Stay Awhile and Listen tells how passion, maxed-out credit cards and sleepless nights spawned a gaming phenomenon and unearths the game design secrets that made Diablo an enduring classic. -Tristan Donovan, author of Replay: The History of Video Games
The team that created Diablo was so small that even a single departure from or addition to the team would have resulted in a very different game. While individuals on today's teams, comprised of 100 or more members, can still make a mark, smaller teams mean each individual makes a bigger impact. The opportunity to make crater-sized impacts fosters a powerful sense of ownership and encourages team members to step up.
Eric Sexton was one individual who not only seized opportunity during the original Diablo's development, but created it. Starting out as an artist, Eric rose to the call for design ideas. Monsters, quests, spells, character classes—Eric feverishly wrote and submitted every idea that popped into his mind. Most of the quests you've played over and over again came from his brain. Eric's commitment to the game earned him a designer credit along with the recognition of his peers—programmer Rick Seis once described him to me as a "design fire hose"—and Blizzard North's three founders, who spoke with me at length about Eric's significant input in both Diablo and Diablo II.
But as vital as Eric was in the making of the action-RPG genre's two most celebrated titles, he was just as vital to helping me get Stay Awhile and Listen, the book that chronicles Blizzard North's history, off the ground. I met Eric shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2007. Upon submitting editorial ideas to magazines in an effort to revitalize my freelance writing career, Official Xbox Magazine gave me the green light on a piece concerning stereoscopic graphics in video games. I got the assignment, but I lacked the resources needed to write it: developers to interview. Fortunately a relative happened to be running a game studio and put me in contact with two artists in his employ: Kelly Johnson, also an artist extraordinaire on Diablo and Diablo II; and Eric Sexton.
Eric and I met for lunch to discuss my project and quickly struck up a good rapport. We talked about games, games, and games, pausing only long enough for me to ask my questions before diving back into conversation about games. After lunch, Eric invited me to stop by his place sometime to kill some aliens in Earth Defense Force 2017, a game he'd soured on due to only sampling the lackluster single-player mode.
I was elated. I'd made my first friend since relocating to the Bay Area, and he was a gamer, and he'd worked on my two favorite computer games of all time. How cool was I, getting to pal around with one of the artists and designers on Diablo and Diablo II? Then, a light bulb: If I was going to start hanging out with Eric, maybe I could get him to round up a few of his ex-Blizzard North buddies for a Diablo LAN party. Good idea, right? How often do gamers get the chance to play their favorite games with the developers who made them?
Then, light bulb number two. Why stop at just playing Diablo with Eric and the others? Why not write the definitive account of the making of the Diablo series and the Condor/Blizzard North studio? I ran the idea by Eric and asked if he'd be willing to get in contact with any old Blizzard friends and colleagues he could round up. He latched onto the idea immediately, wondering, as I did, why Blizzard North's story had yet to be told in full.
Thanks to Eric's support, I got hold of individuals I'd have had a difficult time finding otherwise—Michio Okamura, Rick Seis, Pat Tougas, and Matt Uelmen, to name a few. More importantly, Eric set off a chain reaction of contacts. His contacts reached out to other contacts, who in turn supplied me with more contacts, and so on. Within a few months, I'd reached out to roughly the entire Condor staff and was well on my way to touching base with most of the later Blizzard North hires.
Today, I can trace my plump Blizzard North rolodex, as well as the very existence of Stay Awhile and Listen as something more tangible than a "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...?" idle thought, back to my friendship with Eric.
Q: How did you come to work at Condor/Blizzard North?
In 1993 or '94 I received an internship at Iguana. I basically went in for three days to do this animation test. At the end, they decided that my skills weren't good enough to hire me, which was a little bit devastating because I really, really wanted to work there. I thought that'd be the best thing ever. It kind of forced me to buckle down and turned me toward doing more computer-based art. At the time, there was a program called DPaint. By '90 or '91 I had a PC. By that point games like X-COM had come out and I'd stay up until four or five in the morning playing.
At some point I bought a copy of 3D Studio R4. I buckled down and taught myself just by trial and error. Then in '95, a buddy told me about a job he saw in the newspaper for a digital artist, or maybe computer game artist—I don't remember what it was.
