Runic Games’ Max Schaefer Interview Part 1
IncGamers recently caught up with Runic Games founder Max Scahefer to discuss not only his upcoming action RPG sequel Torchlight 2 but also his work on the Diablo franchise when he was working at Blizzard North. In this first part of our interview with Max, which was initinally aired on the Diablo Podcast a few days ago, he talks candidly about his work on the top selling Diablo franchise, what happened when Blizzard shut down the Blizzard North development studio and much more.
IG: Hey Max, let’s get right to it. There’s been a lot of discussion about the art style of Diablo III. That’s something that I’ll probably ask you about a little bit.
Max SCHAEFER: Sure.
IG: Obviously, people are comparing that to the art style of Diablo I and Diablo II and you were a prime reason that exists. You were basically the artist on the original game as I understand it.
Max: I did some art on the original game and was definitely part of the art direction and… the genesis of the style of Diablo .
IG: How did that style come about? People struggle to find words for [it]. We say “gothic” or it’s kind of “realistic”, but it’s obviously… there’s magic and demons and stuff.
Max: Right. I think our idea was to make a gothic and sort of grim world. We definitely didn’t want to go cute, and we didn’t want to go rainbow colorful. The idea was to make a gritty, kind of muted world, and background that would 1) have the foreboding feeling that we wanted for the whole world. But, also set off the magic and the explosions, and the items, and the characters real well. It was something that we just experimented with and came out with a palette that we liked and a general look that we liked and just sort of built on it from there.
IG: People seem to remember – especially Diablo III fans – Diablo I and II being like they were the Temple of Eternal Darkness. “Oh, Diablo III is not dark enough. There’s colorful monsters!” But, obviously, things had to be visible. If you actually go back and play Diablo I or Diablo II (or look at screenshots), the monsters are orange and yellow and green quite often. They pop out of the background. The lava flows are very bright. Obviously, you guys were looking for a variety of palettes. You weren’t trying to make Grim World of Dark Grey Shades of Nothing .
Max: Right. *laughter* Yeah, I mean, the idea was that we wanted…
IG: I think that’s a mod, by the way.
Max: Right, right – very popular! *laughter* The idea was to make something that imparted a sort of an emotion and a feeling, but also let you focus on the important things like, you know, when a ring dropped. Or something like that.
Max: Yeah, we had the sound certainly. You also wanted to be able to concentrate on the action, the characters, and the new loot that you got. Those are the things that we wanted to really pop. And, just have the background be a background.
IG: Obviously, there’s a lot of stage decoration, so to speak… mostly involving naked bodies on spikes.
Max: Yes, yes. *laughter*
IG: That was important for the ambience, obviously.
Max: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s not to say that we didn’t want you to look at the background or for the environments to be an afterthought at all. We want you to be affected by it. That’s why we had the bodies on stakes and all that. Just to emphasize that this is… it was no joke in this world. This is not a fuzzy, gauzy look back at kind of like it was in the world of Diablo . It was supposed to be as emotionally intense as possible.
IG: People have a lot of fond memories of Diablo I, especially the Butcher and the scariness of it.
Max: Yeah, yeah!
IG: It’s very hard to get that in an RPG. It’s not like it’s a DOOM kind of game where you can have some monster jump out and fill the entire screen. How did you make scary when it’s 10 by 5 pixels?
Max: Right! *laughter* The way we did it by making it kill you the first couple times you see him. *laughter*
IG: With a cleaver the size of a bus bench, yes.
Max: The way he just kind of came out and said, “Fresh meat!” and killed you. The pacing of it was perfect. You were just getting used to the game. You were kind of starting to feel good about your character and what was going on, and we kill you with a scary new monster. It was just a confluence of things that came together well. And as we have found out since, it’s kind of difficult to duplicate that moment. You can have a monster come out and kill you, but usually it’s just annoying. For some reason, in that case, it was just the right timing and the right looking guy and the right kind of shock value that it really worked well.
IG: Just to digress on that, do you recall how you did the voice? Or who did the voice? Or when you first heard the voice? Because that, “Fresh meat!” is just so iconic.
