How Diablo Turned RPGs into an Addiction

When point and click became an artform: how Blizzard created an RPG addiction with Diablo.

For some people, the term instant gratification is a four-letter word. It’s a slur used to insult those who suffer from a supposed lack of patience and resolve. Those who detest the idea can’t understand why someone would ever trade in the opportunity for a greater reward just to experience a short burst of pleasure.

Just because instant gratification sometimes takes the form of an impulse purchase or a few emotional words slung at your boss in the heat of the moment doesn’t mean that it’s always a bad thing. There are even occasions when it yields rewards that hours of patience wouldn’t have uncovered.

After all, instant gratification did help Diablo save Western RPGs by turning the genre into an addiction.

Of course, Diablo’s creators originally wanted to make an RPG for the patient crowd. It’s why designer David Brevik and the Diablo design team began analyzing X-Com’s grid-based battle system, combat perspective, and general art style in order to start outlining the rough draft of their own game.They didn’t just want to make a great RPG; they wanted to make the game they had dreamed of playing while traversing dungeons in classic PC RPGs such as Telengard

Blizzard’s Allen Adham loved their vision but realized that the hard truth of the matter was that the type of game Brevik, Eric Schaefer, and rest of the Diablo team wanted to make was the type of RPG that people were no longer buying. This was the age of Doom. The age of Warcraft. Blizzard believed that if Diablo was going to have a chance at market success, it needed to feature real-time combat.

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Diablo’s developers balked at this suggestion as artists often will when the money men begin to dictate their creativity. Not only were they being asked to compromise their vision, they were being asked to essentially destroy the foundations of the genre they loved while also somehow saving it. The team eventually reached a compromise with Blizzard. In exchange for more time and more money, they would try to make a real-time RPG combat system that didn’t make them feel like sellouts. At the very least, they would be able to definitively tell the publisher that they were wrong.

Not wanting to completely undo everything the team had worked on, Brevik decided to start his experiment by removing the timer that dictated turn lengths in their turn-based combat system. The only real difference was that players would perceive these actions occurring instantaneously. The change was small, but the difference it made was immeasurable. In the book Stay Awhile and Listen, Brevik recalls what it felt like to play this new game for the first time:

“I remember very vividly: I clicked on the monster, the guy walked over, and he smashed this skeleton and it fell apart onto the ground,” said Brevik. “The light from heaven shone through the office down onto the keyboard. I said, ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing!’ I knew it was not only the right decision, but that Diablo was just going to be massive… A new genre was born in that moment, and it was really quite incredible to be the person coding it and creating it.”

The version of Diablo Brevik played that day was not the final build of the game. More tweaks – and further compromises – would be made before the game was deemed suitable for public consumption.

Everything that followed, though, was intended to capitalize on that magic moment when Brevik clicked his mouse and watched a skeleton fall before him in an instant. Brevik and the Diablo design team were as hardcore a group of RPG fans as you will ever find, and even they couldn’t deny that an injection of instant gratification into the genre yielded a visceral sensation of joy that even the best slow burns could never reproduce.

It’s tempting, then, to credit Blizzard for Diablo’s addictive nature. After all, had they not been so adamant about releasing a real-time RPG, Diablo‘s developers would have been perfectly happy releasing the kind of Dungeons and Dragons-style digital RPG experience that they dreamed of when they were kids. While it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty what would have happened to such a game, a quick glance at similar titles released at that time reveals that it would have most likely been embraced by a hardcore contingent of genre loyalists and ignored by nearly everyone else.

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However, it was their loyalty to the RPGs of their youth that truly made Diablo addictive.

Boot up any basic game design program right now and design a simple code that allows you to destroy a skeleton with a mouse click. Are you addicted to this creation? Probably not. That’s because you didn’t receive a reward for your actions. Diablo, meanwhile, rewards you for nearly every kill with loot. Even better, it sometimes rewards you with incredibly rare loot. This cycle of simple actions and immediate results is what makes slot machines such a draw.

Or, if that’s too obscure for you, it’s what makes so many mobile games a hit with the casual market.

Diablo isn’t a casual mobile game or a slot machine!” you might be saying. You’re right, it isn’t. Diablo‘s developers would have never been satisfied releasing such a game, which is why they began to stack their favorite RPG conventions upon this new foundation. Diablo features a rich lore, a character building system that inspires creativity, and a difficulty curve that forces you to improve or die.

Remove Diablo’s combat system from the equation, in fact, and you’re left with an RPG that suddenly doesn’t seem that far off from the game that the team at Condor (later known as Blizzard North) dreamed of making. Diablo didn’t compromise RPGs by making them accessible. It showed everyone that the core of the genre was strong enough to withstand the influence of modernization.

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No longer was an RPG’s greatness based almost entirely on the strength of the overall adventure the developers crafted in their role of dungeon master. Diablo had advanced the genre beyond the dictation of Dungeons & Dragons. A player could be sucked into an RPG, unable to pull themselves away from the instant gratification of the gameplay.

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There’s that phrase again. No matter how it’s used, there’s just something about that term that remains inherently insulting. Maybe that’s okay. Instant gratification, as a way of life, shouldn’t be celebrated. If anything, what we should all be celebrating isn’t the subgenre of action RPGs that Diablo essentially created, but rather the way that the addictive innovations of that genre forced studios like BioWare to reconsider the nature of traditional turn-based combat and begin to experiment with more active gameplay styles that didn’t compromise the depth of their experiences. 

Every now and then, though, getting exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, without having to suffer too much guilt about the arrangement truly is the very best feeling in the world. 

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.

This article first appeared on Dec. 30, 2016.