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Five things to know about ‘Diablo III’

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Diablo III (Blizzard)

Releasing for the PC and Mac on May 15, Diablo III is just around the corner. Passionate fans have been waiting years for this -- it's been over a decade since Diablo II first stormed shelves -- and with midnight sale launch events occurring all over the country on Monday, there are going to be millions of red-eyed gamers dragging themselves to work Tuesday morning. Those who don't phone in sick, that is.

But why the fervor? What makes this particular action/role-playing romp such a big deal? Here are five reasons:

1. Diablo helped pioneer Internet gaming.

Almost 16 years ago, a considerably smaller Blizzard Entertainment (before its merger with Activision to become the world's largest game publisher) launched a new game called Diablo. In the mold of classic dungeon-crawling role-playing games, Diablo stood out as not only a visually advanced and beautifully polished experience, it supported real-time, four-person multiplayer over the Internet -- back in a time when most of us were hobbling along on 14.4K modems.

That didn't stop Blizzard, however, who launched Diablo alongside Battle.net, a player-matching system allowing Diablo gamers to jump in and out of games to meet, trade, and co-operatively battle demonic forces together. Battle.net stands tall today as the Blizzard-only community service for all its online games, including the obscenely popular StarCraft II.

2. You'll never have to play alone.

If you build it, they don't always come. This is the case with many online games, but Diablo III is as close to a guaranteed success as you'll find in video games.

The game just became the most pre-ordered PC game in Amazon's history, toppling Blizzard's own blockbusters StarCraft II and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Two million people logged into the free beta weekend in March, and a little over one million got a free pre-purchase of Diablo III by signing up for a one-year subscription to sister role-playing game, World of Warcraft (don't bother looking -- the offer ended on April 30). And despite being 11 years old, prior game Diablo II: Lord of Destruction still has an active userbase.

Blizzard fans are so dedicated, 25,000 of them descend on Anaheim near the Blizzard HQ every year for Blizzcon, paying $175 for a two-day event that gives them early access to upcoming games and to watch panels of their favorite developers, story creators, and artists. If you want to find people to play Diablo III with, you won't have to look very hard.

3. New auction house could be lucrative for players.

Selling items in games is no biggie, but what if you could earn some actual dough for that fancy fake sword?

For the first time, Blizzard is opening up its item trading auction house to real-world cash transactions. Formerly the domain of a very dodgy, unregulated secondary black market that could result in lost money and banned accounts, Blizzard is responding to the consumer demand by making it all above board (and raking in some new fees to go with it).

This means every item you find or craft in the game world can be sold on their auction system for real money.  Will there be a sudden job market for item farmers?  No item is generated from "thin air," so to speak -- the only virtual goods available will be what players have earned from time spent in the game. (This differentiates it from the economics of social games like Farmville, where unlimited items and currency materialize when cash is forked over to the publisher.)

4. It's bringing the gaming world together.

To aid game performance, all Blizzard games (and most online games in general) are regionally locked, so friends and family divided by international waters can rarely adventure together. But in Diablo III, gamers can bring down the forces of Burning Hells no matter where they live with the recently announced "Global Play."

Players will still have a "home" region -- either in the Americas, Europe, or Asia -- and this is the only place they'll be able to participate in the real-world auction house. But with Global Play, players can start characters in different regions and get some quality monster-bashing time in with loved ones overseas.

5. Deckard Cain returns!

Er, Deckard who? Long-time Diablo players certainly remember one of the more memorable non-player characters from the original game who, aside from Diablo himself, is the only character to appear in all three games. Voiced by Michael Gough doing a spot-on Sean Connery impersonation, his kindly old voice would declare, "Stay a while, and listen!" whenever you first clicked on him in the original game. Cain is a loremaster, capable of identifying magic items, and apparently in constant need of rescuing, since this is an early quest in both Diablo II and Diablo III.

Cain's positive impact on fans was clear, given Blizzard released a medieval-themed Deckard Cain rap as a promotional Easter Egg for Diablo II starring the original actor. More recently, Blizzard's April Fool's Day contribution in 2010 was marketing a GPS voice pack with "carefully considered directions from everyone's favorite antediluvian archivist."

Follow Rich Greenhill on Twitter (except on May 15, when he won't be available for some reason)

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