Jay Wilson talks Diablo 3
Games Convention may seem like a distant memory now, but please spare a thought for us unfortunate souls still typing up epic quantities of show coverage, including this first chin-wag with Jay Wilson, lead designer at Blizzard on Diablo 3. The long-awaited RPG sequel was of course confirmed earlier this year to general excitement, although there has been a smidgen of controversy over the art style. We sat down with Jay behind closed doors in Leipzig to find out more on this, and everything else.
Thanks for speaking with us Jay. Why Diablo 3? Why now?
Why Diablo 3? We've always wanted to make Diablo 3. Its been in production almost since Lord of Destruction. There was a little gap when Blizzard were trying to decide what to do... and they eventually said Diablo 3. Why now? Because... its ready! Before now it wasn't really in a state where we felt confident enough to announce it. Firstly, because of the design vision, then, when I came onto the project we felt we got a design vision quickly that we liked; then we struggled with the art style for a long time. That was difficult, we probably went through three art styles, two that we dumped completely. We ditched all the art for it and started over. And that's before we got to where we are today.
How long has the game been in the works?
Almost six years. Although I've been working on it for almost three. In my team there are a few guys who have been involved the whole time, but the majority of the team has been involved for two to three years.
Is this in part because of the creative issues that had to be resolved earlier in the project?
Yeah. I think the first issue... I can't speak much about Blizzard North because its before my time, but one of the biggest issues was that because of the values of Blizzard in general its really hard to have an external creative group, separate from the core group. There's too much that's done; sound, cinematics and story - so much of its done at core Blizzard HQ that they learnt the lesson that all groups should be internal. That's the only way that all the philosophy gets passed on. That's the conclusion they came to when they tried to bring Blizzard North into the main HQ arena. I think they offered 46 of the 49 positions... to move down. It wasn't that they didn't want Blizzard North involved, it was that they said "you guys don't function well away from us". So a lot of the team came down.
Since then, we've had creative struggles... trying to find a game worthy of the Diablo 3 name.
I recall there has been some controversy over the art style... even within the community there was something of a backlash, I believe?
There was some backlash, yeah. We expected it. We walked through the same struggle that I think that group is having. We originally tried to make a game that was grey and brown and dark and gritty, and we found it was monotonous and hard to find units... its didn't play very well. It didn't look like a Blizzard game. Some people might say that's what they liked about Diablo... and I would say Diablo didn't look like anything else either, it had a unique look of its own. Looking back at Diablo 2, I think people have a very selective memory. They remember the dark grey dungeons, but in the end some of the monsters were really garish - for unit recognition reasons. Those things don't translate well to 3D. That was a hard lesson we learned. We tried to make a really grey enviornment, then make the monsters really garish and bright and colourful. The problem is, if your environment is dull, in a 3D environment, a lot of this is because of your lighting, and if your lighting is dull grey, then your environment is so grey. So, it doesn't matter how much colour we add to the monsters. So, if you saw a how these bright monsters look in a 3D game, they would look ridiculous, because you need to put that out to get the colour from them. Lighting in the real world - green grass generates its own light - but our lighting model isn't that advanced; we want our game to run on a whole range of systems, so there's all these little nuances that came into the decisions.
So, no, we weren't surprised by the backlash, we were gratified it was only a minority in fact; the majority of people seem to be really pleased with the art style. Overall, we've a lot of confidence in it. We stepped through a long process to get to this.
How do you balance fan feedback, with what you think is the direction you should take your game in?
Well, we always try to not have an emotional reaction to feedback. We always try to say like "is this quantifiable, and can we do something with it". In some cases, with some things, there are choices we make that the community don't like, and we think "yeah we totally agree with that", but they're there because of technical reasons, or because some other element is more important. Most design choices are not black and white, they're grey. They have pros and cons to them. So, a good example of something we took on board that the fan base offered is when people said "we don't like it that the bodies fade out", now, we do that for performance reasons. But we're like, we don't like that either. It really doesn't feel like Diablo to finish a battle and not have bodies lying around. And so we changed the way we did that so that instead of fading bodies out over time (I believe this was an actual suggestion), we cap the total number of bodies. Then they are always on-screen, its just the oldest that get faded out. We're like "that's a great idea", so we did it, its in the game now, and its way better. So, we really try and look at what people are saying. So when people say "we don't like it that you guys have colour in the game". We say colour has a big impact on gameplay, and makes it better, so while part of us wants to agree - we want it to be grittier - we also want it to be really playable. So we struggle with that, but we try to approach these things logically.
How does Diablo 3's story fit in with what's happened before?
Well, the story created for the past two games was written by Chris Madsen, head of creative development, and he's worked with us to develop this story as well. If Chris has anything its a grand plan, he always has a grand plan. So, we do want continue the story of what happened after Diablo 2. A lot of what people expected to happen didn't happen, we have reasons why this is and now there's been a 20 year gap and we have reasons for this too. As you play you'll find out what the fate of the last two Evils is, and what's the over-arching connection between the three games. There's not just elements from Diablo 2, but we also have stuff from Diablo 1 which we're bringing in.
Is there a twist?
Is Diablo 3 about multiplayer or singleplayer?
Its about both really. We would say, and we say in our goals, that it's a co-operative focussed game. But that's not at the expense of the singleplayer game. We really design singleplayer - as we design we're playing singleplayer - but every system we put in we ask "how does this work in co-op play". We have to have an answer for that, and that answer has to be something that won't harm co-op play. The original Diablo's didn't even have that. They put in things like item drops that people fought over; other things that hurt co-operative play. We won't break our prime directive by hurting co-operative play. That's always a big focus for us.
This game is PC and Mac only at present. Do you have console plans for the future?
We don't have any console plans right now. I would say that of all our games... well, Blizzard doesn't view itself as just a PC developer, we think we're a games developer. So if we thought a game was more appropriate for consoles we'd make it, its just that most of the games we've made so far feel better on the PC. However, Diablo is maybe the one exception. I think the control scheme would translate really well to a console, erm, there are many elements that would be easy to pull over... that could work well with direct control. There's not a lot of buttons, so you could fit them on a controller pretty easilty. There are some targeting issues that could be troublesome, but nothing that couldn't be overcome. But, we're also used to developing for the PC, so right now we're completely focussed on that.
Do you have faith in the PC platform?
Yes, we do! Honestly, I think people saying the PC platform is dead is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They say it is, they stop developing for it, then suddenly it doesn't seem to be doing quite as well because no one is making games for it! I actually would argue that one of the reasons we do so well is that people have convinced themselves the PC is dead, while, if you look the actual environment, there's more PCs out there an all the consoles combined. Those people like games too. I don't think its fair to say the platform is dying. I think the platform has challenges, that i think people need to approach it in innovative ways. Piracy is one example. Its not like consoles don't have the same problems... other industry's have the same problem! Dealing with this in innovative ways is required. If you don't adapt to the environment then you're going to have trouble. But if you do adapt, you can be the leader, and being the leader is where the big money is.
So is online part of your strategy to innovate on the platform?
Absolutely. Essentially, if we have the best online experience, and you need to have a legitimate copy of the game to opt into that experience, then we feel that motivates players to not pirate our games. If you do, you're not getting the whole experience, or even the best experience - if you're pirating. That's part of our goals. Not to encourage purchasing through punishment, but by providing players with a motivation to want to buy the game.
Great talking to you, Jay. Thanks very much for your time and enjoy the rest of the show.