David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

GameDev Stories 6 by David L. Craddock

In this sixth installment of video game historian David L. Craddock's GameDev Stories series, Craddock once again digs through hundreds of thousands of words to unearth more of the in-depth interviews that informed his books. Meet new and returning game developers with more stories from the development of classic id Software games to Mortal Kombat in GameDev Stories: Volume 6.


As I've said before and will say many times again, talking with the people who made my favorite games is an honor and a pleasure. The sixth volume in my semiannual GameDev Stories series rounds up a dozen or so of those conversations, including an interview with Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias and id Software co-founder John Romero. -David L. Craddock, curator, StoryBundle




John Staats and I share a couple of important things in common. We've both written extensively about Blizzard Entertainment's culture and games, and we both hail from Ohio. Staats recently self-published The WoW Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which serves as both his memoir of his time in the games industry working as World of WarCraft's first level designer, and an inside look at how the genre-defining MMORPG was made.

Staats lives half an hour from me, so we met at a coffee shop to talk growing up in Northeast Ohio, the formative days of WoW's team, the as-yet-unknown medical condition that forced him to retire from development, and the factors that prompted him to write The WoW Diary, in this interview originally published on Shacknews.com as part of a deep dive into narrative design.

David Craddock: I don't often get a chance to talk with game developers in Akron, Ohio. Were you born and raised here?

John Staats: Yep, born and raised in Akron, Ohio. I went to Kent State and got a degree in graphic design, so I have an artistic background. From there, I went to New York for 10 years and worked in advertising. While I was there, I developed a penchant for making 3D levels. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, so I wanted to walk around in my own levels.

From there I started making maps for first-person shooters: for Quake, and for other various FPS games. I ended up with a portfolio that I could use to apply for jobs in the gaming industry. Unfortunately, a lot of the jobs didn't look very promising. I wanted something that was stable, because I was in a good situation in New York. I didn't want to jump ship, especially changing industries, if [I was going to be out of a job in a year]. Blizzard seemed like a very stable company, so I got the interview and made the move.

Craddock: Blizzard has been relatively stable, more than most. I've noticed over the last 10 to 15 years that the games industry has taken on more of a Hollywood model of production: a studio will staff up for a game, and then everybody gets let go. They end up being nomads, moving from project to project.

Staats: Yeah. It's always been like that; you just didn't always hear about it. In the 1990s, games were smaller, so you didn't need a big staff. With greater technology, you need experts in every single [discipline], plus your budgets go up. It's crazy how expensive games are to make.

It's just a different employment model. A lot of people will work for a company, but they'll do it as a freelancer. Now some people are getting benefits as freelancers. What companies do to reduce overhead is, if you have 100 people, that's, say, two million dollars if everybody takes a month off and then their employer hires then back the next month. Freelancers can charge more money per hour; they usually make more per hour than employees. It usually evens out.

Craddock: Did you play Blizzard games before working there?

Staats: I was a big fan of WarCraft II, but I was also a big fan of all strategy games. The success of WarCraft II and StarCraft meant [strategy games] went real-time. I actually held a grudge against Blizzard because every game went real-time, and so many of them were just terrible.

But I'd never played Diablo. It was too simple, too unlike old-school RPGs [like Fallout]. I kind of went to Blizzard hoping I'd be working on a WarCraft title because that was the one property of theirs I really, really liked. They wouldn't tell me what I might be working on while I was there [for my interview], but I knew it couldn't be a sports game or a shooter. [laughs] They would joke, "It's definitely not a racing game." I was able to narrow things down when I saw, for example, how small the team was. Once I signed the NDA and made the move, they told me.

Craddock: Were you familiar with MMOs?

Staats: It was all EverQuest back then. A friend, my roommate, brought home EverQuest. I quickly arrived at a crossroads: either play EverQuest all day, or make levels. I couldn't do both. [laughs] Level design is more time-consuming even than playing MMOs. I was doing 100-hour weeks. There was an eight-month period where I didn't have a job, and I was spending crazy hours making levels.

Craddock: What was your schedule like while you were learning? Were you teaching yourself? Collaborating with others?

Staats: I remember I started with Quake 1, one of the first true-3D games. I'd spent years making awful, awful maps. That continued through Quake 2. Most of my maps were just... There were so many mistakes that took so long to correct. If a dungeon was too small, too cramped, you didn't know until you'd built it. You couldn't just resize it; you had to throw it away and rebuild. That was your option. People didn't have patience for that, but I wanted to do this badly enough that I would redo my levels over and over and over again. It takes a lot of desire.

I had no idea I'd come out the other side with a portfolio. It was just something to do. I worked with other modders, and we'd check out each other's maps. I'm doing the same thing now with board games. Actually, this place was a hangout for a lot of board-game designers. [Points] That table was where we'd playtest each other's games. We'd critique each other's work.

For level design, there were also lots of tutorials. That's a sub-sub-sub culture of designers: people who do nothing but make tutorials for how to do things. They're doing that now on YouTube.

Craddock: Since you started out making 3D levels, it sounds like you had your eye on working on 3D games even though you liked WarCraft II, a 2D game.

Staats: Oh, yeah. I played around with 2D stuff with WarCraft II [map editor], but it was all drag-and-drop, super-simple stuff. You don't need an artistic eye for that, really. To some degree you do, but 3D level design means you need to be an artist first, and you have to like architecture, and you have to like roleplaying games enough that you'd spend crazy hours working to make a play-space immersive. It takes a lot of time.

Craddock: Especially at Blizzard. With their policy of "we release games when they're ready," you have to be prepared to spend lots of time refining and polish.

Staats: Very much, and if you aren't at the conjunction of all those disciplines, plus enthusiastic about gameplay, you're not going to be a good level designer. Some designers are artistic, but they're not good level designers. It's a hard position to fill. I think I was the only person who was a genuine level designer on the [World of WarCraft] team when I started there.

Blizzard calls them "environmental artists," now. They don't really have level designers in the first-person-shooter tradition of the discipline where they do everything, because they know everything. Right now [at Blizzard], the artists just do art. They don't do layout or gameplay.

Craddock: So you were the first level designer on WoW?

Staats: Yeah, because they were having trouble hiring people. Nobody who was any good [at level design] wanted to go to Blizzard because they had no reputation for 3D games. WarCraft III, at the time, was a joke. They'd scrapped the engine a number of times. Diablo II was all randomized, 2D tiles.

Level designers traditionally don't jump from job to job. Typically, if you leave them alone, they're happy. That was true with me. You don't have to pay them a lot. I was working for nothing. My opening salary was $50,000, which is really low for level design.

Craddock: And for living in Irvine, California.

Staats: Oh, yeah. They were making six figures in Texas on Star Wars: Galaxies. Working at Blizzard had an appeal, but you might have had to live in someone else's house because you couldn't afford the cost of living on your own. Their level designers were all the drag-and-drop guys [on 2D games]. They weren't a super-specific specialist they needed; [management] didn't really know what to do with level designers when they hired us.