Diablo Creator on His Legacy, Trolls, and the Making of Diablo

Famed video game designer David Brevik looks back on his days making Diablo.

Few games have had as big an impact on the video game industry as Diablo, and to a larger extent, its eminently popular and influential sequel, Diablo II. When speaking to Den of Geek about the legacy of the series, its creator, David Brevik, cited a small gameplay tweak partway through Diablo’s development as a pivotal moment that many would argue altered the course of gaming from that point on.

“That’s the story of Diablo,” Brevik explains. “It started out as a turn-based game, and it was a complicated kind of turn-based [system]. Every single thing that you did took units of time, like a tenth of a second, let’s say. So you could have a move that would take 1.4 seconds, one that took .8 seconds, one that took one second…it had kind of a queue. It was micro turn-based. It wasn’t just, my turn, their turn, my turn, their turn.”

“Sometimes, that one little change, that one little idea, can sprout something big,” Brevik says. “Changing that to make it real-time, the flip of that switch, changed the entire experience. It changed my career…changed everything about that product and made it this new kind of gaming experience. That one little change. And it really wasn’t that hard–I coded it in one day.”

This switch from a turn-based combat system to the real-time, hack and slash action the franchise is now known for sparked a particular style of top-down, loot-based, action RPG that continues to thrive, with dozens of titles riffing on the Diablo formula. From Deathspank, to Borderlands, to Bastion, to Divinity: Original Sin, Brevik and his team’s work over twenty years ago has left a lasting mark on the industry, and many still consider Diablo I and II to be benchmarks for the genre. The series is cherished by millions of fans across the world, and it’s impossible to count just how many hours of entertainment Brevik has gifted the world via his work.

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“I hear stories about it all the time,” Brevik says of his fans sharing their love of Diablo with him. “It’s super gratifying to hear all of these things. But it’s also really weird because video game developers aren’t famous like movie stars or something like that, right? So it’s really rare that I’ll get recognized for it. I do, but it’s extremely rare. Famous musicians give all of these people entertainment, and everybody knows who they are and what they look like. It’s kind of a strange thing that people find out what I did and they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s nice to have all of that [recognition] and still be able to walk around and not be famous. To have that pleasure of giving so many people entertainment and be anonymous for the most part is great.”

It’s not a stretch to say that most gamers would say that the creator of Diablo deserves to stand alongside industry greats like Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, John Carmack, and Gabe Newell, though Brevik insists on sharing his pedestal with the team that helped him bring the iconic games into the world.

“It wasn’t just me–there were a lot of people who worked on Diablo and Diablo II,” Brevik presses. “There were a lot of people who made suggestions that made the game better. I didn’t have all of the ideas, and I didn’t do everything by myself. There were a lot of people who were involved that helped. I was captain of the ship, but I can’t take full credit. [Praise for those games] is always humbling for me because I believe that I worked with some of the best talent in the world, and together, we made something amazing.”

Brevik and his team famously split from Blizzard Entertainment prior to the development of Diablo III, and while the threequel found major success (it is the fastest-selling PC game of all time and has sold over 30 million units to date), it hasn’t earned the same iconic status as its predecessors. When asked about how it felt to play Diablo III for the first time, Brevik recalls a bittersweet affair.

“Yes, there were mixed emotions,” Brevik remembers. “It was strange seeing a Diablo game come to life and I didn’t work on it. Diablo was not only something that was such a huge part of my life, but something that holds a very personal and special place in my heart. It took so long for it to happen, that the years did help a bit. Having been away from Blizzard and Diablo for as long as I had been eased the pain, but it was there even after twelve years. That said, I was super happy that the franchise could continue and still entertain the long-time and faithful fans of the series.”

Since launching the Diablo-esque Marvel Heroes in 2013, a game which saw a jump in its Metacritic score from 56 to 82 following extensive back-and-forth interactions with the game’s community, Brevik has cultivated an intimate, thriving, productive relationship with his fans and followers. He’s now founded Graybeard Games, a one-man studio whose core principle is to create “unique, fun, high-quality products” and use his community’s feedback to make his games better. His first game with his new studio is It Lurks Below, a 2D action-survival RPG. 

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But just as Brevik has garnered a strong fanbase over the years, he’s also received his fair share of harsh criticism, especially for titles not called Diablo. Marvel Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Hellgate: London were all games that had their virtues and amassed respectable followings but never approached Diablo and Diablo II’s level of success and critical acclaim.

“I think that we’re all susceptible to negative criticism,” Brevik admits. “You work really hard on something and you want to please as many people as possible. You learn that not everybody is going to like what you do. That’s just life. And it’s okay for them not to like it.”

Internet trolls have been wreaking havoc on message boards and comment sections about Brevik and his work for decades, and while he has become accustomed to the verbal abuse, he still finds it perplexing that trolls exist in such great numbers and find it a worthwhile pastime to spread hatred for no apparent reason.

“It doesn’t make much sense to me,” Brevik ruminates. “People go online and make these personal attacks. It’s like, what is wrong with your life that you have to go on the internet and be mean to people? What’s wrong with you as a person that [trolling] is desirable? Where are you broken? Because, you’re definitely broken. How do I help them become a better person and realize that this is not a great path for them in their life? It doesn’t make sense for anybody.”

“It’s so funny to me,” Brevik continues. “I’ll go on forums of projects I’ve worked on, and people will be on the forums, complaining about the games for hours on end. I’m like, what are you doing? You obviously like [the game], because you’re [on the forum]. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s okay to give constructive feedback–I love constructive feedback. But when it becomes a personal attack, that’s when it becomes silly.”

Despite some of his projects not being as well-received as he would have liked, Brevik maintains that he has no regrets. Quite the contrary: he has a clear sense of pride when recalling his extensive oeuvre.

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“I’m quite proud of every game I’ve worked on, even if it didn’t have the success that Diablo or Diablo II had,” says Brevik. “I don’t know if there is one I’m prouder of than the others. Each had things I liked and things I didn’t care for afterwards. I guess it’s like saying which one of your kids is your favorite. I love all my games for different reasons and they have given me unique, valuable, and fulfilling experiences each time.”

When asked if he’s an artist who puts great value in his legacy, Brevik’s answer is firm. “No,” he says, though he will admit that his status as an industry heavyweight has its advantages. “I care about [my legacy] in that it’s afforded me a lot of notoriety and success and things like that, and things can be built off of that. And in some ways, I care that I’m trying to make great experiences and unique experiences. But when I’m designing a game, I’m not like, ‘How is this going to have an impact on my legacy.’ It’s more about, am I making something that I’m passionate about and am going to have fun making. Those are more important questions for me than whether or not I’m making the right game for people who have enjoyed my games in the past.”

You can try It Lurks Below for yourself right now on Steam Early Access.