I put together a resume, and I think it included a 3D fly-through of a sci-fi hallway with neon blue lighting. I put it on a 3.5 floppy disk and I hand-delivered it to the guys at Condor. I drove up to Redwood City and hand-delivered it. I was just there to basically say, "Here's my resume. You guys were close by so I figured I'd just bring it by." They gave me an interview right there on the spot, like, "Oh, hey, why don't you just come on in?" They were all hanging out. A couple of guys were hanging out playing NHL '94 on the Sega Genesis.
I went into one of the rooms and it was hard to keep track of who was who because there were so many people coming in going, "Nice to meet you." So the guy interviewing me, he's got his feet up on the table, no shoes on, and I'm just thinking, "Yeah, this is what I want to do. I don't want to work somewhere where I've got to wear a suit and a tie. I want to be lounging around with my shoes off playing video games."
They didn't hire me for another year. I think I called them up like once a week, like, "Hey, how's it going. I'm still here." I think at one point they said, "We really want to hire you, we just can't right now. Get back in touch with us every so often and we'll let you know what's up." I think I took that as a cue to call them every single week. And at some point they told me, "Hey, why don't you check in, like, once a month?"
I might've slowed calling to every other week. I don't remember what prompted it. I do remember them calling me in to the office and them telling me, "We've wanted to hire you for awhile, we just haven't had the funds to do so. But now we do." I was just like, "Okay, yeah! I'll take it!" I wasn't going to negotiate and risk not getting it.
Q: Between Diablo and Diablo II (with or without Lord of Destruction), which game do you prefer and why?
I love Diablo, and feel that there were a few things that game did better than Diablo II. But I felt that Diablo II was a more satisfying game as a cohesive whole. From the unique boss monsters to the character skill trees. The massive number of new items and special magic-item types to the incredible number of creatures. I think the love of the original Diablo is mostly about the good times before things started changing part way through the development of Diablo II. But despite its problems, Diablo II is a better game.
Q: Is there any particular anecdote or memory from your time at Condor/BN that you could share with our readers?
For me it has to the be the time Ken Williams burnt the popcorn in the microwave. He left it in there for something like 8 minutes, and what came out was something akin to a baseball dipped in tar and set on fire. The smoke and stick was so horrendous we opened a window and tossed it out on the roof. It sat out there smoking for a good 10 to 15 minutes. As I recall Ken was forever banned from using the microwave again.
Q: What made Condor/Blizzard North a memorable place to work?
It was the friends I made there. Michio, Rick, then a bit later Joe Morrissey and Ted Bisson. Chris, Matt, Dave, Max and Erich. And finally the late great Ben Boos. Even now, I miss them all and think of them often.
Q: What were the most important lessons and experiences that you carried with you after leaving Condor/Blizzard North?
Sadly, I think the most important thing I took away from my years there was "Get it in writing." If someone is telling you about something great you are going to get for all your hard work, make them put it in writing. And hold them to their promises.
Q: What have you been up to since leaving Condor/Blizzard North?
Immediately after BN, I formed a company (or 4 depending on perspective) with Michio. Over the 4 years we picked up a few Blizzard alum along the way. My role in it dissolved in 2009 and in early 2010 I moved to Texas to work for Gearbox Software on the Borderlands 2 project.
Q: What prompted you to share the story of your time at Condor/BN in Stay Awhile and Listen?
I think there is still a lot of old wounds about how things went down. Lots of hurt feelings about promises never fulfilled. Lots of different views of how we all view the past. Even though we were all there I think we all remember things a bit differently.
For me, I have mostly forgotten or forgiven all of the bad stuff. I think back on it all with great joy and fond memories. But I know that this is a rosy view of it all. I guess this felt like a good opportunity to get it out and talk about it.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from Stay Awhile and Listen?
Just having the story out there would be great. Knowing that behind all of the success was a lot of turmoil and hard times, both personally and professionally. People lost their families and friends during the bad crunch days of Diablo II. Know that people sacrificed a lot to bring that game to light.
Q: As someone who took part in Condor/Blizzard North's history, what are you most looking forward to from the book?
Closure. It was great times, but it's time to make some new great times. I can't live in the past, and if I always have to compare where I am to the good old days, I'll never be happy. Those days are long gone, and I need to move on. I know people will always ask me about my experience at BN, and I am happy to tell them, but I hope that this will let me focus on what comes next.