Swords, spells and Academy Awards?

Diablo II vies to be the first role-playing game to be sanctified by Hollywood.

By Jamais Cascio

Published November 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

For eight minutes, we are in another world. A dying man lies on the ground of his cell in a medieval insane asylum, as dust motes float in a Brownian dance across a shaft of sunlight. As he tells the story of meeting a stranger at a crossroads inn, we see the tale unfold before us. A hooded figure staggers into the inn, drawing the attention of the hardened warriors who sit and drink around the fire. The stranger is in pain, barely able to contain the demons that reside within him. We watch as the demons are temporarily unleashed, easily killing all but the narrator, who hides in the corner and watches. The inn is set ablaze, and the stranger walks out, the narrator following him on his journey. Roll credits.

Playing along with a handful of other animated shorts at a theater on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif., last week, "Diablo: The Calling" seemed only slightly out of place. It wasn't the sole computer-generated film in the collection, nor was it the only one with a truncated plot. But it was the only film participating in this screening -- all fulfilling the "public exhibition" requirement for Academy Award consideration -- that had been originally produced as the intro animation for a computer game. (The short is eligible for the Oscar because it was shown on a screen before it appeared as part of the game.)

Of course, "Diablo: The Calling" is an outtake from Diablo II -- the highly anticipated new game from Blizzard Studios. (Its launch was recently delayed from Christmas to early 2000.) Coming in the wake of Blizzard's original Diablo and StarCraft -- some of the most cinematic of computer games -- it's hardly surprising to see the gorgeous graphics of Diablo II vying for an Academy Award on the silver screen.

Blizzard has gone Hollywood. For a company that excels in what could be considered traditional hack-and-slash computer entertainment, Blizzard has a lot in common with a cutting-edge movie studio. Certainly, its games are produced like movies.

Over two years in the making, Diablo II has a multimillion-dollar budget and deals for spin-offs such as action figures and books. The game itself will fill at least four CD-ROMs, and will contain nearly 30 minutes of "cinematic elements" -- the high-resolution animations used to move the story forward. Though work on the game is still in progress, I got a sneak preview and found a game that, while still a bit rough around the edges, is already a visual wonder.

The environment of Diablo II is alive with motion, from the birds and small animals scampering through the underbrush to the whirling animations of spells such as the Shield of Hammers. Magic items and spells have unique visual representations. The character images -- the Barbarian, the Necromancer, the Amazon, the Sorceress and the Paladin -- have individual appearances and skills, each more compelling than the last. When I saw the Sorceress cast a "Rain of Meteors" spell, inundating the ground around her with a firestorm of flaming stones from above, I was amazed; when the Necromancer, in turn, cast a "Wall of Bones" that grew from the slain bodies of his enemies, I simply had to laugh. Even incomplete, Diablo II has some of the best graphics I've ever seen.

Within the Blizzard ranks, there is a sense of anticipation about the new possibilities. "With every [cinematic sequence] we do we're getting more and more to the level of a full motion feature," sound designer Tracy Bush confided after the screening of "Diablo: The Calling." "We've definitely kicked around the idea of a full-length picture -- as long as we're working with the right company."

Blizzard's public relations director Susan Wooley echoed the sentiment. "We have volumes of backstory, stuff that our designers come up with that never gets into the games. We have a lot to work with. [Movies] would be a natural extension of what we do, but we'd want it to be really good."

But not everyone at Blizzard sees a trajectory from games to movies. Matt Samia, the producer in charge of Blizzard's cinematics department, takes a more conservative view. As a programmer with a background in film, he saw the direction the game industry was headed early on. But when it comes to a feature-length production from Blizzard, he says, "There are no concrete plans for that." He wants his team to stay focused on creating the most outrageous cinematics possible for the games. "It's a challenge to see how far we can push it every time."

The first Diablo was one of the surprise hits of 1997, with more than 3 million copies in play. Moreover, Diablo reignited a gaming genre; role playing games (RPG) had become moribund, far less interesting than the various Quake-style action shooters or the real-time strategy games that were then coming into vogue. Diablo's success helped pave the way for the success role-playing games enjoy in 1999, when even Microsoft has gotten into the business with Asheron's Call.

Earlier computer RPGs had tried, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to replicate the experience of paper-and-dice role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Some, like the Infocom text adventures, became minor classics; most, including even the official D&D adaptations, were best forgotten. Diablo took the elements from RPGs that seemed to grab players the most -- the control over character skills and "stats" (strength, willpower, etc), the ability to become more powerful as you move up "levels," the sense that each character could be individualized -- and combined them with a rapidly moving slash-and-blast format that left wrists sore and keyboards broken. Like many a rabid Diablo player, I more than once found myself unable to pull away from the game until I was too bleary-eyed to go on.

From the Diablo II preview I was given, I should stock up now on coffee, seat cushions and extra keyboards.

"The goal with Diablo II is to create a 'definitive title,'" says Bill Roper, Diablo II's producer. "We want to make it so that people can't think of this genre without thinking of this game."

Blizzard certainly seems to be putting in the effort to achieve this goal. Although clearly related to the original Diablo, Diablo II shows a clear progression not just in the technology, but in the gameplay. Diablo II seems to contain every element the Blizzard team wishes it could have put into the original. It could easily become the definitive computer role-playing game.

