In 1994, a company calling itself Condor, Inc. wrote a design document (the basic outline for a video game concept) that begins:
“The following is Condor, Inc.’s proposal for a role-playing game, playable on PC-compatible computers. Diablo captures familiar fantasy elements within a unique structure designed for maximum replayability, expandability, and versatility. Diablo fills a neglected niche in the computer game market. As games today substitute gameplay with multimedia extravaganzas, and strive toward needless scale and complexity, we seek to reinvigorate the hack and slash, feel good gaming audience. Emphasis will be on exploration, conflict and character development in a dark quest for justice.”
Who knew that a juggernaut gaming franchise would be born from a relatively simple eight-page document and that initial paragraph.
Diablo: The Dark Creation
David Brevik, Diablo’s lead designer and programmer, came up with the concept for the game while working on a Sega Genesis superhero fighting game, Justice League Task Force. He also borrowed the name for the game itself from Mount Diablo, a mountain in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was residing at the time.
Brevik also took inspiration from the simplicity of sports games from the era and wanted to apply that to the out-of-favor (at the time) RPG genre. “One of the things that we were trying to get with Diablo was ease of gaming,” Brevik stated in a 2015 interview. “The EA NHL series was really good at this, where you just click and you're in the game. Before Diablo, when you created a character, you had to answer 53 questions about this, that, and the other; you had to name it, give it a backstory, and so on. We just wanted to get in and start smashing things.”
In 1996, Condor was acquired by a newly christened Blizzard Entertainment (formerly Silicon & Synapse), who had just unleashed a little game on the world called Warcarft: Orcs & Humans. Condor became known as Blizzard North. Blizzard brought two major things to the table in terms of Diablo's overall gameplay and design: real-time combat (as opposed to turn-based fighting) and multiplayer—which certainly wasn’t the given in 1996 that it is in today’s world.
The backdrop of Diablo is the town of Tristram, the capital of the Kingdom of Khanduras on the world of Sanctuary. The real action takes place underneath the town in a network of dungeons, catacombs, and caves that ultimately guide players into the pits of Hell itself.
Diablo’s narrative centers on the player characters embarking on a series of quests to rid Tristram of terrible evil, descending through twelve levels of dungeons into Hell, where they confront the titular boss enemy, Diablo, Lord of Terror—one of the seven “Evils,” the demon lords who once reigned in Hell.
As anyone who played the original Diablo will tell you, those two additions from Blizzard—multiplayer and real-time combat—were crucial in making the game something special, something different, something no one had played before...and something everyone couldn’t stop playing once it got its nefarious hooks into them. The randomly generated dungeons and heaps of loot to collect kept players coming back for more and more and more. And the big draw, of course, was the online multiplayer in the relative infancy of Battle.net, which forms the backbone of my foremost recollection of playing Diablo for the first time.
There were whispered tales on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) about this new game where roving bands of ne'er-do-well players were murdering mostly new solo players to steal their loot and/or just for the hell (no pun intended) of it. This sounded absolutely preposterous to me, so I just had to try this lawless “Diablo” game for myself and luckily, I went unmolested on my initial playthrough and lived long enough to tell this tale...
Diablo was released in early 1997 to critical acclaim, winning several “Game of the Year” awards. The title also sold through the roof, shifting over two and a half million units worldwide by mid-2001. Later in 1997, the Hellfire expansion was released, adding three new character classes (Monk, Barbarian, and Bard) and two new dungeon environments to explore (the Nest and the Crypt). In an odd bit of corporate wrangling, Hellfire's development was handed over to a division of Sierra, Synergistic Software, to complete when Blizzard North opted out, wanting to move on to a true sequel rather than develop anything further for the original game.
Diablo II: More of a Good Thing
In the tumultuous year 2000, Diablo II was loosed on the gaming world. It’s set almost immediately after the events in the first game, where an unknown combatant vanquished Diablo, then tried in vain to conceal the demon lord’s essence within his body. Because of this, the hero was infected by the demon's spirit, becoming a “Dark Wanderer” and, in turn, letting demons enter the world to rip, rend, and destroy everything and everyone set before them.
Diablo II’s story is broken up into four acts. Players can choose from a refreshingly diverse set of character classes: Paladin, Amazon, Necromancer, Sorceress, and Barbarian. With a class selected, players must track down Soulstones and the Dark Wanderer himself before Diablo (along with his brothers Mephisto and Baal) can be unleashed on the world once again.
Development of Diablo II took three long years when the Blizzard North team originally thought it would only take a year. They originally intended to release the anticipated sequel in the first quarter of 1998—not in June of 2000. But almost no code was used from the original game, and the team had no real direction and no design document guiding them. “Diablo II never had an official, complete design document... For the most part we just started making up new stuff,” said project lead Erich Schafer in a 2000 postmortem interview. Regardless of these obstacles, Diablo II is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPG games of all time, maintains a lofty 88 Metacritic score, and has sold well over four million copies worldwide.
In 2001, the Lord of Destruction expansion was released. Set after the events of Diablo II, Lord of Destruction sees players seeking to obliterate Diablo's brother, Baal. This expansion contains a new act, new items, and two new character classes, Druid and Assassin. It is also worthy to note that unlike the Hellfire expansion, Blizzard made the choice to develop Lord of Destruction themselves which, undoubtedly, helped cement how fondly remembered it is.
