Diablo 3 release date – Blizzard say it’ll be 2012, but when?

UPDATE: Diablo 3’s release date will be May 15th 2012!

Ten years since last release! Real-Money Auction House! DIABLO, man! So, when’s it coming out? Sadly – but predictably – there’s no sign yet of an official release date for Diablo 3. We’ve heard guesses of Q3 2011, Q4 2011, and “Early 2012”. Nonetheless, Blizzard remains tight-lipped. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with a pretty accurate theory, even before it’s announced or there’s more news – or a leak.

There’s actually a lot of information out there, from details of Blizzard’s game development process to things we can read between the lines in Blizzard’s business situation, to go on! So let’s get into the evidence and see how we do on prediction…

This article was updated on 15th March 2012.

When it’s ready

The earliest possible release date for Diablo 3 was some time in 2011, confirmed in 2010 in the infamous leaked Blizzard production slate. The leaked slate detailing Blizzard’s plans for the next few years confirmed Diablo as targetted at the fourth quarter of 2011 – around Christmas, in other words.

Rob Pardo confirmed that as Blizzard’s goal in a Kotaku interview at the start of 2011 – but even then, he was cagy, saying “Our goal is to get there. But you know, at the end of the day, we are going to get it right. That’s more important. We’re going to promise, we’re going to get it out there when it’s awesome.”.

It looks like it wasn’t awesome enough. Blizzard clearly knew they weren’t going to hit their target by September 2011, when they accidentally leaked the new date – “early in 2012” – on the Blizzard website.

And now, we’re at the start of February, and overly creative games stores nonwithstanding, there’s no sign of Diablo 3 yet. So, how much will Blizzard add on to the release date this time?

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What’s holding D3 up?

There’s no doubt that work on Diablo III is progressing fast. Recent revelations about some of the game features (the real-money auction house being a prominent example) are good indications of a game entering its final phase of developement. However, it would appear that not everything’s going to plan. In the last month, Blizzard have both cut significant features from the game (the “too cute” Companion Pets), and have redesigned massive chunks of the game’s mechanics.

Changes announced in January included massive changes to core character mechanics, including the removal of the Attack, Defense and Precision attributes. Major NPCs were removed, and several significant gameplay systems were being overhauled – including changes which Jay Wilson wasn’t ready to talk about.

So, does this mean that Diablo 3 is in real trouble?

Probably not.

These changes aren’t desperate last-minute fixes – they’re the symptoms of the development system Blizzard is using at work. Blizzard use an iterative development process, meaning that rather than finalising the game’s systems and mechanics before they build it (a good way to quickly build a really bad game), they build parts of the game, or rough prototypes, then test, then refine their design, rebuild or build more, and repeat. Whilst most games companies do this to a certain extent, Blizzard appear to be taking it to the same sort of extremes that Valve Software espouse – which tends to make games very, very late, but also very, very good.

Unfortunately, it also means that no-one including the designers can predict when a game will be finished – essentially, you keep trying out designs until you’ve got one that’s awesome. Infamously, Valve Software actually built most of Half-Life twice over – literally stopping half-way through production and scrapping everything they’d done so far.

As you can imagine, working this way makes scheduling extremely difficult. It’s possible to repeatedly iterate a single design element, think it’s nearing perfection, and only after a bunch of work realise that actually you need to throw it out and start over with a completely new idea. It’s not possible to tell an idea that’s nearly awesome from an idea that’ll never be awesome except by testing it and improving it until it becomes obvious one way or the other.

That’s where Blizzard are now, it would appear. They’ve thrown out a bunch of old systems, they’re working on new ones, and they don’t know when – or if – they’ll be as good as they need to be.

There is some good news, though. We also know that they’re working in a non-linear fashion, however, so the fact that they’re reworking major gameplay systems doesn’t mean that other parts of the game aren’t completely finished and waiting for release. And whilst the systems that Wilson is talking about sound major, many of them don’t actually impact the really time-consuming bit of game development – art design. So it might well be that the game’s weeks away from being finished.

So, when will Diablo 3 be released?

So, in summary, here’s the bit you’ve been waiting for – our best guess as to when Diablo 3 will be released.

It’s not coming in February. The physical process of getting a game onto discs takes a couple of weeks even if it’s completely finished, and after major system changes there will be a lot of QA testing to be done, and at least a bit of art to be re-created. In addition, Jay Wilson confirmed in January that there would be “future Beta patch updates”, which implies that Beta isn’t expected to finish before mid-Feb at the earliest, probably later. Beta patches have been arriving about two a month, and he references multiple beta patches.

As for dates after that, it’s very much be a question of how long it takes Blizzard’s devs to narrow down on the most fun game possible. It would appear that there’s a lot of internal pressure to make this game fantastic, and that means that Blizzard are going to be trying to invest as much as possible of the only resource that can make it happen – time.

The fact that they’ve not even released a couple of significant systems to beta testers implies to me that we’re still a few months away from release. If all goes well, we could be looking at an early April release, allowing for both testing and QA time – but all might not go well.

If the systems being developed now don’t work, it’ll be back to the drawing board again. Ideally, I’m sure many Blizzard devs would be happy to continue to iterate for another year or more – but even given how important it is to get Diablo right, they can’t ignore commercial pressures forever.

I’d be surprised if they were able to get to the second quarter investor call without releasing, which happens in early July.

If they don’t have a release out by then, investors are likely to start getting nervous about their revenues, and just how long releases are taking. That could be disastrous for their stock price, and is something they’ll be wanting to avoid at all costs.

That means that we’re looking at a window somewhere between Early April and Late June 2012. We just can’t narrow it down further.

Update – they’ve announced the date – May 15th, right in the middle of the window we predicted! Go us.

But that’s OK – we’re not alone. At this point, even Blizzard probably can’t narrow it down further! So, whenever you’re sitting swearing about Blizzard not telling us when it’ll be done – remember, Mike Morhaine’s probably sitting in his office saying much the same thing…

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