Almost twenty years ago, a game developer just getting its first real taste of success released an innovative and darkly beautiful game with a simple premise: click on monsters until they die. Collect the weapons and money they drop. Use this to improve yourself. Then, go on to kill more monsters until you get to the strongest one of all: the devil himself. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The game was called Diablo, and with it, Blizzard Entertainment helped change modern videogames. But when the game came out in 1996, the company was still in its infancy. This was before Starcraft was even around to become a national sport, before World of Warcraft attracted over ten million players and gave the game community its own AA-style lexicon of addiction.
A lot has happened since the mid-90’s. Is Blizzard living in its own shadow? With the highly anticipated Diablo III less than a week away from its official release, I sat down for an wide-ranging conversation with Jay Wilson, the game’s director, and Christian Lichtner, its art director, to hear their thoughts about reviving a classic for a new generation of players.
What are your experiences working in the game industry? How does the team compare to the team for the past two Diablo games?
Jay: I’ve been in the industry for seventeen years, and I’ve worked on Diablo III for six and a half. That was my first Blizzard project. Before that, I worked for Relic on Company of Heroes, Dawn of War. Before that, I worked for EA, Cave Dog, Monolith…mostly first person shooters.
Christian: Also little known fact, Jay is a very skilled first person shooter.
Jay: Well, used to be (laughs). My very early career I wanted to go into professional competitive FPS playing. I almost left the game industry to do that. I played against pretty high-level people, but I’m no longer anywhere near as good as I used to be.
Really? What games?
Jay: This was Quake, Doom, Duke Nukem 3-D…it was at that level. Actually, Quake was probably the reason I didn’t go into competitive gaming. I’m a big fan of Quake 1, but I didn’t like it as much as Doom and Duke other games, so I decided I didn’t want to do that full time.
How does this inform your work on Diablo?
Jay: A lot of things I’d done on first-person shooters come in here, because at its core, Diablo is an action game. The health system we use is pulled from the very first game I worked on, Blood. You have med-packs that you can use, but most of your health come from the monsters. They drop hearts that you eat. We went a little less gruesome [laughs], but same basic idea.
And then working on RTS games, you have a lot of the spreadsheet mathematics and unit design, as well as the isometric view. So I never made a game like this, but I did have experience with games that had similar elements. The biggest learning curve came from the RPG elements— story, progression systems. One of the reasons we redid the skill system so many times is that a lot of us that didn’t have experience making them.
Diablo and Diablo II are classic examples of the isometric RPG experience, but a lot of other recent RPGs have abandoned that for a first-person or third-person perspective. Did you ever think about taking Diablo in that direction?
Jay: Some people suggested that we should make it third or first person. I was adamantly opposed. A lot of people choose third or first person because they think it makes for a better looking game, or a more visceral game. For me, it just comes down to the fact that your choice of camera has a direct impact on the type of gameplay that you want, that should be your only factor in choosing. We liked the gameplay from Diablo; we found it vastly underexplored. And we looked at the market—this is less true now, actually, but when I first came out in 2006, isometric games were almost completely nonexistent. That’s the point where you go, “Are they nonexistent just because no one’s making them, or is there really nothing valid to say within them?”
We do this in the game industry from time to time—we get on these trends. Because we’re a technology industry, we get really obsessed with the latest shiny thing. As a result, we have a tendency to have a one-track mind. And variety dies.
Christian: From an artistic point of view, there are a lot of things that we normally wouldn’t be able to do. When you look at a game, let’s say it’s first person. There are a lot more variables you’ll have to concern yourself with in terms of what angle can you look at something, view distances, etc. Ultimately it would affect your fighting systems, the pacing of the game—how quickly you’re eliminating mobs. Even more than the pace that was set by Diablo II, we really wanted an isometric camera to let the player choose what he’s fighting—ahead of him, behind him, at his sides.
Jay: A lot of the first two to three years were focused on transitioning the camera to 3-D. If you look back at Diablo II from a design standpoint, they take advantage of things that only a 2-D game could do. The way the monsters pop out of the background, the coloration can only be done in a game that doesn’t have true lighting. They can essentially ignore the lighting to make a monster pop out. So you have this weird transition where a lot of the tricks you use don’t work anymore, and you have to figure out how to do them anew.
It’s also been over a decade since the last Diablo game came out. Do you think games have changed a lot since then? How are you adapting Diablo III to suit this?
Jay: I think games have changed and gamers have changed, but not to the degree and in the way people think. A game like Doom would not cut it today. But I still like pointing a reticle at monsters, pushing the trigger, hearing the shotgun go off, and seeing the monsters go flying. The core of what makes a game fun doesn’t go away. It comes down to other elements: polish, reward, progression, expansion with RPG elements—really tapping into core fantasies that people have, what they want to do. A lot of the early first person shooters were awesomely fun games, but I don’t think it was a core fantasy of many players to be a medieval knight fighting aliens in stone castles with rocket launchers! It was just so discordant. We want a world that’s consistent, that has context. But we still want to shoot things in the face with rocket launchers.
Christian: A lot of the challenge was making sure we build on the legacy of Diablo II.
Jay: Yeah, one of the lessons that we learned in development was people’s memories of Diablo II were way different than the reality of Diablo II. They remember all kinds of stuff that never actually happened in that game.
