Looking back over Blizzard’s history, I wouldn’t refer to much of their output as particularly innovative. That’s not to say they’re not great developers, highly original thinking just isn’t their particular strength. The modus operandi has been to take an established genre, polish and tune it, and release a high quality game. Much more steady evolution than revolution.
Take Warcraft, which was basically Dune 2 with tanks swapped for orcs. Okay it was a bit clunky, but so was Dune 2. A couple of years later, around the time of Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2 was well received. By 1998 we were awash in realtime strategy games and Blizzard’s third effort in the genre, Starcraft, didn’t do a lot different beyond having three different armies. Yet thanks to all the care Blizzard put into assembling its various elements – frantic combat, base building, art direction – it went on to be one of the most successful games of its type. In particular, it had a huge multiplayer scene.
Or there’s World of Warcraft – which owed a lot to previous MMOs like Everquest. Its massive success wasn’t due to being something new, more like taking an existing formula and adjusting it, in this case I think particularly reducing level grinding and being more accessible to casual players.
Nowadays outside of sequels, Blizzard’s releases have all been their own spin on popular online gaming. Hearthstone is a card game, something like Magic Online. Heroes of the Storm represents Blizzard realising the kids are playing MOBAs like League of Legends. Overwatch is a Team-Fortress-esque shooter with scifi-cartoon aesthetics.
Diablo though, I think was an instance where they did try something new, the one game that forged its own (demon-strewn) path. Not to claim it was the first ever real-time isometric-view RPG. Yet there wasn’t much like it at the time, especially not on the PC. It took old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and added fast-paced action, current graphics and a slick, mouse-driven interface. Quests were simple, character stats kept to a few key essentials. Your goal was simple to carve your way through horders of monsters, furiously clicking your mouse to swing a sword or hurl fireballs. As they fell they dropped loot, which you endlessly sorted through, keeping upgrades to your current weapons and armour, and flogging the rest. It was a dark, gothic treadmill of chopping goatmen in half and looking for a sword with a few more damage points.
It was also, of course, massively successful. Ifirst mentioned it here on this site way back in about 2002, when it was just a few years old, but last year I felt a need to re-evaluate. To appreciate its place in gaming history we need to consider not only its own sequels but also other cRPGs that the series inspired. (even if, arguably, its sequel was the really influential one).
This year Diablo celebrates its 20th Anniversary. To mark the occasion and drum up some player nostalgia, Blizzard have released a tribute in the form of a limited-time event within Diablo 3, titled the Darkening of Tristram. It’s a recreation of the original game, featuring the entire 16-floor dungeon. It uses Diablo3 assets for levels and D3 monsters stand in for their original counterparts, but there are graphical filters put over the top to give us that late-90s low-resolution feel. Apparently the animation is even choppier, to match the original. Players and monsters can only move in 8 directions, and player walking speed is reduced to that steady trudge of the original.
The Darkening of Tristram is only around for January, but if I have time to play I’ll return here with my thoughts. I do hope they’ve brought back that wonderfully haunting acoustic guitar theme.