Blizzcon has been kind to Diablo III. This annual showcase of forthcoming Blizzard games has lacked a major announcement, and the Diablo III demo is reaching crush point. This compulsive, violent action-RPG is drawing crowds, and they're more than satisfied with what they're playing.
Last year, the launch of the Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft dominated the show, crowding out the drip feed of information about one of the five Diablo III character classes, the Monk. This year, the only major announcement out of the show comes from the Diablo III team: a fifth character class is on the way.
Spawned as a very, very fast RPG, the original Diablo played like a cross between D&D and such text-based dungeon crawlers as Angband. It was set in the hell-sieged world of Sanctuary, where you descended 16 levels beneath the town of Tristram, finally taking on the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. It was fast, brutal and fun, with randomised levels, randomised loot and randomised hordes of monsters. Within seconds of starting, you could be beating up crowds of hell-spawn. Within minutes you'd be hooked – levelling up, replacing your crap jerkin with shiny armour. A million mice died at the hands of gamers clicking their way through Normal, Nightmare, and Hell difficulty dungeons. An expansion and a sequel followed. Then... silence. Many of the creative leads within Blizzard left the company to strike out on their own. Nothing. Blizzard's focus shifted almost entirely to building on and improving World of Warcraft. For nearly five years, Diablo III was no more than a rumour.
Fast-forward. It's August 1, 2008. Blizzard are hosting a party at the Porte de Versailles Exposition Centre in Paris, their Worldwide Invitational. Rumours of a Diablo III have circulated online for the past week, aided and abetted by Blizzard's own websites teasing a 'major announcement'. “It's got to be Diablo III. Surely...”
A guitarist takes to the stage. A first chord rings out. It's the opening bars of the Diablo III theme. Paris explodes.
Back to Blizzcon. You can spot the Diablo III team mingling in the crowd. There's Jay Wilson, the game director – short, slightly balding, obviously passionate. Jay has made some of the most violent PC games of all time: he's responsible for the vicious artillery bombardments in Company of Heroes and Dawn of War. That's Wyatt Cheng, technical designer, giggling about giant frogs. He's a veteran of the World of Warcraft team – now responsible for turning the mechanics of dice rolls and critical hits into fast action violence.
And there's Christian Lichtner, the lead artist. When Diablo III launched, the art design took some serious heatfrom core Diablo fans; 63,000 PC gamers signed a petition expressing “the disappointment of Diablo fans about the way Diablo III artistic design is being done.” Those fans believed the game should feature dark, gothic horror, not the bright, well-lit violence we're currently being confronted with.
This has quickly become a running joke. Every panel and powerpoint at Blizzcon so far has been interrupted by a unicorn and a rainbow bouncing across the screen. It's funny. We laugh.