Feature Article

How Diablo 3 Went From Disastrous Launch To A Hell Of A Good Time

Diablo 3 is a testament to Blizzard's long-term support, having turned a game that was widely criticized into a true gem.

Everyone loves a comeback story. When Diablo 3 launched 10 years ago today, it was a mess. A pernicious mixture of server issues and deeper design flaws angered a fan community that had already been anxious about this new chapter in the beloved series, which had been more than a decade in the making. What Blizzard pulled off in the intervening years is nothing short of incredible, making one of the worst launches in company history into one of its most beloved games--an impeccably fine-tuned loot-RPG that's accessible enough for beginners, but deep and rewarding enough to tempt long-term fans back again and again.

In the years since, Blizzard has gone through significant changes. The company has since become embroiled in a series of investigations and lawsuits, spearheaded by the state of California, regarding harassment, worker intimidation, and unfair hiring practices. It has been accused of fostering a sexist, "frat boy" culture, implicating many senior staff in either wrongdoing or complacent knowledge of it. Many long-time staff members have left, and investigations are ongoing. Now Microsoft has stated its intention to buy Activision Blizzard outright, based partly on the depressed stock price resulting from investigations. It has been a tumultuous decade for the studio that made Diablo 3, even as the game itself has improved greatly from its release.

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Now Playing: Necromancer Returns from the Dead in Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

My game about the devil has too many colors in it

Even before the launch, the Diablo community had mixed feelings about the impending sequel. Screenshots and videos of the game showed a much brighter, more colorful aesthetic than that of the first two games, which were dark and gothic. Fans expecting a grimmer vision from a game about actual Satan felt disappointed in this new direction.

As we would later learn, Blizzard actually did design Diablo 3 with a darker visual style before adding more light elements and a wider color palette. Blizzard poked fun at itself with the Easter egg Whimsyshire, a unicorn-laden land that's much brighter than anything else in the game. It's even designing Diablo 4 with the promise of art direction closer to Diablo 2.

As Diablo 3 was preparing for launch, though, there was a quiet rumble of dissatisfaction before it ever left the gate. With the art style so divisive, the proof would have to be in the playing. Once you got your hands on Diablo 3, Blizzard suggested, you'd be a believer.

Error 37 lights up the Internet

So, with an eager bunch of demon hunters itching to put the game through its paces and see how it handled, it was doubly problematic when it turned out that they couldn't actually do that. Instead of being met with the game they had been waiting for for the better part of a decade, players received a vague message:

The servers are busy at this time. Please try again later. (Error 37)

Diablo 3
Diablo 3

Without any clear indication of exactly how busy the servers were, or how long it would take to fix, players were left in limbo. They had no idea if they should wait, check back in later, or give up entirely. Game director Josh Mosqueira later said that the launch was just much bigger than anyone on staff had anticipated--even after doubling and then tripling the projections--in the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier.

This was especially galling because of the game's always-online requirement. While Diablo 3 does have a multiplayer component, you can complete the entire game solo if you want to. There was no reason players shouldn't be able to simply fight their way through the campaign alone, whether the servers were working or not. But playing offline, as you could in the first two games, wasn't an option, so eager fans were stuck making no progress at all while Blizzard sorted out the server issues. This issue did not come entirely by surprise: Prior to release, and based on the playable beta, players were already expressing concern with the always-online requirement.

"Right now, in the state it's currently in, it's an inherently broken product," wrote John Walker for RPS. "A single-player game that won't pause, and if you leave it running will boot you out and cancel your progress."

But Blizzard stayed the course, and the launch-day disaster was the eventual comeuppance. Adding to the frustration, the always-online requirement seemed to be tied to another online feature, and one that proved most central to the game's woes in its first years.

The Auction House

Blizzard had a problem. In previous Diablo games, the ability to trade items had created a black market for loot. Players hungry for the best gear were willing to pay, which also left the door open for unscrupulous third-parties and price-gouging. Blizzard saw the perils of an unofficial, unregulated marketplace for Diablo items, and thought it could do it better with a legitimate, regulated one.

