“It certainly wasn’t just me,” says David Brevik, creator of Diablo and Diablo II, when asked about the success of that legendary series, which changed the DNA of video games in the late ‘90s and into the early ‘00s.
A trailblazer and veteran of the video game industry with a sterling catalog of titles under his belt, Brevik has been a leader for most of his career. He was president of Blizzard North for ten years, founded Flagship Studios (Hellgate: London), and oversaw Gazillion Entertainment (Marvel Heroes), working with and managing dozens of the industry’s best over the past 25 years.
“I didn’t have all of the ideas, I didn’t do everything,” Brevik says. “I still don’t believe that it was just me.”
But in 2018, Brevik now finds that…it’s just him. He’s founded a new indie studio, Graybeard Games, a one-man operation whose upcoming game, It Lurks Below, is available to play on Steam Early Access now. A 2D action-survival RPG with retro, pixel-art graphics, the game has been built from the ground up by Brevik himself.
We sat down with Brevik in the city he calls home, San Francisco, to discuss his latest, gargantuan endeavor.
When asked why he decided to found Graybeard Games and develop an entire game by himself, he cited his active relationship with his audience as the spark that eventually inspired him to fly solo in the games industry for the first time.
“I kind of came up with the idea [for Graybeard] from the interaction we had [with our fans] when we released Marvel Heroes,” explains Brevik. “The game wasn’t in very good shape, and we started streaming it and interacting with the community. I became fond of that kind of environment and the way we changed that game from a Metacritic rating of 56 to 82. Working on that game and making it better, and that process of involving the community and working with the community — I wanted that again. That was so much fun. It really feels like the same kind of experience right now. It’s a bit more overwhelming because I’m by myself, but it’s super fun.”
Also factoring into Brevik’s decision to create a game by himself was the story of another solo developer, Eric Barone, who worked alone on farm simulator Stardew Valley for over four years before it was released in 2016 and became a runaway hit, selling over 3.5 million copies.
“Part of the reason I feel confident in doing the things that I’m doing is because of [Barone’s] story,” says Brevik. “He made this game by himself in a few years, and there are more and more examples of this, of small teams — one or two people — making games. I thought I’d make a micro team for this game, but when I started working on it, I realized I could do it myself. I kind of enjoy the challenge.”
Though he’s now something of a video game auteur, Brevik insists that there are many people who have had a hand in the creation of It Lurks Below. “My wife is helping,” he stresses. “And there are key people in the community who are volunteering their time and helping out. Moderators are spending their time answering questions for the community, answering questions on the Steam forums. Those people that are volunteering their time…it’s super flattering and amazing that the community wants to support this game so much. I simply couldn’t do this without them.”
Cultivating an open interaction with fans and peers alike naturally invites a deluge of feedback and criticism that would be overwhelming even for a large game studio to filter through. But after years of heading teams big and small, Brevik feels he’s well equipped to be discerning when it comes to considering others’ opinions on his work.
“I think it comes from heading these different games in the past,” Brevik says. “When you’re in charge, you get a whole lot of feedback from your team. Sometimes you’re going to use the team’s feedback, and sometimes not. When I started out, I was really poor at it. I would say, ‘Hey, your idea is shit,’ and make them go cry. I was really bad, and I was really mean. Trying to become more educated and a better person and accepting feedback better has really made it a lot easier for me to [read fans’ comments].”
This measured interaction between Brevik and his audience is the core principle of Graybeard Games, but ultimately, every decision in the development of It Lurks Below comes down to him alone. From programming to environmental design to composing the game’s music, Brevik is handling every aspect of the game’s development himself, a tall task for anyone of any experience level. But one thing in particular terrified Brevik when he decided to develop the game alone: designing the moody, throwback art style.
“That was my biggest fear, being the artist for the first time and creating that atmosphere,” Brevik recalls. “I had to design within my limits. The sprites are the size that they are and at the level of detail that they are because it’s something that I could do. If they had more detail, I don’t think I could keep up. Maybe now I could do it, but I certainly couldn’t do it a year and a half ago when I started the project. I didn’t have enough experience. As I’ve gotten better and better, I’ve made more interesting monsters and [have produced] better and better graphics in general.”
It Lurks Below’s shadowy aesthetic echoes Brevik’s most beloved creations, Diablo and Diablo II, with splashes of grotesque, nightmarish visions punctuating an otherwise gloomy and desolate other-world. One moment, you’ll be trekking across a long stretch of grass, quietly collecting resources like wood and iron; the next, the ground beneath your feet is inexplicably lined with crooked teeth and unblinking eyeballs that follow your every move, and a red-eyed zombie will be sneaking up on you from behind.
“It’s all about darkness, actually,” says Brevik of the game’s visual style. “There’s nothing scarier than the dark, and having darkness on the screen creates this kind of dark atmosphere and makes it scarier. There’s this built-in, almost tribal knowledge within us that things coming out of the dark are bad. Having that as a part of the overall atmosphere is very important to me.”
