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"When I was a kid, I didn't dream of becoming a video game executive"

Diablo designer David Brevik on his choice to end two decades as the boss, leave Gazillion, and go it alone

The last time David Brevik looked closely at Diablo he was president of Blizzard North, and his team had just finished its development. That was 1996, and the scale and reach of the game's influence was still impossible to predict. Now, though, exactly 20 years later, Brevik is finally revisiting what remains his most famous contribution to the medium, the game that cemented his place in the pantheon of great designers. He talked about it at GDC in San Francisco earlier this year, and he's visiting Digital Dragons in Krakow for the very same reason.

"I keep getting promoted until I'm the boss... I don't want to do that any more. I don't want to run a studio with 200 people"

The main hall is packed, with every seat taken and a standing crowd steadily growing in the space at the rear. When Brevik finishes, a snaking line of aspiring Polish developers forms in front of the stage. The sheer volume of selfies that follow delays our meeting by almost an hour, and Brevik honours them all with unfailing good humour. But if he is entirely at ease with the enthusiasm of his fans, the forensic examination of Diablo on this momentous anniversary is more difficult to bear. Like an actor who can see only themselves in even their greatest performances, Brevik looks at Diablo and recognises only its flaws.

"It's similar to that," he says. "When I see it, I'm a perfectionist and I just see all of the things I wish I had fixed or done differently. It's tough for me."

Nevertheless, the opportunity to reflect on the past has arrived at an appropriate moment in Brevik's career. At the start of this year he resigned as CEO of Gazillion Entertainment, the company he joined as studio director seven years before. Marvel Heroes, the free-to-play MMO on which Brevik has worked for most of his time at Gazillion, is, "definitely much better than what it started out being," but in spite of the many ways he can see to improve it further - he is, after all, a perfectionist - he knew the time had arrived to move on.

This time, though, there will be no grand appointment in Brevik's future, no new C-level role to add to those he has held in the 13 years since he left Blizzard North. "When I was a kid, I didn't dream of becoming a video game executive," he says. "I wanted to make video games, and I just miss that so much. I keep getting promoted until I'm the boss, and that's not just at Gazillion; that's all the time. I don't want to do that any more. I don't want to run a studio with 200 people."

"I felt that my work was more of an obligation than it was something I was passionate about. I really want to make games"

Though Brevik enjoyed his time at Gazillion and the other companies at which he worked, time and again he ran up against a version of the Peter Principle; one in which his ability to perform management roles was never found wanting, but his passion ebbed away as he spent more and more time away from the hands-on process of making games. "I can do that job, and I can do it well," he says, "but I felt that my work was more of an obligation than it was something I was passionate about. I really want to make games. I really want to programme. I really want to do what I enjoy doing, and I'm fortunate enough that I can afford to do that."

After more than two decades working on some of the biggest games produced by this industry, Brevik departed Gazillion in desperate need of a palate cleanser. He found it in Ludum Dare, a regular event in which participants are tasked with making a functioning game, to a theme, within two days. Brevik admits that, in all his years as a game designer, he has "never" been involved with a game jam, and though the idea of creation under those restrictions was certainly appealing, the dual realities of "being old" and "having kids" made it a practical impossibility. Instead, Brevik found a compromise: the "Old-man Game Jam." Instead of 48 hours Brevik would make a game in 30, with the time broken up into manageable, family-friendly chunks. The development of the resulting game, Nonomancer, is documented in a series of YouTube videos.

Watch on YouTube

"It was great, really fun," Brevik says of the first act of creation for his one-man studio, Graybeard Games. "And my secret behind the whole thing was it gave me the opportunity to test the game engine that I've been creating, distribute it and get a couple hundred people to test it for me. It was a great experience and I enjoyed doing it, but it wasn't the real thing I'm making."

Brevik isn't yet ready to discuss the details of the "real thing" either, beyond the fact that he will be departing from the free-to-play model employed on projects like Marvel Heroes. "I'm going back to the boxed model," he says, and the possibility of commercial failure couldn't be further from his mind. Brevik's embrace of YouTube, even on a hobbyist project like Nonomancer, indicates that he's perfectly aware of the value of self-promotion in indie development. "You've got to be active on Reddit, on forums, on social media, and get people to notice your product," he says. "If you don't do that you're in for a long haul. But why spend all that time and effort creating something and then not do the whole thing?"

"People expect so much from myself and my products that doing something small is a bit of a twist - a bit weird"

Of course, simply being David Brevik has its advantages in that respect. He did, after all, just finish speaking in front of hundreds of fans, and honouring several dozen selfies with the most smitten. While that inherent interest can be leveraged in the long-term, he says, it also carries with it a great many expectations, and a great deal of pressure.

"On god yeah," Brevik says. "That's scary as hell, honestly. That's the thing I'm struggling with the most: trying to manage people's expectations. When I say it's a small game, I'm doing it by myself, people go, 'Are you making Diablo 4?' That's what everybody expects, and it's nothing like that. That's my biggest struggle. People expect so much from myself and my products that doing something small is a bit of a twist - a bit weird.

"Graybeard is just me. I'm doing it all. And people keep calling me: 'Hey, when are you going to start a studio? When are you going to raise funding? I want to fund something for you?' I imagine that one day I might grow the company, but right now I'm just not interested. I'm doing this because I love it."

And he's doing it because he has more to express than the remainder of his old career would have allowed. Working on large-scale, multiplayer, AAA projects would leave very few games Brevik could expect to complete before he plans to retire. "As an indie studio, I'm able to do more, and that's what I want to do," he says. "I have a lot of ideas. I want to see those happen, and not just one or two of 'em."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for the Digital Dragons conference. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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