Jay: Well when you ask them about game challenge, they remember what it was like in hell difficulty. They don’t remember what it was like in normal difficulty. They remember something that is visually darker than it ever was. They remember a variety and depth of monsters that was never there.
Christian: You are competing with people’s memories. And each person’s individual recollections, where they were ten years ago when they played it, that’s tough!
Jay: It’s one of those things where if you love a game, then the things that are bad about it become endearing. Everybody remembers Deckard Cain saying, “Stay a while, listen.” But the reason they remember it fondly now is because it was so damn annoying! He said it every time, and you had to talk to him so often!
When Diablo III was first announced it came under fire for being too colorful, too cartoony, too reminiscent of World of Warcraft. How did you go about revamping Diablo’s aesthetic for a new generation of players while still keeping it unique among Blizzard’s titles?
Christian: For people that play the game now, I don’t hear that feedback anymore. They realize that it’s still a very dark game, it has a certain mood to it thats very Diablo. We also wanted to make sure that we kept it open to a wider audience. We didn’t want to create an art style that would exclude people. Sometimes when you make something that’s very gory, even borderline vile, that could happen.
Jay: We knew from the beginning that Diablo III was going to be an M-rated game. One of my mantras is, if you’re going to be an M-rated game, don’t be a soft M. Embrace it. Sometimes we had to push people—you can be gorier than that, you can be grosser than that, go more in! However, there’s a fine line between something that’s adult and something that’s pandering. It’s really easy for people to throw gore and boobs into something to make it M, because, you know, “gore and boobs are awesome!”
Christian: We call it motivated gore versus unmotivated gore. [Laughs]
I remember playing the first game—that scene when The Butcher first walks out of the bloody room screaming, “Fresh Meat!”—that always felt like it was inspired by Slasher films from that time. Do you have new inspirations now?
Jay: We get asked this question a lot, and it’s really hard to answer. For me, what it comes down to is I think it’s a mistake to have a singular inspiration. Even an obvious one—I could say, “Well I didn’t make Diablo II, so that’s my inspiration.” Well Diablo II’s part of it, but when we all went to see 300, we came back saying, “What awesome crap from that can we put in here?” It’s almost like: whatever we see that we love, we try to figure out how to get it in the game. And we only worry about it when the consistency with the overall vision is questioned. But even that gets overrated.
Like, I freakin’ love The Hulk, I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. The Barbarian is inspired partially by The Hulk—he hits the ground and makes a crater around him, guess who else did that? That came out of my love for an unrelated character.
Christian: It really comes from everywhere: movies, comic books, other games. Even everyday stuff, like you walk through a mall and see some things that are really cool. The art comes from you being able to transform that into something that will work in the game itself—make it Diablo, have other people see it the way you just saw it.
Jay: One of the reasons why the answer to that question is really important to me is if you love something, you really don’t want to find fault with it. That’s why you can’t just have one inspiration. You’ve got to approach everything with a cynical eye.
Why was the barbarian the only character that you kept from Diablo II?
Jay: He was the character that we felt was most underexplored. I liked the necromancer a lot, but we looked at that character and thought, “we don’t really know how we’d make him better.” I mean, the wizard is basically the sorceress. We brought her back in the way we did because the sorceress from a lore and development standpoint was an elementalist—all her abilities come from fire, ice, and lightning. We wanted to do a classic role-playing magic user: disintegrate, time control, conjuration, all this other kind of magic that wasn’t explored by the sorceress. We’d have to wreck her to do that, which we didn’t want to do. So we said, “Let’s just create another tier of magic user to justify the ways that we changed that class.” With the barbarian, it was more justified within the same mold. We had a new name for him, a different background, but everybody just kept calling him barbarian because that’s what he looked like. Part of that is not fighting expectation—if you have a big muscley guy wielding and axe, that’s a barbarian!
Why didn’t you keep the paladin? The warrior and paladin always seemed like obvious images of a knight in shining armor fighting evil.
Jay: I don’t think there’s any class right now that would preclude a paladin from being in existence. That being said, for the first line-up of characters we wanted the monk, a very holy-light type character that’s a little too close to the paladin. He’s our good guy. We didn’t make him look as puritanical as the paladin, but that’s more of an art choice.
Christian: For the monk, we wanted to make sure he comes across as a fairly light character—not light as in insubstantial, but being on the light side of things, being pure. We used light shades with him—a lot of light browns, oranges, yellows. His armor sets and weapons give the idea on a subconscious level that this is a good guy. But we wanted even the good guys to have an edge, this idea that it’s not all good. One twist was the martial arts aspect of him. As far as pure shape language, we were taking inspirations from kung-fu movies and a lot of eastern philosophies, Asian influences. But when we were designing his face, at one point someone had drawn an eastern-orthodox monk. We really gravitated towards that—that heavy beard with a bald head. It was an interesting juxtaposition, it gave him a darker vibe.
Jay: One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Diablo classes—and this is actually not my philosophy, this is from the original games, at least according to the people still on the team that worked on them—was that regardless of their appearance, the hero was unquestionably good. That’s something we try to relay with these characters. While we may have a more sophisticated appearance with them, it’s no mistake that the witch doctor’s voice is one of the kindest and gentlest in the game. Because his appearance is one of the most horrible. That’s to indicate the fact that he’s not actually evil.
Christian: Yeah, none of our heroes are evil. That’s an important point.