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Chapter 4. Diablo (1996): The Rogue Goes to Hell

Chapter 4. Diablo (1996): The Rogue Goes to Hell

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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



players time to make decisions and devise tactics. The advantages

of this setup is that battles can be more intricate; the player has

time to weigh more variables and assign complex tasks to her

hero or party members.



Games like Wizardry: Proving

Grounds of the Mad Overlord, box

back and front shown, have a very

different design philosophy than

games like Diablo, relying more

on careful planning and strategy

than quick fingers.



In real-time games such as FTL Games’ Dungeon Master (1987;

Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, PC, and others) and Westwood’s Eye

of the Beholder (1990; Commodore Amiga, Nintendo Game Boy

Advance, PC, and others), the monsters don’t stand around waiting for the player to make a move. Instead, they roam about freely,

and the player has to respond immediately to threats. Combat in

these games tends to be reduced to clicking on monsters rather

than wading through complicated menus; there simply isn’t time

to devise elaborate tactics once battle has commenced. Some

games, such as Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate (1998; Apple Macintosh,

PC) or New World Computing’s Might and Magic VI (1998, PC)

offer hybrids of real-time and turn-based gameplay, but Diablo

and other action-RPGs are purely real-time.

Another defining characteristic of action RPGs is the emphasis

on rapid dexterity with the mouse. Typically, this means moving

the mouse pointer over each enemy and quickly pressing the left

or right mouse button—taken to extremes, the game becomes a

“clickfest” and a true test of hand-eye coordination. Later action

RPGs such as Gas Powered Games’ Dungeon Siege (2002; Apple

Macintosh, PC) reduce the clickfest aspect, automating many

tasks that formerly had to be manually executed by the player.



Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



41



Finally, unlike older real-time games such as the aforementioned

Dungeon Master, action-RPGs are depicted in third-person, isometric view. This means that players see their avatars, rather than

viewing the action from a first-person perspective. Although other

action RPGs differ markedly in their details, they all adhere (at least

to some degree) to these basic paradigms.

One of the major breaks that Diablo made with conventional

CRPGs concerns complexity. Conventional CRPGs, especially

venerable old classics such as SSI’s Wizard’s Crown or Interplay’s

The Bard’s Tale (both 1985; Apple II, Commodore 64, and others), tend to be far more difficult to learn than Diablo. This fact is

apparent from the start of the game. In Diablo, the player simply

picks one of three premade characters (warrior, rogue, sorcerer)

to serve as the avatar, then the gameplay begins. Wizard’s Crown

and The Bard’s Tale require players to build a whole party of

characters from scratch, making dozens of critical and esoteric

decisions that have a crucial, permanent impact on the gameplay.

A few bad choices can make winning the game difficult or even

impossible. Making smart decisions means reading the oftenlengthy instruction manuals, and having a solid background in

pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy novels is helpful if not mandatory. Players are likewise challenged to make

their own maps or risk becoming lost in dungeons. In short, these

games require far more preparation and patience than many

modern gamers are willing or able to commit. They simply are

not casual games.



Unlike many CRPGs, which

require lengthy character or party

creation sequences, Diablo asks

players to make a single choice

before the game begins.



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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



Blizzard’s strategy was to keep what was fun about CRPGs

intact, but move the complex and often intimidating statistical

and literary elements under the hood. All fans of CRPGs enjoy

watching characters “level up,” becoming stronger and more

proficient as the game progresses. They also enjoy the visceral

nature of defeating increasingly tougher monsters and exploring dangerous and mysterious places. However, standard CRPGs

can take days or even weeks for novices to master, whereas any

reasonably intelligent person can get Diablo up and running in

minutes. Indeed, the single-player campaign can be beaten in

under 10 hours. Blizzard also added a brilliant online component

through Battle.net, which ensured that avid fans would continue

to enjoy the game long after they had completed the singleplayer campaign. The new formula was a tremendous success for

Blizzard, and many of the innovations we see in the Diablo series

were carried over into the even more successful massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft (2004; Apple Macintosh,

PC). In this chapter, however, we focus on Diablo and its impact

on the industry.



The action begins in this

foreboding village. Lovely but

slightly disturbing guitar music

sets the mood. Note the red and

blue orbs indicating health and

mana (magic power), respectively.

