Playing the recent Diablo II: Resurrected technical alpha was like a glimpse of a different time and place, filtered through a modern lens. The action-RPG classic still feels great to play, but it’s interesting to return to such a measured pace of combat, and to feel the weight of choices in inventory management and character progression once again. It’s very much the same game, but at the same time, the team is modernising it. The game’s impressive visual and aural makeover is perhaps the most obvious, but beyond that are some carefully evaluated quality of life changes to reduce friction while maintaining the core gameplay.
I caught up with the team to ask about the response to the alpha, as well as how they’re ensuring that they stay true to such a classic piece of game design.
On the Technical Alpha
“We wanted people to feel how it plays, and to make sure that it felt like they remember,” says Rob Gallerani, Principal Designer on Diablo II: Resurrected of the recent alpha. “And you can’t communicate that unless people play it.” For the team having Resurrected feel like Diablo II was the priority, and that filters through to the new visuals, the remastered score, the shot-for-shot remake treatment the cinematic sequences are getting, and of course, the gameplay.
The team also wanted to gauge the fanbase’s reaction to some of the small quality of life changes that had been implemented, such as automatic gold pick-up. “For the most part people really liked them,” Gallerani says. “In fact they want to see more. The game is still a work in progress – this was a tech alpha – so even from the design side we have a lot of thoughts about [additional] quality of life updates and ways we can make them better.”
“A lot of the feedback has been specific, low level, little things across the board,” Gallerani continues. “The community has been amazing, we have sites of people putting together surveys and PowerPoints for us. It’s awesome to see them share how they feel about it.”
“We can’t promise that we can or will change everything,” Lead Artist Chris Amaral adds. “But when there are things we agree with, we can push them a little further.”
“We do prioritise things though,” Gallerani continues. “If something isn’t communicating how to play the game, that needs to be fixed. The next thing would be if it’s betraying something, if something doesn’t feel like Diablo, that’s important. If it’s ‘hey, here’s my personal preference’ well let’s make sure we go through the bugs and other things first. The fact that we have this huge list is awesome.”
Going From 2D to 3D
Diablo II’s visuals have been recreated using a new 3D engine, and it’s extremely impressive, increasing the detail seen in everything from a puddle to the way lightning arcs around a space. The mood, the dark tone, the atmosphere, the lighting and animation; it’s all ramped up significantly with the new look, yet still feels every bit like a modern version of the same classic game. The original is still under the covers, incidentally – you can switch back to it at the press of a key – and that, in particular, really helps reinforce the idea that Diablo II Resurrected is still the same game.
It also gives players a way to quickly cross reference what they remember with this updated incarnation. As an example, in the original, monsters that have been slowed or frozen turn bright blue to really make their status effect obvious. In the alpha, however, that blue seemed a little muted by comparison. Was this intended? Was it about establishing a darker atmosphere? “We want everything to feel moody, but still within the realm of what Diablo II is,” Lead Artist Chris Amaral responds. “We don’t want things to be too dark, we want it to be appropriately dark and match the original game. That frozen effect, that’s actually something we’re currently adjusting. In fact, we adjusted it a day or two ago. Again it’s all very much a work in progress, but in going through the feedback that specific example has come up.”
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“What’s great is that the community has been super specific like that,” Rob Gallerani adds. “The fact that you can have a game that has a worldwide audience and get a specific bit of feedback like, ‘The hue of this one effect doesn’t look right’. Well, that’s actionable. If it was a crowd of people simply saying the effects stink or something like that, there’s not much we can do. What’s even better is we have systems in place to tweak these things.”
“The inspiration really is the original game,” Amaral explains. “We want you to feel more immersed in this universe and feel like you’re actually living this rather than being a thousand feet above it.” This intent extends to all aspects of the presentation. The audio has been remastered, bringing new life to Matt Uelmen’s evocative score, and new ambient elements have been added to the sound design, like enhanced echoes inside a cave or the sound of dripping water. The goal is to double down on what makes Diablo II feel like Diablo II, and heighten the immersion in the process.
Coming back to visuals, the process of recreating the game’s classes in 3D was a lot more involved than simply updating or reinterpreting 2D sprites. The level of detail in modern games means that what were once vague characteristics become highly detailed elements – facial features, armour that has visibly seen a battle or two, and all sorts of other grit.
“A lot of it comes from the original, not only the original sprites but the original Maya files,” Amaral says, alluding to the widely used 3D modelling program. “Also, the reference images that were used to inspire the original art. My whole approach was that it’s 70/30. 70% we’re simply making sure it’s classic in terms of look, and then 30% is adding extra embellishments to make things feel more believable. We’re researching Celtic and Slavic imagery for the Barbarian, we’re referencing Roman armoury for the Amazon.”
“With that we’re trying to make things feel functional both in construction and use,” Amaral continues. “We believe that it reinforces the storytelling. When you see those extra details, you feel like this character equipped this armour rather than having things like floating shoulder pads. We love that little bit of realistic context where it makes every character feel like they’re a little bit battle worn. That they’ve been living in this universe.”
