The lengthy Japanese epics of the ‘90s came into vogue around the same time the Western RPG genre became stagnant, with similar-looking dungeon crawlers and strategy games occupying the space. The latter genre was in dire need of a change, and that change to come in the form of an action RPG, one of the first of its kind, a game that traded in addictive crunchy mouse clicks and mobile combat. Diablo would shape the Western-style RPG for many years to come.
At GDC 2016, creator David Brevik revealed that Diablo was originally intended to be a claymation rogue-like in the style of Primal Rage (because the ‘90s). Brevik received pressure from Blizzard staff to make the game “live-action” and he recalls the first time seeing his first experiments with combat in the book Stay Awhile and Listen:
“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. 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.”
Diablo certainly managed to popularize the action genre, spawning dozens of Diablo clones and encouraging other developers to abandon pensive, turn-based combat to more frantic sword fights and spell-slinging. The game specialized in instant gratification, spurring players to click, click, click to fill their coffers with ever-growing piles of delicious loot. Diablo hooked you with the ol’ stick and carrot — keeping players glued to their chunky tube monitors with the hope of an elusive rare drop.
This addictive style of play would encourage other studios to rethink their own approach and loot systems. You can see traces of Diablo in popular RPGs even today. The action bar in modern MMORPGs? That was Diablo. And let’s not forget the spate of Diablo clones that continue to find success today. More recently, games like the Torchlight series captivated gamers, reminding fans of fond memories of clicking their crumbling mouse buttons into the night. And let’s not forget that Diablo III is still being updated.
But not only did Diablo breath new life into a genre, it also played a large part in getting online multiplayer off of the ground. It was the first Blizzard game to incorporate Battle.net into its multiplayer, allowing people to match with other players online as opposed to the typical LAN. Of course, this would also lead to issues with cheating as Blizzard figured out how to handle issues unique to online multiplayer in the early days. Problems aside, Diablo showed developers there was a massive demand for online multiplayer, paving the way for the modern landscape.
Diablo is certainly the most definitive action RPG, and one of the most influential. 20 years later, the game’s fingerprints are everywhere. Commonly considered one of the best PC games of all time, Diablo continues to inspire both developers and gamers alike.