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.
VideoGamer.com: If you could single out one feature of D3 to convince someone to by the game, what would it be? What's the coolest feature?
JW: The coolest announced feature? (laughter) There are a few we've not revealed yet! For me it would have to be the character classes. I know that's kind of an odd feature to pick, but one of the things that was a hallmark of D2, one of the thigns that made it a favourite game of mine, was that the character classes were extremely archetypal. They were the kind of characters that people inherently wanted to play - they were very visceral, very powerful, very satisfying. Running through the world and hitting stuff with an axe felt really good. So when we started on D3 one of our main objectives was not to match the game on that front, but to surpass it. And that's something I feel we've really accomplished when you look at the character classes, the skillset we've put on them is really imaginative, very over the top and original. We've really tried to go for classes that are not your standard warrior, rogue, mage. We're not trying to provide something that's unknown to the players, but rather classes that are not what you'd typically see.
VideoGamer.com: Can you confirm that the Barbarian is the only class to return from Diablo II?
JW: Yes. Originally we were planning to have no classes return, but as we developed one of the classes essentially turned into the barbarian. We reached a point where we were going to call it some other name, and we realised that everyone else would just call it the barbarian anyway, so maybe we should just go with that.
VideoGamer.com: Can you tell us what the previous name was?
JW: I'd rather not, actually, as we held back a few ideas and might use them in a character further down the road.
VideoGamer.com: Fair enough!
JW: I think the barbarian was one of the classes we looked at and felt could be improved upon. One of the reasons we set this goal of not bringing back old classes was that we don't want to do a re-hash - we want to do a sequel with new gameplay and new experiences. I know a lot of people really love the classes in D2, and it's not my intention to deliberately hurt them! I love those classes too - the necromancer is my favourite - but our goal was to do new things.
VideoGamer.com: Have you copped a lot of flack over this?
JW: Yeah and we will! All the barbarian players are delighted and all the necromancers hate us. I understand, I don't begrudge them that. I would hate me too! But what I would say is that when we announce the next class, which is quite similar to a previous class, then all those players will hate us too. You can't make everybody happy, but I think when the game finally come out players will find there's a good class for them, one they will love as much as the ones that came before. And if they don't, I absolutely promise that in the expansions we'll consider bringing back old classes. We just don't want to do it with the first release. We want to establish our identity.
VideoGamer.com: So if people want D2, they should play D2, right?
JW: Well like I say, I sympathise. I understand why they want these things. But it also comes down to what inspires us as developers. Good games come out of passion, and if one of the dictates had been, "Okay, we're just going to take all the classes from D2 and re-do them," I don't think a lot of people on our team would have been that excited about it. In fact, I know they wouldn't have been. It came from the team that they didn't want to re-do the classes. So one of my jobs as lead designer is not only to steer everyone towards those choices, but also to make sure the whole team is excited by the choices we make. Sometimes that means we have to look at things and say, You know what, maybe this could be awesome, maybe the necromancer could be an awesome character for Diablo 3 - but if no-one on the team is interested in making him, he's not going to be great. He's going to be mediocre.
VideoGamer.com: Some developers, Dennis Dyack for one, really don't like showing work-in-progress on games that are still at an early stage - but Blizzard has always been very happy to do this. Why is that? Is there a risk behind doing this?
JW: This is going to sound snarky, but there's only a risk to your ego. That's it. If it's good then people will recognise that it's good; if it's not good then you need to learn from that and make it better. Sometimes people clutch things close to their chest and they don't want to show off something that misrepresents them and I understand that - but the thing is, gamers only remember the last thing you showed them. So if you show them something and they say, "Oh my God, that's horrible!" the you say "Well, geez... let's go back and make it better." At least now you know why. At least now you have some information. And so one of the reasons why we actually prefer a really long window before we release a game is because we want a lot of feedback - we want to know what people like and don't like about a game. We want to give people several opportunities to play it before a release. We play our games constantly before we release them - we give them to other development teams and get feedback. We do very long betas and alphas and include a lot of people, not just from the fanbase but from the industry as a whole. And I would say look at the success of Blizzard games. If other companies think it's a risk, think it's a bad idea... obviously it's not.
I think it's hard for people, when they get attached to an idea. And we do this all the time. I get really attached to an idea, I really want it to work - so I don't want other people to tell me it's not working. The key is to use that feedback and not fight it, because someday the whole world is going to have it. It's going to be there someday. Do you want to make sure you give them what they want, what you know will be a great game, or do you want to take the risk that your opinion is the right opinion? It's a tough call, but for the most part I'd say "No, don't take the risk.". It's not design's job to come up with all the great ideas and figure out which is the absolute best. It's design's job to make sure that the best ideas get into the game. That's the major difference. I think a lot of people get into game design as a job because they think, "Man, I can sit around all day and come up with ideas." And it's like, "No, you can sit around all day and have your ideas torn down." And that's a lot more painful, but that's the job.
VideoGamer.com: You can't really show off things at early stage in the music and film industries - not in the same way, at any rate. You can demo tracks or show a rough footage, but it's not really the same thing. But it sounds as though you regard this ability as a strength...
JW: It's an advantage of the medium, but it's also one of the things that makes games really hard to make. The best games are made though iteration. They're so complex, and there's so little known - there's no formula for making a great game, it's always this weird alchemy! We used to have this joke at a company I used to work for, where people would come up and say, "This game's not fun! Make it fun!". And we'd be like, "Pull down the cookbook. Two of these, three of these, four of those - there we are, now we've got fun!" A lot of the time it's very touchy-feely, trying things out. It's more like cooking without a cookbook and no knowledge of the ingredients whatsoever.
VideoGamer.com: Last question - which games have you played over the last year that you've really enjoyed?
JW: Well, I'm currently playing the PS3 Ratchet & Clank, which I absolutely love. I play a lot of World of Warcraft, and a lot of RTSs - so I was playing C&C3 earlier this year. I know it took me a while to catch up to it, but I have like this laundry list! I really enjoyed GTA IV. I especially liked the way they introduced their campaign. It's funny, but we joke about GTA IV that it's like an MMO but with one quest - and how did they pull that off? If we gave people an MMO with one quest they'd skin us alive! But really it means that they get to pace their game, but give people this open-world illusion that they have complete freedom, which is wonderful. It's a great way to create a game, and it's really fun.
VideoGamer.com: So on the basis of those comments... Will we see car jacking missions in Diablo III?
JW: Oh absolutely! We just put them in last week!
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time Jay.
Diablo III is due out for PC when it's ready.