A comparable setup is seen in

Blue Sky’s critically acclaimed

first-person-perspective roleplaying game Ultima Underworld:

The Stygian Abyss (1992; PC,

Windows Mobile, and others).



Blizzard was not the first developer that attempted to inject

more adrenaline into what many considered an overtly nerdy

and contemplative genre. FTL’s Dungeon Master offered real-time

dungeon crawling from a first-person perspective, and was itself

inspired by the earlier wireframe game Dungeons of Daggorath

(Tandy Corp, 1982) for the Radio Shack Color Computer. Origin

and SSI had also released some intriguing action-based CRPG



Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



titles such as Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony (Origin,

1985; Apple II, Commodore Amiga, and others) and Hillsfar (SSI,

1989; Commodore Amiga, PC, and others). Moebius is a hybrid

beat ’em up (see Chapter 17, “Street Fighter II (1991): Would You

Like the Combo?”) and CRPG, whereas Hillsfar is a simplistic

CRPG with a series of action-based minigames. There were even

some real-time games that offered a similar third-person isometric view featured in Diablo, such as Shadow Sorcerer (SSI,

1991; Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, PC), The Four Crystals of

Trazere (Mindscape, 1992; Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, PC), and

The Summoning (SSI, 1992; PC). However, none of these games

attracted as much attention as Diablo and are seldom played

today. Without question, the most enduring of these pre-Diablo

games is Origin’s Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992; PC, Super

Nintendo). This richly interactive game was well received by critics and fans of the series, and remains a fan favorite.

Action-oriented RPGs were far more plentiful on consoles than

computers. In particular, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (1986,

NES), which is covered in Chapter 21, “The Legend of Zelda (1986):

Rescuing Zeldas and Uniting Triforces,” is worth mentioning

here. Although the first Zelda game isn’t a true role-playing game

(it lacks a statistical system for leveling and is referred to as an

“action adventure”), it nevertheless shares many of its features,

and few developers could ignore the profits it reaped. Origin

seems to have been thinking along these lines with Ultima VIII:

Pagan (1994, PC), which added precision jumping sequences

reminiscent of a Super Mario game (see Chapter 19, “Super Mario

Bros. (1985): How High Can Jumpman Get?”) to the venerable old

series. However, reactions to the games were mixed. Writing for

Computer Shopper magazine, Barry Brenesal remarked, “Pagan is

certainly harder to play than any previous Ultima, and its mousebased combat may frustrate fans of earlier releases.”1

Brenesal’s comment brings us to an important point regarding

computer and console games: modern computers are far more

likely to have mice and keyboards than game pads, a factor with

serious implications for gameplay. Game pads are designed with

arcade-like gameplay in mind; keyboards and mice are primarily

intended for productivity. Although it was easy enough to buy a

game pad or joystick for PCs, few outside the hardcore gaming

community ever bothered to do so, and not all games supported

them anyway. Furthermore, computer gamers (particularly CRPG

fans) were thought to be older and more sophisticated than

their console cousins. They thrived on complexity, not dexterity.

The common assumption was that, at least on computers, roleplaying and action games were mutually exclusive, and the long

1



Computer Shopper (June 1994).



43



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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



line of failed action-CRPGs seemed to attest to that fact. Blizzard

finally proved, once and for all, that they were wrong.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Diablo is its highly polished, instantly addictive gameplay. In many ways it is comparable to Rogue (see bonus chapter, “Rogue (1980): Have @ You, You

Deadly Zs”), a very old but still widely played CRPG that originated

on university minicomputers.

Like Diablo, Rogue offers procedurally generated dungeons

and bite-size, quick-fix style adventuring—a vast change from

the drawn-out and even laborious campaigns of other CRPGs.

A procedurally generated dungeon is one that relies on predefined

algorithms to create dungeons on-the-fly; it’s important not to

confuse this process with purely random dungeons. After all, no

one wants to play a dungeon that has no exits, or has hordes of the

highest-level monsters roaming about the first levels. The major

advantage of procedurally generated dungeons is replay value; as

the dungeons will always be fresh, there is no need for the adventure ever to end. Indeed, several other CRPGs took advantage of

the same technique; examples include Telengard (Avalon Hill,

1982; Commodore PET, TRS-80, and others) and Sword of Fargoal

(Epyx, 1982; Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20).



As with Rogue before it,

characters gain levels quickly and

frequently in Diablo. With each

level, the player gains points to

distribute among five attributes.



