Oct 21, 2013
If you've spent hours casting meteors and carving hell spawn with frozen orbs as the Sorceress, fallen victim to Diablo's devastating hose lightning attack in Diablo II (and who hasn't?), battled your way to the Cow King in the secret cow level, or posed the collectible Diablo action figure released shortly before Diablo II stormed store shelves in June 2000, then you're already intimately familiar with artist Michael Dashow's work on the reigning king of the action-RPG genre for the past 11.5 years (and counting).
From building two of the game's character classes to modeling and animating the Lord of Terror himself and working closely with programmers to devising attacks and movements befitting the game's namesake, Mike spun many strands that comprise Diablo II's finely woven web of loot-gobbling addiction. In this interview, Mike shares the story of how he joined Blizzard North's growing team and some of his favorite memories from his time at the company.
Q: How did you come to work at Blizzard North?
After leaving my position as a designer and director at Broderbund Software, I spent some time learning 3D, training myself on 3ds Max at a friend's house (as I owned a Mac and not a PC). Despite having over seven years of industry experience, most of the companies that I applied to were more interested in hiring someone fresh out of school who already knew the correct 3D app. But when I applied to Blizzard North, I heard back from Matt Householder almost immediately.
They were excited about my experience and some of the work in my portfolio. One of my pieces was a bipedal alien character who walked around and attacked in four directions and was rendered pretty much like the characters in Diablo were. I had done it as part of a game concept which was a game with a lot of similarities to both Diablo and Warcraft, and it adequately showed that I could do art in the style needed for their games. They called me in for an interview, quizzed me about my favorite games and genres, and hired me on to work on the character team on D2.
Q: What elements of Diablo II stand out to you as especially fun and/or memorable to work on and why?
I love the RPG aspect of the game all around – how you can customize your characters, what you're carrying, your skill-tree – combined with the fast-paced action of the game itself. So as a primarily character-oriented artist, I really love the character aspects of the game, but really the game design as a whole too.
As for what I found particularly fun, the entire character pipeline was a blast. I loved being able to flesh out a character idea from scratch, like the Sorceress or the Thorned Hulk and develop it from start to finish, all of the modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, effects, everything. It really gave the art team a lot of pride and ownership over everything that they contributed to the game.
Q: Between Diablo and Diablo II (with or without Lord of Destruction), which game do you prefer and why?
Easily Diablo II. There are tons of reasons – the more diverse characters, the inventory and shop UI improvements, the increased depth of the world, the diversity of the skill tree... but more than anything else, the ability to run. Have you ever gone back in and played D1 after playing D2 for a while? It feels so slow because you are forced to walk everywhere!
Q: Is there any particular anecdote or memory from your time at Blizzard North that you could share with our readers?
One of my favorite anecdotes is about the origins of the cows on the cow level: We had already begun releasing the Screenshots of the Week when April rolled around. Mike Huang, who was administrating that feature, asked me for some joke screenshots for April 1st and we decided to make battle cows. I had modeled and animated both the Barbarian and the cows in the game. Because character studio had bipedal skeletons but not quadruped skeletons, the cows were essentially build on top of a human skeleton distorted and walking around on hands and feet.
It was easy enough to load the Barbarian's animations into the cow's skeleton to make it stand upright on hind legs and attack just like a barbarian, so that's what I did: I gave the cow a few adjustments – a ring in the nose, some new textures – and armed him with the Barbarian's halberd and ended up with a walking warrior cow. We had originally only planned on using them for the April Fools screenshots, but once we had them fully animated, the idea grew into the cow level that shipped with the game.
I also did a lot of voice-work in Diablo II. In my time at Broderbund, I did a lot of voice-overs for the children's educational titles that we produced there. I was very used to going into a sound booth and riffing on ideas over and over. When Matt Uelmen found that out, he was happy to use me several times for different monsters in the game. I was happy to get into our "sound recording booth" (a corner of an unused conference room partitioned off by cubicle walls) and unselfconsciously make grunts or groans or squeals or whatever was needed for creatures.
I think I did the zombie voices, and a bunch of other small random sounds, but the most memorable were the voices of the Fallen. Matt had me chant words that he made up (like "Bishibosh" and "Rakanishu") and also had me use names of folks in the office whose surnames sounded like they might be in the same language. That's why the Fallen yell Kubasco (for John Kubasco), Colenzo (for Karin Colenzo) and Dashow (for myself).
Q: What made Condor/Blizzard North a memorable place to work?
The most exciting thing about working at Blizzard North was the passion for the game that everyone brought to the team. We didn't just want to find good artists and programmers; we would take people out to lunch and ask them all about their favorite games, what they liked about them, what they'd change.... We were a team of people really devoted to great games and wanted those joining us to be equally passionate.
And around the office, we'd have really strong debates over the best designs to make D2 great, such as the time we all spent a month arguing whether killed monsters should drop potions or hearts, and whether the hearts would have to be brought back to town to be made into potions or whether you could just eat the hearts to regain health.
Q: What were the most important lessons and experiences that you carried with you after leaving Blizzard North?
The best experience was getting to make a game the best in could possibly be, making the quality and not the ship date the most important aspect of the production process. In the long run, no one will care if your game was late if it's really good. If it's not a good game, no one will remember or care about it at all. So make the best game you can, and relish the chance to spend all that time polishing it because it's certainly not something you get at most companies.
Q: What have you been up to since leaving Condor/Blizzard North?
After Blizzard, I decided to get into smaller web-oriented companies. I spent a few years as Art Director of Meez.com where we built 3D avatars for the web, and some time at social network hi5 building their games and 3D avatars (where I met David, who was doing some freelance work for us.) I am currently the Creative Director/Senior Art Director at Kabam, having spent the last year and a half building their art team from 7 people to over 60 and making sure that all of the art in our social core strategy games is truly excellent.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from Stay Awhile and Listen?
I hope that Diablo fans get a chance to "peek behind the curtain" and get a little taste of what it takes to make a great video game--the fun parts but also the rough-going spots and difficulties as well.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add regarding your time at Blizzard North or to fans of the games you helped create?
I love telling folks that I worked on D2 and having them reply, "Oh, I spent hours/months/years on that game!" or "I still play that game!" It's incredibly rewarding to have worked so hard on it and to know that people really appreciated the effort and enjoyed or are even still enjoying that work. Thanks to everyone for your support through the years!
DM Press - Monumental Games. Monumental Stories.