Dave Brevik on the Original Diablo 3 MMO Design


A new interview with Dave Brevik, co-founder of Blizzard North and creator of the Diablo series, includes a mention of the initial plans for Diablo 3 at Blizzard North, when the game was going to be an MMO. The brief D3 conversation starts at around the 30:50 mark, and thanks to Nobbie for the tip.

Whenever another mention of “D3 was originally an MMO” hits the news, lots of players hear it for the first time and get all curious. Happily there’s a source for more useful info, and it’s us. The Blizzard North’s Diablo III article in our Diablowiki.net goes into a lot of detail and has those leaked (years after the fact) screenshots of Heaven.

Bliz North's D3.

Bliz North’s D3.

Nothing like that was (yet) in the game back when Brevik and the Schaefers were working on it at Blizzard North, though. For details on that, check out the first Diablo Podcast we ever recorded back in 2011, which features an interview with Max Schaefer which was the first time ever (AFAIK) any of them revealed that D3 was initially designed as an MMORPG:

FLUX: can you tell us anything about what your plans were for Diablo III? What you wanted to change from Diablo II? What you wanted to expand upon? Just better, bigger?

MAX SCHAEFER: We wanted to make it a bigger… we actually were going a more MMO route with it. So, it had more players in the game. But, we were very early and it’s the point in a project where you don’t talk to the public about it because so much can change and so much can go on. There’s lots and lots of things that go on at game companies that never hit the light of day, because it’s just too early to really sit and things are subject to change all the time. So, we may have changed our own path radically had we kept going with it.

But, at the time our thinking was to go more MMO style with it. With big communities in-game, not just like a session-based – four-person or eight-person – or anything like that. But, to really make a big overworld and a giant shared community.
(25:44)

Click through for much more from Max about those early D3 MMO plans, including his comments on the leaked Heaven screenshots, D3’s removal of Crosses/Pentagrams, and much more.

A quick Diablo 3 timeline:

  • 2000: Diablo 2 was finished in early 2000 and shipped in June 2000.
  • 2000: After the months and months (years) of crunching, vacations and rest were taken, but soon enough a large team got back to work on (D2X) Lord of Destruction while others began early work on Diablo III.
  • 2001: Diablo II: Lord of Destruction was released in June 2001. It was the first (and still only?) Blizzard game to be completed and release on schedule. Development ceases on Diablo 2 with only a very few guys still working to support/patch it.
  • 2001+: After 5+ years of nothing but Diablo I and Diablo II, lots of the Blizzard North guys were burned out on Sword/Sorcery gothic imagery, and various other projects were kicked around. Ultimately a second game was begun with a second dev team working full time, but no solid details about that game have ever been revealed.
  • 2003: The “Big Four” leave Blizzard North, largely due to financial shenanigans by the parent company Vivendi.
  • 2003: Mystery Project #2 is shelved with all Bliz North employees reassigned to the Diablo 3 project.
  • 2003-2005: Blizzard North Diablo 3 development continues, but sporadically with constant personnel turnover and most of the people who did design on D1/D2 leaving the company.
  • 2005: Blizzard North shuts down and most employees leave the company, with a few relocating to Blizzard Irvine.
  • 2006: The Diablo 3 is rebooted with an almost entirely new development team at Blizzard Irvine. WILSONED!
  • 2008: Diablo 3 (finally) announced at the WWI in Paris, June 2008.
  • Our our Max Schaefer interview from 2011 has the audio and a full transcript as well. Below are some excerpts.

    FLUX: So, that would have been many people in the same sort of instance. Or were you looking at a perpetual world kind of thing?

    MAX SCHAEFER: Yeah, like a really big instance. So, basically a perpetual world sort of arrangement.

    FLUX: Huh. Interesting. There were lots of rumors flying around the time you guys left, that you had wanted more an MMO kind of thing with Diablo III. But, because World of Warcraft was under production, that was kind of Blizzard’s MMO and you guys were unhappy that you couldn’t make that.