Max: You know what? I don’t remember now. It’s been so long. Immediately, it was like… hearing that just sent a chill down your spine.
IG: Yeah, it’s hard to go wrong with that. I recall playing the Diablo demo and that was like the last thing in the demo – was the Butcher. You kind of save his little butcher block for the last and then he’d chase you through the dungeon for 15 minutes. For nothing! He’d drop some stupid item you didn’t even want. The demo was over anyway. But god, it was so cool.
Max: You still felt good killing him and moving on.
IG: Jumping forward a few years, you guys sort of working on Diablo II pretty soon after Diablo I.
IG: And you had a much bigger world, all new characters, all new levels. Was it kind of everything you’d wanted to put in Diablo , but didn’t have the time, or the budget, or the resources?
Max: Well, sure. It was, “How would we do this again knowing what we know now?” And a big part of it was to remake the game as a client-server game. Diablo I was a peer-to-peer game. As such, it was very cheatable. When we were making it, we were kind of naïve about what was going to happen. We didn’t even know that it would be a big enough game that people would bother cheating. And, boy, did they. Unfortunately, we never really created the expectation that this is a peer-to-peer and therefore cheatable game. People kind of went into it with the expectation that you were going to have a good time playing with other players online. They’d go onto battle.net. They’d join a game and die in town mysteriously and someone would take all their stuff. I mean… it was something that we had to address. It’s like, “Hey, we have to realize that this is a popular franchise,” and that there are people out there… it’s worthwhile for them to be griefers. See what they can do. Part of the big change in Diablo I to Diablo II was going to a client-server model. Since that was going to take a lot of time and be a big complicated thing, we made a much bigger game as well.
IG: Luckily all your changes made Diablo II entirely cheat and hack proof.
Max: Yeah! *laughter*
IG: No problems there at all.
Max: Yeah, it worked perfectly, huh? Mission accomplished! *laughter*
IG: So, if you could wave a magic wand and change something about Diablo II…? Just, the technology doesn’t support, really, stopping cheating with it. The programming wasn’t advanced enough yet, in that… technology?
Max: It really slowed it down though. It did make for… it was much, much less than Diablo I. I would even say, despite all the flaws that it actually succeeded in what it tried to do. Now, obviously, it was at that point one of the very first client-server internet games of its type. So, we were winging it on that as much as we were on Diablo I. We just had one game’s experience to draw upon.
IG: Yeah, I think it’s kinda like what you said with Diablo I. The expectation that there will not be cheating makes any cheating worse.
Max: Right, right. There’s lots of peer-to-peer games out there that people just play them and know someone might cheat. As long as you go into it with that expectation, it’s no big deal. But, if you think that you’re going to be having this totally secure, cheat-free environment and you don’t – it’s just incredibly frustrating.
IG: It’s like you mentioned with Torchlight II. You’re going to have multiplayer and people can cheat if they want and make mods and stuff. But, everybody knows that going in, so you play with friends and then it’s not a big deal.
Max: Right, and people will be able to… you get the advantage of it by having the mod community. You know? At least there’s an upside to it. And, nowadays, generally with client-server games people are charging subscription and item sales and stuff like that to support it. It’s totally different. In the case of Diablo I, it was basically… people had no idea what to expect. They got online and they got cheated immediately. It was super widespread. It caught us by surprise and we realized that we had to remedy that quickly.
IG: Okay. Besides the cheating and the online issues, you can recall other things you really wanted to address in Diablo II? You just wanted a bigger world and more monsters and more characters and unique skills?
Max: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much.
IG: It’s a big list.
Max: It’s a different task when you’re doing it for the second time. Like with a sequel like that. You learned so much in every area. Not es a good game, ps Y u le rnmd Sbut in how to put together animations and how backgrounds go together. Just, like, every little part of it you gain so much experience that makes it easier to do it the second time that you can just make a much bigger and more complete game. I think Diablo II was… it felt like a more complete game. Diablo I was great. But, looking back on it now it’s very simple and [a] very limited gameplay experience compared to Diablo II.
IG: But still fun.
Max: Oh yeah! Yeah.
