Modern-day Nintendo fans may be able to enjoy the thrills of Diablo III on the move in 2019, but at the turn of the millennium, options for Nintendo-loving dungeon explorers were far more limited – although the outlook could have been quite different.
Following Diablo II's launch in June 2000, Blizzard's employees went in three directions. Max Schaefer and Tyler Thomson cajoled and badgered developers to join a team to work on Lord of Destruction; afterwards, most members of that team formed the vanguard of Diablo III's production. Another flock of employees drifted to the opposite side of the office and ran through iteration-after-iteration on 'Project X'.
Other employees drifted in and out of a third group; anyone uninterested in continuing Diablo II or joining a project that seemed unable to find a creative foothold were given implicit freedom – by way of Blizzard North's egalitarian culture – to follow their own muses. "People took it upon themselves, semi-unauthorized, to start working on this stuff," Dave Brevik, Blizzard North co-founder, explains.
Jon Morin came to fellow programmer Steven Woo with an idea. He had gotten his hands on a development kit for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, a full-colour portable system that ran games reminiscent of the 16-bit Super Nintendo. The kit resembled a game cartridge. Programmers and artists could write custom software to the kit's microchip by compiling code, writing the data to the kit, and plugging it into the GBA as if it were a regular cartridge.
"Jon asked me to help out," said Steven. "I got [a kit], too. They were only like 100 dollars when official development systems cost a lot more. It was something at a scale that one could conceivably finish without the huge teams that PC and full-size console projects were, then and now, sucking all the air out of the room."
Jon and Steven asked Alan Ackerman if he'd like to lend his artistic talents to their project, a full-fledged Diablo title for GBA. There would be multiple character classes and oodles of treasure to loot and monsters to kill. Alan agreed, and in turn recruited his friend Stefan Scandizzo. Kenny Williams joined as a producer, and the ad-hoc team wrote up a proposal, which they pitched to Dave Brevik. "I thought it was great idea," Dave says. "Hell, a Diablo-lite game with a town and lots of dungeons? I'd eat that up."
Blizzard South's managers read the proposal and pushed the team to develop the game for Nintendo's classic, black-and-white Game Boy. The GBA was newer and more powerful, but the old-school Game Boy had a much larger share of the handheld market. Jon Morin was the point man on the project. He christened the game Diablo Junior and wanted it to appeal to kids, Nintendo's target demographic for Game Boy.
Diablo's action-heavy gameplay was simple enough for kids to grasp; the idea that electrified the team was Jon's suggestion to incorporate a trading element similar to Nintendo's Pokémon games. Released in red and blue cartridges for Game Boy in 1998, each edition of Pokémon contained exclusive Pocket Monsters that players had to trade by way of the Game Boy Link Cable. Diablo Junior's editions would include unique items for players to swap. "We had a lot of really cool ideas, and I think it would have done well," Jon says. "For one thing, it had the Blizzard name on it, and it was a Diablo product, and you had the whole trading concept which was so popular back then."
The team came up with several story ideas before deciding that Diablo Junior would be a prequel to the first game. There would be three major cities, each leading players toward the center of the world and encounters with hordes of monsters and bosses. "The original idea, I think, was there were going to be three or four classes, and which class you picked determined which city you started in," Alan recalls.
They planned on three heroes, and each would start their adventure in a different city. After leaving their starting city, players would enter one of two common areas. For example, a knight and spellcaster might enter plains reminiscent of Diablo II's first act, while another class would set foot in a desert. "So you could play as the knight and you start in a different city. It's a unique area for you, but then one area is shared after that, and then another area is shared," Alan explains.
Jon and Steven created a development environment on their computers. Alan and Stefan created art assets for characters, items, and dungeons that resembled the cathedral stages from Diablo. They committed to nothing. Early assets were meant as experiments, quick and simple tests they threw together just to get the hang of developing for Game Boy and following the Blizzard North model of getting a prototype running to see how it looked and played.
The team had just hit a major milestone, getting a character roaming through a dungeon, when Blizzard South contacted the bosses with concerns. "From what I remember the Blizzard South guys ran it through the accounting and determined that it was too risky financially," says Steven.
Developing and selling software on cartridges for Nintendo hardware was like trying to hit a moving target. Nintendo charged so much money per cartridge, and cartridges had to be ordered through Nintendo. That meant developers had to predict how many units they believed they would sell long before a game was finished. A cartridge bearing the Diablo name was almost a sure thing, but almost wasn't good enough for South.
"Blizzard Entertainment looked at it, and they were kind of like, 'Well, we've never done a Game Boy game, so we've got no experience marketing that type of game,'" says Alan. "When you do a Game Boy game, you buy the cartridges from Nintendo. If you think your game's going to sell 50,000 units, you buy 50,000 cartridges from Nintendo and they make a profit on that."
Selling more units than the estimate could be an even bigger financial headache. If a cartridge game sold out, the publisher had to order more through Nintendo. Cartridges were shipped by boat and could take months to arrive. From there, they had to be manufactured, boxed and sent to retailers. If a game's appeal had faded by the time the next batch of software hit stores, they might not sell, eating into profit made from selling the first round.
"There was lots of risk in this project because there's lots of ways you can lose money doing console games," Alan continues. "On the other hand, we thought the Diablo franchise might do well. They got back to us and said, 'It's your call. You know all the risks. Are you that keen on this that you want the company to take that kind of risk?'"
Jon, Steven, Alan, Stefan, and Kenny laid out their predicament for Dave Brevik. He left the decision to move forward or cancel in their hands. Undecided, Alan met with a friend in the industry who had worked on console games, and who ran down warning signs to look for before committing to a project. Was it the first time a team had worked together? Were they working on an unfamiliar platform? Although working together in the past, the Diablo Junior project was their first time as a group, but it was the other warning sign that sealed Diablo Junior's fate. This was the first time anyone had worked on the Game Boy platform. They decided to move on.
"I kind of look back and regret that we didn't say, 'Let's do it,'" Alan concludes. "But at the same time it was probably a good call. If I hadn't know about the whole cartridge-profit-margin thing, I would have said, 'Sure.' But having to guess how many cartridges [it] was going to sell? You're kidding me. Why does anyone even make cartridge games?"
This excerpt comes from Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II – Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels by David L. Craddock, the second in his three-part series chronicling the history of World of WarCraft developer Blizzard Entertainment and Diablo and Diablo II developer Blizzard North. Book I is already available while book II is up for pre-order on Kindle devices and apps.