The following is an excerpt from a near-complete version of Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels, now funding on Kickstarter. The book chronicles the making of StarCraft and Diablo II, and reveals new details about cancelled projects and the history of Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North.
“One of the things we always hated at Blizzard was, if you’re going to make money, do it by making really good products, not just because there’s a business opportunity. That situation occurred here. Our parent company said, ‘We have this studio that’s not doing anything. Why don’t they make a Diablo expansion?’”
-Pat Wyatt, vice president of research and development, Blizzard Entertainment
“They said, ‘It’s impossible to add Battle.net support in this small amount of time. You’ll never be able to do it.’ That’s why multiplayer is one of the Easter eggs: Because Blizzard South said we couldn’t do it, so we took three days and got it done. That was us sticking our thumb in their eye.”
-Jim Edwards, programmer, Synergistic Software
“As far as I know, the only outside development that ever worked in Blizzard history, was Blizzard North. Every other outside studio has had its projects cancelled or released against Blizzard’s will.”
-Matt Householder, producer, Blizzard North
For business owners, the dawn of affordable personal computers in the 1970s ushered in an era of exponentially greater productivity enabled by word processors and spreadsheets that ran on machines small enough to fit on office desks. For Dungeons & Dragons players, computers represented something greater. Dungeon masters could offload tedious and error-prone tasks such as rolling virtual dice to calculate attacks and movement, while also exploiting the PC’s processing power to pursue loftier goals such as constructing elaborate campaigns by way of algorithms that produced new dungeons every time users sat down to play.
Robert “Bob” Clardy was one such avid consumer. Eager to capitalize on the PC’s potential, Bob pooled money with his wife, Ann, to co-found Synergistic Software. Their first game was Dungeon Campaign for the Apple II, published in December 1978 on a cassette tape. In the early 1980s, following the popularity of Rogue, the term “roguelike” became a label for a type of role-playing game featuring turn-based gameplay, procedurally generated levels and items, and perma-death, the inability to reload and continue after dying. But Dungeon Campaign predated Rogue by three years, making it one of the first commercial “roguelikes” to appear in stores, trailing just behind Beneath Apple Manor by Don Worth.
In 1979, Synergistic followed up with Wilderness Campaign, a crawl similar to Dungeon Campaign that took place outdoors instead of in a dungeon. That same year the company tied the two Campaign games together as Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure and released the omnibus on floppy disks, the successor to cassettes as a storage medium. In both games, players are given a glimpse of a level’s map right before their adventure begins, giving them precious seconds to sketch out terrain on paper before they’re dropped into the world and left to find their way through it.
Like its algorithmically generated maps, Synergistic built its reputation step by step, piece by piece. Each RPG it published during the 1980s sold well enough to keep the Clardys above water. They staffed up gradually, hiring on artists, programmers, and designers. “In the early days of starting a computer gaming business, each of us that began a new venture faced risks and temptations of expansion,” Bob Clardy said. “Some got venture capital, were unable to deliver instant wealth to their investors, and got shut down or sold. Others, like Synergistic, went it alone and never got large or secure enough to last the long haul.”
To supplement its income, Synergistic supplemented homegrown games with contract jobs. Games such as Beverly Hillbillies and Homey D’ Clown didn’t turn any heads, but they paid the bills. They also expanded Bob’s rolodex. Publishers satisfied with Synergistic’s work invited him to pitch designs that led to in-house projects such as Spirit of Excalibur, an RPG where players fight to unite Britain under King Arthur. One publisher always open to entertaining Bob’s pitches was Ken Williams (no relation to Blizzard North’s Kenny Williams), co-founder of Sierra On-Line.
Sierra had prospered thanks to a string of successful adventure games such as the King’s Quest series pioneered by his wife, legendary game designer Roberta Williams, as well as Ken’s eye for spotting promising titles in development at outside studios. When Sierra outgrew its original studio in Oakhurst, California, the Williams opened a second office in Bellevue, Washington, close to Synergistic’s Seattle-based headquarters. Over time, Bob and Ken became friends as well as business partners. “Ken rather artfully navigated the more successful middle ground,” Bob said. “He got venture funding without losing control. He grew quickly and had many of the pitfalls of that, with personnel problems, moving, and such. But, overall, he managed the hazards well and kept Sierra strong for many years. I admired what he achieved greatly and sometimes wish I had had the nerve or skill to do the same.”
