“Whenever we make a game, we’re always asking ourselves ‘where’s the fun?’,” starts Rob Gallerani, Studio Design Director at Vicarious Visions. “With Diablo 2: Resurrected though, we just had to not screw up the fun.”
The game is a faithful remaster of the original, genre-defining Diablo 2. Released in 2000, the action-roleplaying, hack-and-slash game sold a million copies in two weeks. In twelve months, that number had grown to over 4 million sales and in the two decades since, the community of players has remained healthy, competitive and dedicated.
The team knew that any remaster of one of the most adored games in history would have to be handled carefully.
“We had to get it right by the diehard fans because they are the ones who are going to scrutinise every little detail. We had to get every little quirk right,” continues Gallerani, who knew appealing to both classic players and a new audience was a fine line the team at Vicarious Visions had to walk.
“We spent a lot of time working on how you get into the game.” The front end of the game is completely different and has a much more modern look with a big ol’ play button. Things like online play and inviting friends to play can now be done from within the game.
The team also worked with AbleGamers, an American organisation which has spent over 15 years “pushing the inclusive efforts of the industry forward by training and consulting studios while connecting them directly with players who can share their personal experiences.”
It resulted in more accessibility options like the ability to make the font larger, playing in colour-blind mode as well as a retooled camera control. “When you make the game approachable for more people, you’re making the game better for everyone,” says Gallerani. “It’s better for people with permanent issues but it also helps out, say, a parent with a newborn baby. They can control the volume so they can play while listening out for a crying infant. The thumbstick can be switched so you can play the game with one hand, in case you need to play while holding the baby.”
“It doesn’t make the game easier, it just makes it more accessible,” he reasons. “You really need to look at what is important. Is fighting with the camera an important part of the game? No. People have always complained about the size of the inventory but that’s part of the game and we haven’t changed that. We’ve added things like item comparisons though because it’s such a staple part of every game. Diablo 2 was always about numbers, grinding and tone and all of that is still true whether players have to now click on the gold or walk over to it to pick it up.”
After a series of successful open and closed tests, Diablo 2: Resurrected is released this week. There are no nerves from the developers though, only excitement about seeing the reaction from fans. “I think we got most all of it right,” says Gallerani.
As well as looking out for bugs, “those tests were us trying to earn the trust of the community. We had people who had been playing Diablo 2 for the past twenty years pick up ‘Resurrected’ and not bat an eyelid. The only feedback we got was stuff like ‘this potion isn’t blue enough’ which we can work with. It’s hard to enter a bug that says, ‘Don’t make the game crap’,” which is what online feedback usually suggests.”
“People weren’t even sure they were playing the new game at first and that was an incredibly proud moment for me,” says Kevin Todisco, Senior Software Engineer. “The mantra from the start was always ‘this has to be the game you remembered playing 21 years ago’.”
“It needed to trigger that nostalgia. It feeling like the game you remember it being was super important. But what you remember and what it really was are not always the same thing,” says Gallerani, aware that a lot of people will remember Diablo 2 through rose-tinted glasses.
It’s one of the reasons Diablo 2: Resurrected has a toggle function that will allow players to switch between the new game and the old one. See, Resurrected is built upon the games original architecture. “This is probably the only game that has been remastered from a 2D-based game into a 3D one, but is still running the 2D game.”
Inspired by other games like Starcraft: Remastered, the toggle is there “to remind people that yes, this is the same game that’s running underneath, it’s the exact same code. It’s the exact same engine. All we’ve really done is added this beautiful new 3D layer on top of it,” says Todisco. “It also kept us honest.”
Using the original architecture meant the team had to know Diablo 2 inside out. At the end of the game, players face Baal, a boss monster with the ability to clone himself. Gallerani noticed that the clone’s health bar would be one pixel lower in SD but didn’t know why the code was doing that and assumed it was a bug. After Googling and checking forums though, the team discovered it was how players could tell the difference between the two Baals, so they then had to recreate that quirk in ‘Resurrected’.