Perhaps most impressively, Diablo II continues to command a dedicated player base to this day. Over twenty years later after its initial launch, Blizzard released Diablo II: Resurrected. This well-received remaster has gone on to sell over five million copies as of April 2022.
Diablo III: A Hotbed of Controversy
Diablo III was announced at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational event in Paris in June 2008. The title itself would initially be released in May 2012 for the PC with console versions coming in 2013 (Xbox 360 and PS3), 2014 (Xbox One and PS4) and 2018 (Nintendo Switch).
Set twenty years after the end of Diablo II, players can choose to play as one of seven character classes: Barbarian, Crusader, Demon Hunter, Monk, Necromancer, Witch Doctor, or Wizard. Once again, players are tasked with defeating the Lord of Terror, Diablo.
The narrative begins with Deckard Cain and his ward Leah in Tristram Cathedral (the very same cathedral that was the setting of Diablo) researching ancient texts concerning an ill-omened prophecy. A mysterious star falls from the sky and strikes the Cathedral, producing a crater into which Deckard Cain vanishes.
From there, the meandering story evolves to tracking down the Black Soulstone with a “fallen” angel named Tyrael as a companion/guide to the ultimate confrontation with Diablo (who is now the PRIME EVIL) in the High Heavens.
Development on Diablo III actually began in 2001 under Blizzard North which was shuttered in August 2005 after years of internal strife and clashes with Vivendi, Blizzard’s publisher at the time. A key reason for the closure was Blizzard North's poor development of what was to be Diablo III, which was found to not meet Vivendi's expectations.
But development of Diablo III marched on and evolved through several iterations over the years. Ultimately, it was announced that the game would need a persistent internet connection to play, even for single-player mode which was quite controversial at the time.
Other innovations would be implemented in this title, but the main one that most players recall is the auction house which stirred up more controversy for several reasons. Prior to release, Blizzard stated that nearly everything that drops on the ground, including gold, could be traded with other players either directly or through the auction house system. Of particular note was the ability to buy and sell auction house items using real money, not just in-game gold. However, those real-money auctions came loaded down with fees, including Blizzard taking a 15% cut from the final sales price, as well as an additional 15% "cashing-out" fee from proceeds gained selling items in the real-money auction house.
In March 2013, former Diablo III game director Jay Wilson expressed that the existence of the auction house “really hurt” the game. “I think we would turn it off if we could,” Wilson imparted during his talk. But the solution was “not as easy as that.” Half a year later, in September 2013, Blizzard announced that both the gold and real-money auction houses would be shut down on March 18, 2014, bringing an end to all the turbulent hullabaloo. Much like the two previous versions of the Diablo franchise, Diablo III was well-reviewed, although many took exception to the real-money auction house and the always-online DRM nonsense which effectively killed any hopes of an offline single-player campaign. Despite those concerns, it also sold extremely well; by May 2013, Diablo III had been played by fourteen and a half million unique players, selling over thirty million copies worldwide by August 2015.
Again, expansion adventures followed the main game. Reaper of Souls, released in March 2014, follows the fall of Archangel Malthael who is revealed to be the Grim Reaper. A smaller add-on, Rise of the Necromancer, released in June 2017, introducing the titular masters of the undead to this sequel but without adding any new story content.
The personal recollection I have of Diablo III is a bit bittersweet, unfortunately, as it one of the last games that my son (who is now 29 and lives in another state), daughter (who is 17...going on 35...and has kind of lost interest in most video games), and I all played together for an extended period of time.
Games of Future Past - The Legacy of Diablo
It isn’t hard to pin down the legacy of the Diablo series, because it essentially redefined the scope of the dungeon crawler, a term that dates back to 1975 mainframe computers and a frequently deleted game called pedit5. Since Diablo’s release in 1997 there have been many titles that have emulated, but never quite matched, its cool isometric viewpoint and slick gameplay mechanics. Some of the better Diablo clones out there include: Victor Vran, Dungeon Siege, Nox, Torchlight, Titan Quest, Path of Exile, and Throne of Darkness. These imitators may not surpass the quality of Diablo, but they’re worth checking out if you are jonesing for some hot point-and-click, hack-and-slash action. What does the future hold for this storied franchise that has enthralled so many gamers and inspired so many developers? This week the long-awaited (and somewhat controversial) Diablo Immortal has launched on mobile devices as well as PC. Early critic reviews are all positive so far, but I’m more interested to see the community reaction, given the aforementioned acrimonious controversy. And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Diablo IV, which was announced at BlizzCon 2019. While no set release timeframe has been confirmed for Diablo IV, the wait may be a while yet, as recent allegations of a toxic workplace at Blizzard have caused the departure of at least one veteran game designer and one game director due to those sordid events, and Activision itself cited that controversy and “higher voluntary turnover” at Blizzard as directly tied to Diablo IV not releasing in 2022.
Regardless, many players, myself included, just want to get their hands on the latest and (hopefully) greatest sequel in this storied franchise. It is my sincere hope that Activision Blizzard can rise above these issues and allegations to deliver an experience that does right by the franchise and that the longtime Diablo fans deserve.