Several times each year, Bob and along managers from other development studios under Sierra’s publishing umbrella converged on the Bellevue office for meetings. Bob likened visiting the building to walking through a Dilbert comic strip. Programmers and artists clustered into cube farms or squeezed into storage rooms overflowing with boxed software. In comparison, Synergistic was cozy, yet big enough for most developers to have their own offices. That was by choice. Bob admired his friend’s flourishing empire, but made a conscious decision to run a smaller, more intimate outfit. He enjoyed being able to pitch in on development, something he knew he wouldn’t be able to do as often if he had a huge company to run.
That was Ken’s predicament, Bob observed. Ken loved the semi-regular get-togethers with managers because he loved surrounding himself with people crawling through the trenches of development. The Williams had started Sierra at their kitchen table, Ken writing code while Roberta penned scripts and drew characters for Mystery House, their first megahit. Now his wife spearheaded design teams while he sweated quarterly sales and profit margins. He couldn’t be directly involved in pushing pixels or writing code, so he lived vicariously through others. Bob’s admiration for Ken grew during each visit. He never belittled an idea or the developer who had proposed it. Instead, he praised the aspects of the proposal he liked and offered constructive feedback where he thought it could be tightened up. It was, Bob guessed, his friend’s way of taking a hand, however small, in making products.
Since Synergistic and Sierra were practically neighbors, Ken made a habit of popping in to visit Bob’s team. In 1996, he stopped by to make rather than entertain an offer. “It was after working with Sierra as a sub-contractor for a few years that Ken broached the idea of taking us over entirely,” Bob said.
The acquisition worked out for both parties. Under Sierra’s ownership, Synergistic would no longer have to seek out contracts for games the team had no interest in making. “The major selling point was that I really enjoyed working with Ken personally,” Bob added.
In February of 1996, Comp-U-Card International (CUC), a company known for shopping services such as mail-order clubs that offered retail goods at steep discounts, acquired Sierra On-Line and Davidson & Associates, along with every company under their ownership, for more than $1.8 billion. The deal took place as a stock swap, an arrangement where principal members of the selling company give up shares in their company in exchange for more lucrative stock options in the acquiring company. Per the terms of the sale, Ken Williams was given a verbal promise by CUC management that Serra and the other studios wrapped up in the purchase would retain their independence. Ken, who had agreed to the acquisition out of his responsibility to do what was in the best interest of his company’s future, was given a spot on CUC’s board and found himself buried in more meetings and paperwork. CUC executives had also assured him that a software board would be formed to head off any problems related to the acquisition, but according to a letter he wrote to former Sierra employees years later, it was never formed. Instead Williams was given a spot on CUC’s board and Scott Lynch, a public accountant who had a professional relationship with executives at CUC but lacked any experience in software development, was installed as head of Sierra in his place.
In early 1997, Bob Clardy and the heads of other studios now owned by CUC — including Sierra, the two Blizzards, and Dynamix, makers of WWI-themed flight combat game Red Baron — gathered in Las Vegas to discuss upcoming projects and how best to allocate their resources. “Each of these companies was being run by type-A [personality] entrepreneurs who had built their firms from nothing and became successful enough to attract the attention of holding companies,” said Bob. “There were some large egos and strong opinions about which projects should happen and who would be in charge.”
Scott Lynch eyed one of the hottest prospects on offer. Blizzard North’s Diablo was brand new and already a smash hit, but its developers had opted to move on and write a sequel. To CUC’s executives, abandoning Diablo was as good as leaving money on the table. Churning out an expansion disc loaded with more levels and items should be a breeze, they reasoned, since the game’s codebase and pipeline already existed. All a developer, any developer, would have to do was spin off more assets. Sales would dwarf any production costs. Since Blizzard North wanted to opt out, another developer in the CUC family could pick up the slack.
Synergistic had just finished Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance, a real-time strategy/RPG hybrid couched in Arthurian legend, so Lynch passed the ball to Bob’s team. Bob saw the logic in Sierra farming out work to another studio if Diablo’s creators had their hands full. Fulfilling publisher contracts was part of running a small company and being a team player. “Bob got us all into a room and said something to the effect of, ‘They want us to make a Diablo expansion in six weeks. Can we do it?’ We all said yes,” said Donald Tsang, a designer at Synergistic.
