Publisher Blizzard Entertainment (US), Ubisoft (EU) Developer Blizzard North Format PC Release 1996
“I’d been a PC game fan for years, and most of what we were playing was on the PC. At the time, they were much deeper. There were so many platformers and things like that on console, so the real nerdy numbers games were on PC. That’s where my passions were. I’d wanted to make Diablo for a long time – I thought of the idea in high school, and kind of iterated on it. In college, I was influenced by a bunch of Roguelikes that I played, particularly Rogue [laughs]. I would play them for hours and hours, and I knew that this was the direction I wanted to go in.
We started pitching Diablo once we had a few games under our belt. We would take the pitch, which was five laserprinted sheets of paper in this terrible binder that looked like a fifth-grade book report, and hand it out. We got rejected over and over again, because RPGs were dead; they weren’t selling anything. At the time, RPGs were becoming more and more complicated, trying to be more realistic, but fewer people were playing them because they turned out to be less fun.
Silicon & Synapse were working on a PC game when we met them at CES. They invited us to go and have a look, and so we went over and saw Warcraft and they told us they were going to be finishing up that fall. Later, I called up Allen [Adham, Silicon & Synapse co-founder] and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a game idea I’d love to pitch to you.’ And he said, ‘OK, right after we’re done with Warcraft, we’ll come out.’ And so they flew out in January, we pitched them Diablo, they loved it and we signed a contract. It really was my dream game. I had the name already picked out and I was ready to go.
Diablo started out as a singleplayer DOS game using, I swear, claymation. One of the things that had really changed for me was that this was my first opportunity to really create something from scratch. A lot of what I’d done before, there had been a lot of set parameters around what I could do. This time, it was more, ‘The world is your oyster; go ahead and make it.’ But during that process, you realise things aren’t going to work like you thought. The claymation resulted in a neat effect, and we were influenced by Primal Rage, which used a similar technique. But it turns out it was a big pain in the ass. About two weeks into the claymation, we said, ‘Well, this is a really stupid idea.’ Instead, we made 3D models, rendered the images, and captured the images at different intervals, then made sprites out of those. It was a much more efficient process than making physical models and doing the same thing!
As development went on, Windows 95 was just emerging, and then DirectX came out. One of the reasons PC gaming wasn’t popular was that it was a pain in the ass to run anything – you had to be a computer science expert to get any kind of game working. It made more sense for us not to do DOS and to do DirectX.
But the biggest change was when we switched from turn-based to realtime. It was a really passionate debate in the office. I was sticking to my guns that the tension comes from the decision making when my guy has just a few turns left before he dies and is erased – it was a real Roguelike, by the way, and we erased your character when you died. I’m trapped with only a few hit points left; should I use this potion – which I don’t even know what it is yet – and hope that it’s a health potion? Or is it something terrible? All these kinds of things.
Turns out that doesn’t go over very well with modern sensibilities; people don’t like losing their character and all their hard work very much. But anyway, we debated this for a while, and I gave in and said we can try realtime, since I’d been thinking about it and didn’t think it would be that difficult to give it a go. Though I really played it up to Blizzard – because we weren’t part of Blizzard at the time – and said, ‘We’re going to give it a try, but it’s going to take us a month to do this…’ Then I coded it up in a day!
I can still remember the moment I tried it. I was this warrior; there was this skeleton on the other side of the screen. I clicked on the skeleton, I walked over, smashed it, it fell on the ground, and it was just like you would imagine it would be: beams of light came through the clouds, the angels sang, and it was like, ‘Oh my God. Something special’s just happened here. We’re not going back. I was wrong; this is the way to go.’
We knew then that this was something very different. One of the things that we were trying to get with Diablo was ease of gaming. The 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. That pace was something we wanted all through the game, and so it was easy to see this was a better way to go.
Six months before the end of Diablo, we thought of Battle.net, and decided to make it and add multiplayer. We had some help from the people down south in Irvine. A couple of the guys moved up and lived in Northern California for six months and helped us do all the networking and things like that. Diablo was my very first C program ever, and I didn’t know anything about networking, but they’d done networking stuff for Warcraft I and II, so they had some expertise. It was peer-to-peer when we launched it and we thought that there would be a small number of people who would want to hack and ruin their game, which was no big deal. Then the hacks went up on a website and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, people can just download them now…’ It was no longer a case of passing them around the old way on some bulletin board system where only four people knew about it. Almost instantly everybody had cheats for everything, and that was one of the biggest lessons we learned: if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to make it secure.”