However, though randomizing the dungeons may improve

replay value, it seems to diminish the opportunities for narrative

and creative level design. What usually happens is that the gameplay descends into a simple yet addictive “hack ’n’ slash” style,

similar to the gameplay in the multiplayer arcade classic Gauntlet



Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



45



(Atari, 1985),2 in which the objective is only to kill the next wave of

monsters with little thought to plot or long-term planning. If your

character dies in Rogue, for instance, it’s painless enough to create

a new character and begin anew; little is lost in the process, and

many versions lack any way to save a character anyway. Compare

this to a game such as Pool of Radiance (SSI, 1988; Commodore 64,

Commodore Amiga, PC, and others), which offers a huge campaign

that takes weeks and hundreds of hours of gameplay to complete.

Although Diablo has a plot and a mission for the character, it also

lacks the long and drawn-out character creation sequence of most

other CRPGs, and dying is a relatively trivial affair. As with Rogue,

the idea is to get the player up and hacking as quickly and painlessly as possible, and although it is possible to save the current

game, the player cannot save and restore multiple games.



Battles tend to be over and done

with quickly, though the character

can face dozens of enemies at

once. Note here the transparent

map overlay that can be turned

on and off.



By far the most obvious difference between Diablo and Rogue

is the audiovisuals. Whereas Rogue is based on simple characterset graphics and has only rudimentary sound, if any, Diablo offers

quality graphics, full-motion video, and some of the best music of

its era. Every spell and attack is fully animated, and a semitransparent overlay provides an onscreen map to help navigate the

dungeons.



2



Games like Dandy (APX, 1983; Atari 8-bit), Gauntlet, and their direct sequels

and numerous clones focus almost entirely on direct action rather than any type

of exploration or role-playing, mitigating their ultimate influence on Diablo’s

design.



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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



Diablo’s storyline is probably the least remarkable thing

about it. As with Doom, the goal of the game is to battle wave after

wave of demonic forces, ultimately battling it out with Diablo,

Lord of Terror. Many of the game’s most raving reviews, such as

Trent C. Ward’s for GameSpot, make no mention of the plot whatsoever. Nevertheless, the game and its sequels have inspired a

series of six novels by Richard A. Knaak, and there have long been

rumors of a movie based on the franchise.

Like Doom, Diablo also took advantage of the by-then exploding network multiplayer scene, and its massively popular

Battle.net server became the first such project to turn a profit.3

Battle.net stood out in stark contrast to other online gaming

offerings of its era by focusing on its excellent player-matching service. First, anyone who had bought Diablo could use the

service for free, without any monthly fees or obligations whatsoever. Although Blizzard was able to fully recoup the losses by

advertising revenue, the service was mainly intended to boost

sales of the game itself. According to Paul W. Sams, spokesman for

the service, “We don’t look at Battle.net as a profit center. We look

at it as a value add to our customers that is justified by increased

retail sales.” Sams estimates that Battle.net led to a 10% boost in

sales.4 The genius of Battle.net was that game data wasn’t channeled through Blizzard’s servers. Instead, the service functioned

as a matchmaker, connecting gamers directly. However, this setup

opened the door wide for cheaters, who could modify their data

files to gain an unfair advantage. Blizzard struggled mightily with

this problem, regularly issuing patches to stymie the cheaters.

Even though Battle.net was free to use, that didn’t stop a group

of programmers from reverse-engineering the code and releasing

bnetd, a free alternative to Blizzard’s own service. Blizzard moved

quickly to shut down bnetd, arguing that it promoted piracy. After

all, Blizzard required users of Battle.net to verify their purchase

by entering a special code printed on their game discs. The rival

service offered a refuge to gamers who, for whatever reason, were

unable or unwilling to provide a legitimate code. After a series of

court battles, Blizzard ultimately prevailed.

Rather than design their own expansion to Diablo, Blizzard

North outsourced to Synergistic Software, a company with roots

going back to some of the earliest CRPGs produced for home

computers. Their Diablo expansion, Hellfire, was released in

1997 to lukewarm reviews. Although it added plenty of new content and two new character classes, it lacked multiplayer support and was not nearly as well received as the original. Writing

3



See Greg Costikyan’s “Online gaming’s store-self chains” article on Salon.com:

http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/1999/04/21/battlenet/.

4



See Barbara Walter’s interview with Sams at http://www.gamasutra.com/features/

19971128/battlenet_01.htm.



Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



47



for GameSpot, “Desslock” wrote that the expansion “fails to

provide as compelling an experience as Diablo” and that fans of

multiplayer ought to pass on it.5 However, Blizzard’s first official

sequel, Diablo II, released in 2000, became another smash hit for

the company—and this despite what one reviewer described as



Diablo II offered superior

graphics, more classes, and

outdoor areas to explore.

However, the core gameplay

remained the same.



Diablo II offered a more

sophisticated leveling system

than the original. This branching

tree system would show up in

later games such as World of

Warcraft.



5



See http://www.gamespot.com/pc/rpg/hellfire/review.html.



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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



“somewhat outdated” graphics.6 The sequel maintained much of

the gameplay that had proven so successful, but added several

welcome features. These included large outdoor areas to explore,

a more linear quest structure, new classes, and a branching tree

system for leveling. Blizzard also improved its online experience

for Diablo II, now storing all the private data on their own servers. This change greatly curtailed the cheating that had been such

a problem for fans of the first game.

Diablo’s impact on the industry was immediate and has proven long-lasting. Though simplistic compared to classics such as

Wizard’s Crown or Pool of Radiance, the game compensates with

highly polished gameplay, attractive audiovisuals, and a highly

intuitive interface. It was easy enough for even total novices to

learn, but certainly challenging enough to keep from getting

boring—and the randomized dungeons and highly active multiplayer options upped the replay value substantially. Its legacy is

seen today in the aforementioned Sacred II and Diablo III games,

but developers took the concept in wildly different directions;

consider Iridon Interactive’s Dink Smallwood (1998; PC), a comedy set in a typical fantasy setting; Interplay’s Fallout: Brotherhood

of Steel (2004; Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2), set in a postapocalyptic wasteland; or Activision’s Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

(2006; Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation Portable, and others),

where the familiar fantasy paradigms are replaced with a contemporary superhero setting.

Other noteworthy Diablo-influenced games include Gauntlet

Legends (Atari, 1998; Arcade, Sega Dreamcast, and others),7

Darkstone (Delphine Software, 1999; PC, Sony PlayStation),

Revenant (Cinematix Studios, 1999; Apple Macintosh, PC), Nox

(Westwood Studios, 2000; PC), Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance

(Interplay, 2001; Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, and others), Divine Divinity (Larian Studios, 2002; PC), and Champions

of Norrath (Sony Online Entertainment, 2004; Sony PlayStation 2).

Blizzard has also gotten back into the Diablo business with

Diablo III, which has a richer single-player story with multiplayer

integration possibilities. As Leonard Boyarsky, Lead World Artist

for Diablo III, says, “It’s kind of like, ‘I’m playing a single-player

experience, but I can share that with my friends. There are going

to be things like class quests that only certain classes go on, but

my friends can get experience from going on those and helping

me.’”8 Though differing in their details, all of these games—and



6



See Desslock’s review at http://www.gamespot.com/pc/rpg/diablo2/review.html.



7



After the original’s release, the Gauntlet series of titles continued refining the

original game’s scope by introducing an increasing number of exploration and

RPG elements until the latest releases had little to differentiate themselves from

the myriad of Diablo-like clones.

8



http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=19259.



Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



49



ultimately all modern action-CRPGs—derive their core gameplay

elements from the original Diablo.



Although the commands in

games like Champions of Norrath

(box back shown) tend to be

executed in a more direct manner

than Diablo, the influence from

Blizzard’s classic game is clear.



Although Diablo may not have inspired quite as many derivatives

as Doom, there’s no doubt that it belongs in anyone’s list of historically significant games. The influence it exerted on CRPG developers

is striking, comparable only to the blow made by Dungeon Master

and Ultima before it. Even prior to its release, there were few games

attracting more attention than Diablo III, and even if that game is little more than a relatively minor overhaul of the first, no one doubts

that Blizzard will continue to reap enormous profits from the series’

immense, dedicated fan base.



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Chapter 4 DIABLO (1996): THE ROGUE GOES TO HELL



All kinds of themes have been

explored in the myriad games

inspired by Diablo’s style of play,

ranging from superhero to military

to comedy, such as in the wellacted single-player fantasy spoof,

The Bard’s Tale (Vivendi Universal,

2004; Microsoft Xbox, PC, Sony

PlayStation 2), box back shown.



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