This extends to every aspect of the game. Every single icon that can exist in the player’s inventory has also been updated. It’s a mammoth task for a loot-driven game like this, but along the way the team discovered something of an unexpected roadmap to help them on their way. The original documentation by artists at Blizzard North for all Diablo II’s inventory art cited real-world references for every object. Yes, actual items the Resurrected team could draw upon to create new high-resolution art. Real-world history was the foundation that the game’s dark fantasy of monsters and giant beasts spilling out into Sanctuary from the Seven Hells was built upon.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20original%20documentation%20by%20artists%20at%20Blizzard%20North%20for%20all%20Diablo%20II%E2%80%99s%20inventory%20art%20cited%20real-world%20references%20for%20every%20object.”]
“We went through every piece of sprite art and re-concepted them using that 70/30 rule – so every piece of concept art we made updated an existing piece of imagery,” Chris Amaral tells me.
The team is also adding in extra objects within the game’s environments to give them more distinct details “The original game has a very particular ‘nav mesh’ [navigation mesh],” Amaral says. “You have a building and there’s a ‘nav mesh’ that determines collision and where the player can and can’t go. Meaning you can’t really run up to the wall exactly, there is a little bit of a gap. And where that extra gap is, we’re placing all the new props because it doesn’t interfere with the original collision. As far as storytelling goes, adding these extra details, we have a very limited area. Also, we don’t want to impede gameplay or the overall readability.”
There’s a tipping point at which too much detail becomes messy. Imagine an overly active physics and particle system animating thousands of fallen leaves through a foggy and dense swamp. The action can easily become too hard to read. With that in mind, even with the “nav mesh” limitation the team employs what it calls “noise filters” to determine, well, how noisy or how much detail exists on any given path.
“We’re constantly evaluating areas and going back and forth, trying to work out what’s too much and pushing down those colour maps to make sure the value is compressed,” Chris Amaral explains. “It’s Diablo so when an item drops, you need to be able to easily read where it is on the ground.”
Quality of Life and The Controller Paradox
When it came to the optional but on-by-default auto gold pick-up in Resurrected, the team felt comfortable in making that adjustment. Creating a shared stash was similar, as the change would alleviate the original’s cumbersome system for transferring items from one character to another. Remaining faithful to the original drives development, but ultimately there’s still room for quality of life improvements.
“The line is simple in that we don’t want to make the game easier,” Rob Gallerani says. “We want to remain faithful, so there’s a difference between making the game easier and making the game easier to play. With some feedback and requests coming in it’s easy for us to not do a thing because that will make the game easier. When people say, ‘We don’t want to worry about arrows anymore, give us infinite arrows’, or more broadly, ‘I want a giant inventory’. Stuff like that removes important choices; do I pick this item up or do I leave it behind? Do I go back to town now? Making the inventory bigger means more charms in your bag and that starts to change what the game is.”
With Diablo II: Resurrected coming to consoles in addition to PC later this year, the team was faced with one update that, well, didn’t really fit within the rules it set. And that was the addition of controller support.
“It was a lot of work,” Gallerani recalls. “Diablo is played out on a grid and underneath the hood the grid is still there. Play with the keyboard and mouse, when you click somewhere and tell your character to go there, the game pathfinds for you. It is going to figure out how to get there. When we took that away, via adding controller support, we were saying that the player is the one doing the pathfinding. What happened was that we realised just how much collision there was in the original game. A puddle, a rock, the corner of a building, stuff you never really noticed before because the game walked around it all for you.”
The team felt that making any alterations to the original collision — to let your character walk directly over a puddle, for instance — might be too fundamental a change, so a compromise was made. “We’ve gone in and added technology to smooth you around corners, and that’s still a work in progress,” Gallerani says. “We also added the ability to end movement in-between squares, so if you push the stick a little you walk a little. We had to add that in conjunction with stamina because there’s still a walk and run mode.”
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Controller support really does make Diablo II: Resurrection feel very different from the original point-and-click presentation, and for the most part it works brilliantly. Using a stick lets you move between incoming projectiles with the sort of ease usually associated with a third-person adventure game, while with abilities and skills mapped to face buttons, and potions to the four corners of a d-pad, the critical actions are all at your fingertips.
That accessibility has led to many people asking for an ability bar for the traditional keyboard and mouse input too. “Something like that would change what you’re used to from Diablo II.” Rob Gallerani comments. “Would that make it not feel like D2 anymore? Would it feel more like Diablo III? Which is a great game, but a different game. We’ve been having and continue to have these sorts of discussions a lot. But, we’re happy that when the feedback came back, people said that it felt like D2. In a sense we’re on the other side of that hill, a place where people are talking about things we could add or change. It’s a much better place to be than, ‘it doesn’t feel like D2 anymore’.”