Designing Diablo

So last night (as I write this), I got an old hankering and popped in the CD to Blizzard's original Diablo game. First of all: Man, that game is just addictive as crack. (Hello, 5:30 AM before I knew what hit me.) You could argue it's just a perfect expression of the big dungeon-crawl motif.

Now, let's talk about the design of that dungeon. There's 16 levels broken up into 4 themed "chapters" (as I'll call them). Apparently those levels are uncannily like Gygax's original Dungeon Greyhawk design. For those to whom this is unfamiliar, here's a link, but I'll summarize myself right after:


Cathedral, Catacombs, Caverns

Chapter 1 (Levels 1-4): Officially called the "Dungeon", or popularly (and as I'd expect) the "Cathedral". This is directly connected to the ruined Church in town, and has lots of large galleries with supporting columns similar to such a building. Vision/light goes quite far and there's a real sense of sweeping, overarching open space. Obviously it's been taken over by things like skeletons and goblins and rat-like vermin; as the hero enters, he utters, "The sanctity of this place has been fouled."

Chapter 2 (Levels 5-8): Called the "Catacombs". The first time I entered this space (lo these many years ago), I was sincerely pretty freaked out. It's very narrow, mazy, the wall design is rough and crumbly, the light/vision range is reduced to a fairly small region, and it's absolutely claustrophobic. Among the monsters, there's usually one that is invisible by default and hits really hard, frequently popping up on all sides of you at once. The whole play on limited vision is really compelling and builds tension. When the hero first accesses this place, he says, "The smell of death surrounds me."

Chapter 3 (Levels 9-12): The "Caves", or as I mentally refer to them, the "Caverns" (sort of to keep the word-length in line with the other sections). These areas are mostly very large, naturally rocky caves with central lakes and rivers of lava -- no one can move over them (even, oddly, flyers), but missile combat across them is fast and furious. Commonly there are clever little bridges and exposed peninsulas that cause tactical dilemmas about letting a shooter sit there or going after them and possibly being cut off from behind. The walls (although technically straight in the engine) look jagged and irregular, as they should. This serves as a very nice contrast to what's come before. As the hero enters, he says, "It's hot down here."

Hell Levels

Let me pause here (hotkey "P") and praise all of the above. Everything so far has been really well done, and builds tension very nicely in both the architecture and visual design elements (and sound/music and strategy development). There's a sensibility to it all, inspired by real-life elements, that cathedrals really do look like that, and have catacombs beneath them, and somewhere deep in the earth there are caverns that some might possibly connect to (and I suppose do in old-world places like Rome, etc.) The audio that the hero speaks on the entrance to each chapter further reinforces the theme with some real useful, deeper detail (either thermal or olfactory, or perhaps spiritual) that we could not get from graphics or sound. But:

Chapter 4 (Levels 13-16):  These are the "Hell" levels where Diablo (the devil) ultimately resides. (Apparently this was retconned in Diablo II -- never played it -- to not be the "real" Hell, but all signals here are that's the intention). To me, this area is a real misfire. The designers here took the opportunity (or were forced) to go in a unique fantastical direction that I find puzzling. The overall design is one of extremely large, perfectly rectangular chambers connected by straight and wide hallways; the architectural elements are enormous bones for the walls, columns, and stairs (giants? dinosaurs? dragons?), embedded in a surrounding sea of blood.

Problems with this: When I think of "Hell", I don't think of large, perfectly rectilinear room boxes. (Although admittedly from a game-tactical standpoint it makes it tough on the player to find cover from mobs of shooting enemies.) I find myself bemused by what the referents for the giant bones or sea of blood are supposed to be (up until now Diablo was pretty surprising in its use of straight and hardcore Christian mythlogy -- angels and demons, pentagrams and upside-down burning crosses, corrupt kings and priests, etc.) The presence of standard storage containers like wooden barrels seems off. Previously, clearing a level and having an empty cathedral, catacombs, or cavern seems reasonable and "right" -- but clearing a level here and then walking around an empty and sterile Hell seems to wrongly break the tension (and seeing that it's basically 4 big connected boxes doesn't help).