“We were pleased, as we all loved Diablo and respected the folks who had created it,” Bob said. “Unfortunately, we were officially a part of Sierra, so it was actually Sierra that got the job and Scott Lynch was the person in charge of it. Scott was not at any of the meetings and never really figured out who wanted what, nor was he familiar with our work, nor did he ever visit to learn anything. He heard what he asked about, and he asked little.”
Some parties recalled the two Blizzards being told ahead of the project’s start date that an external studio would be developing an expansion set for Diablo. Others remember CUC’s executives flying under the radar to green-light an expansion. “The head of Blizzard South, Allen Adham, went on vacation,” said Jim Edwards, a programmer at Synergistic. “The parent company took that moment to say, ‘Okay, we have to find somebody to make a Diablo expansion pack.’ And basically, the expansion had to be done before that guy came back from vacation, because he was dead set against an expansion.”
Leaders from the two Blizzards did not react kindly to having their intellectual property passed around like a timeshare condo. “When we were more or less forced to do the Hellfire expansion, it was over our protests, kicking and screaming all the way,” said Pat Wyatt. “Even though Diablo was Blizzard North’s baby, both North and South fought against doing Hellfire because it had become everyone’s baby. We felt the quality would be destroyed by having someone external work on it.”
Blizzard Entertainment’s team had ample reason to resist outside help. In 1995, they had contracted Cyberlore Studios to develop an expansion for WarCraft II. Letting another developer handle the work had seemed like a win-win: All Cyberlore had to do was whip up multiplayer maps and a single-player campaign that continued the base game’s story while Blizzard’s internal team devoted its full attention to StarCraft, their next real-time strategy game. During a milestone check-in with Cyberlore, however, Blizzard’s managers had deemed the work subpar. They cancelled the contract, finished the add-on pack, Beyond the Dark Portal, themselves, and resolved that only an in-house team could nurture a Blizzard property to an acceptable level of quality.
Blizzard’s protests fell on deaf ears. CUC was determined to move ahead with an expansion for Diablo, titled Hellfire, and Synergistic would handle development. Blizzard North’s three bosses agreed to help Synergistic when and where they could, under one condition. “Other people in the company, people higher up than us, loved the profitability of Diablo and wanted more,” said Blizzard’s Dave Brevik. “So, we said, ‘As long as we can executive-produce it and get final approval on everything, then I guess we’re all right with that. We’ll give them all the tools to help them get it done.’”
Blizzard’s Erich Schaefer remembered being less upset at sharing custody of the original Diablo than his peers at Blizzard North or South. “I kind of thought, Oh, that’s cool. People are making more content for my game. I didn’t worry about the quality level. At times I would argue it didn’t matter what the quality level was. There were times when we had movie deals in the works, and I was always saying, ‘Just make a movie! I don’t care if it’s a good movie. How could it be? I just want a movie based on Diablo.’ I was usually for those kinds of things, and I think Blizzard South was much more hesitant, frankly.”
Blizzard North’s bosses tapped Matt Householder, the producer who had buoyed Condor by supplying them with a high-paying contract job at a critical juncture in the company’s history before he had joined their team full-time, to manage Hellfire. “My duties were to review and approve or disapprove the work of Synergistic Software and Sierra Online in designing the expansion set, developing its content — art, quest dialog, sound, and voice work — and testing the game,” said Householder, who coordinated with Synergistic via email and phone
In the early spring of 1997, Householder flew Hellfire’s developers to Redwood City for a meet and greet. The visitors filed into a conference room and listened as he and Blizzard North co-founder Max Schaefer set ground rules. “Everybody there was incredibly helpful and nice. We had no problems with them,” said Jim Edwards. “The only issue they had was, ‘We’re already starting to talk about what we’re doing in Diablo II.’ They gave us a whole list of things and said, ‘Please don’t do this spell, this quest, this theme,’ those kinds of things. We were fine with that.”
Synergistic’s guidelines were explicit. Blizzard North’s bosses granted the team permission to create one new character class, eight dungeon levels divided between two new environment types, a couple of music tracks, and a smattering of items and spells. CUC had extended the initial six-week deadline to four months, leaving little time to create and test content. To get Synergistic off on the right foot, Blizzard North turned over portions of Diablo’s code, a list of suggestions for quality-of-life improvements they had run out of time to implement themselves, and unused audio for dialogue that was already on Diablo’s CD-ROM. They even coached Synergistic’s programmers and artists on how to create characters and tiles for levels, while stressing that they should steer clear of certain content.