    MAX SCHAEFER: No, not at all. It was just a desire. We really didn’t think that World of Warcraft was… that didn’t drive our decision at all. What the guys down south were doing… we felt was different enough from what we were doing. It really didn’t dawn on us that having two subscription games would cannibalize each other at all, because they were historically different communities – the Warcraft communities and the Diablo communities. So, no, that didn’t drive it at all. It was just a desire to make something cool in the Diablo world using some of the newly emerging MMO mechanics. Having the cool interaction, chaotic interaction of lots of random people in a world. We just wanted to experiment with seeing how that works with our camera style and our control scheme. You know, the action RPG genre.

    FLUX: You liked how it was going? Or was it just so early at the time you left you can’t even say?

    MAX SCHAEFER: There was a couple of fits and starts as we experimented with stuff. It was going okay. Yeah, it was going fine. We were working on two projects at the studio at that point. So, we were kind of split down the middle as to who was working on what. So, I think we kind of slowed down a little, because all of a sudden we had to have two concurrent teams going on. We didn’t necessarily have the full expertise and staff and leadership across both projects like we did previously when everyone was on one thing. So, there was some adjustment as well. It was very difficult for any game studio to go from focusing on one project to doing two, just because it’s very difficult for one person to work on both of them. You tend to have to divide the team up. There’s issues associated with it. I think a lot of game companies have struggled when they get to that point where they want to work on two things.
    (28:01)

    FLUX: One other question about your early version of Diablo III.

    MAX SCHAEFER: Sure.

    FLUX: We’ve seen… the rumors were that it was set largely in heaven and that was what we saw in the leaked screenshots.

    MAX SCHAEFER: That’s not what we were making at the time.

    FLUX: That was my question. I was wondering if players were invading heaven or defending heaven? Was there ever going to be a chance to kick Tyrael’s ass?

    MAX SCHAEFER: We were in the Irish countryside hitting wolves and regular demons at the time I was there.

    FLUX: Okay, well. No wonder you recognized nothing of what they released. Obviously, a lot of changes over the next two years.

    MAX SCHAEFER: Sure. After we all left, you had to have new creative people in charge. They are well served by pursuing their vision and not trying to just duplicate what we were doing. I think that’s true for the Diablo III team today. They’re doing their own vision of the game and pursuing their own sense of what it should be like. And that’s how they should be doing that.
    (30:07)

    FLUX: Yeah, definitely. So, one of the things we talked about last time a little bit – and I just sent you a link about it – you had a lot of Christian references… a lot of crosses and pentagrams and sort of parallels to Christian religion. You know, real existing faiths in your mythology of your Diablo games.

    MAX SCHAEFER: Yes.

    FLUX: Obviously, you guys planned that. It wasn’t just like, “We can’t think of something better or something different so we’re just going to slap in some crosses.”

    MAX SCHAEFER: No. And it wasn’t necessarily because it’s Christianity as such. It’s just that it evokes images and ideas that people are familiar with. It’s not just a cross, it was a cathedral. It was a town that had the architecture style of what you would find in medieval Europe. There was lots of things beyond that imagery that was drawing upon real world parallels. It was just because that’s what evoked the ideas that we wanted to evoke.

    FLUX: As we’ve seen recently – as I sent you the link supporting it – where Blizzard has sort of removed all of the crosses and pentagrams from Diablo and also from World of Warcraft apparently. Some of the stuff upon release has since been sort of… I would say sanitized. Their explanation is that they’re creating their own original individual world and their own mythology. Obviously, you can comment on this to whatever variety you like, but what do you think about that? I believe you said last time that you wouldn’t have done that if you were still on the project.

    MAX SCHAEFER: We definitely would have not done that, because it doesn’t… the idea that it’s just because you want to have a new world that you’re creating something in just doesn’t wash. They picked out those two things because they’re controversial. We wouldn’t have done it. I don’t begrudge them their decisions. Again, they gotta pursue what they think is right with the game. But, we would not have done that.

    FLUX: There was one other comment. When Diablo III first debuted (the new version), Bill Roper said something to the effect of… there was sort of a Blizz[ard] North and Blizz[ard] Irvine style of art. Like the Warcraft style was more cartoonish. I don’t know. Cartoonish has become kind of an ugly word in this instance.

    MAX SCHAEFER: Yes. *laughter*
    (40:53)

    FLUX: It’s like “gothic” for Diablo II. You can’t think of any other adjectives that are especially appropriate.

