
I doubt it, but you know, maybe. There’s always a chance. They’ve given no indication of me going back, so…
Do you have any new ideas that you would like to implement into the sequel?
Oh yeah, of course. But I’m gonna save those, in case I make one (laughs).
Let’s move on a little bit to Marvel. Avengers: Endgame has been breaking box office records around the world and you’ve actually brought some of these characters to an MMORPG game Marvel Heroes. However, the game wasn’t as successful as you were probably hoping for, so what were the main factors responsible for this? How come the game wasn't received as well as the MCU films?
That is an excellent question, where I wish I had an answer. There were a couple of things. First off, when the game came out, it wasn’t very good. We really should of launched it into early access or something like that, instead of claiming it was a finished game, because it really wasn’t. And so we had to get over that initial hurdle of having a product come out that’s not very good, especially a game where the business model was free to play, so people could just try it and if they didn’t like it they never came back, 'cause they weren’t invested. There were different cases like No Man’s Sky, where people have invested money in a product and [there was] no comeback, because it wasn’t the game that they were hoping for. But they had an investment in a product already versus Marvel Heroes, people tried it and they never came back and it didn’t cost many things except for time to download it. But it came out, it was really bad and we buckled down and we kind of opened up communication, I was streaming it five nights a week and we were getting a lot of involvement from the community and we worked on it, we iterated on it. We’ve changed our metacritic [score] a year later from 56 to 82 and that process of making a game in public and proving it was really rewarding. And the numbers went way up. We made a lot more revenue and things were going really well. So it was a looming success, because it was much lower than we wanted it to be originally, but we did turn the product around and I was really proud of the effort the team did on that.
As for why it wasn’t successful like the movies - my theory is that people just don’t like superhero games that much. There are very few examples of superhero games that have done really well. You can name three or four - some Batmans and the Spiderman - but that’s about it. There are a lot of cases where superhero games just don’t appeal to their audience and I don’t know why that is the case. Largely, I think most gamers around the world aren’t interested in playing a superhero. They’re more interested in making their own kind of hero - it doesn’t have to be a superhero, but a hero in more of a fantasy setting or science fiction setting. That’s just the way it is. So I think that it was a situation where being a superhero just isn’t popular, the game came out, it wasn’t very good and I think that those were just hurdles that we just couldn’t overcome in the end.
After working on AAA games in major studios, you’ve moved on to working on an indie project in Graybeard games. What are the positives of working solo?
Well, I’m passionate about making games again and it’s really fun. So I think it’s all personal. For me, it doesn’t make much business sense - it doesn’t make much career sense for me. But it’s all about me being selfish and saying, "I’m gonna make myself happy and do the things that I’m passionate about.” And so I think that’s been the biggest reward, and the part that I’ve enjoyed the most is the process of making a game and feeling like I’m actually making it. When I’m CEO, I’m not actually making games - I’m running a business and that’s a very different kind of job, and I want to get back to making games now. I may have gone crazy and gone extreme and now I’m doing a whole thing by myself - I don’t know what I was thinking - but at the same time I’m still having such a good time, it’s making me happy and passionate about making games again.
Can you tell us more about the development of your latest game It Lurkes Below and your future plans with this game?
The game is in development for about 2.5 years. I made the engine and the tools and everything from scratch. It went into early access about a year ago, and it came out on May 29th. Again, this is kind of a weird situation, because games are different now than they were back in Diablo days. It’s got all the are features in, it’s a complete game, you can play it from the beginning to the end, etc. - that’s all great, but I plan on adding a bunch of stuff. One of the things I was hoping to do, was add skill trees to the characters. And I started working on it, but it was taking me about 3 or 4 weeks to do one character. And with 8 characters I was like, "I can’t spend the next year working on this project in early access anymore. I’ve gotta actually launch this thing.” So I plan on putting that as a high priority after release - to add the skill trees to the characters. I plan on putting in multiplayer, I plan on putting in a bunch of stuff, it is all dependent on whether or not the game sells okay. I suspect it’ll do alright and that I’ll be able to continue developing, continue putting it on different platforms and make it a big IP that I can work on for years.
Given your experience, can you give any advice to any developers out there on how to create a game all by yourself and not go crazy?
No, cause I go crazy. I think that when you really care about something and you’re really passionate about something, you’re kind of a perfectionist. And there are always things that you can improve, but at some point, you just have to put pencils down and say, "Ok, that’s it.” That doesn’t mean you have to stop working on it, but it’s like, "I’ve got enough of an experience here, I feel good about what I’ve created and I can put it in a world," and that is an exciting feeling. And I think that some people are afraid of doing that. Some people have put so much time and energy and if this fails [they’re] like, "Oh my god, what am I going to do?" But the fact is that putting it out there is part of the step and it’s gotta come someday. Sometimes you need to have an intervention with the person and say, "This is the time’, and hopefully they can say, "Yeah I understand, this is the time, it’s ready enough, I can still improve it after it’s launched, I can still make it better, but at least I’ve got it out there in the world and people can start to enjoy it and I can work in it with them instead of just working in my little den." That can lead to lots and lots of time where you can just work on something forever.
Thank you for the interview.