“Since Blizzard North had already begun planning and some design for Diablo II, of course, we needed to ensure that Hellfire wouldn’t overlap or conflict,” Householder said. “For example, the Barbarian would be one of the new player classes in Diablo II, so we directed Sierra and Synergistic to exclude that class from Hellfire.”
Only one restriction, insisted upon by both Blizzards, aggravated Synergistic. “From the beginning of the project, Blizzard insisted no multiplayer. Period,” recalled Donald Tsang.
“The decision by Blizzard was, no, they can’t use our multiplayer,” Pat Wyatt said. “They’d have to rebalance the whole game and it would affect people’s impressions of Battle.net if Hellfire is poorly balanced. We didn’t have time to balance it ourselves, and they [didn’t] have the capability to balance it because they’d never done multiplayer games. So ‘just make it a single-player thing.’”
Hellfire’s developers immediately saw a major problem with Blizzard’s mandate. Donald Tsang, a Diablo fan, had spent most of his time fighting monsters alongside other players on Battle.net. Shipping their expansion without online connectivity would leave Synergistic open to criticism for omitting the original game’s biggest selling point.
Back in Seattle, Hellfire’s team weighed their options. Given their tight deadline, they prioritized features and fixes that could be made quickly. One must-have addition came up right away. Even with Town Portal, a spell that whisked players back to the safety of Tristram, Diablo’s slow walking speed made running errands such as repairing weapons and stocking up on potions tedious. Synergistic picked up the pace by introducing Jog, an option that doubles the player’s movement speed in town.
“We thought of Jog and contacted Blizzard North to see if they would approve it,” said Tsang. “And they said, ‘How did you do that? We had been trying to do that, but we couldn’t figure out how to do that without having a special jog animation.’ And we said, ‘We just skipped every other frame of the [walk] animation.’ They said, ‘Oh. That’s really clever.’”
The developers sanded down other rough edges in the core Diablo experience. In the original game, wounded players receive ministrations by clicking on Pepin the Healer and then choosing the healing option in his list of services. Hellfire’s coders massaged the process so that clicking on Pepin heals players automatically, an improvement that aligned with Blizzard North’s manifesto of cutting down on needless mouse clicks, and that would be incorporated in Diablo II. Search, a new spell that highlights dropped items, simplifies the process of spotting tiny rings and amulets on dungeon floors often cluttered with corpses and debris. Another spell, Warp, zips players directly to a dungeon’s entrance or, after discovering them, the stairs leading down to the next level, letting players explore a level from top to bottom and then jump right to the exit rather than backtrack on foot through areas that have already been looted.
“They were actually the ones that suggested [mechanical] improvements: the jogging-in-town thing, and the auto-heal when you visit Pepin,” Tsang said of Blizzard North. “Those were two of the things that were on their list. I completely credit them with those.”
For their one and only new hero, Hellfire’s team created the Monk, a character class that defied the convention of escalation in RPGs. The rule of thumb is that players start humbly, wearing simple armor and fighting with a basic weapon such as a club or short sword, only to upgrade to bigger and better gear as they fight monsters and gain experience. However, Hellfire’s Monk is at his best when he fights barehanded and wears light armor such as leather vests, which boosts his defense rating. The Monk also excels at wielding staves, two-handed weapons that increase his chance to block attacks.
Finding a place to insert eight new levels proved trickier. The last thing Synergistic wanted to do was interfere with Diablo’s pacing. Instead, they positioned the expansion’s new levels — and their associated characters and quests — as optional, off-the-beaten-path forays that became accessible approximately halfway through the base game’s sixteen-dungeon layout. “I wanted to make Tristram seem like a town that just had really bad luck,” said Jim Edwards. “Whatever weird things were going to happen to somebody would happen in this town. We came up with this whole idea of this alchemist guy who’s playing around with weird chemicals. He spills some on the ground and it turns the plants into intelligent creatures, and creates this whole hive mentality [among creatures in the ground].”
At a certain juncture, players meet Lester the Farmer, a non-player character (NPC) created by Synergistic, who gives them a rune to destroy a tumor-like growth blocking access to his crops in Tristram’s southern region. Popping the growth reveals a gaping hole that leads to the Festering Nest, a slimy pit infested with insectoid demons. The Nest’s four levels are painted in shades of green and yellow, adding visual flair to the base game’s stretch of gloomy dungeons and caves. “I don’t think anybody would find that a lovely spot for a vacation,” Edwards said. “But it’s green, it’s glistening, it’s moist, it shines. It keeps the creepy factor, but it generates that factor in a way that says, ‘You know what? We can do creepy in a way that doesn’t look like a Doom rip-off.’”
