The article on ShackNews covers the creation of the Blizzard cinematic department, and early ideas for an always-online requirement for a very un-warcraft-like War3. Here’s a quote about the cinematic stuff and the story surprise they created for Blizzard North in Diablo I.
“Today, Blizzard fans look forward to the company’s cinematics almost as much as they anticipate its games,” Craddock said. “However, the idea of devoting an entire internal team to cinematics took time to catch on and remained disconnected from the game development process. Diablo’s opening cinematic was made late in the production process before the story was finalized, consisting of a brief tour of a derelict town that may or may not be Tristram, shots of monsters roaming a dungeon, some mysterious force sliding the lid off of its sarcophagus, and several close-ups of an important-looking-but-never-used sword sticking out of a hilltop. Without much of a story to work with beyond ‘Kill Diablo,’ the video was created more to set a mood than to kick off a story.
“About midway through StarCraft, a proper cinematics team formed at Blizzard Entertainment, where all cinematics but one were created,” he said. “The team had almost total creative control over all game cinematics, even those used in Blizzard North’s games. The ending of Diablo, where the hero stabs the gem into his own forehead? Blizzard North had no idea that was going to happen until Blizzard Entertainment sent them a copy of the video.”
The devs have covered it many times in the past, but no, there really wasn’t much story for Diablo I until well-into the project. I’ve talked to Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer, and Dave Brevik about that, and how great the Diablo I manual was, and they all laugh and say how they were just making a cool gothic dungeon crawler and that it literally had no story throughout most of the development. That’s why all the story is in the manual, or told by those lore tomes you find in the dungeons, and how the actual game events and quests have virtually no story tied to them.
The devs knew the kind of game and the mood and theme they wanted to make, but “why” of anything, and the ultimate objectives of the plot evolved over time, and were largely fleshed out by Metzen and others who weren’t part of the core game-creation group.
Much the same thing happened in Diablo II, in terms of the cinematic team going off on the story and creating a lot of headaches for the game developers, as the cinematics were done (or at least finalized for content since the art/rendering took forever) well in advance of the game, and thus the story as related in the game, mostly through long speeches by Tyrael and other NPCs, had to be massaged to match up to the story as it was being told in the cinematics.
The messy way the story was created always comes to my mind when players complain about the story of Diablo III, given that the current game had probably 1000% more resources and effort spent on the creation and presentation of the story than the story in D1 or D2 did. It’s definitely easier to present a good story when you’re mostly presenting ideas and archetypal events and characters, rather than trying to fit new events into a complicated timeline, and make them match a bunch of background details and past history that fans are already wedded to.