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15 Years of Diablo: IncGamers Serving the Community

Posted 15 Mar 2012 by

We recently saw the fifteenth anniversary of the Diablo franchise, and join Blizzard in celebrating this series of computer games that have shown such amazing lasting power, and have carved out such an important place in many of our lives.  More than just the video games though, it’s the Diablo Community that’s had such an impact on so many of us, none more-so than the team here at Diablo: IncGamers who in February passed an important milestone celebrating its 15 year anniversary.

It’s been more than ten years since the last title in the Diablo series was released, but DiabloWikiDiablo II remains a hugely-popular game, in no small part due to the large fan base that continues to play it together, fight to the death through it, and engage in conversation and debate about it, while anticipation steadily builds for Diablo III.

We’ve been here, serving as an anchor of the Diablo community, for nearly as long as the games themselves have existed, and as we gear up for Diablo III, we’re more engaged with the community and busier than ever. It’s been a long road to this point though, so let’s take a quick stroll down it, back to the early days. Read on to find out how it all began for Diablo: IncGamers and take a trip down memory lane. Pictures, videos and competition all inside…

In the beginning…

The Reality-X videogame cafe

The Reality-X videogame cafe

Diablo IncGamers was founded in February 1997 under the unwieldy name of, diablo.reality-x.co.uk. Why the strange URL? In 1994 site founders Elly Davis and Paul Younger had embarked on a new venture, setting up the world’s first dedicated videogaming café, a place where like-minded gamers could go to play what were some of the first LAN titles together. Internet gaming at that point had yet to catch-on and with Elly and Paul both being mad gamers it was an exciting venture into the unknown.

The Reality-X videogame cafe

The Reality-X videogame cafe

That early venture had its fits and starts, and as the Internet grew in popularity, the concept of creating websites devoted to particular video game titles became a realistic idea. Elly was one of the first into that field, and by 1996 she was getting to grips with HTML and working on small projects for the gaming café.  She created various early sites, but her interest was truly piqued by an upcoming title by the name of Diablo. When Blizzard released the game in late 1996, the café visitors were soon waiting in line for their chance to play the revolutionary RPG. Intrigued by the game’s features and design, Elly began to document the items, monsters, shrines, and other key aspects of the game, and compiled that information into a rudimentary website, intending it purely for the use of the players inside the cafe. At that time the site was hosted on a very small server inside the café’s office on a 64K leased line. Yes, you read that right, 64K!

Elly continued to update the website, and during the early months of 1997, an increasing number of Internet visitors began viewing the Diablo pages. These were the very early days of the Internet, long before Google, but early search engines and word of mouth via gaming discussion forums and newsgroup conversations were making the site known as a resource for Diablo players. Elly began to work more and more on the site and eventually one keen reader caught her attention. Flux was knowledgeable about Diablo and Hellfire and very eager for Diablo II, and despite initially knowing nothing about running a website, he was soon learning on the job and assisting in the day-to-day operations of the growing community resource.

Elly Working on the Diablo Site in 1997

Shop shut Elly has time to work at night on the Diablo site (1997)

It would be hard for users of modern websites to believe the sorts of technological issues we faced in those early days. Something as simple as forum software that worked through a browser was hi-tech, and Elly used to facilitate community discussions by pasting reader emails into a threaded format! Other site features included a massive collection of reader suggestions for improvements to be made in Diablo II; these were regularly updated on the site, all compiled one at a time from emails, and a massive print out of these were eventually hand-delivered to Max Schaefer.

In 1997 as Elly’s web skills improved, amazing features such as an automated forum appeared on the site, and the Diablo community started to grow. At that point Elly and Flux were intently following all the Diablo 1 news, and as they passed that information on to the appreciative fans, Blizzard began to take notice of the site and the community forming around it.

Both Elly and Rush’s time was now divided between the Diablo community and working with the UK gaming scene on numerous titles. They also organised the UK’s first ever large scale LAN party which was held in Leeds two years in a row with around 400+gamers turning up for three days of gaming madness with every game possible being played, including Diablo. As part of the gaming cafe they also organised special launch events for publishers working on titles such as Half Life, Quake 2 and X-Wing vs Tie Fighter to name a few.

Fusion Lan Parties

The Lan Parties

Machinima founder Hugh Hancock at Launch of Half Life 2

Machinima founder Hugh Hancock at Launch of Half Life 2

Fall asleep at our LAN parties at your peril.

Fall asleep at our LAN parties at your peril.