IG: I’ve actually been playing Diablo I in the last year or so more than I’ve played Diablo II recently. Obviously, it’s retro and simple.
Max: If you haven’t gone back to it in a long time, it’s a little bit of a shock of just how slow you walk around, though.
IG: I couldn’t play for it about three years after Diablo II came. Just, it was so slow. I can’t… why am I not running? Why am I not running?
Max: Right, right.
IG: I think it’s expectations going in.
Max: Exactly, and that actually had some good effects on the way you fight some monsters. I mean, when you run around as fast as you do in Diablo II – and even in Torchlight now – it is difficult to make monsters challenging without being frustrating. It’s a function of the speed of your character.
IG: I noticed a lot that in Diablo II. You could just sort of outrun almost any difficulty.
IG: One other question on Diablo II. Why only one expansion?
Max: Um. *sigh* I think… that’s a tough question. First of all, we didn’t want to farm out expansion work. So, we had to do it ourselves, right?
IG: Yup. You weren’t happy with Hellfire, I guess. Or not especially happy.
Max: No, not at all. That was a very bad experience. So, we wanted to do it all ourselves. And, by the time we were done with the Diablo II expansion, we were pretty anxious to move on to really updating it. We were still a sprite-based game at that point when everyone else had long since gone to 3D. We felt like rather than just kinda keep doing it – even though it probably would have been a good business decision, it probably would have sold like hotcakes – but rather than just do it again, it was time to modernize and get going on the next big thing.
IG: And the next big thing, as you so conveniently segued for me, was you guys got started on your early version of Diablo III which was super top secret forever at Blizzard North. It was never publically acknowledged until the new one came out in 2008 when they announced it. And then finally said, “Yeah, we were working on this at Blizzard North. But, now this is a different version.”
IG: And you left Blizzard North in 2003 along with the other big four, as they call them.
IG: Like, I talked to you before… when you looked at the recently leaked, alleged screenshots of Diablo III it was nothing that you recognized at all.
Max: Yeah. It looked like the sort of things we were doing, but I absolutely did not recognize that. So, I’m assuming if that was actual Diablo III art, that it came somewhere in the period after we left but before Blizzard North was shut down.
IG: I don’t know if you can comment on this or not, but can you tell us anything about what your plans were for Diablo III? What you wanted to change from Diablo II? What you wanted to expand upon? Just better, bigger?
Max: We wanted to make it a bigger… we actually were going a more MMO route with it. So, it had more players in the game. But, we were very early and it’s the point in a project where you don’t talk to the public about it because so much can change and so much can go on. There’s lots and lots of things that go on at game companies that never hit the light of day, because it’s just too early to really sit and things are subject to change all the time. So, we may have changed our own path radically had we kept going with it. But, at the time our thinking was to go more MMO style with it. With big communities in-game, not just like a session-based – four-person or eight-person – or anything like that. But, to really make a big overworld and a giant shared community.
IG: Huh. So, that would have been many people in the same sort of instance. Or were you looking at a perpetual world kind of thing?
Max: Yeah, like a really big instance. So, basically a perpetual world sort of arrangement.
IG: Huh. Interesting. There were lots of rumors flying around the time you guys left, that you had wanted more an MMO kind of thing with Diablo III. But, because World of Warcraft was under production, that was kind of Blizzard’s MMO and you guys were unhappy that you couldn’t make that.
Max: No, not at all. It was just a desire. We really didn’t think that World of Warcraft was… that didn’t drive our decision at all. What the guys down south were doing… we felt was different enough from what we were doing. It really didn’t dawn on us that having two subscription games would cannibalize each other at all, because they were historically different communities – the Warcraft communities and the Diablo communities. So, no, that didn’t drive it at all. It was just a desire to make something cool in the Diablo world using some of the newly emerging MMO mechanics. Having the cool interaction, chaotic interaction of lots of random people in a world. We just wanted to experiment with seeing how that works with our camera style and our control scheme. You know, the action RPG genre.
IG: You liked how it was going? Or was it just so early at the time you left you can’t even say?