    MAX SCHAEFER: That’s what we had always called it. Sort of a gothic look. Which doesn’t necessarily imply “realistic” and “gritty” like that, but that’s kind of what it’s come to mean in this context. The guys down south definitely had more… kind of established their style with Warcraft I and Warcraft II and then into World of Warcraft as being a little more cartoony. Obviously, that’s worked out pretty good for them.

    FLUX: You haven’t seen every piece of art from the game, but where would you put the new version of Diablo III? Sort of in between the gothic and the cartoony? Or?

    MAX SCHAEFER: I think it’s still pretty gothic. It’s a little bit more colorful than probably we would have done. But, I think… personally, I think it looks awesome!

    FLUX: Have you actually seen it? Did you see it at PAX or something?

    MAX SCHAEFER: Yeah, I’ve seen it at the shows. Just where they’ve publicly displayed it. Yeah, I think it looks really cool.
    (41:53)

    Belt scrollwork by Ben Boos, 2004.

    Belt scrollwork by Ben Boos, 2004.

    I’ve talked to a lot of the D3 devs about this on and off the record, and the main caveat is that most of the guys I’ve talked to left in 2003 or not long after. This includes all of the “big four” and others like Matt Uelmen and Ben Boos. (RIP). For instance, when those Heaven screenshots leaked in 2007, Ben told me the gilt-work around the health and mana orbs on the belt was literally the last art he’d created before he left Bliz North in 2004.

    As Max said in the 2011 interview, he’d never seen any of the Heaven screenshots before they leaked and nothing like that was in the game in 2003. (Though you’ll note he avoids saying if it was in their design doc plans.)

    From what I’ve been told, their early version of Diablo 3 was not what most players think about with an MMO. It was not some WoW-style 50-100 players in one huge area on a Raid type of game. Instead it was basically Diablo 2 with persistent towns. So the dungeons were mostly instanced and capped to limit the players in them (8-12ish) making them play much like D2 dungeons did. There were plans for some larger raid events, but only on the drawing board.

    The big difference from Diablo 2 was that instead of chat channels, they were going to have huge towns where hundreds of players would have been able to mingle in the game space itself. That’s basically how the online aspects of Hellgate: London were designed, and as David Brevik says in the new interview, it’s the sort of MMO design doc he took to Marvel Heroes.

    How would something like that work in Diablo 3 today? Hard to say since obviously the design evolved further over time, with the player cap dropping to 4 because of the console to optimize the play experience. This was a controversial change during development, but I don’t really disagree with it in retrospect. In D2 I always found 6 or more players in the same area to be completely visually spammy, to the point that melee chars couldn’t tell what they were targeting, and Diablo 3 goes much further on that graphical front.

    Maybe sticking almost complete transparency on everyone else’s character and skills could fix that, but visual issues aside, the game becomes such a mad scramble with every 4 players at once that I think 8 or 12 or more would be not fun. Bigger groups and raids work great in games designed for it, where players take rolls and form up in ranks of tanks, healers, mages, artillery, support, etc. Not so much in a Diablo-style game where everyone is a DPS capable of filling the screen with explosive effects.

    That said, Diablo 3’s social options were dreadful at launch, and chat channels are still pretty lacking, especially outside of clans. So having larger towns or hubs or even just guild halls set in-world, where players could walk around with their characters and interact and talk and group up to go adventure… sounds awesome. Hell, they could put that in the expansion in August and I think most players would be thrilled. Whether it would actually be better in practice than chat rooms, and how they’d integrate server or clan-wide notifications or msgs from other Blizzard games into it I don’t know, but the theory sounds fun.

    Links in this piece for much more detail:

  • The Diablo Podcast with Max Schaefer from April 2011.
  • Max Schaefer on the Diablo Podcast again in November 2011, with some more comments on early D3.
  • Blizzard North’s version of Diablo III.
  • Diablo 3’s development history.
  • Comments

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    1. For me personally it’s pretty obvious that Blizzard’s next installment of Diablo will have a much bigger social aspect along the lines of NCsoft?’s upcoming “Lineage Eternal: Twilight Resistance”, which is scheduled for beta this year and a release in 2016 (see the gameplay trailer here: https://goo.gl/QsuRYu).

      Part of WoW’s huge success is/was that it functioned extremely well as full Social Media platform back in the days when Facebook/Twitter were not there where they are today. Blizzard’s next mission must therefore be to win back the lost ground across all games/franchises they have now and in the future, incl. a Diablo 4 as “Action MMO”.

