How Diablo Evolved from Turn-Based to Real-Time


Parts one, one, and three of the preview chapter of David Craddock’s Blizzard North book are now online, and part three is all about the creation of Diablo I. The main issue covered in the chapter is the big debate over changing the game’s early design from turn-based to real-time.

Diablo was inspired by older dungeon crawlers like Rogue and Moria, which had been turn-based, and all the early Diablo game mechanics had a system of time to them; with different amounts of time required for your character to drink a potion, swing a sword, cast a spell, etc. Monsters had the same sort of time checks on their movement and attacks, so players had to carefully calculate the number of actions they could perform each turn, but had no urgency to make those decisions.

The guys at Blizzard Irvine had been sold on the game design and the team making it, but they didn’t know it was turn-based at first. When they found out, they argued strongly against it, pointing to the success of their own game Warcraft as an example of the intensity and fun of having to make survival decisions quickly and under pressure.

The Blizzard North devs liked real time, but didn’t think it was right for Diablo, and they argued back and forth for a while (there are lots of interesting quotes from both sides of the debate, in the sample chapter), but ultimately most of the Blizzard North team came to support the real-time theory. No one really knew until they actually tried it out though, so that very evening David Brevik tackled the project:

After everyone left for the weekend, Dave sat down at his computer and pulled up Diablo’s code. He scanned through and hit on something. The game was written so every action—movement, combat, quaffing a healing potion — took up a certain amount of time. Monsters moved immediately after the player initiated a command. Once the time to perform an action expired, the game turned back the clock and the player-monster turn cycle began anew. All he needed to do was whittle the time between actions down to nothing.

Dave began to type. The sunlight filtering in through his window grew faint, then faded to night, leaving him suffused in the glow of his monitor. Occasionally a breeze sighed through the window, rustling the blinds and fluttering the hockey posters hanging over his two desks. He never once looked up.

A few hours later, he built a new version of the game, took up his mouse, and played.

I can remember the moment like it was yesterday that this happened. I was sitting and I was coding the game, and I had a warrior with a sword, and there was a skeleton on the other side of the screen. I’d been working on all this code to make characters move smoothly, doing a whole bunch of testing, and we’d talked about how the controls would work. We wanted it to be visceral. Click and swing, click and swing. We wanted it to automatically happen: If you clicked on the monster, your character would go over there and swing.

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. It was really the most defining moment of my career, as well as for that genre of gaming. A new genre was born in that moment, and it was really quite incredible to be the person coding it and creating it. I was just there by myself coding it up. It was pretty incredible.

– David Brevik

Check out three for many more details on the birth of our favorite gaming franchise. There’s no ETA on the full box yet, but the amount of details and quotes from all the principle players at Blizzard and Blizzard North are making it seem a very intriguing read.

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  1. Whoa, really interesting!!! Thanks for this post!

  2. No wonder David told me to check out this particular preview! How ironic that I said I imagined the game would’ve played like X-COM, when it turns out that that’s EXACTLY what they originally built Diablo around! Really can’t wait to get this book!

  3. Quote:

    “Dave began to type. The sunlight filtering in through his window grew faint, then faded to night, leaving him suffused in the glow of his monitor. Occasionally a breeze sighed through the window, rustling the blinds and fluttering the hockey posters hanging over his two desks. He never once looked up.

    >What a BS !!!! description of someone who never did ANYTHING in this gaming industry since he left the comfort of a Blizzard supported game…

    We will forget how Blizzard needed to support Brevik with MASSES of resources coming from Blizzardi Irvine to finish his first game. I was once a gaming programmer myself and FRANKLY … NONE of this is even remotely up to the reality. I do agree that in the 80’s you made a game by yourself, but it was a painful process of MONTHS and MONTHS and the above NEVER happened to anyone I know.

    As of the 90’s: games were made by teams. No longer on an individual basis.

    So call this romantic bull shit and I would say indeed: fuck that loser who writes such nonsense.

    • Nice try Jay, nice try.

    • Did you bother to click on the link and read the full excerpt? Why am I even asking- I know better than that.

      Well, you’ve once again posted your uneducated filth that seeps from the corners of your mouth (if you’re wondering what that smell is, it’s a new fragrance you coined “romantic bullshit,”) so I’ll explain it to you. In the full excerpt, this small piece of text that you so quickly read as “Diablo was developed by one person (who apparently does nothing) in one night, who was bankrolled and babied along by Blizzard Irvine,” was taken from a section explaining what happened one weekend after the rest of the team had gone home, after a lengthy debate about whether to keep Diablo turn-based, or make it real-time.

      Such a troll.

