Detailing Diablo III: The Jay Wilson Interview
During Blizzard's 2008 Worldwide Invitation, they rocked the world with the announcement of the development of Diablo III. The fan base roared and bitched. Some liked the art style, some loathed it, but it was clear that fans of the series in general were pumped that there would be a follow-up to the legendary Diablo II (and it wouldn't be World of Diablo). So after the dust settled, how are things faring at Blizzard? We catch up with Diablo III Lead Designer and Game Director Jay Wilson to settle the matters of art direction, making everybody happy, the next Battle.Net, and more...
Crispy Gamer: I'm sure a million people have asked you this same question -- and I like the art style for the game -- but do you think the backlash is simply a case of it being hard to please everybody?
Jay Wilson: Yeah, I do think it's a case of that. The majority of the feedback that we've gotten on the art style has been really positive. Most of the people that come into this room ask the art style question. The first thing they say is, "I really like the new art style." [laughs] Most of the forums -- even most of the hardcore Diablo forums -- they are sick of people complaining about Diablo III's art style. But, yeah, we knew when we went with this art style that we were going to get some backlash from them. We went through two or three revisions on the art, throwing out all the art and starting fresh each time, because the game didn't look very good. We went for a darker, grittier, grayer environment. We found the environments became very monotonous. The creatures didn't stand out, and players didn't stand out compared to creatures. Diablo is very much a game about target identification -- that's a huge part of the gameplay.
If you look at Diablo II, it's a far more colorful game than people give it credit for -- especially in their creatures. What we found was a lot of the art design in Diablo II does not translate well into 3-D. An example that I like to use is if you take a comic book hero and put him into a movie and you translate their costume exactly, they look ridiculous because the art style is so much more simplistic in a 2-D drawing than when you up-res it and put it in 3-D. We try to make garish monsters on a more drab background, and it didn't come out most of the time because the lighting itself would gray everything down. So we found that we had to make the general background more vibrant.
The big thing that I would say is that there are people who just don't like colors, and they love the current trend of photorealistic gray/brown games which I personally don't care for. It's not like I dislike those, but it's so prevalent -- there's so many of them. It's getting where I can't tell them apart. I don't want to make a game that I can't tell apart from another game. I want a game that I work on to be original, and that's the way our team feels. They want everyone to see the art that they make and know that's a Blizzard game -- that it's something no one else would make.
When we were developing it, we ran into all of these issues. We stepped through the process of making the art style, and I think if we stepped the players through that process, a lot of them would go, "Oh, okay, what you guys did made a lot of sense." I think some of the players are concerned about the tone in general. They're concerned that the game's not mature or dark anymore, and we're going to make it light and comical like World of Warcraft can be at times. But I don't think players are going to be disappointed when they play the game as a whole. It's very dark in tone -- it's a very mature game. We know the Diablo games are mature-rated and we have no intention of stepping away from that.
Crispy Gamer: It's been quite a long time since Diablo II was released. All Blizzard games have rabid fan bases. What's it like bringing this game back and trying to balance between introducing new things, while at the same time keeping the hardcore gamers happy?
Wilson: It's a challenge. I think the key is when you're working with a loved license -- and it's not my first time as a designer working with a much loved license; I worked on a Warhammer 40K game, and that's a rabid fan base as well -- I think the key is identifying what the core philosophies are that made the game popular in the first place. It's a difficult challenge for a development team to do. But it's really important that you essentially break off. People have a tendency to look at things in a game and go, "Oh, this game was really successful so everything that appeared in the game is sacred and nothing can be changed." But the truth is, if you make a sequel where nothing changes and everything is held sacred, you're essentially going to rehash and you're not going to give the player something new to be interested in.
So to a certain degree, you're going to have to challenge conventions, and you just have to have the guts to do that. But the best way to do that is to learn what core things are important to the game. So for example, we consider approachability to be one of the core competency features of Diablo. That's why we chose the camera angle. We said right away, "We don't want to change the camera angles, and we don't want to change the type of gameplay." That's one of the things that made the game successful. It was very approachable and offered a type of gameplay that no other game offers. We didn't want to change the focus on cooperative gameplay. We didn't want to change the focus on the item game -- we really didn't want to change the core item game at all, actually. We pulled a lot of the conventions of Diablo II item game directly over.
Now there are details about it that we felt, ehhh… We're not really crazy about Runewards. There are details that we changed, but overall, it was a matter of figuring out what each of those core elements were, and figuring out what wasn't part of it. Obviously, we took the potion game out, which was a huge part of the original Diablo and Diablo II. But we didn't think it was a critical part, and we actually think it made the game worse. So being able to identify those things is certainly a challenge, but it's part of the fun, too.
Crispy Gamer: With a more simplified UI, it seems to lend itself well to the possibility of coming over to consoles. Would you like to see this game brought over to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3?
Wilson: We don't have any specific plans for a console port right now. We don't see ourselves as a PC developer, which probably sounds humorous considering we've made almost exclusively PC games. The only console ventures have been ports. I think that's mostly because of inertia and the types of games that we make. RTSes don't work really well on consoles, barring as of recent a few exceptions that I will give credit to for being able to break that barrier. World of Warcraft is not a game that would easily be translated into a console app. I don't see how you possibly could because of the UI.
I would say that out of all of the games that we've made, Diablo is probably the easiest to put on the console; I think it could be translated. There are a couple challenges in the controls that would have to be overcome. I do think it's possible to overcome them, but right now, it's more a problem of inertia -- we're focused on our PC and Mac development, and don't have the capacity to focus on console.
Crispy Gamer: Are the dungeons still going to be randomly generated?
Wilson: Yes, we have a ton of random generation in the game. All the dungeons' layouts are randomly generated. The exteriors are not. We have a new system of adventures that allows us to cut sections out of the terrain to put random -- whatever -- in there. We can put random terrain, we can put in scripted events -- we wanted to add a lot more scripted events into the game.
Crispy Gamer: That's got to be pretty challenging for you as a designer…
Wilson: Yeah. It's probably one of the biggest challenges we've made. But you got to take it on because it's Diablo! There's like seven things that we've identified -- replayability through randomness was one of them. Absolutely everything that we can do to improve the randomness. But we looked at the exteriors in Diablo II and realized, the fact that the layouts were random actually didn't improve the game that much. If anything, it hurt the look of the game, because organic environments don't lend themselves to being randomly generated.
You end up generating an outdoor environment like you'd generate a dungeon. So you create a room-like outdoor environment that also has no permanence to it. The world feels very transient. We decided to change that but add in things like the adventure system. On top of all that, all of the monster encounters are randomly generated. The rares and champions -- which are the mini-bosses -- are randomly generated. The items, and attributes on the items, are randomly generated. Essentially we're trying to match the amount of randomness you see in Diablo II.
Crispy Gamer: Diablo is more fun to play with friends, or in a party. You can solo it, but it's so much more fun to play with friends. With the social communities like Xbox Live or Steam, having a community list within the UI is almost a needed staple now. What are your plans for Battle.Net?
Wilson: We have a new version of Battle.Net that we are planning on unveiling in the near future. I'm not allowed to steal its thunder by talking about specific features, but essentially our goal is to provide the best online experience to players that you're going to find anywhere. At Blizzard, we know our fan base. We feel very close to our fan base -- that's one of the reasons we hold BlizzCon events and the WWI events -- and we hope we give our fan base an unprecedented view into how we operate, and a really strong connection to us, so they know we're one of them, and that we really love our fan base. We want to provide them with a way for them to stay together, for them to communicate with one another, and play together much more easily. And that's what the new Battle.Net is all about.