"The auction house came out of the desire to legitimize third party trading so that players would stay in the game to do their trading rather than go to third party sites, and as a result reduce fraud, scams, spamming, and the profit in hacking the game, making dupes, etc.," former game director Jay Wilson said in an interview with DiabloII.net after leaving the company. "The problem is, of course, it over-legitimized trading. It made it too easy. I think we all know this by now and the consequences. We worried about these consequences ahead of time, but we thought the benefits would outweigh the downsides, and [World of Warcraft's auction house] seemed like a good proof of concept. Obviously we were mistaken."

The mistake came down to two key areas. First, the auction house had a real-money component, allowing players to buy loot directly. This element opened Blizzard to criticism of engineering poor-quality loot drops to maximize market exchanges, since it took a small cut from every transaction. Whether or not this was the case, the overall quality of loot was extremely poor at launch, and fans were justifiably suspicious--especially given that Blizzard's acquisition from Activision was only a few years old at this point, and longtime Blizzard fans were watchful for any resulting changes in corporate culture.

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Second, the existence of real-money marketplace made anti-cheat measures that much more vital to the health of the game. If someone could generate a valuable item infinitely, for instance, it would lead to scams and ultimately drive down the value of items. That was part of the always-online component that had driven players' frustrations in the opening days. If you're always online, the system can constantly check for cheats like duplication glitches, though that didn't make players who wanted to exclusively play offline feel any better.

What Blizzard had on its hands was a feature that fans didn't like, that existed mostly to support the technical underpinnings of another feature that fans didn't like.

As the company reassessed and decided how to move forward with Diablo 3 in the months following launch, it quickly decided that the auction house was "doing harm to the game," according to Wilson. That harm manifested across both the real-money and gold versions of the Auction House, as it broke the core gameplay loop of Diablo. Why bother hunting monsters and demons if you can just buy equally good or even better gear? But the team wasn't sure if shutting it down was even an option. The considerations were both practical--their player data showed a significant number of players were actually using the feature, and didn't want to upset them--and legal, since it was advertised on the box.

Blizzard ultimately decided that both the real-money and gold Auction Houses needed to go, but it wouldn't be enough to just leave an Auction House-shaped hole in the game design. The team started planning a larger-scale update. This would integrate suggestions from Josh Mosqueira, who initially joined to oversee the console versions and then became game director in 2013. The Auction House's retirement would be paired with a complete overhaul to many of the game's core systems, along with the launch of console versions and its first (and only) major expansion, Reaper of Souls. The biggest marquee feature was to the loot system, which Blizzard dubbed "Loot 2.0"--a massive change meant to make the loot drops more rewarding. It was to signal a whole new era of Diablo 3.

"We firmly believe that by shutting down the real-money and the gold auction houses, it really paves the way to make sure that killing monsters in-game is the most rewarding, the most satisfying, the most compelling way of getting your hands on those items," said Josh Mosqueira in a video announcing the change.

The Auction House was shut down on March 18, 2014. Despite being the source of so much consternation at launch, Blizzard didn't add an offline mode--and still never has. One week after the Auction House closure, Reaper of Souls would change everything.

Paving the way for the Reaper

Though Reaper of Souls was the biggest injection of new content, Blizzard also made a number of changes to Diablo 3 that would provide a good foundation in the months and years after the game's initial release. The first major update came a few months after launch and long before the expansion. Patch 1.04, which was released on August 21, 2012, added a number of new features still in use in the game today.

Paragon Levels added a more rewarding endgame progression, providing a tangible benefit to continuing to level up beyond the standard level cap of 60, including passive stat boosts along with gold and loot find boosts and extra character portraits. This was accompanied by an adjustment to difficulty, to smooth the gap between normal mobs and rare monsters, and just generally encourage efficient play. Legendary items also got a huge boost in 1.04, both in terms of raw stats and a greater occurrence, and variety of special game-changing attributes. With this more powerful gear, players could reliably build their character around their favorite piece of gear and its special abilities.

Blizzard continued to make tweaks for more than a year afterward, leading up to Reaper of Souls. One month before Reaper hit, on February 25, 2014, Blizzard deployed Patch 2.0.1. This was the biggest single update to the game yet, and made many of the changes that made the game recognizable to today's players.

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls

Patch 2.0.1 made major quality-of-life improvements for all players, regardless of whether they planned to get Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls. Paragon leveling was combined between characters. Difficulty got a huge overhaul, as monsters would now scale with your level. The difficulty levels were placed with new Normal, Hard, Expert, and Master, as well as various Torment levels. Torment would yield greater rewards and was intended for endgame players to keep honing their skills and finding even better loot. The patch also revised and simplified the crafting system, and introduced a temporary experience boost called Pools of Reflection.

