Author’s Note: The following excerpt comes from Chapter 9 of Stay Awhile and Listen: How Two Blizzards Unleashed Diablo and Forged a Video-Game Empire – Book 1. In this excerpt, we follow the Diablo team at Condor – later known as Blizzard North – as they populate the dungeons with devilish denizens, construct the iconic town of Tristram, and interact with WarCraft developer Blizzard Entertainment.
Condor began the process of establishing Diablo‘s artistic vision in early 1995. While Dave wrote code and Max managed NFLPA Superstars for the 3DO, Erich guided the artists in the creation of monsters to haunt Diablo‘s halls. Rather than steer his guys in a particular direction, Erich encouraged them to take the ball and run with it. No artist ran harder than Michio.
Usually, I would sit down with a whole lot of paper and do a bunch of sketches. I’d generate maybe 20 pages or so, and we’d sit down as a team and pick out the ones we liked, and I’d further define them.
Sometimes Erich would have an idea, like, “I want a fat demon.” I’d sit down and create my design of what I thought a fat demon would be. Then he’d say, “We need a flying bat demon.” I’d go create one.
Michio would come up with reams and reams of drawings, so it was fun to get a bunch of drawings and just say, “Okay, this looks really cool, but this guy has a cooler sword, so let’s combine those drawings.”
I think that was some of the most fun collaborative art stuff we did at the time.
No artist ran harder than Michio.
Straying from their design document, the three bosses decided that Diablo would offer a single hero character instead of three. Early on, Michio and the other artists realized that building characters on the computer would not come as easily. Diablo would display graphics in 2D by first paring down three-dimensional models. Condor’s artists could render out 2D art in games, but building 3D models was beyond their skill set.
To help Condor get a pipeline for 3D art production up and running, Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham sent two of his artists, Duane Stinnett and Justin Thavirat, to Redwood City.
They had roughs of their character drawings, and we kind of went through and built the art, swapped components, just tutored them on how to get their pipeline going and make the games work. We showed them some of the things that we had learned by being self-taught and from going through WarCraft and WarCraft II.
-Duane Stinnett, artist, Blizzard Entertainment
Building 3D models was beyond their skill set.
Over a single month, Duane and Justin took Michio and the other Condor artists on a whirlwind tour through modeling and animating 3D characters. Michio threw himself into the lessons. Armed with a pen and sketchbook, Michio mocked up his idea for the hero-a knight wrapped in steel mail. Coming in on weekends and staying on weeknights long after most of the guys had gone home, Michio slowly pieced together models of his characters. His first creation was the clunky, bulky knight. He considered it. Dave, Max, and Erich would probably give it a thumbs-up. Invariably, though, they would ask him, “What do you think of it?”
Michio scrapped the model and started from scratch. Days later, a tall man with long, dark hair and tattered clothing emerged. With the model complete, Michio handed it off to the other artists to animate.
We had this armored guy we got from Blizzard, one of the WarCraft models. Tom [Byrne] went on vacation for a week, and we hadn’t made much progress on the [hero’s] walk cycle. So I said, “Let me take a crack at it.”
And in one day, I made him walk. After that, I got put on animation. That’s how I became an animator.
-Kelly Johnson, artist, Condor
Diablo‘s hero was a blank slate. Rather than select a fighter, thief, or magician, players defined their hero by defeating enemies and earning points to spread across attributes, such as strength, magic, and dexterity. Dropping points into strength let players wear heavier armor and wield bigger weapons such as great axes and two-handed swords. Favoring dexterity increased their accuracy in combat and archery, while boosting the magic stat enabled them to learn advanced spells. Or, if players wanted, they could scatter their points across all attributes to create well-rounded heroes.
No matter the direction players chose for their hero, they all began their journey on the outskirts of the troubled town of Tristram.
We had this idea of this medieval town, and we wanted it to be a darker, more gothic, grim kind of place.
As the town’s architect, Erich set out to create a town perpetually cloaked in twilight. Dirt paths meandered between skeletal trees and farmhouses. All but a few homes sat empty; their inhabitants had either fled or been snatched from their beds by demons. Those who remained huddled in doorways; lanterns inside their shops and homes framed them in warm light that pushed the night away.
Erich set out to create a town perpetually cloaked in twilight.
The cathedral looming over Tristram from the north was the source of the town’s fear. Red light poured out from windows and the open doorway, running over the ground like spilled blood.
I had been to Europe and really liked the small, medieval churches out there. When we started to make Diablo, the first thing I made was the church. I made it based on a book that had some Spanish churches in it. The terrain around it in the book was kind of similar to Tristram’s: grass, kind of rolling but kind of broken up. I think that set the tone.