Max: There was a couple of fits and starts as we experimented with stuff. It was going okay. Yeah, it was going fine. We were working on two projects at the studio at that point. So, we were kind of split down the middle as to who was working on what. So, I think we kind of slowed down a little, because all of a sudden we had to have two concurrent teams going on. We didn’t necessarily have the full expertise and staff and leadership across both projects like we did previously when everyone was on one thing. So, there was some adjustment as well. It was very difficult for any game studio to go from focusing on one project to doing two, just because it’s very difficult for one person to work on both of them. You tend to have to divide the team up. There’s issues associated with it. I think a lot of game companies have struggled when they get to that point where they want to work on two things.
IG: And, you were really scaling up the company quickly, too. That had to be a difficulty to integrate all the new employees.
IG: You were like eight people with Blizz-Condor, and then once you started being Blizzard North. Since, quickly you were 30, and then quickly you were 50.
Max: I think we got up to 60 something by the time we left. I think when we were bought out to become Blizzard North, we were 14 people. It grew pretty quickly. Although, by today’s standards, even having 65 people in the company is pretty small.
IG: Well, yeah. But, you’ve got your Runic Games now. I think you said you had 31 there.
Max: Yeah, yeah. We’re trying to go back to the old way. *laughter*
IG: Like you said last time, then you started Flagship and wanted to stay a small company. How did that go?
Max: That didn’t last very long. We made the mistake of succumbing to the temptation to make the next big, triple-A blockbuster as our first game as a new studio with new technology and new everything. It was way too much, too soon. And, as everyone knows, it collapsed fairly spectacularly.
IG: Yeah. I don’t want to digress on that too much. You’ve talked about that in interviews in the past.
Max: Thank you. *laughter*
IG: One other question about your early version of Diablo III.
IG: We’ve seen… the rumors were that it was set largely in heaven and that was what we saw in the leaked screenshots.
Max: That’s not what we were making at the time.
IG: That was my question. I was wondering if players were invading heaven or defending heaven? Was there ever going to be a chance to kick Tyrael’s ass?
Max: We were in the Irish countryside hitting wolves and regular demons at the time I was there.
IG: Okay, well. No wonder you recognized nothing of what they released. Obviously, a lot of changes over the next two years.
Max: Sure. After we all left, you had to have new creative people in charge. They are well served by pursuing their vision and not trying to just duplicate what we were doing. I think that’s true for the Diablo III team today. They’re doing their own vision of the game and pursuing their own sense of what it should be like. And that’s how they should be doing that.
IG: Yeah, definitely. So, one of the things we talked about last time a little bit – and I just sent you a link about it – you had a lot of Christian references… a lot of crosses and pentagrams and sort of parallels to Christian religion. You know, real existing faiths in your mythology of your Diablo games.
IG: Obviously, you guys planned that. It wasn’t just like, “We can’t think of something better or something different so we’re just going to slap in some crosses.”
Max: No. And it wasn’t necessarily because it’s Christianity as such. It’s just that it evokes images and ideas that people are familiar with. It’s not just a cross, it was a cathedral. It was a town that had the architecture style of what you would find in medieval Europe. There was lots of things beyond that imagery that was drawing upon real world parallels. It was just because that’s what evoked the ideas that we wanted to evoke.
IG: As we’ve seen recently – as I sent you the link supporting it – where Blizzard has sort of removed all of the crosses and pentagrams from Diablo and also from World of Warcraft apparently. Some of the stuff upon release has since been sort of… I would say sanitized. Their explanation is that they’re creating their own original individual world and their own mythology. Obviously, you can comment on this to whatever variety you like, but what do you think about that? I believe you said last time that you wouldn’t have done that if you were still on the project.
Max: We definitely would have not done that, because it doesn’t… the idea that it’s just because you want to have a new world that you’re creating something in just doesn’t wash. They picked out those two things because they’re controversial. We wouldn’t have done it. I don’t begrudge them their decisions. Again, they gotta pursue what they think is right with the game. But, we would not have done that.
