The year I first attended Blizzcon was 2008. That year's event was particularly memorable for me (and lots of other people) because Blizzard announced that attendees would be given some hands-on time with Diablo III. I can still remember standing in line with my friends, speculating excitedly and craning our necks to better see the action on the monitors nearest us. What I don't remember is how long we waited; all I know is it was well worth it.
Where did this enthusiasm come from? I could say it was born seventeen years ago in the twilit town of Tristram, but the truth is a lot less romantic. My first confrontation with the Lord of Terror occurred in a chilly Chicago apartment. The place was impossible to heat, and the indoor temperature never exceeded sixty degrees, but I hardly noticed. Outside the arctic winds blew, but inside the walls glowed from the heat of the Inferno.
Diablo changed things for RPG fans like me. It brought to life a frightening world full of atmosphere and danger. The game's graphics were incredible, its music instantly branded itself on your brain, and best of all, you and your friends could experience it simultaneously. You'd expect this dark vision to have been built inside an abandoned castle or hidden bunker, but in fact, Diablo took form in the sunny clime of the Bay Area peninsula. It was the collective brainchild of three close friends: David Brevik and brothers Erich and Max Schaefer (Fun fact: the Schaefers were born in my home state of New Mexico.) The three formed a company called Condor Inc., within which they employed their distinctive garage-band approach to make games like Justice League Task Force, and NFL Quarterback Club '95 and '96.
Although Condor was glad for the contract work, the company naturally harbored dreams of making its own game. They began work on Diablo (named for Mt. Diablo near Danville, where Brevik grew up) but were struggling with making it accessible until crossing paths with Blizzard co-founders Michael Morhaime, Allen Adham and Frank Pearce. This three-man tag team loved what they saw of Diablo, and easily won Condor's respect with its ability to create accessible mechanics (as proven by the success of its ground-breaking RTS, Warcraft.) This mutual admiration society soon led to Condor and Blizzard combining their edgy/mass-market-appeal sensibilities in 1996 to bring to life not only a new studio—Blizzard North—but an RPG the like of which had never been seen.
Upon release, Diablo was received to near-universal acclaim (today it still holds a 94 aggregate score on Metacritic) and won awards from multiple publications including PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World. Seemingly designed to encourage obsessive gaming, it featured multiple difficulty levels, randomly-generated dungeons, and random loot drops, thus giving gamers ample reason to play through it again and again. Its mature, blood-soaked graphics (succubus death animation anyone?) shocked and titillated audiences, as did the game's risky, not-necessarily-crowd-pleasing ending.
“Instant classic” is a highly-overused term, but when discussing Diablo, it's fairly accurate, and that's due in large part, to Blizzard being one of the first publishers to think of games as a service. Blizzard's Battle.net was not only integrated into the game, it was absolutely free for players to use. Today's gamer generation might say “So what?” to such things, but before Diablo introduced them, they existed only as separate, fee-based services. The gents at Blizzard North predicted that gamers would appreciate these revolutionary ideas, and public response confirmed that prediction.
Despite the fact that Diablo offered great service and endless hours of entertainment, the public still clamored for more, so in 1997 Diablo's only official expansion, Diablo: Hellfire was released. Made by Sierra Online and Synergistic Software, it might have scratched the itch for some, but fans still weren't satisfied (and were divided on1998's Playstation port done by Climax Group). It wasn't until 2000 when Blizzard made and released a true sequel—Diablo II—that devotees got what they wanted. Upon release, Diablo II earned a Guinness World record by becoming the fastest-selling PC game in history.
It too raked in the awards, running away with accolades from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, PC Gamer, Play Online Magazine, MacWorld and Computer Gaming World.
Diablo II enhanced the franchise by expanding upon its environments and emphasizing online multiplayer, as well as fleshing out the lore of Sanctuary. It also added two new classes and made a silly rumor into a silly reality by creating an easter egg-like Secret Cow Level. Without doubt, Blizzard North's ambitious RPG was on a roll, and a year later it enjoyed further success with an official Blizzard-authored expansion to Diablo II called Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. Storywise, Lord of Destruction was basically the end (Act V) of Diablo II; in terms of gameplay, it served to heighten replayability by adding two more character classes and an array of new loot. By then, I like to imagine the Blizzard North guys answering their phones and being like, “Best-selling game in history you say? You'd like to give us another Game of the Year award?” /Yawn
Truth be told, perhaps they were a little burnt out, (pun totally intended) but who could blame them? As it happened, the company took seven long years to start work on another Diablo game (or at least to announce it), and fans nearly blew a gasket when Blizzard announced Diablo III in 2008. A group of perfectionists, the development team (from Blizzard South) took four more long years to make the game and planned to launch it on May 15th, 2012. Little did they know the firestorm (pun once again intended) they were about to endure.
You remember it, I remember it—Error 37. Nearly as infamous as Order 66, this horrendous login bug (and the stupid enforced-online-gameplay system that created it) prevented many a gamer from entering their favorite demonic domain. It also forced them to devote the time they would have spent playing, writing angry rants and making stacks of sarcastic memes. Had the controversy ended there, it would have been more than enough, but then came ex-Blizzard North President (he left in 2003) David Brevik's critique of the game. Though diplomatic about it, Brevik's comments appeared to criticize design decisions made by the team at Blizzard South and he was just about burned in effigy.
Fortunately for Blizzard South, (and despite a somewhat broken auction house) Diablo III was still a popular success, scoring an aggregate of 88 on Metacritic and selling more than 3.5 million copies in its first day. The game contributed a range of new features including even more character classes, an upgraded Battle.net that let gamers chat across all Blizzard titles, skill runes and random story elements. Best of all, it brought us Whimsyshire! The most dedicated, diligent and demented gamers could jump through a series of ridiculous hoops and unlock a special My Little Pony-like level full of rainbows, unicorns and happy clouds. Of course, the object was to kill as many unicorns as possible but hey...
Despite the controversy, (and the unicorns) a year after its release, Diablo III is still going strong. This year Blizzard inserted PvP into the game and just last week, at Blizzcon 2013, they announced the Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition for PS4. Set for release in December, this new version comes bundled with the Diablo III Act V expansion, Reaper of Souls and features DualShock 4 touchpad integration. It also comes with a few new social mechanics such as Player Mail and Gifts, as well as the ability to send a friend one of your mortal monster enemies to contend with.
There's no question Diablo has had a profound effect on the game industry. Both it and its creators have ended up on various “most influential” lists, and many action RPGs have tried to duplicate its success. It's affected gamers too, especially those of us who were there when Blizzard first opened the gates of Hell. Those chilly days spent exploring Sanctuary for the first time might be long gone, but the impression they've made on me is deep and indelible. Trading in Tristram, barely surviving hair-raising battles, and cooperating with friends to retrieve our battered corpses are among my—and no doubt many other gamers'—fondest gaming memories. It's a nostalgia-tinged magic that perhaps can't be recaptured. Still, Diablo deserves recognition not only for introducing us to a dark world full of risk and reward, but for informing our expectations of what an RPG should be.
Note: Diablo special releases
Note: For further information about the original Diablo, see author David Craddock's comprehensive and informative history of Diablo, Stay a While and Listen which is available on the iTunes store.