Is there an upcoming game with a more rabid fan base than Blizzard's Diablo III? We don't think so. From the online petition over the game's art style to the outcry over the shunning of classic character classes, Diablo fans are knowledgeable, passionate and not afraid to let the internet know what they think. With that in mind we sat down with lead designer Jay Wilson and grilled him on a game that every PC owner is dribbling in anticipation for.
VideoGamer.com: It's been a long time since Diablo II. How have RPGs changed in the intervening period?
Jay Wilson: I think one of the really big differences is that people actually like them now! When the original Diablo came out it was really a dead time for role-playing games. Now you see so many of them, and so many different kinds. I mean, Diablo is an an action-RPG and that's sometimes referred to as a genre - even though it's really just a sub genre of both RPGs and action games. Then you have Bethesda's games, and Bioware's, and the Final Fantasies... and they've all got such a different flavour and such a different style. It's just a great time for role-playing games. Now you're even seeing good design principles from role-players being carried over to most other action games; it's almost hard to find a game that doesn't have some form of levelling up or character customisation. It's great to see how the RPG has not only come back, but has become a driving force in the industry.
VideoGamer.com: In that case, which have been the big games you've been paying attention to over the past few years?
JW: Obviously the MMO space is very big for us, in terms of influence. One of the reasons we started making MMOs is because we like them! So even though it's our own game, I have to say we look at World of Warcraft more than anything else. It's a game I really like, probably my favourite. I also really like City of Heroes. But I think we also take things from other stuff - Mass Effect is certainly a game I know a lot of the guys around the studio like, and one I enjoyed. Those are a few examples, but there are probably a whole bunch I've not mentioned as I'm on a dearth of RPG stuff right now, because I'm mostly just playing Diablo II.
VideoGamer.com: What elements have been carried over from Diablo II to Diablo III, in terms of co-operative play?
JW: One of the things we've carried over is just the general structure of how co-op play works, so as you're playing you can have another player drop in or leave at any time. It's very dynamic, the game simply adjusts to the number of characters present. But one of the things we've improved on is one of our prime directives is now "Thou shalt do no harm to the co-operative game." This was something that Diablo I and II didn't really follow. Many people liked the idea that players would compete against each other while being co-operative. While it was a noble concept, I think it mostly proved to make players not like each other and not want to play together. The average game size for Diablo II on Battle.net is 1.2 players, which basically means that almost everyone is playing by themselves. One of the main reasons for that is... well, why would you want to play with someone else? They can go hostile at any time and kill you, mostly in an exploitative way. It's not fair - most of the time you'll be dead before you realise they're attacking. There's a good chance they will steal all your loot, so you won't get anything valuable, and it makes the game harder - so why would you want to play?
On our side, we've looked at changing a lot of those things. Loot now drops on a per-player basis, so if four of us are playing a game together and you kill a monster when three of us are nearby, it'll drop an item for each of us. My items will be seen by me but not by the others - so anything I see is fair game for me. The nice thing about this is that it's a bonus. When you play Diablo II together, there are less items. You may kill slightly faster, but there's less to pick up. In Diablo III, there's more. You have your items, other players have theirs, and you can trade. The other tendency we find about this model is that when a player's bag fills up, they don't want to go back to town. They want to keep pushing forward, so they open up their bags and start throwing out things they don't want. As soon as an item hits the floor, everyone gathers around. Then they start doing the same thing, and soon you have these little pow-wows of people tossing things and picking up stuff they can use. It's these kinds of things that make co-op a positive experience.
VideoGamer.com: How do you balance the whole loot dynamic? You want lots of items, but you also need individual pieces to have value, right?
JW: Well when people talk about Diablo II they tend to say that loot just flies from the heavens in giant piles. But if you actually look at the number of drops in the game as opposed to other titles - I'll use World of Warcraft as an example, since people know it - then Diablo II gives far less loot. There's a higher percentage of magic loot, but overall there's roughly a 50 to 60 percent chance that the average monster will drop nothing in Diablo II - and they never drop more than one item. Whereas in WoW it's very uncommon for a monster to drop nothing, and often they'll have multiple items. So overall, while it's not a completely fair comparison, there's generally not as much loot in Diablo II as people think.
