5 minute read
Karl Taro Greenfeld

They are going to make 2 million of these little silicon discs–burn them, in the lingo–and then they will be richer. Their game, Diablo II, an Internet-based slasher romp, has been described by at least one game-industry magazine as the “most anticipated in history.” Diablo, their first game, was among the best selling ever, moving a couple million CD-ROMs, making the game’s co-creators, brothers Erich Schaefer, 34, and Max Schaefer, 32, multimillionaires. But what is striking about walking into the Blizzard North building in Menlo Park, Calif., is not the casualness of the offices, the cubicles strewn with toys or the 8-ft. red-and-black Diablo mannequin next to the receptionist–that’s standard work-is-play, tech-firm vibe. Instead, what makes me stop and wonder is the feeling that I am revisiting my childhood.

I grew up with Erich and Max. We were best friends. And the life they are living–from the games they are designing to the millions they are earning to the expensive homes in which they are living–could also have been mine. Like so many members of Gen X, I too could have participated in the Silicon Valley orgy of wealth creation. Because at Blizzard North, Erich and Max have somehow turned what used to be a clique of adolescent boys–our rabble of pimply, geeked-out teenagers in Pacific Palisades, Calif.–into a highly profitable, 100-employee, new-economy juggernaut that is currently the focal point of millions of young males eagerly awaiting the Christmas launch of Diablo II.

I spent most school-day afternoons with Max and Erich, along with Kenny Williams, who as a bespectacled eighth-grader possessed an uncanny memory for sports trivia. He’s now the business-affairs manager. There was Grant Wilson, whom we used to pick on cruelly when he was a freckly, stuttering weed of a 12-year-old, and Chris Root, who spent a year living with the Schaefers after transferring to our high school. They’re game designers now. I can remember us all huddled in Erich’s darkened bedroom, a Rush album blaring as we rolled 20-sided dice, hunched over the charts, graphs and tables of a Dungeons & Dragons expedition. This was the future brain trust of a company worth hundreds of millions. How could I have missed that?

The games that made Erich and Max rich were derived from those that we played as kids. There’s a natural flow to that, but it’s irksome to think that if I had just kept playing Dungeons & Dragons with them, or Traveler, Squad Leader, Top Secret or any of a dozen other fantasy role-playing (FRP) games, then I too would have millions, get the high-roller treatment in Las Vegas and drive Porsches. And they’re not even computer geeks. “We just design games we like to play,” Erich says.

This is where I have to admit that Erich and Max were clever in persisting in what I abandoned. When the first computer games were unveiled, the FRP versions were about as exciting as doorbells. No action. There was, I concluded, no future in this. Especially as I was just discovering the opposite sex. Better roles; better fantasies. Erich and Max, sitting in front of their Apple II computer and its 32 K of memory, just didn’t seem headed anywhere I wanted to go as a hormonally drenched 16-year-old.

Erich and Max metaphorically stayed in front of that Apple II as Moore’s law morphed it into a faster, better computer. Then came the Net. And after nearly a decade of wandering the techie wilderness, dabbling in desktop publishing and then gradually shifting into game design, the Schaefers struck gold with Diablo, the game that could be described as Quake meets Dungeons & Dragons. Then, in typical Silly Valley fashion, their company was bought out by a bigger company, which was bought by an even larger company. You know the rest.

Few things are supposed to be harder in life than to watch your friends become very successful. But when I visit Erich and Max, instead of being consumed by jealousy, I slip into the flow of discussion, debating what kind of weaponry a Paladin should wield or the advantages of the bec de corbin over a standard battle ax. The nuances of games come naturally to me. And spending time with them takes me back to those afternoons at play. That’s what these guys do all day, play games. For a moment, I regret the path I took, of becoming a writer, of moving to New York City. I should have stayed with them. I should have kept playing games.

But then I think about my smiling baby daughter, four months old. I realize that everything I did I had to do, or I wouldn’t have this particular child. And if that meant taking a pass on the greatest creation of wealth in the history of the world, then I played it right.

Although the money sure would have been nice.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at