“Growing up I remember playing Diablo and it being this incredible, amazing experience. One that I played with my brothers. We had so much fun together. And when Diablo II came out, it was mind-blowing. Playing through it felt like a discovery, and I lost an entire summer where I was constantly playing.” That’s Rob Foote, Lead Game Producer on the Diablo III team. He’s been at Blizzard for the past 17 years, and the main reason he applied to for a job there, was Diablo.
For Diablo III Senior Game Designer Joe Shelly, another Blizzard veteran of over 10 years, the experience was similar. Diablo II arrived on the scene while he was at college, working as an intern for a tech company. He would spend evening after evening playing Diablo II, often heading into work tired from very little, or a complete lack of, sleep. “It was instrumental in determining that what I really wanted to do was work in games. And work at Blizzard.”
Diablo, from developer Blizzard North and publisher Blizzard Entertainment, launched on December 31, 1996. Now 20 years old, many see it as the very first example of an action-RPG. It was an experience where fast-paced combat merged with character building, skill trees, and powerful items of different colour and rarity. In other words, loot.
Both Diablo (1996) and Diablo II (2000) were seminal releases, and have gone on to influence many games over the past couple of decades. Diablo III (2012) brought the series into the modern era, with faster combat, a cinematic story, and the same focus on player customisation.
Diablo III Lead VFX Artist and industry veteran Julian Love was working at Sierra On-Line when Diablo launched. A programmer introduced him to the game, proclaiming that it was something that he absolutely had to play. Which they did together, at Sierra offices whilst “fake-working for a good three months straight.” Eventually they got into trouble.
“Somehow, I was still working at Sierra when Diablo II came out,” Love tells me. “It got to be such an obsession. That’s all I was talking about. That’s all I was doing. It got to a point where it was like, ‘What am I doing?’ So, I quit and applied.” Joining the post-launch Diablo II team at Blizzard North Julian has been at Blizzard for the past 15 years. Rob Foote, who’s been there for a little longer, was working in another industry entirely when he applied. With no game development experience at all he applied via fax machine to become a game tester at Blizzard, where, “Just being anywhere near Diablo was super exciting.”
“Diablo is a role-playing game wherein a player creates a single character and guides him through a dungeon in an attempt to find and destroy ‘Diablo’, the devil himself. All the action takes place in an isometric, three-quarter perspective…”
– Excerpt taken from the Original 1994 Diablo Design Document by Condor, Inc.
In 1993 brothers Erich and Max Schaefer and David Brevik formed game development company Condor. Right from the beginning the dream was to work on an idea that they had for an RPG set in a dark gothic world, a digital space devoid of the sorts of Orcs and Elves that you might associate with the fantasy genre. Working on the original design and pitch for Diablo, it was to be an experience where brutal combat was king.
“Diablo was exactly the game I wanted to play,” Erich Schaefer says. “When I was younger, and the Dungeon Master in games of D&D, the sorts of campaigns I ran were short, brutal, and loot heavy. No real story to speak of, but just hinting at interesting lore. For Diablo, the important thing at the time was a casual, play-with-one-hand, self-paced, loot-filled RPG.”
“When I was younger, and the Dungeon Master in games of D&D, the sorts of campaigns I ran were short, brutal, and loot heavy. No real story to speak of, but just hinting at interesting lore.” – Erich Schaefer.
Aside from the original design calling for turn-based combat in the vein of popular PC strategy series X-Com, it’s clear that even from this early stage the foundation of what would eventually become Diablo had been set. “That core loop of starting out in Tristram, or in a town, and then going deeper into a den of evil and fighting Diablo, the ultimate evil, is one that’s really strong,” Joe Shelly explains. “And you can see it throughout all three games.”
The only problem for Condor was, no one wanted to fund the development of a PC, DOS-based RPG in the ‘90s. In fact, when the trio pitched Diablo to various publishers, the general feeling and response was that the wider gaming community didn’t want anything to do with the genre. That, and Diablo was the sort of experience that would fail to find success outside of a small hardcore audience. And so to pay the bills the team took on contract work, developing games where both budgets and scope were set in advance.
“We were hired to develop a game for the Sega Genesis called Justice League Task Force. This was a fighting game, kind of in the vein of Street Fighter, with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman,” Condor co-founder and former Blizzard North president David Brevik tells me. “We were showing off our game at CES, and lo and behold, there was another company making a Super Nintendo version of the same game. And we didn’t know. We didn’t chat. We didn’t share ideas. It was kind of ‘Surprise!’ And yet, the games were strangely similar. It was really weird. The art, largely the same, and the locations were kind of the same too.”
The developer of the Super Nintendo version of Justice League Task Force turned out to be a company called Silicon & Synapse. The development studio was actually in the process of changing its name to Blizzard Entertainment and prepping for its debut in the PC gaming market with a new real-time strategy game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans.
David Brevik recalls the immediate kinship they felt, and the response. “We were like, ‘Oh, PC games. That is what we want to do. We love PC games. We are big PC gamers you know, and we are only doing these projects to kind of pay the bills, but we’ve got this great game idea. We’ve pitched it to everybody. We’ve been turned down, you know, 50 times, or whatever it is. Nobody wants to do this game because RPGs are dead, but we got this great RPG idea we would love to make some day.’”