IG: Okay. As I mentioned to you previously as I keep saying and should probably stop saying. You enjoyed arguments in the old days. You enjoyed getting in to it and mixing it up with people. I recall you doing some real debates about PK switch and other game issues. You used to come in our old IRC channel and just argue with pretty much any belligerent fan who wanted to step up to the plate.
Max: It was a weakness of mine. *laughter* I definitely liked to debate those things.
IG: You never got any boycotts. You never got any major… you guys had all these Christian symbols and the game’s called Diablo . It’s devils and monsters. But, you never got Jerry Falwell leading a crusade against your evil, youth-destroying game.
Max: No, no. I think that we were always a little bit less gruesome, a little bit less exploitative, and a little less shocking than people who are out deliberately trying to create that kind of controversy. We were trying to make a game that was really pure in what it was trying to do. There was nothing that was thrown in there to shock or anything. It was a fairly uncompromising take on the medieval dungeon crawling fantasy, though. We made it a gritty, grim world because that’s what we wanted to play a game in. That’s how we wanted it to come together. Not because we wanted to shock anybody. Having said that, we always kind of jokingly hoped that we’d be mentioned in some sort of Senate hearing or something, because you get all kinds of free publicity when that happens.
Max: But, no one ever complained really about anything in those games.
IG: It seemed like you kind of slipped… it was a famous game. It was at a cultural awareness, but it was still a computer game. Dungeons and Dragons used to get protested all the time. Then, more recently, things like Harry Potter have gotten lots of protests ‘cause it’s cheating sorcery and they’re banning it from schools. But, I guess maybe because your game was fantastic enough – it wasn’t real life. It was obviously adult-rated as well. It wasn’t written for children.
Max: Right, right. I think the rating set the expectations appropriately. The size of the violence and gore on screen was really small compared to… it was kind of an era where the first-person shooters were becoming more graphic and crazy. For some reason, we just slipped by all of that.
Max: Still joking. I’m glad that it didn’t provoke a whole lot of controversy, because that’s all we would have talked about then. It’s more fun to talk about the game.
IG: Couple of other questions on a current Blizzard issue. I don’t know if you’ve been noticing, they have this 20 th anniversary thing they’re doing this year. They’ve been putting up… they have a speech from the two founders who are still there. They had a 45-minute movie covering all of their game development and creation. And, there was like 9 seconds about Diablo or Blizzard North. It was all Warcraft and Starcraft and World of Warcraft . Pretty much the only thing they mentioned about Diablo or Blizzard [North] at all was… you guys had this early system in Diablo II. It was kind of a crazy claymation looking thing.
IG: Bill Roper… other people have mentioned that a few times. That wasn’t new in that. It seemed like that’s all they mentioned on this movie.
Max: It’s a weird, bizarre, tiny, insignificant bit of trivia that I keep at… a very tiny part of what Blizzard North was. It’s a curious thing to point out.
IG: It seemed a little like… I guess in one way, you could say that was something that the people who are still at Blizzard Irvine had some direct input into. In them saying, “No, this is terrible.” It’s how they portrayed it anyway.
Max: Which is bullshit. They had nothing to do with it at all.
IG: *laughter* Okay. Not to stir up too much trouble here. You can obviously pass on the question. Obviously, you guys were a big part of what Blizzard came from and their success accompanying. And to have virtually no mention of Blizzard North or Diablo in this whole company 20 th anniversary profile thing…
Max: Yeah, I don’t what to say about it.
IG: Did anyone contact you at Blizzard to ask you about this?
Max: No, not at all. Not at all. And, you know, it was just a video. I don’t know how much the people who were making the video even knew about it – Blizzard North. They don’t necessarily have many people to ask about it. They don’t necessarily have a lot of pictorial stuff to put in their videos. I don’t know what went into it at all. So, I don’t… I’m going to assume there wasn’t some sort of malice there.
IG: A Horadric malice.
Max: *laughter* I don’t want to start a controversy. I don’t feel like…
IG: Oddly enough, I do want to start a controversy.
Max: Okay, so you do. *laughter* I don’t feel insulted. I don’t really care what their 20 th anniversary video has in it.