After defeating a boss at the bottom of the Hive, players collect a map that guides them to a new tomb in Tristram’s graveyard. Entering, they find themselves inside Hellfire’s four Crypt levels, carved from blue stone and fiery artifacts that feel more in line with the visual stylings of Diablo’s Cathedral-themed stages. Fresh demonic faces roam the Crypt and Hive, adding more depth to encounters. The Gravedigger, a grotesquely deformed zombie armed with a shovel, digs at corpses to regenerate its health. Liches gain magical immunities on higher difficulty levels, threatening players who rely solely on one type of damage such as lightning or fire. Na-Krul, Hellfire’s final boss, can be weakened ahead of his encounter by clicking three tomes near his cage in a particular order.
One of Hellfire’s most convenient trappings, another quality-of-life improvement, is the Cornerstone of the World, a small, square chamber on the first floor of the Crypt that functions like a bank vault. Players can drop items on the Cornerstone’s floor, then load another character and retrieve them. Synergistic designed the Cornerstone as a more elegant method of sharing items between characters on a player’s hard drive. Before it, the only way to share was to start a session on Battle.net with the character in possession of an item, throw the item on the ground, then quickly log in with another character and join the same session to scoop it up. That approach was risky: A game session could expire if the player failed to log back in fast enough, or other players could enter the session and steal the item.
Even so, the Cornerstone isn’t perfect. It can only be used to transfer items between single-player characters. To trade online, Hellfire players had to take advantage of an exploit planted by Synergistic.
Synergistic finished Hellfire ahead of schedule and submitted their content for approval. For security reasons, Blizzard preferred to send and receive code submissions on CD-ROM over FedEx, stating that email and FTP servers could be compromised. Both Blizzard studios weighed in on submissions. According to Synergistic’s developers, North was easier to please than Entertainment, whose artists took umbrage with what Hellfire’s team perceived as quibbling issues such as an off-color pixel in one corner of the screen that needed to be changed to match the others.
“There was a nonzero tendency to err on the side of completely anal,” said Tsang. “Basically, they were so used to having number-one games on the market for months at a time that they said, ‘You don’t have a deadline for releasing this. In general, the game is ready when it’s ready.’ We’d never heard that before from a game company because, well, we were probably two months ahead of schedule in finishing this, but then this approval process came along. It poured cold water over us when we thought we were done.”
Bob Clardy remembered being more understanding. “Both studios did their own play-testing and both were picky,” he said. “South was actually pickier. But I do not believe either of them was in the least unreasonable. They each have a reputation for high-quality games. Both like to do a lot of play testing. Diablo was their baby and not ours.”
Blizzard North’s leaders tended to speak up when Hellfire clashed with Diablo’s grim-dark setting and tone. “That was a sticky situation where we all wanted the game to be successful,” said Dave Brevik. “I think the Synergistic team did a pretty good job. There were just certain requests we made, and they were summarily ignored. The one instance I remember the most is this teddy bear quest. A girl lost her teddy bear or something, and I didn’t want the quest in the game. It ended up being in the game. They guaranteed it would be removed, but in the end, it wasn’t.”
The quest to rescue a lost teddy bear was one of many pieces of content that stemmed from unexpected downtime. Rather than sit on their hands while the two Blizzards combed through submissions, Synergistic’s developers stayed busy, figuring that more content meant a higher likelihood of positive feedback from Diablo fans. Much of the content they added could not be accessed through conventional means, such as talking to an NPC and receiving a quest. Instead the developers wrote code for quests and required players to type special keywords into a text file.
Some Easter eggs, like a level brimming with demonic cows, were baked in early during development. The idea was to include a cow quest that poked fun at a popular rumor. “I was the voice of the cow,” said Edwards. “Blizzard North was aware of that for a long time. Even if you know what they ended up doing with the cow quest in Diablo II, ours was not at all the same. Ours was designed 100 percent to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Internet rumor about the secret cow quest in Diablo. Making a nod to that could not have happened in Diablo II. An add-on to Diablo has a much bigger impact of, ‘No, really, there’s now a secret cow quest in Diablo!’ But if you say, ‘There’s a secret cow quest in Diablo II,’ it comes off even more like, ‘Yeah, we know about this gag.’ With our game, it became more like we unlocked it.”