Or it could become the greatest victory of yesterday's war. While the Diablo series allows people to play together over the Internet, games are relatively brief, and only a limited number of people can play together -- Diablo II makes room for eight players, a step up from the original's four. Contrast this to EverQuest from Sony or Asheron's Call from Microsoft: in these "massively multiplayer" games, thousands of people can be online at the same time, in the same virtual world. The games themselves are "persistent," meaning that the game world continues to exist and grow even after individual players shut off their machines. Although games played over the Internet one-on-one or in small groups remain popular, gamer -- and industry -- attention has clearly shifted to the massively multiplayer systems.

A bigger problem may be meeting the expectations of fans. Daniel Lee, who works at the fan site DiabloII.com, says, "People have been waiting for this for two years. The anticipation is huge. The die-hard fans want it now." Mirroring the buzz about "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" or the upcoming "Lord of the Rings" film, Diablo II fan sites pore over every preliminary design shot, dissect every producer comment and occasionally make flat demands about what must and must not appear in the game.

If the hype surrounding Diablo II is reminiscent of the science-fiction movie business, the production environment is moreso. My visit to Blizzard South, the new production headquarters in Irvine, Calif., was almost a sucker-punch; I'd driven from West Hollywood for an hour, deep into Orange County, only to find myself -- figuratively speaking --- right back in Hollywood. Blizzard Studios felt far more like a television or film production house than a software firm.

Storyboards filled the walls, showing the arc of the game's plot and key scenes from the game. Some offices were set up as mini-recording studios, where composers worked out the score on electronic keyboards. Full-size cardboard characters advertising earlier productions stood in corners, alongside posters and boxes of toys.

Despite death-march time lines on the whiteboards, most of the production staff looked calm. This, too, was right out of the Hollywood experience. People don't seem anxious -- they're immersed in creating an incredible experience that some people will even call a work of art.

If there's one significant difference between the game industry and Hollywood, however, its in the presence of women. While female producers and directors may still be a scarce commodity in film, women make up a significant percentage of the production designers.

"We'd love to have more women work here," says Roper. "But most game designers are gamers and men play a lot more computer games than women." This is the case even in the cinematics department, which relies heavily on common filmmaking tasks such as editing and sound design. "People go from gamer to employee. We don't get people applying out of film school," says Matt Samia.

Samia notes a different problem with people coming from mainstream computer graphic effects companies. "Most CG houses are very big and specialized, and the programmers there tend to be specialized, too. They'll have one person who only does textures or something. For games, they need to be more generalized." Blizzard's cinematics team, a tightly knit family of programmers, consists of seven regular artists plus three sound designers. ("There's been almost no turnover within the cinematics group since I started with Blizzard," Samia laughs.) If computer effects companies like Pixar are the equivalent of the big film studios, the Blizzard cinematics group is the indie film company.

Few people think of game companies as the equivalent of independent filmmakers, however, and most of the Blizzard cinematics team are programmers and gamers learning the ropes at making movies. "It's hard to find talented [non-gamers] when people don't know what you're doing," Samia says. It's entirely possible that moves such as putting the Diablo II intro up for Academy Award consideration may bring in that new talent.

As Blizzard takes its first steps into non-game media, the biggest concern for everyone I spoke with is quality. The big-screen disaster "Wing Commander" -- based on a popular computer game series -- was brought up by several Blizzard staffers as an example of what they would not want to have happen.

"If we can do it without losing focus, there are things Blizzard will explore," says Wooley, the P.R. coordinator. "But we're not going to do it just for the sake of doing it."

Industry analyst Ron Hayden suggests that the best way to ensure quality is to avoid attempting to make game plots and movie plots identical. "I can't think of a single case of a movie plot making a successful game or of a game becoming a successful movie," he notes. The track record of games based on movies and TV shows supports that assertion. The recent Interplay release Starfleet Command is the first "Star Trek" game that has had a measure of critical and commercial success -- but Starfleet Command is itself based on an old paper-and-dice war game, Star Fleet Battles.

The key for success may be to let the games and movies play off of each other, to explore different aspects of a fictional universe. Hayden goes on to say, "LucasArts is a good example of this -- the games that work are the ones that let you explore this great universe they've created, not the ones that follow the strict plot line of an individual movie."

With Diablo II -- as with other role playing games -- the plot is as much
a method of giving structure to the game's world as it is a tale of a
particular character. The player provides the character's real story. When
my Barbarian leaps into the fray with battle axes in each hand, when my
Amazon drops a target from across the room with a well-placed arrow, when
my Necromancer animates the bones of his dead enemies to fight at his side
... this is how I tell my part of the story.

As I play the game, watching the cinematic scenes and immersing myself in this virtual world, I am reminded of the moment that I turned the corner in the Blizzard hallway and saw the storyboards. I had wondered, Was this to be a movie or a game? With the theatrical release of the short Diablo film, it turned out to be both. Soon, perhaps, the distinction will be irrelevant.

Jamais Cascio

Jamais Cascio is a scenarist and writer working in Los Angeles, where he's still waiting to be discovered.

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