A photo gallery and office tour article originally posted in December 1999, after the Diabloii.net Bliz North visit.
We were greeted in our hotel lobby Thursday night by a virtual "Who’s Who" of Blizzard North: David Brevik, President; Max Schaefer, Vice President; Matt Householder, Diablo II Producer (and official "Voice of Reason;" honest - it’s on his business cards!), and Mike Huang, Programmer and Diablo II Website Administrator. We were joined a bit later by PR Specialist Tony Gervase, who came straight from the airport to join us for dinner.
Heading off to Scores, a sort of sports bar/restaurant, we had our choice of attractive Blizzard employee cars in which to ride. Shan’t go into details, here, but let’s just say to the fancy car lovers among us they were "to die for" and leave it at that.
The dinner at Scores was very nice. We were surrounded by a bank of TV screens that showed the on-going games - football, soccer, and hockey. We learned that a couple of the Blizzard guys follow hockey, and that most of them are 49er fans. (Poor dears!) After commiserating over the lousy seasons of our respective football teams, we began a pleasant talk about the state of Diablo II, where the team sees it going in the short- and long-run, and even a little about the company and the changes that it has undergone over the years.
It turns out, for those who worry about such things - and at least one of us does :-) - that Havas Interactive is a good corporation, a significant improvement over entities of the past, and that Blizzard North is treated with respect and pretty much a "hands off" attitude. If Havas knows what they have, in Blizzard, and they’re happy, and keep the Blizzard staff happy, then we’re happy, too.
We got a few tidbits, an assortment of gleanings, and then finally Matt asked us, point blank "What do you see yourselves doing this weekend?" And we looked at one another, and one of us looked him square in the eyes and said "I see us playing Diablo II, all of Act One, and perhaps, because you would value our opinion and maybe set some store in it, Act Two, Act Three..." and with voice trailing off, that speaker gazed nervously to the side, breath held, while the Blizzard guys exchanged looks, and seemed to come to some sort of silent agreement, and Matt said "Yeah, I think that can be arranged." And at that precise moment, it is no coincidence that a 110-voice choir standing directly behind us burst into "The Hallelujah Chorus"... but it surely helped match our mood. :-)
The Blizzard Tour
The Blizzard North offices are located in San Mateo, California, about 30 minutes south of the heart of San Francisco. Set on a hillside overlooking a narrow ravine, the building is modern and attractive, with clean lines, lots of glass, and pretty landscaping beside the walkways. The interior is comfortably professional, with long wide corridors and nicely-sized offices for everyone.
One attractive feature of the building is the bank of windows facing the ravine on which the office is perched. The employees can look outside and view a very pretty wooded setting in which rabbits and deer are frequently seen.
Walking inside the two-story building, there is a slate-floored lobby with stairs leading to the upper story. But to reach the site of our objective, one walks straight ahead to an oak door decorated with a simple silver Blizzard North sign.
Entering the lobby, we first met Charlotte, the Blizzard North receptionist. She has been with Blizzard North for about 7 months now, and says she’s enjoying working there very much indeed. She doesn’t play games, but she thinks her small son might someday be a Diablo III or Diablo VI gamer. The lobby and corridor are nicely decorated for the holidays.
Matt Householder and Karin Colenzo met us in the lobby. After a brief lobby photo shoot—of Diablo, and then a pic of the impressive trophy cabinet with the many awards that Blizzard has received--we were were shown to our "home from home" for the next three days, in what is called Blizzard North by Northwest, or Booneytown. Blizzard North leases the entire bottom floor of the office building, and they have recently expanded the offices to include much more space on that floor. (Good sign, maybe, of hiring more staff in preparation for... another game, perhaps?)
In Booneytown, we were given a prime bit of real estate, a spacious interior room where, stationed on individual work tables, five computers softly hummed and where the haunting chords that accompany the Opening Shot of Diablo filled the room.
We set down our things and were shown a little display of gifts from Blizzard: A beautiful etched wine bottle, a set of Blizzard North playing cards, a Diablo II T-shirt, a stunning two-sided Diablo II poster, and a silver-wrapped package that held a hand-painted picture frame with the words "Blizzard North - 1999," on the black background, in which we will all display our favourite photograph of the event. (To all this, Tony later added attractive black baseballs caps with the Blizzard name embroidered in icy blue.) Truly a wealth of gifts.