Other hidden secrets were more controversial. By creating the secret-filled text file, players could unearth two hidden hero classes: The Bard, able to brandish two weapons at once; and the Barbarian, who was granted a damage bonus for holding two-handed weapons in one hand. Both characters were leftovers from early in Hellfire’s development, before Synergistic’s designers had decided on the Monk as their single, sanctioned hero. Both the Bard and Barbarian had been scrapped so early on that neither featured unique artwork. The Bard was a recycled Rogue model from Diablo, and the Barbarian, a carbon copy of the game’s Warrior. “I was at the time also looking at the wielding code and I figured out that it would be pretty easy to allow a single class to wield weapons in both hands,” said Tsang. “I had no idea whether it was balanced or not, but basically, since it was going to be a completely experimental, extra, no-balance-is-required character. It was just for fun.”
When the two Blizzards caught wind of unauthorized changes, they asked Synergistic and Sierra to remove them. “[Our parent company] was adamant that Hellfire would ship, but they also pressured us to appease Blizzard South as much as possible,” said Edwards. “One of the things we were supposed to do was get rid of all the Easter eggs. Obviously, we didn’t, although we did hide them pretty well.”
“Toward the end of Hellfire’s development, Synergistic had added a Barbarian player class,” Householder said. “I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I remember discovering it and Blizzard demanding it be removed. The next test version didn’t have it, and once all the other issues were addressed, Blizzard approved Hellfire for production.”
Tsang believed that a legitimate miscommunication may have led to the Barbarian character sticking around in Hellfire’s code … or maybe not. “I think, although I cannot be sure, there was a version problem between what we had sent on CD and what was actually in our code repository,” he said. “The Barbarian wasn’t in the list of stuff they saw before it released. It was on one of our machines just to play around with. And I can’t remember if it was basically, we were so pissed off that they were being so insistent on not [forbidding] networked multiplayer that we just put another character in.”
Hellfire shipped to stores in November 1997, ten months after Diablo’s release and several months past Synergistic’s initial due date. Industrious players quickly uncovered its trove of secrets. Instructions on how to create the text file needed to unlock the game’s secrets — including the teddy bear quest and unfinished heroes — made the rounds online. One, a multiplayer mode, allowed players to party up if they connected their PCs to the same network. It was no Battle.net, but it was the next best thing.
The expansion’s developers had programmed a multiplayer option out of spite, and out of a desire to give their product the highest possible odds of success. “As it shipped, Hellfire would not support multiplayer at all, which we, the programmers, considered unreasonable,” said Tsang. “That was one of the reasons the whole Easter egg thing came about. Because we tried it ourselves and LAN multiplayer worked fine. So, of course, that was the first thing we enabled in the text file.”
To the Synergistic team’s way of thinking, they had not directly defied the two Blizzards. They had been forbidden from linking Hellfire to Battle.net, but other multiplayer options seemed fair game. The problem was that they had cracked Blizzard’s most precious file, storm.dll. “The source code was basically in C, and we were given everything but the source to the DLL,” said Tsang. “Specifically, we didn’t have any assets to storm.dll. We were told we would not have access to that, don’t ask.”
“Basically, they did the typical engineer thing, which is, if you’re talking to a non-engineer, you can say bullshit, and no one knows to call you on it,” Edwards said. “Bob got us a copy of the source code. We looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this. This will be easy.’”
Short for dynamic linking library, a DLL file contains source code that runs behind a curtain, its working known only to engineers granted access to it. Written by lead Battle.net architect Mike O’Brien, storm.dll was packaged into every Blizzard title released from 1996 through 2004 — Diablo I and II, StarCraft, and WarCraft II and III — and boasted updates and optimizations to Blizzard’s unique and secretive methods of managing memory, compressing data, and implementing network play. “We knew how to create the data files for Diablo, and when we had questions, we could ask,” Edwards said. “The programmer who wrote storm.dll was hard at work on [StarCraft]. We could not ask him questions, we could not recompile storm.dll. It was full of their secret sauce, proprietary information, so don’t ask. They would only say no.”
High-ups at both Blizzards discovered Hellfire’s multiplayer functionality along with the rest of the game’s community. “Once it became public knowledge on the fan forums, Blizzard, as you might imagine, tore Sierra and Synergistic a proverbial new one,” Householder said.
