At Blizzcon this past weekend, we got a chance to speak with Julian Love, lead technical artist for Diablo 3. We discussed skill runes — items that modify the form and function of your character's spells and abilities — as well as the newly announced PvP Battle Arenas, the Demon Hunter class (and why it took so long to create), the future beta test and the importance of getting the game in front of players to collect feedback. Read on for our discussion about Diablo 3.
Slashdot: Could you explain your role on the Diablo 3 team?
Julian Love: A lot of people don’t know what a lead technical artist does, or even a technical artist. So, the easiest way to understand it is: all the things that your player does in the game, all the skills that they have, have visuals attached to them, usually done with special effects. That’s really the focus of what my team does that you can see in-game. We are very tightly coupled with the design team to help them visualize and even come up with a lot of the player skills – what they are and what they do.
Slashdot: One thing I noticed while playing the demo was that the skill runes modify the art on the abilities quite a bit. That seems like a lot of work.
Julian Love: You bet. It is a lot of work, and it wasn’t our original intention to do that, because we were thinking, “That’s a lot of skills.. .and that’s a lot of runes..how is that even going to be possible?” So, initially we thought, “Well, we’ll just do some things that aren’t so visual.” But, what we found was that they felt kind of broken. We noticed that the players would pick up the game and the places where we had done those kinds of graphical changes, they would play those skills over every other one that didn’t do it. It was clear that if we’re going to have this system, we’re going to have to commit to making graphical changes on everything, so you don’t have this case where people are shying away from a skill simply because it felt unsatisfying.
Slashdot: How much extra work is that for you in the art department?
Julian Love: I can tell you it’s at least five times as much extra work. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. What we’re really shooting for is enough graphical change that the skill doesn’t feel broken and that it contributes strongly to the feel of customizing your character. That’s the other key that we hit on. This is a way for us to bring another level of customization to characters that I don’t think people necessarily think about. The tendency is to think about things like “How come I can’t change his skin color,” or “how come I can’t give him tattoos?” And in our game, your character is this big (holds fingers a few inches apart). It’s not very large on screen. So, those kinds of things don’t have a lot of utility or value. Your character is covered in armor, what good is a tattoo?
But your skills are big and powerful and cover a lot of the screen, so being able to customize those is something that will really have a lot of impact for player customization. So, for that we looked up and just said we’re going to have to commit. We’re going to have to find ways to do it. Sometimes it’ll be a little easier, and sometimes, in the case of things like Hydra, where we’re literally making different hydras, or in the case of, say, Plague of Toads, where we’re making totally different kinds of toads, those are going to be a little harder. But, it’s going to be worth it as long as it’s fun.
Slashdot: Yeah. I was playing a Witch Doctor, and I used the spell that summons a zombie for you, and I got a rune that turned it into a swarm of bears. We got a real kick out of that.
Julian Love: Yeah! Zombie Bears! It’s kind of funny, that’s one of the skills that came up – the way we work is that we sit down and throw a lot of crazy ideas out, and sometimes it’s a little scary, throwing an idea that you think “I’m not sure how the group will react. This is kind of wacky.” And I remember sitting in the group and they were saying, “What are we going to do? We need something else.” And I said, “I’m not even sure why this works, but I’m just going to say it: Zombie Bears!” And everybody went, “Yes!” And that was it. Look at the way to it feels to play that skill in the game – it just sounds fun, right?
Slashdot: Definitely. Now that you can modify these skills so heavily, it seems like you can go through the game as, say, a Wizard, and play it one way, and then play it through again as a Wizard and have a completely different experience.
Julian Love: Absolutely. The character customization is one part of it, but another really important part is replayability. The fact that you can go back and re-explore your class, explore other classes. As limited as Diablo 2 was compared to Diablo 3, you still have people playing it ten years later. You have a hundred thousand people online sometimes, playing Diablo 2. So, replayability is a big, important factor, and skill runes definitely contribute to that by providing so many more build possibilities for people to keep exploring.
Slashdot: Regarding the new PvP system, are there going to more game types than just small teams facing off?
Julian Love: We don’t have any plans right now that we’re announcing for different types of games. It’s an idea we’re a fan of. We think that there are some things we might be able to do with it, but right now we’re primarily focused on bringing Battle Arenas to the game.
Slashdot: How has that affected the way you’re implementing PvP in the rest of the game.
Julian Love: The only place we’re actually implementing PvP is in the Battle Arena structure. That’s a key point. By bringing PvP out of the PvE game and giving it its own space, we’re providing a more structured and fun PvP experience. We can do things there that were much harder to deliver, like team play. It was really hard to do meaningful team play in Diablo 2. Not that some players didn’t find a way to impart that structure. It’s just a lot easier when it’s already there. Especially when you start to bring in Battle.net and being able to do much fairer matches. Really, if you think about the Diablo 2 experience, it’s much more about ganking people who are unsuspecting. People didn’t fight each other unless they thought they could win. It really wasn’t what I would call fun for everyone.
But by bringing it out and giving it its own space, you have a better chance of injecting that fun into the PvP experience. Now, at the same time, we’re really improving what most people consider the PvE experience, especially for those people who weren’t interested in being ganked unfairly. Nobody liked to take a waypoint into a zone and show up dead, and have no idea what happened, only to find out that somebody killed them before they loaded. When you do enough of that, you start chasing people out of those games, and eventually out of Diablo 2 itself. That’s not something we want to provide.