I remember shrinking the church down a couple times because when we first put it in the game, the walls were just too high, and you couldn’t see the ruined roof or the red light coming out.
With his main themes established, Erich asked his artists to create townsfolk to see to the player’s every need. Griswold the blacksmith bought, sold, and repaired armor and weapons, while Pepin the healer patched up wounds and sold healing potions. Players who followed a forked brook that ran northeast came upon a rickety old shack that belonged to Adria, a witch ostracized by the community due to her stock of magical scrolls, books, potions, and staves.
One thing that brought Tristram together for me was the witch’s shack. That looked cool with the light spilling out through all the walls. I kind of tweaked the dusky nighttime setting of the scene to make that stand out.
Near the end of Diablo‘s development, Erich realized the town was missing a storyteller who could pass along the game’s lore.
We were offering two fans the opportunity to get their names into the game. The names that won were “Deckard Cain” and something “Messerschmidt”.
At first we laughed at such a crazy name: Deckard Cain. We weren’t sure if it was made up or not. In any case, the name grew on us, and by happenstance, came at a great time, right after we identified the need for a narrator-type [character] to drive the story along.
With the storyteller’s name set in stone, all that was missing was the storyteller himself. Kelly Johnson, by that time finished with his work on NFLPA Superstars, eagerly volunteered.
Erich Schaefer said, “We need a guy in town who’s going to be a storyteller.” The only thing I was told was, “He’s a storyteller.” A lot of times we just went off a word. We’d get a word or two that described what Dave, Max, and Erich wanted, and they trusted us to come up with something. And we did.
I made Deckard Cain, from thin air. Erich assigned me to make Deckard Cain and all I was given as a description was that he was going to be the storyteller for the game. I was given no physical description to work on, so I made him black.
Back in the mid-90s, there were almost no black characters in games, so when given the opportunity to make a character, I made him black. For the time, it was considered very radical.
“The style of it was really more created by what it couldn’t be.”
The sagely storyteller always greeted players warmly, inviting them to “stay awhile and listen.” Soaking up Cain’s myths and legends in the heart of Tristram’s perpetual twilight went a long way toward setting the proper mood, but it was the soundtrack Matt Uelmen composed for the town that clinched it.
I told Ken Williams [Condor’s business manager] I needed actual musical gear. It [composing Diablo’s soundtrack] was really a process of grinding until things stuck. The first couple of months of attempts were pretty bad, though I think I knew I wanted to have acoustic guitar as a centerpiece for any kind of town setting.
The main piece of gear was an Ensoniq ASR-10 [keyboard sampler]. That was the core tool for the making of that soundtrack, and we actually got a good discount on it, because Ensoniq was trying to market sound cards in that era, and so developers could buy their musical gear near wholesale prices.
-Matt Uelmen, composer, Condor
Using the sampler, Uelmen could record himself playing different instruments, then rearrange the recordings into custom tracks. To get an idea for the mood he needed to set, Uelmen studied the atmospheric disparity between dungeons and towns. Down in the dark, danger reared its head at a moment’s notice. Up in town, players let down their guard and moseyed around.
Daily, Uelmen walked the shore along the marina. Stretching out with his twelve-string, he watched boats bob along the water and strummed, playing with different sounds and moods.
I think the sound of the 12-string dictated a good deal of the approach Tristram’s tune ended up having. The style of it was really more created by what it couldn’t be: it couldn’t be too overtly country or bluegrass, it couldn’t be too obviously Latin, and I didn’t want something that was too faux-medieval, so it ended up somewhere in between all of those things.
This sounds dorky, but music is almost spiritual, a soulful movement that resonates with all of us. Having music that sets a mood will ensure pushing an experience over the top. It can either make or break something.
If you were to go into Tristram and hear happy-go-lucky music, it just wouldn’t work. It’s like a horror movie: it’s all about the atmosphere, the music, the sound, and how that creates feeling.
I thought Matt did a perfect job of balancing dark, eerie, moody, and a little bit of light because of the string guitar. It’s got kind of that feeling of lightness to the tone, but it’s also kind of sad and disturbing, kind of haunting.
-David Brevik, co-founder, Condor
Uelmen’s final product washed over players each time they set foot in Tristram to repair armor, hawk goods they didn’t need, browse new wares, and let Pepin heal their hurts. Inevitably, they would have to leave Tristram’s fading daylight and descend into the dungeons beneath the church.