Programmer. Artist. Musician. Designer. Producer. Editor. Collector
Video games comprise a multibillion-dollar industry thanks to the people who make and play them. From designers and producers to artists and programmers and passionate communities, each plays a role in maintaining and advancing the medium of electronic entertainment.
Each has a story to tell.
Collected from the author's archives, GameDev Stories Volume 2: More Interviews About Game Development and Culture gathers even more conversations with individuals from all corners of the industry.
I've conducted hundreds of interviews over the course of my career, with hundreds more just over the horizon. Not all of my material makes it into my books and articles, so I wanted to gather another assortment of my favorites. As with the first volume, I wanted to highlight positions other than the usual suspects—programmer, artist, designer—not that they don't deserve credit for their hard work, but to demonstrate the importance of educators, marketers, and other professionals to the games industry. – David L. Craddock, curator, StoryBundle
"By giving bedroom hackers equal billing with company founders, Craddock successfully illustrates the tremendous breadth of voices behind the creation of video games. Taken as a whole, Craddock's interviews masterfully weave together the artistry, business, and humanity of game development into a work that explains what game development is far more successfully than any individual could ever hope to."– Frank Cifaldi, game developer, founder of The Video Game History Foundation
"In GameDev Stories, Craddock opens closed doors to reveal how games are made in a collection of wide-ranging interviews. You'll hear from programmers and designers, but also from individuals in positions often overlooked such as marketers, user experience researchers, and community managers. A must-read for anyone curious about what goes on behind the scenes of the games industry."– John Keefer, managing editor, The Esports Observer
Readers know me best for Stay Awhile and Listen, my trilogy of books on the history of Blizzard Entertainment, Blizzard North, and their franchises, specifically Diablo. Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels will be published in the summer of 2019. I've been interviewing Blizzard developers and researching these companies and games for over ten years, and there's still work to be done.
For the first time, I've peeled off extracts from those interviews to publish them in their entirety. Chapters 3 and 4 of this book let you hear directly from Condor/Blizzard North co-founders David Brevik and Max and Erich Schaefer on their earliest experiences in the games biz.
Craddock: What were some of your earliest experiences playing games?
David Brevik: Probably Pong. I don't think that Pong was really the cat's meow for me, but by the time my friends and I were playing things like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man and stuff like that. There was a sandwich shop, Blimpie, that had a couple arcade machines. There was a place across the street, a pizza place, that had a couple arcade machines as well. We'd go to those places and play. A few of my friends at that point had pinball machines, which I really enjoyed. That was part of my introduction [to video games], and at the same time we had an Atari 2600, and that's what really got me into gaming. Adventure was one of my favorites.
I loved Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Adventure—those three are some of the first games I remember playing. But really, one of my first experiences with computers... I think it was in the fifth grade, maybe in 1979 or something like that. Somebody at the school had bought an Apple II+ and had it at school. I remember that being a big deal for me. That was really influential.
[Sierra On-Line adventure game, The Wizard and the Princess]. I played that game. There was only a monochrome monitor, so it didn't even have any color. It was all green, and there were pages in which there were a couple puzzles. You'd type in "Pick up rock", you know, typing in the sentence, and you could type "List" to get your inventory of six objects that you could hold. Also around that time was the movie Tron; that was really influential to me. The graphics that were in [Tron] were amazing for the time, things that only a supercomputer could make because of their resolutions. They could render these pictures, it would take maybe a whole day to render one of these images, but to see that in a movie, they could play it back rapidly. I always wanted to make graphics like that.
There were a lot of factors like that that were influential, but most of all it came down to Pac-Man, Asteroids, Adventure—all those games were really huge with me.
I was a big Dungeons & Dragons fan. My friends and I would stay up for many late nights. This is right around the time of Pac-Man, Asteroids, that stuff. We'd play those games or we'd play D&D—that's pretty much all we'd do. We'd sit down in my friend's basement and play D&D. I have fond memories of those times. We'd paint lead figures and stuff like that.
Craddock: Did you want to make games even then, or were you just a kid having fun?
