03/07/2022

Diablo revolutionized action-RPGs. The potent formula of its click-friendly gameplay—”So easy our moms could play it” was the goal stated by developers at Blizzard North—its procedurally generated levels, and the slot machine-like allure of weapons, armor, and spell books bursting out of monster corpses like broken pinatas showering candy took hold of the industry.

That, you know. What you might not know is that Diablo, the king of action-RPGs until its sequel, Diablo II, arrived four years later, was released on December 31, 1996. It was also released in early January 1997.

Which release date is true? The first one. And the second. Both.

It’s complicated.

“Ah, fresh meat.”

Back in the late ‘90s, those carefree days before publishers could click a button and make games appear on digital storefront like bytes and pixels coalescing out of thin air, manufacturers had to box them, seal them, and ship them to stores. Those stores received shipments on certain days of the week, and employees unpacked those shipments and either held them back until an appointed date, or stocked them immediately. 

Diablo’s release complicated this practice, which was still relatively new. The concept of a game going on sale on a predetermined day and time was gradually becoming standard operating procedure for the industry thanks to multimillion dollar marketing efforts by Sega and Acclaim for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Mortal Kombat, respectively. Blizzard Entertainment, Diablo’s publisher, and Blizzard North, its developer, had promised the game in 1996, but the massive effort to get Battle.net, Blizzard’s free online multiplayer service set to debut alongside Diablo, online had pushed both studios to their breaking point. The effort to finish Diablo was so Herculean, their months-long crunch so draining, that every developer at Blizzard Entertainment but one programmer had abandoned StarCraft, which was in a development hell of its own, to assist the North team with playtesting and bug fixing.

Diablo was finished at midnight on December 26. Blizzard North’s benefited team, only 15 individuals, dragged ass into the kitchen for a toast given by the studio’s cofounders, Dave Brevik and Max and Erich Schaefer. They gulped down a glass or two or champagne and then went home to sleep.

One developer, Ken Williams, North’s office manager, hopped a plane to Orange County to hand the gold master disc containing Diablo’s code to Blizzard Entertainment for mass production. The game was pressed, boxed, sealed, and sent to stores.

Some of those stores received the game on the last day of the year. Others didn’t get it until early January. Or if they had it, it sat in cardboard boxes, piles and piles of black boxes emblazoned with the visage of the devil itself, waiting to unleash evil on unsuspecting hard drives and phone lines. 

That settles the debate over Diablo’s release date, right? December 31, 1996, in some regions, and early January 1997 in others.

If only it were that easy. 

Diablo came to PlayStation in 1998. There's no controversy around that date. Hopefully.
Diablo came to PlayStation in 1998. There’s no controversy around that date. Hopefully.

“Why does Wikipedia have the original Diablo listed as being released in 1997, instead of 1996?” asked a Reddit user in 2020.

Over the years, some outlets—which shall go unnamed—claimed Diablo had a third release date: November 1996. “I am positive the game was not out in November,” Dave Brevik told me. I conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North founders and employees to write Stay Awhile and Listen, my trilogy of books about the history of the two Blizzards and their games with a focus on the Diablo franchise. Naturally, the subject of Diablo’s mysterious twin release dates came up. If anyone was equipped to put the subject to rest, it was Brevik.

“The reason I remember that is because I was working on the game. My wife was pregnant with our second child, and this was the beginning of December,” he continued. “I was at work, and she called: ‘I’m going into labor.’ It was a little early, several weeks early. I thought, Oh, shit. So I left work to go help her out.”

Brevik rushed to the hospital only to discover it was a false alarm. His wife had not gone into labor, and work at Blizzard North continued until Christmas Day, when Brevik and the Schaefers made sure everyone went home to spend time with their families (assuming they wanted to do anything but sleep). They returned on the 26th, the game went gold, and Brevik’s daughter was born on January 3, giving him two reasons to celebrate.

“I think we won Game of the Year in 1996 because some people got in on December 30th and 31st. So some outlets gave it to us in ’96, some in ’97,” he said.

So, if you’re a fan of the original Diablo, or the sequels it spawned, or the countless other action-RPGs that took influence from Blizzard North’s masterpiece, go ahead and celebrate twice.

Just don’t celebrate in November.