      • You’re probably right about the direction of D4 & gaming in general. There’s this oversaturation of social media in everything now. I feel it does erode the sense of story & setting in a video game, as well as the sense of personal accomplishment. I miss the epic single player games with an awesome story, & a great challenge/awesome ending. The problem with all these social media games is there’s never really an ending. How do you “Win” WoW? You don’t! I think Dark Souls is the best example I’ve played of a modern game that does a great job balancing the story/social aspects of the game in a way that leaves you interested in the story & with a sense of accomplishment when the game ends.

    2. “They are well served by pursuing their vision and not trying to just duplicate what we were doing. I think that’s true for the Diablo III team today. They’re doing their own vision of the game and pursuing their own sense of what it should be like. And that’s how they should be doing that. (30:07)”

      Such an important quote, & why I think there’s so many problems with D3 these days. I think it’s clear the devs aren’t pursuing their vision for the game. And it started at launch. I don’t really think Wilson wanted an AH, & it ended up dominating the whole game. Mosquiera probably didn’t even have a vision for D3 going into RoS as he was just a “port” man during the course of vanilla. That’s why a lot of the touted “features” of RoS on launch was just porting over stuff that console already introduced. The players do a lot of backseat developing, but I feel it’s because the devs don’t have the vision that Brevik speaks of here. First impressions are lasting ones, & D3 was the most popular PC game ever at launch, so it made the most bad first impressions for a PC game ever. Because the game had no vision, everyone playing made their own, & that’s a problem that’s never going to go away. Everyone has their own little visions of how this game should be, & there’s no way to fix a problem like that.

    3. I think for me, d3 feel bit like an mmo due to way of grinding rifts (instances) for sets to actually play the game. There’s only so many viable builds and sharing loot is too limited than I would like with account bound items.

    4. Also I appreciate you guys being around for such a long time as the news and features are great to me, so thanks for the article ^v^.

    5. I agree with you you DavidTheSlayer. I think Flux is doing really good job with this site. He’s posting insights and opinions, raising concerns of the playerbase while trying to be at least somewhat on a general level, whereas diablofans is just basically re-posting the news that you can see on us.bnet.com.

    6. I finally burned out on D3, I cant rift anymore. 1500 hours on PC DH, and around 500 on Xbox One.

      I care about interesting loot, not a number in the top right corner of my screen and playing a Diablo game under a timer. That’s not Diablo dammit.

      Brevik gets it.

    7. I miss these type of articles. The days (years actually) leading up to Diablo 3, DIII.net had some of the greatest articles on video games in general, even though it was mostly focused on Diablo 3. I know nostalgia plays an effect, but anymore it’s a “this is happening/happened” story, or a “this is said because of this development” article.

      I love you guys at Diii.net, especially flux, zappa, and elly.

    8. That’s why i like diabloii.net and diablo.incgamers.com — for that sort of articles. Incredible history depth!

    9. David Brevick played Diablo 2 recently http://www.twitch.tv/thejunglequeen/b/659262792 (OMG, social media this days)

    10. A blast from the past.. Am I the only one starting to feel old? ;p

    11. This, of course, stopped me in my tracks today. I did have plans before I saw this. LOL … great interview and interesting guy.

      When I had, originally learned he was behind Marvel Heroes … I went to the site and immediately downloaded it.

      I was pumped to play it because i knew it was at least partly his brainchild. But, it seemed confusing right away. I didn’t know where anything was. I told myself that diablo is probably like that to new-comers and gave it a full day of play.

      But, my experience with the game was that all of the characters i was interested in playing were redonkulously expensive. I couldn’t financially even consider getting ‘into’ Marvel heroes at that time, for that reason alone.

      The other turn-off, for me, was the art. Not that it’s bad art. Just that items you don have no affect on your outward appearance in that game.

      My other Art complaint was that artwork on the individual items in inventory was small; icon like in appearance. One of the things i like about D3 is that the artwork for the items is so fleshed out. I’m not sure why that matters to me.

      BUT, I can appreciate all the changes he mentioned … so, the prices have come down? I might try it again. 😀

    12. Very happy these guys didn’t create Diablo 3.

    Comments are closed.