Even the entry observation by the hero is weak: "I must be getting close". This is the first bit of audio that fails to given any added cues or sense of the environment. Furthermore, it's frankly wrong and confusing -- the first time I heard it, I assumed that I was entering the last level in which Diablo would be found, but as it turns out, there are a full 4 more difficult levels to plow through. (Again, causing my tension to slowly peter out as that dawned on me.) There's even a unique in-game cut scene in level 15 as you confront the town's fallen archpriest -- it's short, confusing, and doesn't add any information (it pans into the above-ground church, which should be far removed from where the hero currently seems to be). Likewise, the exact moment when you kill Diablo is jumpy, amateurish, and abruptly boots you out of the game -- so I'd say there's evidence of something here at the end being under-designed, rushed, and/or cut out.

Making a Hell of Hell

So over breakfast this morning I posed the following question to myself and Isabelle: "If you had the chance, how would you have designed Diablo's Hell levels?" One interesting thing -- Isabelle having also played the game very heavily back in the day -- she could remember a great deal about the cathedral/catacombs/cavern levels in detail, but absolutely nothing about the design of the Hell levels until I prompted her with some details.

Here was Isabelle's immediate take -- First, they made a mistake of using the fire theme for the lava caverns in the section above. Change that in Chapter 3 (my input here: adjust it to watery lakes and rivers), and then use the fire theme, as expected for Hell. Have the walls be flickering flames and occasionally shifting and opening/shutting off areas as you pass through them. I think that's a pretty good idea (and thinks "outside the box" in a way I didn't consider about needing to fix Chapter 3 for contrast).

My initial stab at it was this -- Go Dante's Inferno on it. Make the layout of these levels more of a circular design (to the extent the engine could support it), in distinct contrast to anything that came before, on each level spiraling in to a central stair down. Also, in Dante the innermost prison for the Devil was actually a frozen-over lake of ice, so you could use that to make these levels icy, blue, and cold (surprising some players who weren't familiar with it), and again have a totally different theme than anything in the levels above.

What's your thought on this? Are the original Diablo Hell levels perfect as written,  or would you have some better idea for how to design their geometry and architecture in the context of this particular game engine?


  1. I personally think that the Hell is almost perfect.
    Just the floors could have looked fleshy & meaty instead.
    Just as you can see in the thin walls of bones.
    Would look even more gloomy, depressing, disastrous, darker & more satanic & even Hell a lot more psychotic.
    And in addition to that.. There should have been more types of monsters in different colours.
    & some types in Hellfire which were supposed to be in the actual Diablo 1 but they removed them.
    And not only monsters.. Should have been more decorations in the environment as there were in the Alpha version of the game.
    Monsters spread more wider to make the gameplay more difficult of course.
    & definitely take back all the quests that were supposed to be in Diablo 1 + all other single player quests.
    & capacity of room for gold should be 400000-500000.
    & make the game look HD in the graphics but let the game still look old at the same time because it is the point with the whole Diablo game concept.
    This would make an absolutely delicious Diablo 1.
    This is my wish for the game to become.
    It is a total shame that not enough are caring about the great game Diablo 1.

    1. Interesting thoughts. Still playing it myself, I agree it's among the best.

    2. Thank you very much for agreeing with me.

  2. Man I so would work with knowledgeable people to create a new version of Diablo 1 with all Alpha features & removed monsters & spells & extra features.
    I am not knowledgeable myself about how to create games & treat codes.
    But I could be a leader & of great assistance.
    That'd be a dream-come-true to me =) <3

    1. If there was an improved Diablo I, I too would be all over that.

    2. try diablo the hell it´s basically an improved diablo.

    3. I'd prefer to create my own.
      That'd take a lot of time reading, understanding & learning.
      So I will see if I will have the time for that.
      & I know about The Hell.
      Some amazing things there.
      Like still-standing acid fast-spitters (may have been Unique leader with mob) in (maybe it was the hardest difficulty) in the Dungeon already.
      Hard as Hell to get through that alone.
      I've watched a video about it.

  3. Want to try something awesome, check out the diablo: the hell mod.

    1. The videos look very cool, thanks for pointing that out!