“There was some kind of hack they injected into the game which allowed multiplayer,” said Pat Wyatt. “It was like, ‘Don’t mess with our game. We’re forced to work with you guys, so go and make something that doesn’t suck, if you can. Otherwise, just don’t mess with it. Don’t make multiplayer.’ We tried to put them in a box. There was a huge long-running battle between the studio that did Hellfire, and Allen [Adham] and David Brevik. Many of us got to hear about it. It would come up all the time in meetings. It was just this rolling disaster.”
“We tried talking back and forth, Synergistic and Blizzard,” Dave Brevik said. “Those conversations were pretty heated. I was pretty young and cocky, so I’m sure they weren’t easy conversations, especially because the head of Synergistic had been in the industry much longer than I had, so maybe I wasn’t as respectful as I should have been.”
“I would say they were not pleasant interactions,” Max Schaefer said. “They were really some of the more uncomfortable meetings I’ve had in my life, going and telling them they couldn’t do some of the things they were doing because it wasn’t even remotely appropriate for the game. The rank-and-file guys I’m sure we had much more pleasant interactions with, but the upper management was very resistant to our input, and very hostile and confrontational.”
As his conversation with Blizzard managers grew more heated, Bob called a staff meeting. “We found out that Blizzard was not pleased because Bob Clardy came to talk to all of us with a frown on his face saying, ‘Blizzard is not pleased,’” Tsang said. “He was in on it, on the Easter eggs. He took full responsibility for it, which was rather cool of him. He basically was of the opinion that if they couldn’t take the joke, screw them.”
Bob owned up to giving consent, but asserted that Sierra head Scott Lynch was at least partially responsible for the upheaval that followed. “We worked closely with Blizzard North regarding game code, editors, and how to get art and features into Diablo,” he said. “But Blizzard South handled publication preferences, and it was our producer at Sierra that had those conversations. We sometimes got filtered summaries, but usually we heard little or nothing. He certainly did not communicate the presence of Easter-egg features to Blizzard South until after Hellfire was released. This was not some sinister conspiracy, but rather poor communications because too many intermediaries were involved.”
Hellfire was far and away Synergistic’s most financially successful project according to Bob Clardy. The cachet of the Diablo name, coupled with the smart changes Synergistic made to the core Diablo experience, carried it to a fair critical reception. While editors at Computer Gaming World lauded the additional monsters, music, and levels — and named it a finalist for their “Best Add-On” award the following year — they predictably expressed confusion at the lack of support for Battle.net. GameSpot’s editors voiced similar concerns, gleeful at the inclusion of new items and gameplay enhancements, but recommending that players interested in online play give it a pass.
In addition to being its most commercially successful project, Hellfire was also Synergistic’s last. “As soon as the game was released and they found out about some of the Easter eggs, somebody from Blizzard — I don’t remember who it was — said, ‘None of you will ever work in this industry again,’” Tsang said.
While some heads may have rolled due to conflicts over Hellfire, Bob Clardy offered a different take on the fate of Synergistic Software. Due to factors including management from Sierra’s parent company that had led to the departure of key software impresarios including Ken Williams, and a corporate scandal perpetrated by CUC executives, Synergistic and three other divisions of Sierra were closed and nearly 200 employees were laid off on February 22, 1999, a day that became known as Chainsaw Monday. “Just about every principal from all the studios quit or moved to some other firm in the next few years as none of us could stand working for Cendant,” Bob said, referring to the conglomerate formed as the result of a merger between CUC and Hospitality Franchise Systems in 1997. “They were a company that valued franchises, but not people. The assets they wanted were the game titles; they couldn’t care less about the people who created them. So, we all went looking for pastures that were more receptive to the value of people that can create something.”
“When they finally agreed to take things out, they didn’t follow through, and the situation got pretty ugly,” Dave Brevik said. “There were lost jobs. It was not a fun time for anybody. It was frustrating for us that Diablo was our IP and they did whatever they wanted to. In the end, we didn’t have final say or creative control. And at the same time, it was sad because those guys at Synergistic were really passionate about it. It’s just that we never saw eye to eye. It just didn’t go right.”
“I think fault for Hellfire lies on both sides,” Matt Householder said. “I think Blizzard as a whole was and is extremely picky. When we asked Synergistic to do something, it wasn’t a suggestion. It was a mandate. I think that message was never really delivered as sincerely as it needed to be. I think there was lots of pressure, deadlines, and it felt like too little, too late, and maybe Bob Clardy needed to just get the project done so he could move on to something else.”