First Contact

Around that time, Rush was involved with the videogame industry via the Scottish Games Alliance, a Scottish Enterprise funded body to help Scottish Game developers in the global market, these included companies such DMA (now Rockstar), Inner Working and Viz Interactive. Through its auspices, Elly and Rush attended the ECTS in London in September of 1997, and it was there that they first hooked up with the Blizzard North development team and saw Diablo II in person. It was great to finally meet the game creators, and very gratifying to see them happily devote extra time to running a demo for Elly, and to answer long lists of reader questions she’d brought along. Elly remembers being escorted into the closed booth by Blizzard PR who asked a few of the magazines to move aside from the demo machine so Elly could play and ask questions. In those early days, Blizzard PR understood the importance of the community and also as a tool to promote what they hoped was going to be a massive hit sequel.

Rush like a kid in a candy store

Rush like a kid in a candy store at E3 1998

It was also 1997 when Rush and Elly were commissioned to go to Atlanta for  E3 , they were there to assess the state of the multiplayer gaming market for the Scottish Games Alliance, and it’s here they really got a taste of the games industry on a large scale for the first time. ECTS was pretty big but nothing quite like E3.

The Hellfire expansion pack for Diablo 1 was the next title in the series and Elly still remembers when she deleted the entire Hellfire section of the site by accident on the tiny café server. It was 23 December 1997 when disaster struck, so not wanting to disappoint the readers she pieced the site back together from files on her HD working through the night in the unheated Edinburgh café to get the site back online as fast as possible. It was a 32 hour stint working through the night to get things back up and running.

Flux excited at E3 (on the right)

Flux excited at E3 (on the right)

Flux first saw Diablo II in person the first morning of E3, in 1998. He was nervous and excited to see the game and meet the developers, but when he reached the booth he was surprised to discover that the Blizzard North developers were just as eager to meet their fans. Flux and Gaile were warmly-greeted and immediately ushered to demo machines where they could watch the action and speak with developers (not PR people; the actual developers) who were happy to answer anything and everything they had to ask. Flux was shocked too when he found that he’d gone through his entire seven pages of printed out questions by lunchtime.

Welcome to Diabloii.Net

Video of the old DiabloII.Net Website

Video of the old DiabloII.Net Website

DiabloII.Net was born in 1998, as the site got a new domain name and a total makeover. The site design changed dramatically to what many of the long-time readers will remember as the red site with the wooden borders. Web tech had improved quite a lot by 1998, and fancy features such as news scripts and forums made running the site easier, while giving the ever-growing community a much more interactive experience.

Another contributor joined the site around this time, as Gaile Gray, a newsletter writer and huge Blizzard fan from the Seattle area, joined the crew. Her timing was excellent, since in mid-1999 Blizzard North invited Elly, Flux, and Gaile to visit Blizzard North for a private weekend of Diablo II testing. Diabloii.net was the first site (fan or otherwise) so honored, and it wasn’t just a media event, as the Blizzard North developers were very eager for feedback and critiques by knowledgeable outsiders (Visit Report and Blizzard North office tour).

Nom nom nom - Nutriants Optional

Nom nom nom – Nutrients Optional

In those days, Blizzard North enjoyed considerable independence in their operations, and as such, the Diabloii.net crew were in the offices for three days straight, during which they were granted almost full access to the developers and the studio, including the awesomely-stocked kitchen. Only one wing of the studio was off limits, as a secret project was under development. (It was revealed to be Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, just a few months after Diablo 2’s launch.)

Blizzard North continued to show their appreciation of the site, by including the names of Elly, Gaile, and Flux as in-game mercenaries.

Diabloii.Net was always keen to work with the community and as far back as 1999 started taking on hosted sites, the first being the Holy Knights of Westmarch (HKW) guild site which has to be one of the longest running guilds around for the Diablo series. HKW is still going strong today and is still hosted on the Diablo: IncGamers site. Other long-time community features include the Player Suggestions (which began as ideas for Diablo I, and continue in forum form), the largest collection of Diablo fan art online (now curated by HolyKnight3000), Scorch’s Darkness (monster encyclopedia) ran by Scorch, the original Dark Library fan fiction site (now the Fan Fiction Forum), and who can forget the original Diablo 2 trading site (the Marketplace) which helped players trade items legitimately in an eBay style fashion before all trading was moved into the extremely popular trade forums (still going strong).

