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Why Diablo 2 Still Holds Up After 20 Years - Book Excerpt

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We have a big excerpt from Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II — Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels which is coming out tomorrow in digital format (and 2020 in paperback) and focuses on the making of Diablo 2. This small piece of the book sees author David L. Craddock talk to the game's creators about why D2 still has such a wide appeal today, 20 years after it's initial release, with many still believing it to be the gold standard in ARPGs.

We see details on the game's creation covering things like the core gameplay loop, with its responsive mouse clicks, detailed character and skill animations, audio cues that massively added to the feedback of hits on enemies, death animations, and finally that amazing feeling of seeing an item bursting from a defeated monster. The dev team also talks about how the difficulty curve was ahead of its time, with it's balancing set around entire zones for a smother feeling, with those pockets of tough spikes like the Blood Raven quest, based on Diablo 1's legendary Butcher encounter and how it made you have to actually run away and come back later, emphasizing player power progression.

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Blood Raven was designed in the spirit of the Butcher, a unique monster found in Diablo’s second level. “I felt pretty strongly about that, because I loved how in the first Diablo, you’d run into the Butcher, and he’d be too tough for you. You’d get your *filtered* kicked,” Phil continued. “You’d get down to the Skeleton King and kill him, and by that time maybe you were ready to kill the Butcher, so you’d go back and kill him, and you’d feel pretty cool, like you’d progressed.”

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Giving players the option to live to fight another day evoked the spirit of Blizzard North’s design philosophy. “That’s always been our goal,” said Erich Schaefer. “Make the thing easy, make it so you don’t have to read instructions on how to play. That was always important to us: Easy to pick up and get into.”

Then we have the "there's never enough blood and fire" philosophy, which saw more and more details added to each part of the game, and while it was crucial in setting up the atmosphere and world, it did see the game become much larger than originally planned as well:

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DIABLO II BALLOONED to approximately four times the size of its predecessor. Even as the project swelled, Blizzard North’s developers worked on a micro scale, polishing individual elements until they sparkled.

“Max always had this saying: ‘There’s never enough blood and fire.’ That was what he pushed the artists to do: more fire, more blood,” remembered Michael Huang, IT engineer.

Max Schaefer’s emphasis on blood and fire was less suggestion and more ideology. Taken literally, it amounted to window dressing. Andariel’s lair at the end of Act One is painted in flames and pits of bubbling blood. Figuratively, “blood and fire” referred to small touches that made big impacts on the game, the action-RPG genre, Blizzard North, and the gaming industry.

The itemization systems were obviously a major jump from the original game and remain unbeaten even today for a lot of players, and the concept of "flippies", as they called them, the items themselves when they popped out of a chest or monster as they flipped through the air before dropping to the ground and becoming a pickup, was one of the main ingredients in making gear attractive.

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One of the easiest-to-pick-up aspects of Diablo II was the concept of flippies, any item that flips out of a treasure chest or defeated monster before hitting the ground with a telltale clang, thud, or chime. “When I started there, the first thing that I worked on was flippies. Flippies were one of those give-them-to-the-new-guy tasks,” said Mike Dashow, character artist. “Someone’s got to do all those animations of every single weapon in Diablo II, and of course they all flip differently because an axe is [heavier] than a sword.”

Items had threefold appeal. The first was purely aesthetic. “A lot of the armor worn by heroes was incredibly detailed. Bob Steele was in charge of that, and was very meticulous,” said Anthony Rivero, character artist.
...
The secondary appeal of items was their variety. From inlaid jewels in crowns and pockmarked wooden shafts on battleaxes, to gleaming plate mail and wicked points at the ends of halberds and great swords, Diablo II’s items are best viewed in the inventory screen, where players see the thumbnail-sized portraits Bob painted. As other artists came on, Max and Erich assigned them to help create weapon assets to ensure a huge variety of every type of item, such as the six types of caps from leather hoods and skulls to crowns and great helms fashioned from steel.
...

Pete Brevik walked up to Stieg one morning and relayed an idea he’d had while watching the Conan: The Barbarian film. He had fixated on the gems in Conan’s sword, and then suggested to Stieg that they create gems players can insert into weapons.

“It added hours of replayability to the game,” said Pete, a programmer. “It’s weird how things like that happen: You just watch a movie, and all the sudden you’re converting it into another idea and you make it real in a video game.”

 
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Diablo 2 developers sign copies of the game in 2000. From left to right: Matt Uelmen (seated), Karin Colenzo (back), Joe Morrissey (at PC), Rick Seis, and David Brevik. (Photo courtesy of Karin Colenzo-Seis.)

And then we have a hot topic that's been a part of the genre from it's beginnings right up until today, the actual drop rates:

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Diablo II’s drop rates, calculations that determine how often and of what quality items drop, were finely tuned over three years of production. If better items drop too often, players will grow numb to the steady stream of upgrades. If they don’t drop often enough, players will get frustrated — because a boss is proving too difficult to defeat with their current equipment setup, or because they’re not receiving enough loot to stay invested in clicking. Variable curves influenced virtually every possible scenario. For instance, Stieg explained, players should be able to equip most items the moment they appear, but not all of them.

