The Making Of Diablo
Retro Gamer Magazine
Secret cow levels and gothic art: Dave Brevik talks about creating the original Diablo.
Published on Aug 10, 2010
The ‘Secret Cow’ level. If you’ve played a Diablo game before, you’ll know what that means. If you haven’t, here are the basics: once players became acquainted with both Diablo’s online and offline components – after killing enough demons to earn a fail-safe ticket to the upper echelons of heaven – rumours began to spread of a hidden realm.
And, inexplicably: mysterious, semi-interactive cows belied its location. A land of untold treasures and new enemies, the Secret Cow level tormented believers, demanding they click on the unresponsive cows just a few more thousand times to see whether the portal would finally open.
It never did, primarily because the Cow level didn’t exist. Blizzard received endless queries, suggestions and complaints about said level (and its whereabouts), but after some time, players finally threw in the cowbell. (Just as well that Blizzard included a real Secret Cow level in Diablo II as an Easter egg.)
The Cow level fiasco perfectly illustrates Diablo’s infectious appeal – the game was so brilliantly addictive that when players really had exhausted all available options, they began click-humping 2D cows to find more.
Diablo brought in gamers of many different tastes and persuasions, despite essentially being an RPG. And RPGs in the mid-Nineties weren’t doing particularly well.
“People laughed at us for pitching it,” confesses Dave Brevik, the chief visionary officer at Flagship Studios, and designer behind Diablo and Diablo II. “RPGs were not selling at all. They were the curse of the industry.”
The reason Diablo was so successful could be that it wasn’t a ‘true’ RPG – or, at least, it wasn’t one of the more common types of RPG. All combat was executed in real-time and gameplay proceeded at a blistering pace.
Enemies were often tragically weak, but arrived in deliriously gory swarms. And to top it all off, Diablo was more addictive than World Of Warcraft… well, almost.
Each step you took compelled you to try one more level, go for one more boss, or hunt for that elusive ‘unique’ item you knew you’d sell for an astonishing amount on Battle.net.
You might wonder where Blizzard got the idea for such a game. Brevik lifts the veil, “There were many, many games that influenced Diablo’s design, but if I had to narrow it down to a handful, I would say that Moria – a Unix-based text game – and Warcraft were the biggest,” he confesses.
“Moria was a big influence on the core structure of the game: it had a single town with a few shops and an infinitely deep, random dungeon down below.
"It also had lots of random items, and a second version of the game sported named unique monsters. Warcraft was an influence because of the twist it had put on traditional gaming: what was turn based in the past, Warcraft made real-time. This is the twist we applied to RPGs with Diablo.”
It was that real-time twist that changed mainstream perception of RPGs, forever. Rather than engage you in turn-based or pseudo-real-time bouts, Diablo allowed you to fiercely attack multiple enemies, often simultaneously. And how did it do that? Well, first, by abandoning the traditional Dungeons & Dragons framework.
“Because of the mechanics of Diablo’s real-time environment, we had to change how the numbers worked for this sort of game,” explains Brevik. “It had to be balanced in such a way that it was action packed and involving.
"With pen and paper RPGs, fights can take a long time, because each round can last ten to fifteen minutes in a normal-sized group. As a result, the numbers are different. You don’t want there to be 25 rounds, but you might want that out of a Diablo boss monster.”
Tweaking the numbers was the first step to action-RPG nirvana, but there was something else needed to finish the puzzle – that device that revolutionised PC operation, the mouse.
Everything in the game, from combat to casting spells and selecting options to opening doors or even abusing the aforementioned cows, was done with those left and right buttons. Soon, people who didn’t know Pool Of Radiance were elatedly clicking away at Diablo’s unholy legions.
“We joked that Diablo needed to pass the ‘mom test’,” Brevik laughs, “so we asked ourselves: is it simple enough that my mom could play it, or will she not understand it?
"If it was too complicated then we either changed it so that it wasn’t, or introduced it over time in a step-by-step fashion so that complex concepts were broken down over time.
"We deliberately made the game extremely easy to use and accessible to a wide range of gamers. This was done to widen the audience and make it more of a mass-market kind of game.
"The core gamers still mattered to us, but we wanted it simple enough so that anyone could play it.”
Given that repetition becomes tedious, how did Blizzard make sure Diablo didn’t end up like a U2 single? “There are many factors that go into making it less repetitive,” says Brevik.
“But in the long run, many people feel that it becomes repetitive anyhow, so we try to layer in rewards. There are rewards given at different intervals and of varying degrees that keep you interested in playing just a bit more.
‘Oh! I’m about to level my character’, ‘I just went down to a new area and it looks interesting’, or ‘I just happened upon a new quest and I think I can finish it before I stop.’ All of these keep the game interesting and keep the player involved.”