DB: Making games was absolutely my intention. I think that shortly after discovering the Apple II+ in fifth grade, my dad was leasing computers, and because of that connection, he was able to get an Apple II+ and bring it home. I think that was probably around seventh grade, somewhere in there. That was really the catalyst for me developing as a programmer. I taught myself the Basic language. Around that time you could buy magazines like Apple Insider that published articles about how to make games. It would have the code for a complete game inside these magazines. So I would spend hours and hours typing code, and I didn't even know how to type, I was hunting and pecking. But I spent hours and hours typing in the code to run some stupid little game. You couldn't really do much, but I was crazy about these things. Through that process, I was slowly typing these things in—and I mean slowly—and learning what it is that's kind of going on.
Invariably, there were always print errors, bugs, in the code. The games, first off, were kind of throwaway little articles that people would write for these magazines, so they were always buggy. I'd want to modify it, so I had to learn how they worked in order to debug the code, because there was no such thing as a debugger at this time. Through this process of being able to start to learn Basic, start to learn how programming works, learning to debug without a debugger—which benefitted me throughout my career—and understand how things are processed... it was just great.
Then experimenting within that and stretching from learning Basic to learning Assembly. Because the magazines would sometimes have Assembly routines that they would use, like Peek and Poke and stuff like that. There were numbers I could convert, you know, there were decimal numbers I could concert into hexadecimal and I could look them up on a table and see what the instructions were. I could write out the code by hand and follow what they were trying to do. I was learning basically through magazines. They had ads from Bit Brothers or something like that. They were old-fashioned ads that had these guys with moustaches and there were these pieces of code that were maybe ten lines long that would do crazy things like make your computer beep in some kind of rhythm or make a bunch of lines crisscross on the screen.
Eventually I started understanding how all these things worked, and I wanted to do this [for a living]. I started high school in eighth grade. We had all sorts of ancient computers in the math lab in high school: a computer with no CRT; it was a printer, like a typewriter and computer combined into one with a scroll of paper. They called that "letter quality" back then. It would jam and the whole nine yards. They had a punch card machine; they had some really ancient computers there. I was able to learn a little PDP-11 assembly language at that time. My math teacher was helping me out. There were some games. I'd play Lunar Lander. You type in your thrust, and you had variables that told you where you were trying to get, and you had to put in the right numbers; as you put in the thrust you'd get fuel and you had to balance everything to successfully land on the surface of the moon. I'd sit there and try to guess how fast or slow I'd crash, or if I'd land safely.
I'd sit at home and play a lot of games. Things were readily available. I had a 300 baud modem, and I'd call up BBSs and download hacked versions of game and stuff. That was very common. My friends would have shoeboxes full of games on floppy disks and we'd swap them. I bought some games, too, but I couldn't afford everything. I remember one of my favorite games I bought early in that time was Wizardry. I bought Ultima I through IV.
By the time I was in ninth grade I could write my own games. When I was a freshman in high school, I spent a long time making a BMX bicycle game. It used the paddle available for Apple II. The bike would come across the screen, go down hills, go over jumps. You'd press the button to bunny hop, and you had to make jumps and stuff to get to the end. The game could scroll, too. I sent that off to be published in Apple Insider magazine. So I knew at the time that this was a passion: I wanted to make games and I wanted to put them out there. I was very serious about it even at a young age, as a freshman in high school.
Craddock: Were you studying games as you played them?
DB: I was sort of a designer, but that wasn't really my passion. It was programming. Trying to make fancy graphics, trying to make things run fast, look good, play well—those were always very critical to me. It wasn't necessarily about game design, it was about making things happen, and the revelation of colors coming into play. I mean, 16 colors—oh my god!
Craddock: Many fans know Diablo was influenced in large part by your love of roguelike games. How did you discover those games?
DB: I didn't play very many roguelike games until college. [Attended California State University.] The idea for Diablo came about when I was in high school. In fact, I named the game when I was in high school. I lived at the base of Mount Diablo. That's where I got the name from. I didn't know any Spanish when I came to the Bay Area. Then I came out here and took a Spanish class in high school, and one day I was like, "Diablo means devil. That's awesome!"