Marketplace - Diablo 2 Auction Site

The Diablo 2 Auction Site – Marketplace

Holy Knights of Westmarch - Diablo 3 Guild

Holy Knights of Westmarch – Diablo 3 Guild

Darkness - Monster Website run by Scorch

Darkness – Monster Website run by Scorch

The Beast that is Diabloii.Net

Elly soon realized that the site was becoming a bit of a monster and when IGN approached her in 1999 to join the IGN network of game sites she jumped at the chance, IGN were busy building communities and expanding into the community site market. IGN were incredibly supportive of all the work on the site helping Rush with more of the tech side of the web hosting and of course revenue through advertising to help keep the site afloat. Hosting bills were becoming rather large and the site was becoming a real strain on Elly’s pocket.

Joining IGN

Joining IGN

Each year IGN would run videogame website awards for sites that were not only hosted by IGN but other networks too and DiabloII.Net scooped the best fansite award multiple times while the awards were running which was a great reward for the hard work the news crew and forum moderators had put into the site.

When IGN had a bit of a financial shake-up they decided that they would no longer continue to host sites and concentrate on their core business, it was at this point the future of the site became uncertain. The dot.com bubble was bursting and ad revenue was harder to come by. With the site being such an important part of the Diablo community, Elly and Rush decided that it was worth fighting for and Elly put her personal savings into the site hosting to keep the site online and wait for things to pick up in the ad market. 2002/2003 were a tough couple of years for DiabloII.Net.

A site supporter service (Site Pals) was put into place to help generate funds and the community have consistently subscribed to the service since, gaining perks and benefits.  Elly remembers when the service was first put into place, in those austere days, receiving sizeable donations from a number of the Diablo 2 development team which went a long way to keeping the site online.

Riding the dot.com crash storm, the site was still continuing to grow and Elly and Rush decided to go it alone and not look for another network partnership but instead keep everything in-house. Rush had already started up a World of Warcraft section after WoW was announced at ECTS and there was of course the Loadedinc.com main website which was the general gaming news side of things.

Diablo 2 Lord of Destruction

Diablo 2 Lord of Destruction

Things were also changing at Blizzard. We had already seen the release of the Diablo 2 expansion pack DiabloWikiLord of Destruction in 2001. No additional products were announced by Blizzard North, though it was widely-rumoured that Diablo III was under development. The next big news to come from Blizzard North emerged in early-2003, when the gaming world was shocked to learn that the “Big Four,” which included the three founders of Blizzard North and the Diablo franchise, Dave Brevik, Erich Schaefer, and Max Schaefer, plus Diablo executive producer Bill Roper, all left the company. Not long after their departure Flux paid his last official visit to Blizzard North, as one of a handful of testers to get a trial run with Diablo II’s legendary v1.10 patch, thanks to an invite from producer and programmer Peter Hu. (Flux also got a preview of the very early version of Diablo III at that time, though he was never able to speak of it until the game was officially announced in 2008.)

Though Blizzard North remained in operation for a couple of years longer, constant staff losses hobbled production, and the studio was finally shuttered in mid-2005 without ever revealing any additional projects.

Despite the aging Diablo II and a lack of word on Diablo III, DiabloII.Net remained active and the hub of a busy community of gaming fans. With all Blizzard contact moving to Blizzard in Irvine there was definitely a change in mood on how Blizzard would interact with their communities. Blizzard had a hit on their hands with WoW and things were starting to tighten up when it came to talking with their fansites and the press. It was time for lock-down.

The Quiet Years

Undeterred with the thought of contact drying up with the developers, Diabloii.Net remained the only community voice of any size during the long, quiet years from 2004-2008. Even without a Diablo III announcement, fans remained hungry for more Diablo and so Diabloii.Net’s task was to keep interest in the franchise alive. Blizzard itself seemed disinterested in the franchise; there was no sign of it at the first BlizzCon in 2005, other than a banner or two featuring cinematic artwork of Baal.

In retrospect it’s easy to see why not; Blizzard North had just been closed under fairly acrimonious terms, and everyone responsible for the creation of the Diablo games had long since departed. Furthermore, Blizzard’s new hit, World of Warcraft, was growing ever more popular and profitable, and requiring all of the company’s resources. As a result, there was essentially nothing about Diablo, either from Blizzard or their PR department, from 2004-2008.

Diablo 2 Forums Remained Active

Diablo 2 Forums Remained Active

Even during these quiet years, Diabloii.net remained an active centre of the die hard community. There were bumps in the road, of course; to this day long time forum members recall “The Great Forum Crash of 2003”, a black day in the site’s history where the forums were simply erased due to a database problem. Rush remembers doing his utmost to bring it all back but ultimately, after many long nights, he succumbed to the fact they were gone forever. The upside was a new forum system was put in place so at least the community had new toys to play with. A black day indeed.