After spending so much time with the game, the developers of ‘Resurrected’ are even more sure of why Diablo 2 was such a cultural behemoth.
For one, it was released during the era of pencil and paper tabletop games and turn based fantasy games but came at a time where computers had started to get more common and more powerful, resulting in a perfect crossover.
“The game was dark, which made it cool because not everyone’s parents wanted their kids to play it,” says Gellerani. “There was also no right answer on how to play. Whatever you wanted to play as, the game never tried to stop you. It let you play how you want to play.”
“It was just as much the people playing as it was the game though,” he adds.
Gallerani is an original Diablo 2 player but before working on it, Todisco had never played it. As soon as the job was confirmed though, he went back and immersed himself in the world as a Barbarian. A good choice according to Gallerani. “I had fun playing on Normal difficulty but as soon as I started on Nightmare and got into The Blood Moor where there were more mob groups, minions and bosses, I totally got it.”
“The game does not hold your hand. It smacks you in the face and tells you, you need to get better.” That friction inspired a sense of community within the development team because, like Todisco, a lot of others were simply too young to have played Diablo 2 when it first came out. “They’d get to Duriel for the first time and ask people like me if he’d always been broken,” starts Gallerani. “’No dude, just get good.’”
“We underestimate how important that is in games today. People are smart, they’ll figure stuff out. They’re lazy though and they won’t figure it out if they don’t have to. On the team it created a culture of the old guard shepherding in new people. I’m actually really excited to see that on a more global scale when Resurrected is finally released.”
Before they were brought under the Blizzard Entertainment umbrella at the start of 2021, Vicarious Visions were owned wholly by Activision. They were responsible for the recent remaster of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 as well as the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy.
Gallerani believes the current trend of remakes is driven by nostalgia. “There’s no risk, is there? It’s like putting on an old sweater and right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s nice to have something you know you’ll love.“
“It would be easy to put on my cynical hat and complain that there are no original ideas in gaming anymore but there’s a lot of innovations in these remasters.” Take Diablo 2, for the first time it’s available on consoles which comes with challenges like making sure it looks good on huge screens and the portable Nintendo Switch. “I don’t think we could make the game without putting our own creative additions to it,” he adds.
“We’re also at this point of games technology and graphics where we’ve got the opportunity to breathe new life into some of these games,” says Todisco.
The original Diablo 2 was a deliberately 2D game because it allowed the original developers to create their vision as best they could with the limited 3D tech available at the time. They had to use tricks like shadow casting to give the game the feel of 3D.
“We have the chance to take this real classic and make it even bloodier, grittier and darker. I hope that we achieve the vision that they would have wanted to make possible 20 years ago, had they had the technology,” says Todisco. “We want to really bring this game into the modern era and make it last for another 20 years. It’s a preservation of history as much as it is a remaster of a good game.”
“We’re not trying to fix the game,” says Gallerani. “We’re not trying to give players the next iteration of Diablo; that’s what Diablo 3 is for. That’s what Diablo 4 and Diablo Immortal will be. It’s a great time to be a Diablo fan right now though.”
The team are currently working on Ladder, a competitive type of closed realm Multiplayer, to be added to the game post-release. “The main reason for that is we know the race to 99 is really important and we want to make sure that experience is smooth for everyone. Let’s be honest, we know games aren’t perfectly flawless right when they come out and we want to make sure we do things right. The focus is to stick the landing, then Ladder will follow and we’ll talk about additional changes or additions after that. The game is going to be watched, it’s an ongoing relationship between us and the players.”
For a team so focused on making sure ‘Resurrected’ honours its past, what did the team make of the news that original creator David Brevik would not be buying or streaming the game because he’s not supporting Blizzard right now, following the ongoing lawsuit?
“We’re supportive of all our colleagues and when it comes to past creators, we support them and their views,” explains Gallerani. “We thank them for the legacy they left because we really did use the original Diablo 2 as a vision for this game. Right now though, our focus is on preserving this piece of history. Hopefully it endures through all these ups and downs.”
Diablo 2 Resurrected is releasing on September 23.