David Brevik (b. 1968) is a video game writer, designer, producer and programmer, co-founder of Condor, creator of the Diablo series, former President of Blizzard North, co-founder of Flagship Studios, former CEO of Gazillion Entertainment, and founder of Graybeard Games.
Jeffery Klaehn: What led you to launch Graybeard Games?
David Brevik: After working at Gazillion as the CEO for several years, I wanted to get away from management and back into making games. When I was a kid I wanted to be a game maker, not run a business. So after I left, the goal was to create a company where I could get back to design and programming.
When I started the company, the original goal was to create a small team to work on a project, maybe three to five people. But, the more I did, the more I realized that I could do it myself, and I was having a great time as a solo indie dev. Now I’m doing It Lurks Below by myself.
JK: What elements make for great gaming experiences, in your view?
DB: For me, a great gaming experience centers around gameplay. I love interesting gameplay more than graphics, sound or any other part. I can have a great time with a game even with rudimentary graphics, repetitive sound, or playing with others in a multiplayer game. I guess it stems from growing up with games that had very simple graphics, low sound quality and no online play. What set those games apart were the mechanics of the play more than anything else. I think the best experiences do all of these well though. A game with excellent graphics, incredible sound, multiplayer and top-notch mechanics make for the best gaming experiences.
JK: What’s your take on the relationship between fun and difficulty? Did this question factor into your design choices with It Lurks Below?
DB: There is a very fine line between fun and difficult. Most people find difficult games fun and challenging: if the game is too easy, it quickly becomes boring. Having slightly frustrating, difficult experiences that the player can persevere through is important.
But! There is a very, fine line here. If the game is too difficult, you will lose a great majority of your audience. If the frustrating parts occur too often or last too long, you will lose your audience. It is a balance of utmost importance and incredibly difficult to get right. But when you do get it right, players tend to have incredible experiences. I keep all of these factors in mind when making It Lurks Below. I’m constantly fiddling with the difficulty to create a smooth, yet challenging experience. I listen to and observe players in the game and try to smooth out the frustrations constantly.
JK: How would you characterize the game’s “world”, and what were your goals in terms of the gamer’s experience?
DB: Having a world for a gamer to escape into is important. It gives a sense of place and purpose. The more you interact in that world, the more consistent that world is, the more immersive it becomes. Having goals in the world and changing that world can lead to incredible experiences. Breaking that world illusion can be a problem. Taking people out of that world is something you really need to watch. Constant escape into this environment, this place, is what keeps people engaged.
JK: You released It Lurks Below Early Access on Steam. How have you found this process, in terms of development? To what extent do you view gamers and gaming communities as being important?
DB: The process of releasing It Lurks Below on Steam into Early Access has been amazing. It is exactly the way I have wanted it to go. When we were developing Marvel Heroes, it released too early and wasn’t ready. As we worked on it and improved it over the first year, the interaction and openness we had with the community was incredible. I really enjoyed the honest, direct feedback and the process of making it better. I wanted to experience my new product in the same way, but release it into Early Access, like we should have done with Marvel Heroes.
Having direct access to your gaming audience is so valuable. I really enjoy watching people play the game on Twitch or having conversations in our Discord. My audience is the most important part of making a game and having such easy access to the community is an incredible gift.
JK: What draws you to RPGs [role playing games], roguelikes and survival games, and what do you feel makes them compelling?
DB: RPGs have always been my favorite type of experience. I like starting a character, building them up and overcoming obstacles. That drive to make a character better over time combined with twists in the gameplay that make you change your tactics has always been my favorite type of game. I also like the math involved. I’m a stats nut — I love stats in almost any game experience, from sports to RPGs. I think that is what draws me in the most.
JK: How do stats factor into It Lurks Below?
DB: Stats matter in a variety of ways in It Lurks Below. There are four main stats, which are different for different classes. Assuming a ranged class, there is Attack Power, which modifies damage done, Vitality, which modifies your health, Intelligence, which determines how many shots your wand has before reload, and Wisdom, which lowers the reload/recharge rate. So each one of these has a direct impact on the gameplay. There are many other stats like critical hit, status resistance, speed and magic find. Each one of these can impact gameplay in profound ways. It is what makes the game and finding things so fun. If you can change the way you build your character and experience the game, it makes for an interesting and unique experience.