After expressing our thanks for the prezzies, we set off with Matt on a "whirlwind tour" of the Blizzard North offices. Passing the lovely conference room, we were introduced to everyone; the entire staff seemed to be active that Thursday, in their offices and working. We chatted with a few programmers here, greeted a couple of artists there, and stopped for a few of minutes in the offices of designers, writers, and other techie and artistic sorts. Having had dinner with a few of the key people the night before, including David Brevik, Max Schaefer, and Matt Householder, it was fun to see them in their "native environment," so to speak.
We moseyed down the hallway into another part of the recently-added wing, where we met our other dinner buddy, Mike Huang, whose new and as-yet-unsettled office is the "scene of the crime" for compiling our weekly "Screen Shots of the Week." His three side-by-side monitors and laptop were overshadowed by the wealth of storage bags in which rests his collection of Star Wars action figures.
Next came a visit to the lunch room, where we saw how comfortable they make it for those employees who practically live on site. Matt welcomed us to help ourselves from a fully-stocked refrigerator and several cabinets that were bursting with goodies.
To tell the truth, we rather wondered if they really needed 112 large canisters of coffee creamer, but maybe it was double coupon day, eh? Or perhaps earthquake preparedness classes teach that chemical creamer is a perfect staple in case the San Andreas faultline takes another slip and all the staff spends a couple of weeks inside the office.
The two large lunchroom tables in the present lunchroom won’t hold all the Blizzard North employees - not by a long shot. But once upon a time, this modest table, which they pointed out fondly during the tour, held all the Blizzard employees with room to spare.
We spied Battle.net, and the people working on it. Well, part of Battle.net, anyway. Much is sited at Irvine, but it was interesting to know they could do so a lot directly from BN, too. We asked about whether both locations use the most recent game build, and the answer is that these days, all Blizzard employees are playing... err, testing the same game.
The staff of Blizzard North really is an extraordinary lot. Perhaps the company has been lucky in attracting this great group of people, but more likely they have been able to attract them because of the pleasant environment that was created, from the beginning, within the BN walls. The atmosphere is more relaxed, more personable, more open than most companies, especially companies working in a highly competitive industry and on a publishing deadline. (Well, "deadline" of sorts :-).) The office is pleasant; people come and go, stop and chat, argue, debate, praise. Breaks might extend into mid-afternoon planning sessions right over the lunchroom table.
The staff was there when we arrived in the morning, and many of them were there when we left at Midnight. No grumbles, no complaints, and still a high level of pride and enthusiasm for the product. When we say some are so dedicated to their jobs that they have taken to sleeping on premises, we are not kidding.
The support of each employee, the team spirit, is really delightful. When one of us would say "That’s a really nice piece of art," or "I love the spell effects on that skill" the staff would be quick to give credit to the person who had created it. There was a lot of pride, not just in an individual’s own accomplishments, but in the accomplishments of others within the company. While risking a truism here, the company felt more like a family than a corporate entity.
The tour winded up with us admiring a beautiful banner from Diablo, which Matt Householder told us was the first used at a trade show. Then it was off to Booneytown, to play our first day of Diablo II.
There is no mistaking the depths to which Blizzard goes to make this game not just good, but extraordinary. The first time I saw a shot of the interior of the cathedral, I exclaimed, "Oh, woah, somebody here is a bloomin' architect - it’s wonderful!" And sure enough, the next day we were introduced to David Glenn, who is an architect who now works for Blizzard on their structure images. Dave poured over books, photographs, blueprints and other materials to assimilate all that he could about buildings appropriate for the settings: wilderness, desert, jungle, etc. His Palace at Lut Gohlein, his Egyptian-like temple, and especially his Cathedral show an extraordinary attention to not just proportion and dimension, but to historic building traditions as well.
Another of the many remarkable artists with whom we spoke was Mike Dashow, who specializes in character and monster art. It was amusing to learn that the same artist who created the delicate, dainty and mysterious Sorceress also created the burly, all-business and unmistakably unmysterious Barbarian. The depth of his talent is shown in Mike’s ability to draw such unique characters with such distinct styles. He is in high demand for his other work, which includes designing award-winning book covers for fantasy and science fiction titles.
The other characters are extraordinary as well. The lovely Amazon drawn by Phil Shenk was the first character we ever saw, and a portent of wonderful things to come. Remember her standing, bow at the ready, in the long grasses? Phil also created the Necromancer, another case of one person showing great versatility. Kelly Johnson animated the Paladin, from lovely original art created by Michio Okamura. Stopping by Kelly's office, you see some lovely renders of characters on his doors and wall, and near one, of the Paladin, you see an adorable picture of Kelly at about age 7. One has to wonder if he was remembering stories of chivalry and honour from his childhood when he did the animation for the Paladin.
