Diablo III isn't even expected to launch until early next year, but ever since the action RPG's initial announcement back in June 2008, all other games in the same genre have, to some extent, lived in the shadow of the next entry in Blizzard's loot-happy franchise.
Recent games in the action role-playing genre are often judged in terms of how adept they are in tiding players over until the eventual release of Diablo III. In many ways, no game in the action role-playing genre can escape the shadow of the Diablo brand, highlighting just how powerful the name has become in the industry.
But greatness isn't achieved through sheer luck. While certainly it has its own notable influences, the Diablo series is often thought of as the progenitor of the "loot drop" mentality and gameplay style that put PC action RPG's on the map.
Behind the graphics, character art and level design of Diablo III is this very loot drop system that requires years of testing. So how difficult is it to strike the perfect balance of loot drops, challenge, and reward to keep the player endlessly striving towards greater in-game progress?
"That balance is honestly the main reason why it takes so long to make a proper Diablo game," Kevin Martens, lead content designer for Diablo III told Gamasutra.
"The bulk of our work goes into tuning the game's loot drop system," he said. "There are so many parameters to alter, it can be dizzying. Even the slightest increase to gold drop can suddenly change everything in the game. Even a .01 percentage change in loot drop can drastically change the balance between player challenge and reward."
Knowing that the margin of failure can be so high, making a game expected to sell millions at launch alone is a high-pressure situation. "[Keeping fans happy is] absolutely one thing we always have to keep in mind when we tweak anything in the game, because we have to normalize those slight changes to over a million players, or even 5 million players."
Martens added, "Even defining what 'super rare' means in the game changes when you scale to five million players. So even if we make a mistake with a 'super rare' item and it only affects 400 players out of 5 million, that still is 400 players who have a bad experience. It's really a big deal."
Naturally, Blizzard keeps an eye on the action RPG space. There have been notable Diablo-inspired games, whether talking about Runic's Torchlight or Iron Lore's Titan Quest, or games with less-obvious Diablo flavor like Gearbox's FPS Borderlands. Every successful action RPG that has come out since the last Diablo has in some way raised peoples' expectations for Diablo III.
"We honestly think there are a lot of fabulous games in the space," said Martens. "Even console games, like Borderlands and mobile games like Dungeon Hunter where the loot drop mentality is a very important part of game design. We know how hard these kinds of games are to make and there's so much pressure on us because we have enormous shoes to fill."
It's a matter of respect and reverence for the Diablo franchise, and what it's done for the gaming community, that keeps the competition in the genre very civil -- it's a contrast from claims of "Halo killers" or executives going back and forth over who has the better military FPS.
What Blizzard is looking to do is exceed fan expectations and live up to the very legacy that the studio has created, which is no easy feat considering that the lengthy time span between 2000's Diablo II and next year's Diablo III. The studio will have to cater to hardcore series veterans while trying to appeal to new gamers in a considerably different demographic market than the one Diablo II saw 10 years ago.
When asked just how big a concern this balancing act was, Martens was honest in admitting that it sometimes keeps him up at night. "Our team's approach from the very beginning is to make hardcore games for the mass market. We want to make games that everybody can play."
"So many of the design decisions we make go into making the game more approachable for all players," he said. "We spend so much time and energy with that, but it's still a hardcore game and players who stick with it will realize the full depth Diablo III has to offer. We think even the most casual players who ... invest time will end up becoming hardcore as a result."