As Blizzard Entertainment was putting the final touches on Warcraft, communication with Condor kept up and the two studios became close. The team even offered Beta Testing services for Blizzard’s ground-breaking RTS. After Warcraft made its critically acclaimed debut in late 1994, Blizzard returned the favour and paid Condor a visit to hear all about its RPG. “We pitched them Diablo, and they loved it,” Brevik continues. “We signed a contract, maybe about two months after that, and immediately started development. Development itself took about two years, and about half way through they acquired us and we became Blizzard North.”
“We called it gothic fantasy at the time. It was a combination of trying to not to look like everything else, and my love for dark and grimy Italian zombie movies,” says Erich Schaefer, explaining the visually striking look of the first Diablo game, on which he served as both lead designer and art director. “We wanted it to be gritty and gory. I wanted you to kill the first monster by bludgeoning its head in with a shovel, before you even got a sword,” he adds. “Lots of the looks were based on my travels to castles, churches, and catacombs.”
“I think a constant, across all three games, is the tone and the mood. I love horror as a genre. And there are twisted memories that I have from all three,” recalls Rob Foote, looking back at the shared visual impact that can be felt from Diablo to Diablo II to Diablo III. “I remember that first encounter with the Butcher, and being startled whilst playing it. I remember the quest in Diablo II involving the countess who bathed in blood. And then in Diablo III, when you help the farmer and go inside to meet his wife and she’s just a skeleton in a rocking chair.”
But being dark, gothic, and gory is only one part of the equation; the overall Diablo experience and its raw immediacy is what kept players coming back. “Somehow, we hit a sweet spot where even though things were dark and evil, you still felt like a superhero,” says Erich Schaefer. This aspect of the series has played an important part throughout its history, and still informs every decision the Diablo III team at Blizzard makes.
“It’s really about this fantasy of getting stronger and being able to slay the minions of hell,” Joe Shelly tells me. “Being able to reach new and crazy heights of character development, and getting all kinds of items that enhance your powers in ways that you can’t even imagine.”
“All combat is with monsters, there are no enemies in Diablo. This is something that I think is an important part of Diablo, that there is no grey line of morality running through it.” – Julian Love.
“All combat is with monsters, there are no enemies in Diablo,” Julian Love adds. “This is something that I think is an important part of Diablo, that there is no grey line of morality running through it.” A strange by-product of the gothic setting that creates a more inviting atmosphere than say, a game with fewer demons or mostly human enemies. “We, as a team, go to extra lengths to try to make sure that when you see a thing that should be slain, there instantly is no question in your mind about the reason why. You’re not killing people, you’re killing monsters.”
“Even though I’m not a religious man, I think devils and demons are just a much cooler enemy than giant rats and orcs,” says Erich Schaefer, on the lasting impact of Diablo as a gothic fantasy. “Not that we didn’t have plenty of those kind of monsters as cannon-fodder to slaughter, but as a main villain, who’s better than the devil?”
Originally pitched as a turn-based single-player RPG, a number of significant changes were made during the two-year development cycle for Diablo. Chief among those, was a suggestion from Blizzard – before Condor was acquired – that they switch the combat to real-time.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, the moment that we made it real-time instead of turn-based,” David Brevik recalls. “It was a big debate in the office for quite a while. I resisted it. I didn’t want to make it real-time. I really loved the tension and the perma-death and things like that of games like Rogue and NetHack. Stuff like, ‘Oh my god! I’ve got a little bit of health. I’ve got to make this decision. What am I going to do?’ It didn’t feel like a real-time game could give me that tension, and so I resisted.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday, the moment that we made it real-time instead of turn-based… It was a big debate in the office for quite a while. I resisted it. I didn’t want to make it real-time.” – David Brevik.
It’s hard to quantify the lasting impact that going real-time would have on an RPG like Diablo, but for those that played it upon release, the experience was both familiar yet new. “I was a big Gauntlet fan, but the thing about playing Gauntlet, it’s just sucking quarters out of your pocket,” Julian Love explains. “So, when Diablo comes out, it’s like that but with so much more depth that you can just lose days and days in it. It was an instant, instant hook.”
As the lead programmer on Diablo, one of the drawbacks that David Brevik saw with the prospect of switching the combat to real-time would be extensive delays to an already drawn out development cycle. Plus, the need for more money from its newly found benefactor to complete the project. Even so, he got out-voted, and was left with the prospect of radically changing the game.
Alone in the office on a Friday, he was forced to face his greatest fear. “I was like, ‘This is going to take me forever. You guys just go home or whatever.’ And when they came back on Monday, it was working. I remember playing the hero and he had this mace. I clicked on a skeleton and the hero walked across the screen, swung, and smashed it to pieces. At that moment, I knew that it was something different and special. You could easily tell.”
“It wasn’t long after that, that everybody in the company was just staying after work and playing the game,” Brevik continues. “People don’t usually sit around after work and play what they are working on all day.” This change to real-time combat came fairly early in the Diablo development cycle, and its impact would inform every choice from that moment on, from monster behaviour to skills to items and of course, loot.
The second major change, going online, proved to be a different story, in that it came late and was a feature that the team saw as one of the last major hurdles to overcome. In the end, the creation of Battle.net and its introduction with Diablo not only helped define the series in the eyes of fans but also served as an important milestone in the still relatively new arena of online gaming.
“When Diablo II came out it was the first real online game that I’d played,” Rob Foote tells me. “And playing on Battle.net and being in chat and talking to people about what’s going on and then jumping into games was a brand-new experience for me. Even now when I’m playing Diablo III, we sit around with people that are playing the Seasons and we’re talking about our characters. Some of the people here play Hardcore too, so when your character dies you tell the story. There’s a connection that you feel with other people when you play Diablo.”