Players spend hours clicking on the chance they’ll find one more item, discover one new area, or because they’re on the verge of leveling up and improving their favorite skill or learning a new one.

“Players could find an item that would carry them through several levels before they’d find a better one. This was intentional as well — getting players invested in their avatar, and their avatar’s cool equipment.”

If the drop rate is just right, players will look forward to getting a new sword, staff, helm, or pair of boots — even if it’s gear they can’t use quite yet, and even as they bond with the gear they currently have: the boots that increase their walk and run speed by twelve percent, the sword socketed with two sapphires to add cold damage and slow enemies, the chainmail socketed with three diamonds to boost all their resistances, the gloves that bump each of their skills up by one point.

And for our final quote from the article, the devs go into the slot-machine nature of loot drops, and the larger than expected role Mephisto ended up playing in the loot game:

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“One thing that’s kind of addictive — and it’s purposely addictive because it’s what we were all looking for — it’s basically slot machines inside of slot machines inside of slot machines,” said Peter Kemmer, programmer.

The developers anticipated that players would search for the most efficient ways to farm items of the highest quality. That was fine. Waypoints, portals scattered through each Act, let players travel to an area instantly rather than on foot. The faster they can get to their favorite boss to kill it over and over again, the more they’ll want to play.

“That’s why everybody ended up doing boss runs in Act Three,” said Dave Glenn, environment artist. “Mephisto was the most convenient boss to kill because you’re only one level away from him, and [his] levels are pretty small. That was one of those things where once everybody was playing it, we looked at the numbers and said, ‘Why is everybody doing this?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, because it takes you only five minutes to find him instead of a half hour.’”

 

This is just a small part of the full excerpt, which holds many more anecdotes and insights from the team on the topics mentioned above, as well as details on the Horadric Cube and crafting, story, level and item progression, inventory management and a lot more. If you're a Diablo 2 fan, or even just a fan of ARPGs in general, you really should read the article over at Medium, as it's a great read.

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Looking forward to this, as Diablo 2 is still my favourite game of all time!

 

3 hours ago, Starym said:

approximately four times the size of its predecessor

On a side note, this brought to mind Fallout 76. I'm glad it actually worked out for this game 😂

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This is news to me, honestly. Diablo 2 really didn't hold up that well when I played it. The skill system, UI, items, monsters, and story mode all aged rather poorly from my perspective.

The skill trees include many "noob trap" abilities that become increasingly useless at higher levels, the UI only has 2 buttons for all of your abilties, the items have bizarre stats that fluctuate between useless and god-tier (Making it very difficult to create a decent build unless you know exactly what to look for), many of the monsters are just bland piles of stats with no special abilities, the dialogue is all delivered by annoyingly slow-scrolling text boxes, the corpse runs that force you to reset the game if you want to get your items back... I played through the story once on Normal difficulty, then never touched it again.

I think nostalgia plays a bigger part in D2's popularity than anything else.

Edited by Monlyth
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2 hours ago, Monlyth said:

The skill trees include many "noob trap" abilities that become increasingly useless at higher levels, the UI only has 2 buttons for all of your abilties, the items have bizarre stats that fluctuate between useless and god-tier (Making it very difficult to create a decent build unless you know exactly what to look for), many of the monsters are just bland piles of stats with no special abilities, the dialogue is all delivered by annoyingly slow-scrolling text boxes, the corpse runs that force you to reset the game if you want to get your items back... I played through the story once on Normal difficulty, then never touched it again.

I think nostalgia plays a bigger part in D2's popularity than anything else.

Nostalgia absolutely does play a huge part. There is a major issue that D2 "design" restricts the information and if you want to make a functional character for higher difficulties, let alone a true top end character, it takes hundreds of hours of play time, or outside game research. It's the same issues that games like Dark Souls and Path of Exile have, but some people love that about the game. They think this complexity makes it better, but it really just distracts from other flaws. Good design and balance are when you look for synergy to build better, not avoid traps or completely dead ends. 

It doesn't make them bad games, but we need to stop pretending that they are flawless in design. They have some key gems buried in them that make it special, but it's not the best game of 20 years. It might be the best ARPG of that time, but that's such a small genre I'm not sure how impressive that is.

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9 hours ago, Starym said:

You’d get your *filtered* kicked,” Phil continued. “You’d get down to the Skeleton King and kill him, and by that time maybe you were ready to kill the Butcher, so you’d go back and kill him, and you’d feel pretty cool, like you’d progressed.”

I need to say I really hate this "bad word" filter we have here.

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3 hours ago, Laragon said:

Good design and balance are when you look for synergy to build better, not avoid traps or completely dead ends. 