The centerpiece of the changes, as promised, was Loot 2.0. Whereas the loot grind in the original release had overloaded players with tons of junk loot, post-patch players found themselves getting significantly less loot, and what they did find was of much better quality. Loot would have more bonuses and special properties, and those properties would smartly be tailored to a player's specific build. Legendary items would provide skill modifiers or other game-changing properties more often.

With a firmer foundation, Reaper of Souls was ready to reintroduce lapsed players, tempt new ones who had skipped the initial experience, and expand the player base by inviting in console players for the first time. Not only was the expansion built on a vastly improved player experience, but it added even more content to an already robust game. It included a new defensive class, the Crusader, a fifth story Act. A new Adventure mode gave the game unheard-of longevity, establishing a way for players to continue running through missions and bounties indefinitely without simply repeating campaign content. That was critical because Diablo 3, unlike its predecessors, allowed you to freely respec your character, leaving little reason to create alts of the same class. The level cap was also raised from 60 to 70, giving players even more opportunity to enhance their character for endgame challenges.

"Whatever it is, Reaper of Souls has it," Carolyn Petit wrote in GameSpot's Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls review. "This expansion adds a decent new character class, a great new campaign act, and most significantly, Adventure mode, a devious Blizzard concoction calculated to make Diablo 3's existing content more rewarding--and more addictive--than it has been in the past."

To every Season, turn, turn, turn

Reaper of Souls made one more long-term change to the formula, and though its impact was not immediately apparent at launch, it would end up being the biggest contributor to Diablo 3's incredible longevity. Seasons were the solution to keep players engaged and coming back, offering special rewards and exclusive Legendary gear designed to reward players devoted enough to plumb their depths. Seasons would reset every three months and grant special rewards for the most devoted players. Now, not only could you get great gear from a robust endgame and Torment levels, but your gear itself could tell other players a story about a particular time and place that you earned your items.

Since then, Diablo 3 has seen a constant, steady stream of updates that have kept the game fresh for long-time fans. It received a significant class rebalancing in Patch 2.2. The next major patch added a Season Journey feature to let you easily keep track of your seasons, as well as Kunai's Cube, a special item that allowed players to transfer Legendary traits, among other special quality-of-life abilities. It also added Nephalem Rifts, a new type of dynamic content that further helped make the game more replayable. Patch 2.4 introduced Set Dungeons, a way to test your skill in Adventure Mode at the peak of your equipment and abilities. It also introduced Greater Rifts, an riff on the Nephalem Rifts that had already become popular. Next, Blizzard created the Armory to allow players to quickly switch between loadouts. It even introduced an entirely new class as DLC, the Necromancer, in Patch 2.6. That was followed once again by class rebalancing and special endgame armor sets for players who gravitated toward the new class.

Even just last month--nearly 10 years after launch--Diablo 3 received a major update with an entirely new mode. The Echoing Nightmare mode lets you challenge your seasonal character against waves of fallen Nephalem warriors. To access the mode, you needed to get a Petrified Scream from a Greater Rift Guardian, showing how the new content has built on itself over time. And of course, challenging the new mode would grant you powerful, exclusive rewards, so even the most veteran of Diablo players could find something worthwhile.

The very fact that there are even veteran players to cater to with a challenging new mode, 10 years after release, is a testament to the staying power of Diablo 3. A game with a disastrous launch and some fundamental problems with its core design has grown into one of Blizzard's most long-lasting and beloved games. The future looks bright for the series, with Diablo 4 on the horizon and even the once-maligned Diablo Immortal starting to raise curiosity among series fans. But if Diablo 3 is any indication, whatever those games are at launch may not resemble what they'll be 10 years later. Blizzard has shown it will take the time to get it right and create an enduring classic, come hell or high water.

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Steve Watts

Steve Watts has loved video games since that magical day he first saw Super Mario Bros. at his cousin's house. He's been writing about games as a passion project since creating his own GeoCities page, and has been reporting, reviewing, and interviewing in a professional capacity for 14 years. He is GameSpot's preeminent expert on Hearthstone, a title no one is particularly fighting him for, but he'll claim it anyway.

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