“That’s what the game was always called,” recalls David Brevik, lead programmer for the original 1997 Diablo. “Diablo is the name of a mountain in the San Francisco Bay area, at the foot of which I then lived. When I found out about it, I remember saying, ” Yes, this is going to be a great video game title someday.”
A kind of anti-RPG of that time, Diablo received many of its solutions not because of, but in spite of. “Look at how others are doing, and do exactly the opposite” – this is roughly the principle that her philosophy was developed.
But one of the benchmarks for the game mechanic that has not been incorporated in it initially.
“I was interested in games from an early age —” says Brevik, Recalling how his first game was created. “I think it was 1979 when my father brought home the Apple II Plus. Before that, we still had Pong and Atari 2600, but I acquired a passion for programming already at Apple II Plus and learned to program on it. That was kind of the beginning of my career. And since then, I’ve wanted nothing more than to make video games for the rest of my life.
Serious work on Diablo began in late 1993. My friends and I started our own company and started pitching the game to larger studios.
Blizzard first appeared in our lives at one of CES. We then presented our Justice League Task Force. We were making the Sega Genesis version, and they were working on the Super Nintendo version. However, we didn’t know there was a Super Nintendo version, and they didn’t know there was a Genesis version. So we didn’t share anything with each other — any elements of game design or anything else. However, oddly enough, the games came out very similar: they looked like they were designed by the same people. So we merged into one company.
The guys from Blizzard once suggested: “We are working on one title here. Come on, let’s show you.” I followed them to their small meeting room, where they showed me Warcraft. They continued, ” But we’re also looking for other games. We want to work with other cool developers.” And I said, ” Well, we have an idea, but no one wants to do it. Their Response was, ” we’ll finish Warcraft First, and then we’ll see what you can offer us.” So they agreed to take on Diablo.
At that time, PC RPGs in General were in a very strange state. Their sales have fallen dramatically. It used to be a huge genre, but when we pitched Diablo to a bunch of different companies, we were rejected more than 20 times.
In many ways, we wanted to create the opposite of what role-playing games were at the time. We tried our best to make sure that our game was not about elves and dragons. We were more attracted to the style of Dungeons & Dragons, which I played as a child. In D&D, I didn’t really care about ENT and the like. I liked loot much better: the chance to get a cool sword or something like that. So I wanted to create a game about killing monsters and collecting cool loot, rather than a long story with deep character customization.
I wanted to focus more on the action and loot of the game. We thought it was a great idea that made us stand out from the crowd, but I think a lot of publishers at that time were more business people than gamers to appreciate it. And businessmen who found out that this genre is no longer sold. So bringing the game to people who were gamers themselves was a bit of a breath of fresh air. They understood our vision, and eventually we made a deal.
I used to like games like Ultima, Might and Magic, and Wizardry — which probably influenced my preferences the most. I started developing Diablo in high school. Then, in College, I played a lot on the Unix-based machines that we had in our computer lab at the time. It was here that I was introduced to things like MUD and roguelike — the latter term comes from games similar to the Rogue game I was playing at the time. After it, there were others, such as NetHack and Moria, Umoria and Angband. They had a huge impact on me — especially Angband, which we later looked up to. The essence of the game was to kill bosses, it generated random levels and items, and you were the @ symbol attacking the letter K. Those games didn’t have any graphics yet.
After that, there was also NHL ‘ 94. What we liked about it was that with just a few keys, you could roll back and forth to explore everything around you. This is the philosophy we wanted to bring to Diablo.
We wanted to incorporate everything that wasn’t part of the usual RPGs of the time, and one of the main ideas was that you could just click a couple of buttons and enter the game. Creating characters back then was a huge headache. You end up answering a bunch of questions about your backstory and throwing numbers around all sorts of statistics, without even knowing what a particular parameter is responsible for. We wanted to do without it. And this philosophy permeated every decision we made. The time from entering the game to killing a monster shouldn’t have taken more than a minute.
In Diablo, we had to overcome a lot of technical problems that no one else had experienced at the time. A loot lottery is a kind of system that generates random items. The best analogy here is a slot machine. Every time you kill a monster, you figuratively put a quarter in the coin box of the slot machine, pull the lever, and… nothing happens: you get your quarter back, although you could have made a good profit or hit the jackpot. Just as slot machines are addictive, so too is killing monsters, which can earn you a good reward. There were similar mechanics in Moria, Angband, and Umoria: there was also random item generation, but not to the extent that we were going to do it in Diablo.
Generating random levels in Diablo was extremely difficult. In the original game, it consisted of four parts. We had something like four different tilesets, which required four times as much code as was usually required for such things, which was also a big problem. However, this ensured that your playthrough would always be different from anyone else’s thanks to these trillions of different combinations. While many role-playing games were betting that they would have hundreds of hours of different content, we said that our content is limitless.
Another thing we wanted to implement in Diablo is the intersection of different classes. Again, this was quite unusual for an RPG of the time. Back then, it was popular to say something like: Oh, since you’re a cleric, you don’t need a sword. It sounded absurd, but it was true: if you were playing as a cleric, you couldn’t pick up a dagger or sword — just a staff. Therefore, we wanted to create a kind of anti-system in contrast to this. As a warrior, you could cast spells: Yes, much worse and for extra mana, but still. Our system meant that you can create any class you want. Let me remind you that at that time it was more of an anti-RPG.
