The Making of Diablo

The original Dark Souls of isometric, action role playing games.

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In the previous entry, we learned how, amidst all odds, the three friends, David, Erich, and Max, finally pursued their dream and made it a reality. Condor was born.

The main goal of the newly established company of the three founders is to create the game Diablo. Now that they have acquired a project that can fund their operations, they can hire a few employees who can help create the Sega game as well as make Diablo.

Employee Number One and Two

The team decided to make Max Schaefer the CEO of Condor. This is just a formality, though, as they know, all three of them are leading the company together.

With that done, they leased an office and then started to look for new hires.

Their first goal is to find someone who can draw the superheroes of the League at a professional level. Soon an applicant visited their office and joined them as employee number one. His name was Michio Okamura.

Michio will later play a crucial part in Diablo’s history, as he will do character designs for both games.

The second hire the team planned is for a programmer role. They need someone to support and help David on the game development side.

His name was Rick Seis. Like David, he had wanted to enter the gaming industry since high school, and he knew that the best way to do this was by becoming a programmer. When Rick applied to Condor, he already had a good job earning $30,000 annually. He took a pay cut to join the team.

Afterward, two more employees joined to help with the creation of art and programming.

  • Tom Byrne
  • Kelly Johnson

Matt Uelmen Joins Condor

If there is an employee of Condor that is as popular as the founders, it is Matt Uelmen. He is known for creating mesmerizing music for the two games.

When Matt was young, his time was spent playing video games and playing music. And after graduating from the university, all he wanted was to make music for video games.

To get a job in Condor, he called them every week and didn’t stop until they gave him an interview and hired him.

Playing Games in the Office

Designing art and programming game code are not the only things Condor employees do in the office. They also play a lot of games. The bosses are ok with this; in fact, they make sure to buy new games for the staff every week.

Two of the games they played a lot this time were Doom and X-Com.

This, in turn, would bring benefits to the company, as the staff gained new ideas for the games they were creating.

Planning the Original Diablo

One day, while most of the staff were playing Doom, David entered the room carrying a stack of paper, which happened to be the design guide for Diablo.

According to this design guide, the original Diablo was planned to have the following characteristics:

  • Turn-based like X-Com
  • Roguelike
  • Permadeath
  • Isometric
  • With expansion disks

Based on their project plan, it will take one year to complete the game. They just need to find a publisher.

Action RPGs are Dead - Rejections Everywhere

David and his team approached more than ten publishers, and they all rejected his game design. The main reason is: action RPGs are dead. No one will play an action RPG. And no publisher believed in the vision.

The Annual Summer CES Show

The Annual Summer CES show was approaching, and the team at Condor was excited to participate. Their aim is not only to demo the Justice League on the Sega Genesis but to find a potential publisher for their Diablo game.

The Hunt for a Diablo Publisher

On the day of the show, the team pitched to every publisher they could talk to. Unexpectedly, they got one answer only - RPGs are dead. After getting all the rejections on the floor, they returned to their booth, and to their surprise, a studio next to them had a very similar game to what they will demo.

Condor Meets Silicon & Synapse

The name of this company is Silicon & Synapse.

The two teams got to know each other and soon found out that they share the same passion and goal of making PC games. As a bonus, they even let David and his team view the secret game they were developing, WarCraft.

David felt an appreciation for the new team he met. They were very different from other studios and publishers they had visited. They were gamers, creating games for themselves.

The Diablo Contract

After returning from the CES show, Sunsoft closed the development for many projects, including the StreetFighter clone Condor was making. This caused financial troubles for the company.

David had no choice but to get help. So, he gave a call to Silicon & Synapse and pitched Diablo’s concept to one of its founders, Allen Adham. Allen promised David that he would give it a look after they released Warcraft.

Several months later, the company Silicon & Synapse will change its name to something more recognizable nowadays, Blizzard Entertainment.

In January 1995, Allen and his team visited the Condor office. The goal is to see the presentation of what Diablo is. In the end, they were convinced of the potential of what David pitched them.

There were only two things that needed to be changed:

  • It has to be multiplayer
  • It has to be real-time

David and his team accepted these terms, and with that, the contract was created.