Blizzard North programmer Peter Hu was sort of our guardian angel during the beta test. He helped with crashes, sorted us out on playing skills when we inquired, and was a great companion. He was also discrete, and didn’t just jump in and show us what to do, but let us wander about and try things. It was to him, often, that we asked such pesky questions as If I use these fire and ice gems in my bow, which imagery will show on the arrows and do I get both pluses or is it an either/or thing?" His participation was helpful for him, too, for as he said later, "I enjoy watching other people play (plus it's a good opportunity to learn the sticking points of our design and [how the] interface could potentially present problems for new players)."
With the extraordinary length of time he has had to write his score for Diablo II, Matt Uelmen could be content to rest on his musical laurels, but he has used all that time to hone his work - replacing entire sections, reorganizing the musical order, improving the sound effects, and producing much more in the way of content than he ever dreamed possible. It appears he will have over 80 minutes of game music in Diablo II. Matt varies the music, the pulse, the drive, the cultural emphasis, so that it always seems fresh and new. His studio is a maze of keyboards, guitars and other “toys” with which he has created his remarkable score. Working with Scott Peterson, nearly all the sound effects have been changed and improved. Even those that use the traditional Diablo sounds are enhanced with new layerings of added reverb or other sound elements, for a deeper, richer effect.
When you look at the interface, when you see the join screen for the first time, you can’t help but notice the elegant touches of art throughout. And many of the subtle framing elements are a contribution of artist Ben Boos. Ben is the talented artisan who designed all the Celtic weaves and botanical elements in the chat interface. Just before we arrived for our first day of testing, he had done a lovely framework about each of the start icons on the main screen. They say Ben can be looking at someone to his right and chatting away while he’s drawing with his left hand, only glancing occasionally at the screen.
You have all heard us mention Mike Huang, and you’ve read his posts on the Battle.net Forum and on our own Forum as well. Mike is in charge of the Diablo II website, prepares our weekly Screenie of the Week, beta tests long hours, and seems to serve a lot of other valuable functions as well. When the computer ate characters, it was often Mike who tried to figure out what went wrong. When one computer kept crashing, they enlisted Mike to help solve the problem. He gamed with us, answered queries, offered advice, and proved a great source of assistance.
Artist Eric Sexton and a few others seem to specialize in monsters. They have made so many that every time you see a genus class Greater Mummy, you seem to see it with a different look and a new designation. Clearly there aren’t a limitless number of tilesets and names, but it sure seems so when you first play. The monster effects are great - you’ve not lived until you have a mass of D2 monsters chasing you down a narrow passageway.
And then there is the one we have called "the mystery man," Erich Schaefer. Although Elly had met him previously, and vouched for his existence, Flux and Gaile remained unconvinced this fellow was any more than a phantom, especially after Gaile tried and failed to meet him at E3. But we all saw him in the flesh this time, and this "shyest of the Schaefer Brothers" as he is called, is an interesting person, having been involved in the art and many other aspects of the game’s evolution since the beginning of Diablo. Erich is principal designer when it comes to nitty gritty gameplay details (skills, items, monster balancing, etc.) and is a treasure trove of word and image ideas; it was he who came up with many of the icons for the skill trees, and he was delightfully receptive to our feedback on those, even when one of us was so direct as to suggest that "Double Doughnuts" didn’t cut it as a high-level spell icon for something as cool as "Valkyrie." :-)
Not to be forgotten are the background artists. It’s easy to be carried away by the splashy front-and-centre images dashing across the screen, but there has to be a "frame" to hold the characters, items, and action, and that frame is the backgrounds. And they are stunning, indeed. Lush vegetation, complex and interesting pathways, and great special bonuses like a partially-buried statue in the desert or a steamy hallway in a monster lair. When you play Diablo II, stop for a moment and relish the world that Blizzard has created, as well as the game. Both are truly remarkable.
And others, many others: programmers and designers, and artists and all. Those who do the movement, those who create the levels, those who worked out the beautiful parallax aspect, and those who got the transparencies just right.
It’s difficult to keep them straight, who does what, where, and when. And many seem to serve double or triple duty, helping where needed, supporting the other staff with their skills. As we said, the cooperative spirit is alive and well at Blizzard North. And the opportunity to meet these extraordinary people, to talk with them, learn from them, and share our thoughts with them, was the most wonderful of gifts, and something we will truly remember for the rest of our lives.