Slashdot: When a new player logs into Diablo 3 and sees the PvP options, what is your goal for what they’re encouraged to try.
Julian Love: Our goal is first to communicate that it’s going to be a fun experience. We’ve done it as short, cycled rounds, and one of the reasons we’ve done that is so when you do die –because if you engage in PvP, you’re going to get killed, right? – but nobody likes to stand around dead for too long, watching all their buddies have fun. So, shortening the rounds gives you a chance to come back and get some revenge before the rounds are up. A part of the reasoning behind that is to make sure people are having fun; to get over the intimidation factor with PvP. “Oh, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to die!” Well, you die in PvE, right? We want to communicate that this is easy, engaging, and can really be a lot of fun.
Slashdot: Is that where you’re going with skill-matching over Battle.net, to make sure beginners play against beginners?
Julian Love: We’ll have a system very similar to how StarCraft works in terms of trying to match people up fairly. Part of the reason is to avoid people saying, “I’m going to go get my level 80.” “Well, I’m going to go get my level 90.” That kind of thing happened in Diablo 2 where people would just one-up each other to the point where it was a fair fight, at which point everybody left because nobody wants to do that. It’s a lot more fun when everybody is playing together and they are much more on the same level.
Slashdot: It was mentioned at the panel that there would be things like achievements and vanity rewards for PvP. Is that something that will carry over to the PvE game as well?
Julian Love: There will be achievements and vanity rewards for sure in the PvE game. I don’t think we have any plans for how much or what those things are. It’s still a work in progress.
Slashdot: Is there going to be a beta test?
Julian Love: There will be a closed beta. We don’t have an announcement about when that will be. I don’t think we have any specific announcements yet about what you’re going to be able to do in the closed beta.
Slashdot: Is that something you’re more hesitant to put in front of players? Would you rather keep things under wraps?
Julian Love: No, no. Well, there are some things we have to keep under wraps. Story. Diablo 3 is going to be a lot about story. It’s going to have a much deeper story, a much more compelling story, a story you’re much more engaged in. Obviously, there are whole parts of the story we don’t want to reveal. So we’re going to want to be careful about exposing the story to everybody and spoiling the experience. But at the same time, putting the game in front of people and getting feedback is a core part how we go about making games. That’s why there’s a playable build here at Blizzcon. So that we can get it in front of people and find out what works. In fact I was just down on the show floor earlier today, watching people play the game, and I noticed a number of things that made me say, “You know what, we’re got to go back to the office and tweak that!” There’s a few things that aren’t quite right. And the things I’ve noticed today? You know, I’ve been watching this game played at the office for the last year, and the things I saw today aren’t things I’ve seen before. So, there's huge value in having people outside of the office play the game.
Slashdot: Can you give us an example of one of those situations?
Julian Love: I saw a case where somebody hadn’t quite figured out how to get their skills on the left and right mouse button. It was just one person, but I think there’s something to that – people running around without using their skills. I think we’re going to take a look at that. We never really stop iterating on the UI for the game, and I think there’s something more we can do to get it just perfect. So that we don’t have what I would maybe call “fail cases.” We want to make sure that everybody would get it.
Slashdot: So far we’ve seen some very constrained dungeons – a tomb, a fiery dungeon – are we going to see more of the wide-open spaces that were common in Diablo 3?
Julian Love: Absolutely. Last Blizzcon we primarily showed an outdoor, open-space area – the desert – and this year there was a desire to give players something a little bit different. At the same time, we wanted to deliver something that was in line with the development process for the game, and not something that was pulled out and built separately for the show. Even last year’s [build], that’s still content we’re using for the game, but there was more putting it together for the show. This year, we really just wanted to take some section of the game, exactly as it is, put it in front of everybody, and see how it works.
Slashdot: Characters. From a fan perspective, it seems like a very long time between the announcements of, say, the Wizard, the Monk, and the Demon Hunter. Can you explain the timeline of what goes into developing these classes?
Julian Love: We don’t have a fixed timeline. But here’s what happens: We always start out with some really basic goals for a class. How they’re supposed to feel, broad parameters, how they feel thematically, and how they should feel gameplay-wise. For instance, with the Demon Hunter, we wanted a ranged class. But we wrestled with it, early on, about what the thematics would be. And by that I mean the beginning of the Diablo 3 project. That’s how far back the Demon Hunter goes. But we decided at some point to just put it on ice, and that’s a thing we do often. Sometimes you can just work your piece of clay to the point where you don’t know what it’s supposed to be anymore. So the best thing you can do is not to cut it, but to put it on ice for a while. Let it sit, let it percolate. It gives us the space to come back later.
Then, suddenly, it might make a lot more sense. You get this moment of clarity for the class. This has happened to just about every class in some way, shape, or form. Early on with the Barbarian, we had the same kind of thing happen, where we were really trying to push the physicality to the point where we were ignoring ways we could make him more crazy. There was this moment, after getting some space from it, where we were said it was alright to start giving him some of this god-power, through the Ancients. We did the same thing with the Demon Hunter. “You know what would really make this ranged class work is if we underscore the thematic elements going on in the storyline with the incoming demon invasion.” It let us create this bounty hunter-type class with a really dark, gothic vibe, which really suits our world well. It gave us a new feel, a character we didn’t have at that point. It filled the need for a ranged class, giving them the pistol crossbows to shake things up. We thought, “You know what, that just all works.” So what was a struggle before suddenly becomes crystal clear. And that takes time!