I'd write these design documents and I'd title them "Diablo". So I really started to get into design—numbers and balance and stuff—around my sophomore or junior year of high school. I started to not only be very interested in programming, but also in design. It wasn't really about critiquing other designs; it was about innovating and creating something very different. Then, of course, I would violate my own rule by playing games that had a massive influence on things that I would do.
I went to college and they had UNIX machines there. And the Internet! This was 1986, so the Internet was just a mess at this time. It was basically schools hooked up to military facilities—basically a fancy Blizzard South that was always connected. You could go to other school's pages and peruse their directories, and they'd have public areas where you could upload things and stuff like that. That's what gave me access to playing games like Rogue and Moria—games that had random levels, a town, things like that. They were an influence on me as a gamer and ultimately on Diablo. I enjoyed these games so much. I spent hours spent on these things.
These old UNIX systems didn't have arrow keys or anything like that. You moved around with HIJK, I think. Then casting spells used M for magic, B for book, and other keys to cast spells, then where you want to target. So you end up wiggling your fingers around typing, and it almost felt like you were casting spells, like "I'm moving around and doing these arcane gestures!" It was this visceral feel, and I always enjoyed that. It doesn't translate to a wide audience, but I always enjoyed that mechanic of typing in what spell you're casting and doing these sort of gestures for different spells. I never made it in any game I've ever done and I doubt I ever will, but I always found it very enjoyable.
So I think those games, ultimately, I knew they were extremely addictive. There were a bunch of people in the lab playing them over and over and over. I spent many hours, pretty much my entire college career, playing roguelike games. I knew before that, I mean, I knew in high school that I wanted to make games. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to do anything else, and I wasn't really interested in anything else. In fact I was barely interested in reading or... I mean, almost anything else in my life wasn't as important as anything that had to do with games or computers. Which kind of hurt me in some ways and helped me in some ways. I became really good at computers and programming. I understood how it worked and could write many things.
In my senior year of high school I was teaching a programming class because I knew C and the teacher didn't. So there was this graduation of my abilities. So I'm not upset where I'm at, but sometimes I wish I had a larger vocabulary, or that I'd just been more well-rounded at that time. But I am who I am.
By the time I left college I knew that I wanted to make [Diablo], and I knew that that was... I had a few game ideas, and Diablo was one of them, and was probably the most fleshed out, the one I'd realized the most and spent the most time on. I knew that I would be given a chance to do this eventually, but I didn't have the money, knowledge, or contacts to do it quite yet. I had to get my feet wet. I went to college because... See, in high school I was working for Pacific Bell doing telecommunications software, doing modem coding and things like that. And I knew that I didn't actually have to go to college to do what I was already doing proficiently. I could skip college if I wanted and make games right out of high school, or even work for Pac Bell and do a variety of things that I wanted to do.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I had kind of a baby face syndrome. I looked like I was maybe ten years old by the time I was seventeen. I was skinny, I was baby-faced, I was just this very youthful-looking kid, and because of that people didn't take me seriously. So because of that, I was like, "I'm going to go to college, and I'm going to grow some facial hair, dammit!" And I'm glad that I did. I'm glad I went to school and took the time to do those things. In the end it was really what I needed to do and it helped me immensely, but I was pretty confident at the time that I didn't need it. I was positive I could make money without it. But I experienced things in college like roguelike games that really had a massive impact on where I ended up.
Craddock: What was your plan after finishing school?
DB: Right out of college, I wanted to make games. My parents weren't super-pleased with this decision, but they were fairly supportive. They were hoping I would work for IBM or someplace like that, especially because games weren't the most secure business in the world. This was the Genesis and SNES era. So I said to my parents, "Well, how about I try making games for a little bit? If it doesn't work out, I'll try making your boring-ass spreadsheet programs or something." Those things sounded so boring to me, but I did realize that I needed to pay the bills. I graduated in the spring, then that summer, I got married and had my first job. We were living with my wife's parents at the time. So I was living with her and her family in the San Jose area.