The relationship between Blizzard North and Blizzard South has at times been as controversial as any of the other two groups in any relationship. But in General, we got along very well and helped each other. Obviously, there was some quarrel, some of the things to which they were sensitive, some of the things to which we are treated scrupulously. However, we didn’t interfere in each other’s daily Affairs. We kept in touch, but not as if we were sitting in the same office with each other.
Initially, Diablo was supposed to be turn-based, just as Rogue and Angband were turn-based. But at some point — three or four months after we started working on the project — after the success of Warcraft, Blizzard South began to rework all their turn-based strategies into real-time strategies. They promoted the same idea to us. Initially, I was totally against it. Under no circumstances was I going to redo my game in real-time mode.
I was deathly afraid of losing what I thought was the essence of this game. Often, when playing such turn-based RPGs, you get to the point where your character is about to die. And you have an important decision to make. There’s so much strategy and depth in games at times like this. And if you died, that was the end of it. The same thing happened on Unix servers, where you could not restore your characters in any way. In short, it was a really intense moment. And I really didn’t want to lose that tension. I thought it was important for the game. In addition, our system of moves was different from if you made a move, then the opponent made a move, then you again. It was a little more complicated.
One move was split into ten sub-moves, so drawing a sword could take about 1/10 of a turn, then traversing one square horizontally would take an entire turn, and diagonally would take 1.4 turns. So it was a difficult step-by-step thing. It’s caused a lot of conflict, and my colleagues at South and I have talked about the game and how things are going, and we’ve been getting phone calls from them all the time, and over the last few weeks Blizzard South has been constantly asking ,” well, did you change it to real time?» They kept insisting on it. I discussed this with some colleagues in the office. And, to my own surprise, I heard a lot of answers in the spirit of: “Actually, I think that would be cool.”
So, the entire Blizzard North team gathered in the kitchen and held a vote. At that time, the team consisted of about 15 people. It turned out that there were only three or four of us who didn’t want to change anything. Then I reluctantly said, ” Okay, let’s do this.” Can try. I think that this is stupid and will turn out to be a waste of time, and we will redo it for another month. This will require money. But still I agreed: “Yes, now we will have more time to develop the game, because now it will be in real time.”
And I said, ” I’ll Start doing this, and you go home.” That was on a Friday.
On Friday afternoon, I started working on reworking the game, and by the evening everything was ready. I remember it like it was yesterday. While working on the game, I always chose a warrior. I had a baton in my hand, a skeleton on the screen, and I click on the skeleton to hit. My character comes up, swings to the side, and smashes it to smithereens.
And I thought: “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
It really was much better that way.
The sun shone through the window, the clouds parted, and the angels began to sing. It was a moment of enlightenment: I realized that we were on the right track. It really was better that way. And I just sat there for about an hour, clicking the mouse button again and again, just swinging the sword.
So, when the guys arrived on Monday morning, everything was already working.
One of the best things about this was that we already had a lot of assets to work with, because the game was already in development, so we didn’t have to start from scratch. There haven’t been any fundamental changes in terms of the graphics pipeline, art assets, or anything like that to worry about. All we had to do was change the gameplay and make it as smooth as possible.
The office had an electrifying atmosphere. We were all thrilled. Really excited. Even people who were adamant about changing the game, like me, ended up coming up to me and saying, ” Yes, this is amazing. Really cool.”
We have slightly changed the design of the game, interactions with monsters, battle mechanics, and so on. All of this evolved and changed over the next few weeks and months as we sort of understood what real-time actually means in the game and how it affects gameplay.
We didn’t immediately report the changes to Blizzard, but I couldn’t hold back for long. I couldn’t hide it for too long, because it was all so exciting. And they had already agreed to pay us more money, so no one had any questions about that part. And the fact that it took such a short time, and they sort of got their way, didn’t end up being a problem at all. Everyone was thrilled with how it turned out.
In the case of Diablo II, we had a very different vision. Back then, we already had a lot more experience and a much better understanding of the market. We knew what we were doing.
Now I understand that Diablo I came out much better than I could ever have dreamed. As for Diablo II, it was definitely more in line with my expectations, but in the end, it also surpassed them. I mean, it’s still being played by so many people — 20 years after it was released! – which says a lot about the product. At any time, you can go to Twitch and find someone who would stream Diablo II.
Both Diablo and Diablo II have had a huge impact on my career and continue to do so to this day. It wasn’t easy when we left Blizzard and released Hellgate: London. The hype surrounding the game was incredible, but it didn’t live up to expectations. Still, it was a truly unique game. I think she was way ahead of her time. In fact, it was the very first looter shooter.
The best advice I can give other game designers is about the user interface. Is it possible to play our game without any problems without any manual or other instructions? For example, when we were working on Diablo, we had a technique that we called the mom test at the time. That is, my mother was as far away from the gaming environment as possible, and even if she understood the management, then anyone can.
I recently founded Skystone Games to help various indie games come out, support indie developers, and make sure they can survive the harsh conditions of today. So that they can not only get feedback about their game, but also be noticed by the media.
During game development, there were many times when I felt that a game could become a hit, but this did not help me. We worked all day, and when it was time to go home, we didn’t go anywhere. We were playing games that we had previously worked on during the day.
I never dreamed that everything would be as good as it used to be. We dreamed that one day we would be able to sell 25,000 copies. If we could do that, maybe we could make a sequel to the game. That was kind of the original dream — that we could make games that we liked.”