Furthermore, it was difficult for Diablo to ever feel repetitive because you almost never played the same game twice: everything other than the central hub, Tristram, was randomly generated (that includes dungeons, weapons, armour, and monsters).
“I love random content”, Brevik says, “because you never know what’s going to happen. With planned-out levels, you can balance the game easier and create certain situations you want the player to go through.
"But once the player goes through that content once, it’s far less interesting to go through it again. We wanted people to play our games over and over again and this is how we accomplished that.”
One of the most popular ways to enjoy Diablo over and over again is through its multiplayer component. Diablo’s multiplayer was so compelling, in fact, that it spawned a substantial (and persistent) community.
Originally, though, Blizzard North didn’t realise the potential of such a component – there wasn’t actually going to be any multiplayer at all. “About six months before the project deadline”, Brevik notes, “Blizzard’s president at the time came to us and proposed Battle.net.
"This was obviously a superb idea and we agreed to do it even though it meant a ton of extra work. We had to go back through the code and retro-fit much of multiplayer into it.”
Usually when developers put so much energy into creating absolutely flawless gameplay, the story can often take a back seat. Not Blizzard, though.
It put a lot of thought into creating a new, darkly refreshing fantasy setting, far from the Tolkien reruns that gamers had become overly acquainted with.
“We wanted to make a less warm-and-fuzzy type of game and put RPGs in a darker place,” Brevik says. “I was never a big fan of elves, unicorns and dragons. I thought that a zombie-infested game with demons was a far more attractive prospect than the Tolkien-esque stuff.
We wanted a far grittier atmosphere to the game. I never really set out to make it strictly for a more mature audience, but we made it the way we found most interesting and different.”
If the gothic art direction wasn’t enough, Diablo’s unforgettably haunting guitar-and-synth music walked all over traditional fantasy scores. Brevik concedes that it was all part of the plan, “It was all about the mood. We wanted to twist up everything,” he says.
“Matt Ulemen is a brilliant composer who did a fantastic job with the game. We knew we would end up with something unconventional when we hired him. It helped us break many of the traditional RPG clichés.”
Players quickly took to Blizzard’s cliché-smashing ways; Diablo was a massive success. Oddly though, when Diablo II was released four years later, gamers were shocked and perhaps a little disappointed at the similarities between the two titles.
“There were many changes between the two”, Brevik explains, “but I think that the people that said they were too similar were so hyped up [about the new release] that they had imagined Diablo II would be so much more than it was.
"This happens all the time. Diablo II didn’t have state-of-the-art graphics, and the first hour of gameplay was very similar to Diablo, so some people were initially disappointed,” he admits.
“The use of 2D graphics initially hurt reviews, but as the numbers showed, in the long run it didn’t hurt at all. I recently heard that more people are playing Diablo II now than ever before.
"This doesn’t surprise me much, at all. There are a lot of PCs out there that can’t handle many of the games today. This opens it up for games like Diablo II.”
Indeed, Diablo II became so popular because it took the progressive accessibility of its predecessor and turned it into a far superior game. Despite complaints, Diablo II turned out to be exactly what gamers had wanted.
Bigger (four times larger, approximately), prettier, more personalised (players’ avatars now reflected exactly what they were wearing), more random (large outdoor environments, unique items, and named monsters were all generated on-the-fly), and injected with film-quality cinematics and NPCs. The sequel ended up as the game that the original Diablo should have been.
“We were able to implement many of the ideas we had during Diablo’s development but couldn’t put in due to time constraints,” Brevik admits. “We also listened to the gamers and used their feedback to fuel some of the changes we made.”
Multiplayer included the biggest changes. The Battle.net interface was retooled, players could now go through the entire game together (rather than select parts, as in Diablo), and a special Hardcore mode was created.
This new, improved multiplayer proved so popular with players that Blizzard’s net code couldn’t keep up. The result? Bugs. “The game was much more popular than we had ever imagined”, Brevik enthuses, “and we were not ready for it.
"We expected about ten per cent of the numbers we were getting, and the system just wasn’t designed to handle what was being thrown at it. We worked very hard for the coming months and years to solidify it. Eventually it became very stable and reliable.”
Which is, in many ways, the perfect description of the games themselves. Diablo and its sequel haven’t dated at all; the design choices that Blizzard made ensured that the games will continue to be aesthetically appealing to gamers, no matter how far graphics technology advances over the years.
And what’s more, the gameplay is so tight and robust that very few modern games, convoluted as they often are, can compete. I mean, if you can get gamers, across the world, clicking cows to milk every last drop out of your project, then you know you’re dealing with something very special.