This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.
In the early ’90s, game designer David Brevik took the beloved but financially struggling computer role-playing game (CRPG) genre and stripped it for parts. No elaborate character backstories, no morality system, and no dice roll-based decision-making. In Brevik’s words, he wanted to make an RPG that let you “get in and start smashing things.”
It was a sacrilegious idea to those who saw traditional RPGs as the backbone of the computer gaming scene. Appropriately, Brevik called his idea “Diablo.”
Released in 1997, Diablo was a true game-changer. It boiled the complex CRPG down to its purest form. Pick a class, unleash devastating attacks with the click of a mouse, collect random pieces of tiered loot, and don’t stop until you see the sun. A role-playing experience that used to take hours of setup and a small army of friends now offered instant gratification thrills to anyone at any time. Diablo even randomly generated new content so that no two playthroughs were ever the same.
Years before he became Associate Game Director on Diablo 4, Zaven Haroutunian was one of many gamers who found themselves lost in the infinite dungeons of delights Diablo offered.
“Back then, I would just voraciously consume any game I could get my hands on,” Haroutunian recalls. “It was a mind-blowing moment to realize there could be so many possibilities and so much replayability in a game. I hadn’t played anything like that before.”
While Diablo may have once been seen as a kind of anti-RPG, people quickly discovered that the greatest trick Diablo ever pulled was making RPGs more accessible.
“I think a lot of experimentation came out of the fact that everything was so accessible,” Haroutunian says of the game’s role-playing credentials. “The challenge was ‘Go to the bottom [of the dungeon] and good luck.’ Along the way, you can try different things… It’s very clear which parts of the game are interactive and which are not. You know immediately what something is going to do by simply trying it.”
Diablo shot to the top of many Game of the Year lists en route to eventually selling over 2.5 million copies. The industry was put on notice, but few responded to this emerging trend. For years, Diablo and its Hellfire expansion remained largely unrivaled.
That is until Diablo 2 was released in 2000. Considered to be one of the greatest games ever, Diablo 2 offered more than just “more.” It fully realized the potential of what was already a modern classic.
“When we make games, we are sometimes unintentionally making promises to people playing them,” Haroutunian says. “Diablo 2 fulfilled those promises made by the first game.”
Diablo 2 went on to sell over 15 million copies, but its legacy is more substantial than that. In an industry where art is often aged by technology, Diablo 2 remains one of the few truly timeless classics.
“Diablo 2 is something that the team still talks about and still plays,” Haroutunian says. “You play it, and the bones of the game are still fun. If the bones are fun, then you can look past the older graphics.”
Diablo 2 quickly spawned massive fan communities and a small army of copycats. Despite the increased competition, Diablo 2 remained the king of its genre. Many fans said that the only thing that would pull them away from Diablo 2 was Diablo 3.
That’s where things took a turn. Even though Diablo 3 reportedly began development in 2001, developer Blizzard Entertainment didn’t release it until 2012. Expectations only grew during that time. Some still saw Diablo 2 as a perfect game. They could only imagine what 11 years would add to perfection.
However, Diablo 3’s release wasn’t perfect. Initial sales set a historic pace, but fans argued over the game’s many changes, divisive new features, and controversial “always online” requirements that led to numerous technical issues. The franchise that could do no wrong suddenly felt like a memory. Haroutunian, who joined Blizzard’s QA team in 2008 and worked on Diablo 3 as a designer, recalls that the team’s reactions to the game’s divided reception ran the gamut. Ultimately, though, they were united by an idea.
“Across the team, there was a drive,” Haroutunian recalls. “It’s like, ‘Okay, it’s out now.’ So now we can begin the work of making it better, right? It almost doesn’t matter how it starts… The plan was, ‘We’re going to put the game out, and we’re going to improve it because we like the game, and we want it to be better.’”
For the most part, the Diablo 3 team made good on the promise. Bugs were fixed, missing features were patched in, and countless improvements were made based on player feedback. By the time the game’s widely-acclaimed Reaper of Souls expansion was released in 2014, there was a consensus that Diablo 3 had turned the corner. With over 30 million copies sold, Diablo 3 is considered a success in every conventional way.
Yet, there was a splintering. Some longtime Diablo fans felt that Diablo 3 had lost its identity through its attempts to reach an even wider audience. In the years following Diablo 3’s release, a new wave of competitors emerged. Some, like the wildly successful Path of Exile, were practically sold as the Diablo sequel hardcore fans had originally wanted.
It wasn’t just the direct competitors. Aspects of Diablo’s once-iconic formula become much more popular. Blockbuster franchises like Destiny and Borderlands borrowed the game’s addictive loot system, while countless major releases incorporated the idea of adding role-playing elements to action games. There was a time when Diablo was the only and best game of its kind. But the mystique gradually started to fade.
Through all of that, Diablo remained somewhat dormant. Diablo 3 continued to receive updates but was beginning to show its age. The 2022 release of a microtransaction-laden mobile game Diablo Immortal only riled fans who felt the franchise had lost its way.
When Diablo 4 was finally announced in 2019, it wasn’t quite the celebration some expected it to be. The world was different. Some of the magic was gone. How did Diablo fit into an industry that had learned and borrowed so much from it?
“The reality is that everyone has always done that,” Haroutunian says regarding the game’s imitators and influences. “I think there will always be a place for [Diablo] because the other games you’re referencing borrow Diablo systems, but they’re always taking a piece and adding it to some other thing. So if you’re looking for the missing pieces, you’re not going to find it over there… you’re gonna find it in games like Diablo.”
As for Diablo’s closest competitors… well, it turns out that the Diablo 4 team has been learning a few things from them as well.
“We love action RPGs, and we’re playing them right when they come out like anybody else,” Haroutunian says. “As Diablo evolves and Action RPGs evolve, developers are looking for advancements and ideas elsewhere. It’s up to them to incorporate them in the right way into the game they’re making and decide if it’s the right fit.”
Gaming, especially role-playing, has always been better with Diablo in it. A recent beta version of Diablo 4 offered more than a chance to try the game; it offered a chance to meet up with that old friend you haven’t spoken to in years to relive the glory days of multiplayer dungeon crawling. Its dark tones, weighty combat, and punishing difficulty recall the early days of the franchise, yet Diablo 4 is no mere nostalgia trip. It incorporates modern game concepts such as world bosses, community events, and expanded character customization in very Diablo-appropriate ways. The goal isn’t to give you the Diablo that was but rather a modern version of how Diablo games should make you feel.
“People who only played Diablo 3, or only played Diablo 2, or never played Diablo got to feel like I felt in the ‘90s when I opened that door and was immediately killed by a boss called the Butcher.” Haroutunian beams. “We were able to capture that, and they were able to experience it in Diablo 4.”
Over 25 years ago, Diablo shocked the gaming world with a bold take on role-playing that nobody saw coming. A new generation of gamers who have never played a proper new Diablo title may soon be able to experience that same feeling. According to Haroutunian, even lifelong fans are in for a surprise.
“You have no idea what’s coming,” Haroutunian teases. “I don’t think they really know how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Diablo 4 releases on June 6 on Xbox and PlayStation consoles as well as PC.