JK: Are there any games you yourself have gone back to again and again over the years, as a player?
DB: Yes, many. I still play Everquest every now and then. I played World of Warcraft for years, took a break and went back for another year. I go back and play Zelda: Link to the Past every now and again. There are many more. I don’t know if you count Pokémon as going back since there are new versions, but I play a lot of Pokémon. I also play old Civ [Civilization] games, Master of Orion and I recently got Ultima 4 to go back and play again.
JK: Are games today becoming increasingly ephemeral, do you think? I’m thinking particularly of games developed for iOS and Android over the past 2-3 years, of MMOs [massively multiplayer online games], and of how preservation and curation are endlessly challenged by new technology and modernization of gaming hardware.
DB: I think people consume content at a crazy rate. Because of that, games have become a very quick-to-digest-and-move-on content that wasn’t always the case. It’s a strange mix, because when new content comes out, people will play those 50+ hours of new content in two weeks even if it took the developer a year or two to make and then move on. I don’t really know if it is a problem. I think it is probably good. I think that World of Warcraft, Everquest and other MMOs had a huge impact on what people expect from a game and it isn’t really fair. Games can’t have endless content unless they are games as a service, yet lots of gamers expect games, especially RPGs, to have tons of content to compete with games as a service. So getting away from that and making more digestible games and content is a movement I would like to see more.
JK: When you’re working on a game like you are now with It Lurks Below, do you think about future projects at the same time or try to keep your focus entirely in the moment?
DB: I do think about other projects every now and then, but I just write them down and move on. I don’t really think about them long. About 99% of my focus is on It Lurks Below right now; I have plenty of problems and design to work on with that game. I want it to be the best it can be so I try and use my energy towards making it great. Any time and focus I spend working on something else, not only feels like I’m cheating my customers that have put their money and faith in me to finish, but take me out of the zone of inspiration.
That said, I can’t focus all the time and I do see new things and new ideas do pop in my head, so it is only natural to get new ideas, but they are not what I spend my time on.
JK: What inspired you to make It Lurks Below? I mean this in terms of the experience you hope to give players with this particular game.
DB: My inspiration for It Lurks Below came from playing Starbound and Minecraft. I loved both of those games and played them for many hours, but they lacked the RPG depth that I yearned for. So when I set out to make It Lurks Below, the original version was 2D-Minecraft/Starbound styled side-scroller with a story, random dungeons and random loot. Basically, Diablo meets Starbound. Originally I think it started out more Starbound-like but now it is much more Diablo-like. It isn’t about the variety of environments or different worlds/tiles, etc., like Minecraft and Starbound because it isn’t a sandbox-style game. The game has much more focus and the depth is in the RPG aspects, not the blocks/tiles/worlds. What I hope to make is a Diablo-like 2D side-scroller game with a bit of crafting, farming and building.
JK: Do you feel your passion and engagement as a game developer and designer transfer directly, in your view, in terms of player experiences of your games?
DB: Absolutely. I am making the game for myself first and foremost. If I’m having fun and I’m passionate about what I’m making, I think it changes the product and it shows in the play. You can tell when a developer isn’t having fun making something. You can tell when they do. It comes through in the final product in a way that is hard to put into words.
JK: How important is ambient sound in creating the atmosphere of It Lurks Below?
DB: Sound is incredibly important in games. Good sound design can turn a good title into something superb. Emotional impact of the experience comes from music and ambient sound. Try watching a scene from a horror movie while playing a pop-song. It is very different than when you listen with the movie sound. The same with games. Using music and sound to create an atmosphere will change the way people view your game just as much as graphics.
JK: What elements of It Lurks Below are you happiest with so far?
DB: I think I’m most happy with the combat systems. The game feels really great to move around in and fight. That is the core of what the game is, so getting that right is really important. Once that core is great, branching out and making the rest of it enhance that core is what makes it interesting and fun.