Until the 1990s, roleplaying games were often intimidating, aimed at an audience already familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings. There was a lot of reading involved – games like 1988’s Pool of Radiance were accompanied by a manual full of numbered paragraphs of text you’d be directed to read at various points to find out what was happening. There was also a ton of math, with arcane systems determining how many hit points characters received or the maximum level various race and class combos could achieve. RPGs were for the serious students of the video game classroom, the ones who sat at the front and paid attention.
But then, at the very end of 1996, Diablo came along. After popularizing fast-paced real-time strategy with Warcraft two years earlier, Blizzard were ready to repeat the trick with an RPG that ran at a similarly frenzied pace, and did not sit anywhere near the front of the class. Diablo sat at the back and drew skulls on its Trapper Keeper.
It didn’t start out that way. When David Brevik and the other designers at Condor (later Blizzard North) first dreamt it up, Diablo was another turn-based game about controlling a whole party of characters. Only as it evolved did it become faster, easier to pick up and play. Looking at the original pitch document, you can see Diablo was going to have “many races and classes,” but by the time of release they’d been rationalized down to just three regular humans: the warrior, rogue and sorcerer. Character creation went from a 20-minute prologue before the game even started to a single decision: Pick one and let’s go.