Fear — whether that of starvation or of gun-toting skeletons — is the driving force of It Lurks Below. And to create that sense of terror, Brevik found inspiration outside of gaming. “I’m a big horror novel and movie fan,” he says. “The atmosphere and vibe that the old movies had was something that I wanted in this game. The title evokes similar feelings from the font to the actual words that are used. The game is dark, and you have to creep downwards, just like you are going into a basement. The music is somber, and the background noise is eerie. It all comes together to create a retro-horror experience.”
It Lurks Below does indeed call to mind movies like Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead and the work of Stephen King, creating an intoxicating sense of isolation and paranoia that harkens back to the classics of the genre. The old-school horror inspirations actually pair quite nicely with the old-school art design, and the game has a style all its own. But Brevik’s initial conceptualizations were a bit too ambitious for him to handle alone, to the point where the game almost didn’t come into existence at all.
“Minecraft and Hellgate mixed,” Brevik recalls of his initial idea for the game. “It was going to be this first-person, Minecraft-ish, shooter RPG. I started working on it and it became too big of a project for just myself, so I put it to the side.”
Taking a six-month detour to focus on creating an unrelated mobile game, Brevik ultimately shelved that project as well, realizing he probably wouldn’t make any money on the mobile market after talking to friends in the industry.
“I decided, I’m going to go back to that original idea, but I’m going to simplify it and make it 2D. I like a lot of 2D, pixel art games, so it seemed like a no-brainer. Within a week, I had a prototype running and I thought, ‘This is definitely something.’”
Now that It Lurks Below is in Early Access, thousands of players have been getting their first taste of the game, giving Brevik feedback on Steam forums (which he checks daily), Reddit, and Discord. It’s his first game to launch on Early Access, and the overwhelmingly positive response he’s gotten from early adopters has been heartening for the 25-year veteran, who, despite his experience, wasn’t sure what kind of reaction the game would get.
“You just never know,” says Brevik of the game’s reception so far. “I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about the video game industry and being an indie developer, so I was scared.”
It Lurks Below is a deeper experience than your run-of-the-mill roguelike, boasting a robust leveling and class system, with oodles of common to ultra-rare loot to uncover, a la Diablo. But these precious items don’t behave quite the way you’d expect them to. Loot bounces when dropped, a gameplay wrinkle that can lead to some sticky situations. According to Brevik, not all players appreciate the unpredictability of the jumping jewels.
“Someone told me in the AMA that they thought [the bouncing loot] was troll-y and done on purpose,” says Brevik. “It was done on purpose [laughs]. But I love the mechanic that came out of it, which is that you’ve got to try to catch the loot before it falls down into the pit of monsters below you. I love that.”
While most players may find that the “bouncy-loot” mechanic makes It Lurks Below a richer, more engaging experience, some will surely find the mechanic a source of frustration. The game is filled with little twists like this, and while Brevik seems to stay true to his instincts as a game designer, he still has a keen ear to his early audience’s opinions on the feel of the gameplay so far.
“‘Oh my god, the food situation at the beginning of the game is too brutal. You have got to remove it from the game! I won’t buy this game because of this.’ But it’s funny because, as people play and get through it, food becomes this trivial thing. As you die to it four or five times, you say, ‘I’m going to start working on my farm this time,’ and suddenly it’s not an issue anymore. They enjoy that part of the game after that. They don’t even worry about it anymore. But at first, it’s this daunting thing.”
While Brevik expresses that he’s wholly appreciative of any critical feedback he receives, he’s also not willing to compromise on design elements he believes in. “I don’t think I’m going to remove the food mechanic from the game,” Brevik says. “Even though I’ll get the most hate from it and lose the most customers in that first hour of the experience, I think people who stick with it are really rewarded.”
Another mechanic that Brevik worries might stress out players is It Lurks Below’s death penalty. When you die, you lose all of your items and must return to where you met your demise to retrieve your treasures before they’re lost forever.
“It’s really, really, really hard to design a good death penalty because it’s a punishment. It’s got to be punishing in such a way that the gamer doesn’t say, ‘Alright, that’s it. I’m out. I’ve got a zillion games that I can play. I’m done.’”
“There’s a careful balance there,” Brevik says of the death penalty, although he may as well be talking about the long process of developing the game itself. This man has seen it all in the video game industry, and when it comes to designing games, he knows what he’s doing. But just as importantly, he founded Graybeard because he wants to take in his audience’s feedback in hopes of making his games better. Like the man said, there’s a careful balance.
“I may have made the death penalty too punishing in It Lurks Below,” Brevik says. “We’ll see if there are people who get stuck in terrible death loops [laughs].”
You can try It Lurks Below for yourself right now on Steam Early Access.