Diablo II is the sort of game that made the cliché “instant classic” mean something again. When it launched in 2000, the game’s skullface aesthetic, elaborate gameplay systems, and infinite build-customization options immediately monumentalized it as one of the best PC games of all time. Sure, it had bugs. And it had players who loudly (so loudly) complained about them. But that’s not what has stuck with people about Diablo II. It’s when they found a demon crossbow in the Halls of the Dead with a 1-in-60,000 drop rate. Or when they stumbled upon the perfect Necromancer build to explode a pile of dead zombies to kill even bigger zombies standing in the zone.
Twenty years later, the developers remaking the legendary game had some tough questions to wrestle with—namely, what about the famously challenging RPG sucked in a good way, and what about it sucked in a bad way? Their answer, Diablo II: Resurrected, was released on September 23 for PC, Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox.
There's a tendency among game studios today “to sand off a lot of the hard edges,” says Rob Gallerani, Diablo II: Resurrected’s principal designer. “If we were making a modern game, we’d see a heat map of everyone who died in this one spot.” Playtesters, focus testers, and potentially even neurologists consulting for the game studio might provide feedback like Wow, that deathtrap is a bitch. “That would be seen as something to fix,” says Gallerani. But for Vicarious Visions, a 30-year-old game studio acquired by Activision Blizzard in 2005, revamping Diablo II meant looking at the game through the eyes of a circa-1990s game developer. Diablo II wasn’t legendary just because it was hard; it was legendary because players enjoyed making it hard for themselves. They couldn’t optimize the fun out of it.
“Those spiky bits are the things people remember," Gallerani says. "Those are the parts where people are like, ‘Oh my God, did you hit this one thing?’ And then people bond and they figure out how to do it.”
That’s not to say that the developers kept all the spiky bits. Remastering a genre-altering game isn’t as simple as re-creating what it was. Diablo II: Resurrected would approximate, even enhance, the game fans remembered, not necessarily the one they played. Nobody will criticize the addition of features like visual accessibility options, easier online partymaking, and automatic gold pickup. And anybody who, for whatever reason, chafes against Vicarious Visions’ gorgeous, upgraded 3D models can toggle the game back into its circa-2000s look.
What’s consciously unchanged in Diablo II: Resurrected speaks volumes. Players still wander around Diablo II: Resurrected’s haunted tombs and ghoulish woods with no clear idea of where they need to be. Unlike basically any modern RPG, Diablo II: Resurrected has no quest markers. And every single time a player logs into the game, the map changes. If they save their game outside the Den of Evil to have dinner, when they log back in, they will not be outside the Den of Evil anymore. It will have moved.
“The way you play is that you have to keep exploring everything,” says Gallerani. “It’s very different from bringing it up on Google Maps and following the dot.”
Gallerani said it was a calculated decision to keep things opaque. Diablo II: Resurrected would remind players about how games used to be, or ideally teach gamers who weren’t alive in 2000 what they’ve been missing. It’s basically unheard-of in modern games to need an item to identify another item. In Diablo II: Resurrected, a player might not know the stats associated with a rare dagger until they find a Scroll of Identify and manually apply it to the weapon. Similarly, during Diablo II: Resurrected’s beta, Vicarious Visions devs received messages from players asking why they couldn’t use their bow and arrow. Have you equipped a quiver of arrows? devs asked. No, players would respond, and why would I do that? Don’t I have infinite arrows? “Everything in the game is very tangible,” says Gallerani.
The term for this design strategy is “forced friction.” The extra identification step might be annoying, but it also gives players a chance to relive the thrill of discovery: once when they find a cool dagger, then again when they learn how powerful it actually is.
Forced friction wasn’t the only philosophy behind keeping in frustrating systems. Taking out certain mechanics—even unpopular ones—can send others collapsing Jenga-style. Take “stamina.” Stamina is emphatically not fun. At least, not for new players. A low-level Necromancer character can’t just go on running across a cemetery for minutes at a time. (After, say, level 15, players dump enough skill points in their “vitality stat” or equip enough gear that the stamina bar is barely valid.) Still, removing it would throw Diablo II: Resurrected into chaos. Countless pieces of armor furnish players with extra stamina, as do stamina potions. Developers would have to redo the loot drop mechanics for every monster in the game. They’d have to rebalance every item of gear that offers stamina. “If we pull this one string here, it's going to start pulling everything,” says Gallerani. “That was really what made the call for us. It wasn't, like, ‘Is stamina a good design?’”
Making a game like Diablo II accessible to newer players is a tall order. The spikiness is the point. It’s like the difference between ordering bulgogi off the menu at a Korean restaurant and getting Korean BBQ so you can grill the bulgogi yourself. Either way, the game is great; but there’s an ineffable satisfaction associated with getting deep into the sinews and blood of Diablo II: Resurrected’s systems.
“We're not really here to fix Diablo II. We're not really here to advance it. That's what Diablo III is, what Diablo IV will be,” says Gallerani. “It puts more onus on the player to figure things out and less on the developer to hold your hand through everything.”