    • “MASSES of resources…”

      Thrall, if you had bothered to read the excerpt, you would know that the original contract for development was serious lowballing. That’s unsurprising, because Mike and Allen sold out for peanuts themselves to Bob just a year or two before. Months after the moment David describes – when it was obvious to Bob himself (someone who actually had some business vision) that the game could be a huge hit – that’s when the resources came in.

      Amazing how the Irvine types still resent the fact that North could create something with a little bit of originality to it, instead of an iteration on “Dune 2” or “Eq” using rehashed Giger and GW designs.

      Almost as amazing as the fact that apologists like you still can’t see that all the vision and capacity to even do better versions of other peoples’ games left Irvine when Allen did.

    • Games development in 1996 was still pretty much “small teams in the garage style” made by small teams of crack coders. Look at ID Software (creators of Doom and Doom 2) and Epic Megagames – everything was done by one or two developers. The Doom series was out during 1993 and 1995, and could be considered as contemporary with Diablo. ID Software also came up with their own 3D software rendering engine – a feat by itself. It’s far stretch to imagine that something ‘simpler’ like Diablo couldn’t be achieved

      Another point – it is possible for a programmer to add in a new feature that becomes an awesome selling point. It doesn’t mean he did it all by himself, but it’s plausible. In a software team (not just games), there is always a couple of elite level 100 coder who had a flash of inspiration and just brought about awesome changes. I’m a programmer, and I saw it numerous times.

      As for Blizzard (Irvine) supporting Blizzard North, I’m not sure. Remember that Blizzard at that point in time only had 2 games under their belt – Warcraft and Warcraft 2. Blizzard wasn’t the giant publisher they were until Starcraft took off. Also, from the wikipedia article on Blizzard North, they were bought over six months before the release of Diablo. Perhaps Blizzard supported the CG and other assets, but it’s unlikely they will send programming support. Even if they do, as pointed out, it is not strange that a single programmer can come up with a single good feature. Programming is always done in small teams. Too many cooks etc. etc.

      The mega-studios come about when publishers began to emphasis shiny graphics as the way to capture the market. Games became even more complex with the introduction of multi-player. Lobbies were simple enough, but the effort required for auction houses, friends, in-game mail — features expected of most MMO, plus character accounts and in-game purchases, add more bulk to game that isn’t necessary gameplay.

      In those times, games were simple affair. They weren’t really about graphics and 3d; the time and effort to create a 2d game is dwarved by the technological requirements of 3D games. The pipeline is more complex; for example, art assets require 3d modelling, optimization, texturing and shaders, before finally you can import them into the engine. IIRC, everything in Diablo was pre-rendered from a 3D software – that cut down a large number of steps, but assembling the pre-rendered graphics into sprites is not easy either.

      Being a 2D game, you don’t have to worry about all sort of 3D baggage – such as handling different video cards. There were also less bells and whistles – no astounding CG, no voice-work, less writing, just 18 levels (as opposed to to the numerous ones in Diablo 2 and DIablo 3), just 3 character classes who pretty much have the same skills and can use the same spells, as long as they have the stats for it.

      Go play Diablo, and you’ll see how much vastly simpler it is.

      Some people still find it fun too.

  4. I do not understand all the love or hate for Brevik. Sure, he contributed quite a lot to one of the most successful PC game franchises ever, but he has also already proven to be unable to reproduce his (his teams) success – with Hellgate London.

    There’s no denial D3 has its issues, but Hellgate was WAY worse than D3, in nearly every way.

    It’s pretty clear to me Brevik isn’t some mythical God of videogame development, but just some dude who once had a really good idea and luckily the background support to make it happen.

    So yeah, lets see how Marvel Universe will turn out but i highly doubt it can connect to D1/D2’s success.

    • I don’t necessarily see the piece of excerpt as ‘dave-worship’. It is history, stating the facts as it is. Dave added in that piece of code which turned Diablo from a turn-based roguelike to a real-time action RPG and by so created a new genre. That’s history, a piece of fact.

      Like you say, we shouldn’t endorse a man by his past laurels, but we shouldn’t deny what he had achieved too.

      • Of course the text in question is describing facts, but you might agree that it is not written in a matter-of-factly way but is quite beautyfied and emotional. It is a biography after all, and its content should be taken with a grain of salt.

        “A new genre was born in that moment, and it was really quite incredible to be the person coding it and creating it. I was just there by myself coding it up. It was pretty incredible.

        – David Brevik”

        It is good you don’t see any “dave-worship”, hopefully quotes like this won’t get it started. He is just doing his “From the creator of Diablo”-marketing scheme.

  5. I’m glad the Diablo discussion lived up to expectations!

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