Sometimes when people are making a quantitative Diablo-style game, one of the mistakes they make is to say, "The rewards in Diablo II were so good, the only way to improve that is to add even more loot." But the reaction if you don't get that number right is that people get loot weary! Twenty magic items hit the ground, and you're like, "Whatever!". I know that there's not going to be anything interesting for me, because it's all kind of the same. So it's important that in the early game you get items that are fairly good for progression, but then you actually need to pace things out a lot more. One of the things I think Blizzard did really well in Diablo II was that for the first 10 levels you were constantly upgrading, but after that you could play five levels and see nothing. I think that's really critical, that pacing.
VideoGamer.com: Can you please clear something up for us? There's been a bit of controversy about the art style of Diablo 3, in terms of negative fan reactions online. Was there any link between this and the departure of Art Director Brian Morrisroe?
JW: It actually had nothing to do with the project. His leaving was amiable and we actually still speak to him fairly frequently. He left to form a start-up company outside of the games industry - he had an opportunity he couldn't pass up, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. I hated to see him him go because he was so good for the team and was such good art director, but he felt that this was a fairly safe point for him to depart because our art style was fairly established and our art lead is fairly strong. So while I can't say that it's helped the project to have him leave, I think it's done as minimal damage as a departure like this could. It's certainly nothing to do with the art style controversy, and our art direction will not change.
VideoGamer.com: Were you surprised by the negativity?
JW: No We usually have a fairly good barometer of what's going to be considered and what's not, and when we found this art style it was after several other iterations that we felt didn't work. We have a show and tell event with the whole Blizzard staff every four months - the other dev teams come in, look at the projects and give us feedback. You will never find harsher critics than Blizzard developers - they are the most detail-orientated people ever! But when we first showed them this, they were ecstatic. They loved it. That was the point at which we felt we'd really found our game, and that was about a year before we announced. So yeah, were weren't surprised by some of the backlash, but we have so much confidence in the direction of the game and we know this is the right way for us to go. So it didn't really affect us that much.
VideoGamer.com: With Starcraft 2, a lot of the design has been primarily focused around multiplayer. Are you taking a similar approach with Diablo III, or not?
JW: It's a little more focused on the single-player, it's not quite the same. I've worked on RTSs before, and while I've seen things done both ways I prefer the approach where you work on multiplayer first, because you're really establishing the core game mechanics. But here the core mechanics really come out of the single-player game. That said, what we've done along the way is to have co-operative enabled from the start. People play co-op all the time, and if there's something that doesn't work for co-operative play we fix it right away. For any mechanics that need balancing or tuning, we've tried to do that simultaneously. But we do focus on single-player more.
VideoGamer.com: Co-op is becoming an increasingly important feature for games these days. How do you think that's changed things, from a development point of view?
JW: I'm going to sidestep that for a second and talk about the reason why I think co-op has shown up. I think it's because developers have realised that's the way most people want to play. I think recognising that is causing a lot of developers to look back at their games so they can work out how to bring people together. In my opinion, that's nothing but a good thing, because it's one of the things that's going to start opening gaming up to a wider audience. Game developers tend to be quite competitive, a bit hardcore - they love to kill the crap out of one another - and they sometimes think that's what everybody prefers. But a large majority of the gaming audience prefers a more relaxed experience.
One of the best examples of the this is that if you look on Battle.net at the number of competitive games alongside the number of games played co-operatively against multiple AIs, the co-op games outnumber the competitive ones by a factor of 2 to 1. So it's a fairly large group of people who prefer co-op play, even in a game known for its competitive play. So I think that what it's doing is opening up developers' eyes to a broader audience, and that can only be a cool thing.