This pretty much. That's why I liked how ability and talent choices in D3 were flexible, being able to change them on the go. I also disagree that talent trees in D2 had more depth to them. Having choice is good, but it all becomes illusory, if the build of your own choice is ineffective. Having to follow certain guides in order to make a fully functional build is an indication of bad balance and defeats whole purpose of having talent trees in the first place. Hopefully developers won't be afraid to bring good things from both games into D4 and refine them. Right now it feels like they are now following the most vocal fans' wishes and treating D2 like some holy grail, too afraid to bring something that doesn't resemble D2 (no Witch Doctor in D4 for me I guess, because he's not Diablo 2-like).

Overall, Diablo 3 with Reaper of Souls had more stuff to do than Diablo 2, but to many it still feels like there was more to do in D2. Obviously nostalgia plays a major part in it, but also expectations had risen up, and sometimes even offering a bit more is not enough.

Edited by Arcling
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I think one of the most important points you guys are missing out is that the success of such a game has little to nothing to do with "balance" but the depth of the game (flawed oe not, balanced or not) and being attracted to the proposed goal of the game which further leads to a strong community. Let me give you an example valid for diablo 2 or wow:

Start with your first character. You re like ok cool.. new world. Miriad of skills, quests, possibilities hopefully a half decent story and good cinematics. You find yourself connected to that character. Then you re thinking how can i make it better etc. That s when the realisation comes, gotta party up with others get all of their know how and help them help me. Is my summoner druid or necromancer in D2 any good for end pve or pvp? No.. but hell I m gonna do the best variant of it to at least have a 50 % chance to win duels and also will go do baal and cow runs for the giggles with (7!!!!!) My mates and other randoms. We re gonna fight for the loot, we re gonna trade for the loot, we re gonna come to peace in the universe created there. People talk about balance every time. There is no such thing. That s why some of these games last for such a long while and why people put hundreds (thousands) of hours into it. Simply to get better and to be seen by their peers. One of the key factors for that replayability and people sticking around is being able to build an economy, hence an ecosystem. That s how you keep people showing up every day.. ok another 100 Meph kills and maybe i upgrade my 2/16/18 charm which will give a little more hp vs the other necro and I m gonna be able to pawn his buttocks. 

TLDR: blizzard fanboy (me) thinks the success of the games was built exactly on the big discrepances between classes, thus giving people the chance to identify themselves with any of the characters/builds and be part of the ecosystem.

 

Edited by Ashi
Reffering to wrong person in tldr

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Pretty much what I think too.

Also want to point out, that Classic/Vanilla Wow also has some flawed systems, but still... It is good enough to be Game of the Year, 15 after it's original release.

I'm a WotLK boy, so maybe I'm not hardcore enough, but being restricted to one role (or talent spec) for the entire game, and for many more reasons, it's Unfun. 

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44 minutes ago, Ashi said:

I think one of the most important points you guys are missing out is that the success of such a game has little to nothing to do with "balance" but the depth of the game (flawed oe not, balanced or not) and being attracted to the proposed goal of the game which further leads to a strong community. Let me give you an example valid for diablo 2 or wow:

Start with your first character. You re like ok cool.. new world. Miriad of skills, quests, possibilities hopefully a half decent story and good cinematics. You find yourself connected to that character. Then you re thinking how can i make it better etc. That s when the realisation comes, gotta party up with others get all of their know how and help them help me. Is my summoner druid or necromancer in D2 any good for end pve or pvp? No.. but hell I m gonna do the best variant of it to at least have a 50 % chance to win duels and also will go do baal and cow runs for the giggles with (7!!!!!) My mates and other randoms. We re gonna fight for the loot, we re gonna trade for the loot, we re gonna come to peace in the universe created there. People talk about balance every time. There is no such thing. That s why some of these games last for such a long while and why people put hundreds (thousands) of hours into it. Simply to get better and to be seen by their peers. One of the key factors for that replayability and people sticking around is being able to build an economy, hence an ecosystem. That s how you keep people showing up every day.. ok another 100 Meph kills and maybe i upgrade my 2/16/18 charm which will give a little more hp vs the other necro and I m gonna be able to pawn his buttocks. 

TLDR: OP is a blizzard fanboy who thinks the success of the games was built exactly on the big discrepances between classes, thus giving people the chance to identify themselves with any of the characters/builds and be part of the ecosystem.

 

And by OP you mean the person that wrote the original article aka the writer of the book? Because I'm pretty sure I didn't add any personal opinions on any of that content myself.

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Ah, Rick Seis, no doubt the honorary beacon towards one of the final named bosses in Diablo 2 - Lord De Seis (also who remembers the OP original Iron Maiden aura that could one-shot you? good times).

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In the late 90s online guides were few and far between. If you wanted a guide then you had to go to a game store and buy a book. My favorite play through was with an Amazon in full plate mail with a flail and tower shield. I think i did the passive tree, because i remember having valkyrie. Was it the best? Was it the most efficient? No, it took 30 mins to kill the final boss with that flail, but it was fun.

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