  • Blizzard will provide $300,000 to fund Diablo
  • Payments will be delivered per milestone, over one year of development

The Condor team soon realized that they needed to hire more programmers and artists to meet the deadline. And they need additional projects as an alternative source of funding: more projects mean more money, more employees, and higher success in delivering Diablo.

Development Approach

Nowadays, agile frameworks for software development are popular. We have Scrum and Kanban, and whether you are a small startup or a bank, you most probably have heard about them.

Condor teams also have their own flavor of agile development. They are iterative - they will get something on-screen and then work on that until it becomes fun. They increase what works and reduce what does not work. The priority is simplicity and fun.

While creating the perspective of the game, David reverse-engineered the X-COM game to understand how it worked. He was after the isometric view and wanted to adopt it into Diablo.

The Mom Test

The ultimate test of simplicity and ease of play for Condor is called the Mom test. The rule is simple: make things so intuitive in the game so that your mom can play it. Would Mom figure this out without reading a manual? That’s the test.

Also, the team decided to strip away RPG mechanics and tropes unrelated to killing monsters and finding items. Trim unnecessary RPG features, so it boils down to combat and loot.

Origin of Colored Monsters

Diablo uses the concept of colored monsters to convey a difference in monster power or behavior to the players. But the truth is, they were a means to overcome hardware memory restrictions in the game. Because the graphics are loaded already, just reuse them. This approach also helped the developers save time and effort while making the game able to run on lower-spec computers.

Real-time vs. Turn-Based

One of the most important decisions that had to be made for Diablo is the question of making it real-time or keeping it turn-based. David wanted it to stay turn-based, as that is how he had designed and envisioned it all these years since high school. Blizzard wanted it to use real-time combat, as that is the future of video games.

David asked for a vote among all Condor members, and to his surprise, almost all of them went for real-time combat.

The Birth of Action RPG

After the vote, David locked himself in a room and worked feverishly to turn the combat into real-time.

He described it as a revelation from the high heavens after seeing how visceral and engaging a real-time attack is on a skeleton monster. This is the future of action RPG.

Is this truly the birth of the genre? The answer is - it does not matter. What matters is that Diablo is the vehicle of the genre to reach the biggest audience. Diablo I and II made that happen. It is undeniable that this is the birth of the means to make the genre widespread.

Condor Runs Out of Money

The contract of Diablo states that Condor has only $300,000 and one year to complete the game. As expected, they ran out of both. Cheques paid to employees started to bounce, and the three founders began borrowing money from family and friends to keep the company afloat.

They have come so far, and it looked like they would fail. Would the company shut down?

The Birth of Blizzard North

Help came in January 1996, exactly one year after David gave the presentation to pitch Diablo to the Blizzard management.

The two founders of Blizzard, Allen and Mike, were back in Condor, bringing with them an offer that would change the fate of the company forever and ensure Diablo’s realization.

The parent company of Blizzard Entertainment, Davidson & Associates, would like to acquire Condor. With the success of Warcraft and Warcraft II, Blizzard Entertainment has convinced Davidson and vouched for Condor. They will become part of the family.

Condor knew that this was the only way they could survive as a company and complete Diablo. After some negotiations, they accepted the offer.

Part of this deal is their change of name. David and his team decided to change the name from Condor to Blizzard North.

The Crunch to Complete Diablo

Now that money is secured and worries are gone, all that is left is to complete the game. And hence, the start of the crunch.

The end goal - release the game in December 1996.

Diablo Goes Gold

The teams missed their target deadline. They were aware that great games, regardless of release dates, have long shelf lives and make more money than rushed ones.

After Christmas Day, they were all back in the office and working on Diablo’s remaining tasks. And finally, on Dec 27, Diablo went gold after four months of development crunch.

What does gold mean? It means it is finished and can be sent off for mass production and distribution.

The Triumph of Diablo

Diablo went on sale on Dec 31, 1996. This is also the anniversary date of the game.

Diablo debuted at #1 for PC games in 1997 and became the highest-selling computer title for the first six months of the year. It received critical acclaim, winning several awards, including Game of the Year.

Continue reading David’s journey in the creation of the Diablo series.