IG: If they had asked you – you and Erich and Dave and Bill Roper, among other people – obviously you’re not all the same person. Would you have been interested in participating?
Max: Sure! Absolutely!
IG: You’re not bitter or glad to put it behind you?
Max: No! Not at all. I look very favorably upon our time at Blizzard.
IG: Well, you spent 20 minutes telling me about, so obviously you can’t be too unhappy.
Max: There was a lot things that happened, but it was a wonderful, exciting, successful run I think.
IG: One other sort of… segueing from your Diablo … the look and the feel and the mood and the theme… to Torchlight . It was pretty well received. Obviously, it was a very quickly produced project with a small team. You had limited goals of making it a single-player game. And, you went with a lighter, less gothic, less gory style, et cetera. You just wanted a new art direction? You weren’t actually drawing the images yourself, I don’t guess.
Max: Yeah, I did zero art on Torchlight . I’m proud to say. We got a new art director and new technical requirements… new goals. We also didn’t want to just make Diablo again. We wanted to make something that we could do some maybe crazier backgrounds and more exaggerated things that happen on screen than when you’re doing a more realistic look. So, it’s just kind of a fun, different approach to it. I don’t think one style is right and good and others are bad. I don’t think colorful is bad and grim is good. It depends on the game you are making and what you’re trying to do with it. I think the art style we have now really fits what we’re trying to do, which is produce stuff faster, have it run on anybody’s machine, and spend more time making game than worrying about graphics’ bells and whistles.
IG: You may have lost about half the old Diablo fans there by saying you don’t think it needs to be graphic and gory and gruesome or something.
Max: Well, I think Diablo does! Diablo does! And, if you’re making a game like that, it has to be that way! Not all games have to be that way is what I’m saying.
IG: Yeah, and we talked about this previously, but nothing from the art controversy or Diablo III’s debut really influenced the look or style of Torchlight at all?
Max: Not at all. Not at all.
IG: You had your own thing. You saw it and were kind of curious about Diablo III, obviously.
Max: Absolutely, absolutely.
IG: It had nothing to do with what you’re working on today?
Max: No. I mean, not… except maybe to the extent that subconsciously that we wanted to be different. I think that if you look at Torchlight , it’s more along the lines – aesthetically and with some of the sensibilities – of Travis Baldree’s previous game Fate . So, it wasn’t a complete departure. It’s not like we did a 180 turn and went a completely different direction because of Diablo III. It was kind of the art style that people who were – the art director and lead programmer for Torchlight – were comfortable with also. It is different. We made something that was specifically made to look good in sort of low poly low tech environments. It’s a different project. There’s a lot that’s similar between Torchlight and the Diablo s as far as gameplay mechanics go and just kind of look and feel. But, we did want to have a really different… it’s a different spec. We’re going for a different sort of audience, different price point, different project scope, different team size. There’s a lot that’s different there.
IG: Everything was different. Except for the fun, of course.
IG: There was one other comment. When Diablo III first debuted (the new version), Bill Roper said something to the effect of… there was sort of a Blizz[ard] North and Blizz[ard] Irvine style of art. Like the Warcraft style was more cartoonish. I don’t know. Cartoonish has become kind of an ugly word in this instance.
Max: Yes. *laughter*
IG: It’s like “gothic” for Diablo II. You can’t think of any other adjectives that are especially appropriate.
Max: That’s what we had always called it. Sort of a gothic look. Which doesn’t necessarily imply “realistic” and “gritty” like that, but that’s kind of what it’s come to mean in this context. The guys down south definitely had more… kind of established their style with Warcraft I and Warcraft II and then into World of Warcraft as being a little more cartoony. Obviously, that’s worked out pretty good for them.
IG: You haven’t seen every piece of art from the game, but where would you put the new version of Diablo III? Sort of in between the gothic and the cartoony? Or?
Max: I think it’s still pretty gothic. It’s a little bit more colorful than probably we would have done. But, I think… personally, I think it looks awesome!
IG: Have you actually seen it? Did you see it at PAX or something?
Max: Yeah, I’ve seen it at the shows. Just where they’ve publically displayed it. Yeah, I think it looks really cool.