There was an ad in San Francisco Chronicle for a job in San Francisco. Somebody was looking for a game programmer. I took the job at this clipart company called FM Waves. They had less than ten people. They'd focused originally on making clipart. That wasn't working out very well, and they knew the Tramiels, who owned Atari at the time. Through that family connection they were able to get a contract to create a game [Gordo 106] for the Atari Lynx handheld. It was about this lab monkey that escapes from an evil scientist. It eventually got released.
In a small world situation, there were two guys who worked at the clipart company, Max and Erich Schaefer. That's where we met. I was a programmer, they were artists. I left, but they stayed on to finish Gordo 106 and got the rights to do the Super Nintendo version of it. The producer for that company was a guy named Matt Householder who worked for us at Condor, Blizzard, Flagship, et cetera. So there was a connection between the four of us from the early, early 90s.
So I was the programmer on this Atari Lynx game, I'd been working at FM Waves maybe five months or so when my paychecks started bouncing. Definitely didn't want to tell Mom and Dad. It would have brought on the "I told you so" speech. So I knew it wasn't going to work out, and it was time to look for something else more secure, but I still wanted to do video games. I looked in the paper and there was an ad for a new company in Santa Clara. I was living in San Jose, so I was like, "Shorter commute, and my paychecks have a better chance of clearing—in theory."
Craddock: Between FM Waves and Condor, you worked at Iguana. How'd you land there?
DB: So it was another little startup. I was employee number one, I believe. All the other guys were founders—two programmers and two artists. I was the first non-owner. And that was Iguana. My first project there was to convert an arcade machine that Midway was making called Super High Impact Football to the Sega Genesis. I did that in three months. There was an artist doing the art but I was the only coder. We finished it and it was one of the first on-time, on-budget projects that Acclaim had had in years. They were very happy with our results. The people doing the Super Nintendo version couldn't get it done; it was a total disaster. We were eventually asked to help out with that. I don't remember if we helped out or not.
Because of that project, we opened the doors for other possibilities. The owner of the company was a guy named Jeff Spangenberg. We started to grow and moved out of our facility and began doing multiple projects. Did some Super Nintendo games. We developed our own dev kits and had our own development machine and our own compiler/assembler. All the games were written in Assembly language at the time. We wrote all the debuggers and everything. Nintendo and Sega didn't provide those things; you had to make your own. They'd give you the hardware specs and say, "Good luck!"
Iguana was going really well. I became the Technical Director there and we were doing all sorts of projects. In fact, Acclaim and Midway wanted us to do a project. Jeff Spangenberg came to me and said, "We did such a good job on Super High Impact, Midway want us to try converting another arcade machine. We're going to go down to the arcade and play the game, it's this new game that just came out. I want to see what you think of it and whether or not you want to do this project." So we went down to the Golfland in Sunnyvale, California, this world famous location to try out arcade games. We played the game, and I was like, "Oh my god, Jeff, this game kicks ass. This is going to be a huge monster hit. We've got to do this game. He said, "Eh, I don't know. I don't really like it that much. It's too weird. It's just this cheap knockoff of another game." I said "Okay, well, I really think it could be awesome." That game was Mortal Kombat.
So they came back to us with another arcade machine they wanted us to convert. We went to Golfland and played that one. Again I told Jeff, "This game kicks ass, we've got to do this one." This time he said, "Okay, okay!" That was NBA Jam.
Craddock: What caused you to leave Iguana and start Condor with Max and Erich?
DB: Around the time we started NBA Jam, we weren't very far along and Jeff got married. His wife was from Texas so he moved the company to Texas. I didn't want to go. So I left and called up Max and Erich and said, "So, uh, you guys doing anything? Want to start a company?"
"I've got a lot of contacts because I made this game [NBA Jam] for Acclaim. I know some guys there." And I knew people over at Sunsoft because we did some work for them such as Aero the Acrobat and a few other games. I've got contacts there, at Acclaim—I'm sure we can get something. So they said, "Sure, why not? But why don't you help us finish the Super Nintendo version of Gordo 106." I'm like, "Eh... not really interested. Call me back when you want to do something different." A couple months later, Max and Erich called me. They said, "Let's do this." We created our own company, and that was Condor.