During the slow news years, the Off Topic forum flourished with the community debating all sorts of topics and an “Other Games” forum was also launched while Diablo gamers waited patiently for some sort of reveal. The forums have always been busy and there is even a thread with over 1.2 million posts in it tucked away in the ever-popular single player forum.

In 2006 Elly and Rush formed IncGamers to bring all the sites together, the Diablo, Guild Wars, WoW, Warcraft 3 and StarCraft communities would all come under one single network umbrella. There was a lot of ground to cover for all these games and it was thanks to their extremely pro-active communities, admins and dedicated moderators that the sites flourished.

The Big Day Arrives

Diablo 3 Announced at WWI 2008

Diablo 3 Announced at WWI 2008

After so many years of World of Warcraft as Blizzard’s flagship product, it felt like Diablo 3 might never come. Rumours swirled around BlizzCon 2007, but that show passed without a trace of Diablo. Finally, in mid-2008, Blizzard invited DiabloII.Net to attend the World Wide Invitational in Paris. Rush and Elly headed off with their ears perked, and after hearing numerous rumours during the days before the show, they felt sure now was the time Diablo III was about to be revealed.

Many readers can still recall our news post, the night before the WWI 2008, that Diablo III was to be revealed the next day. This news electrified the community, though it came as something of a shock to the Blizzard PR team, as Rush and Elly found out the next morning when they were approached by a rather irate Blizzard individual who said, loudly, “I am so disappointed!”

Elly explained that the news had only been posted after it had been leaked by a general gaming site, a fact that had eluded the Blizzard PR department since they hadn’t checked other websites.

Though that reveal produced some tense relations, things were smoothed over and relations with Blizzard PR went smooth during 2008 and 2009, as IncGamers was provided with press passes to BlizzCon 2008 and 2009, as well as invites to Blizzard Irvine for various Starcraft and World of Warcraft press events.

Relations with Blizzard took an unexpected turn for the worse in 2010, when a non-native English speaker writing on the network’s Starcraft 2 site referred to a bug in the beta test as “an exploit.” His meaning was more akin to, “a trick,” but the E-word apparently upset some at Blizzard PR dept., though the wording of the post was promptly adjusted when Blizzard PR registered a complaint.

A subsequent news report linking to a website that had posted leaked images of a Starcraft 2 Collector’s Edition lead Blizzard to blackball all Blizzard sites on the network “as punishment for a while”. It also became apparent during conversations with Blizzard that they did not want sites being critical of any aspects of their games.

Subsequent attempts to open up lines of communication with Blizzard PR went nowhere, and given the content and commentary limitations Blizzard was placing on their “official” fansites, Elly, Flux and Rush decided ultimately that IncGamers could better serve the community without any leashes or muzzles from Blizzard PR.

All that said, the staff at IncGamers retains the highest appreciation for Blizzard’s games and we get along very well with all of the developers when we see them at BlizzCon or communicate online. Any disagreements with Blizzard are purely political issues with the PR department, and we do not rule out once again being a member in good-standing of the Blizzard Fansite Program.

The Big Day is Coming

Diablo 3 Box Art Digital Presales

Diablo 3 Box Art

Following the Diablo 3 announcement there was a massive buzz around the site once again.  Old faces started to reappear on the forums and the whole team had found a new vigor and passion for the series. It’s amazing to hear from gamers who were teenagers (or younger) when they first visited the site, who are still big fans, and who are now playing the Diablo games with their own children.

We believe Diablo 3 will ensure the Diablo franchise continues to be the benchmark by which all action RPGs are measured and we’re excited about continuing to provide the community with the best information and resources possible.

The original team also extends a massive thanks to all those involved in contributing to and running parts of the website over the years.  The existing team of forum moderators and those who have come before them who play such a huge role in keeping the forums a friendly, informative and welcoming place for fans to chat – they are the unsung heroes of most online communities.

Finally, thanks to the community.  It’s the community on Diablo: IncGamers that plays such an important part in its 15 year history and we hope through our continued efforts we can carry on right through Diablo 3’s lifespan.

In celebration we will be running competitions next week where each day we will give away a copy of Diablo 3 and other assorted Diablo 2 memorabilia we have collected over the years courtesy of IncGamers.  Keep your eye on the news.