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GC 2008 Diablo 3 - Jay Wilson Interview Feature
Post by Dan @ 12:32pm 26/09/08 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Blizzard's Jay Wilson at the recent 2008 Games Conference in Leipzig, Germany to talk about Diablo 3.

With all the hype (and fanboy complaints) around the announcement of Diablo III, we grabbed Blizzard's Jay Wilson to grill him about everything from the new character classes to just how far away the game is from being finished (no surprise here: "when it's done", was the stern reply). So head on in and east up the outspoken words of Diablo III's favourite employee (alternatively you can check out the video interview here, but be warned, sound isn't so great).

AusGamers: It's been quite a long time since Diablo 2, how have RPGs changed in that intervening gap?

Jay Wilson: Well I think one of the biggest differences now is that people actually like them. Especially when the original Diablo came out, it was really a dead time for role playing games. Now I see so many role playing games and so many different kinds of them - The Diablo series being an action RPG. They call it a genre but it’s really just a sub genre of RPGs; it’s kind of also a sub genre of Action games as well.

You see the Bioware games and the Bethesda games, Final Fantasy etc - each one has such a different flavour and such a different style. So it’s a great time I think for RPGs, and now you’re even seeing the good design principles of RPGs being carried over to most other action games. It’s almost hard to find a game that doesn’t have some levelling up or character customization via stats. It’s great to see how the RPG genre has not only come back, but has really become a driving force in the industry.

AG: Which games do you think have pushed forward the genre; influenced the game?

Jay: Obviously the MMO space is a big influence and one of the reasons we ended up making an MMO was because we liked them so much. Even though it’s our own game, we’d look at World of Warcraft for influence more than anything else. It’s a game we really like and it’s my favourite RPG. I also liked City of Heroes a lot - one of my favourite games. Mass Effect is one of the games a guy in the studio really liked and I enjoyed. There’s probably a whole bunch I’ve missed but I’m actually on a dearth of RPG stuff, because I’ve pretty much only been playing Diablo 2.

AG: Speaking of Diablo 2, pretty much everyone I’ve worked with has at some time been hopelessly addicted to it and since the Diablo 3 announcement, have dug up their Diablo 2 CDs and started playing it again.

Jay: We have too.

AG: What sort of elements have you brought over from Diablo 2, especially in terms of the cooperative multiplayer aspect, and how have they been improved in Diablo 3?

Jay: Well one of the things we’ve carried over is the way the general co-op features work,. When you’re playing the game you can have another player jump into your game any time so it’s very dynamic - the game adjusts automatically to the number of players who are there. One of the ways we’ve really improved that is what I like to say is our prime directive is “thou shall do no harm to the co-operative game” - something that Diablo 2 didn’t really follow.

They liked the idea that players can compete against one another while being co-operative. But I think - while a noble experiment - it mostly proved to make players not like each other and not want to play together. The average game size on battle.net in Diablo 2 games is 1.2 players - which basically means almost everyone is playing games by themselves. One of the main reasons is “why would you want to play with someone else?” They can go hostile at any time and kill you, mostly in an exploitive way and it’s not like it’s a fair fight - you’d probably be dead before you even noticed they went hostile; there’s a good chance they’ll steal all your loot so you won’t get anything good and it just makes the game a little bit harder so why would you want to play that way?

So on our side we really focused on changing a lot of those things. Now loot drops on a per-player basis, so if we’re all playing a game together and the four of us are all killing monsters - if you kill a monster while 3 of us are nearby, it could drop an item for every one of us. So my item will be seen by me but not by anyone else - everything I see on the ground is fair game for me.

The nice thing about that is that it's a bonus. When you played Diablo 2 together there was less items - you kill slightly faster but overall there was less items for you to get. In Diablo 3 there’s more because now you’ll have all your items and the other players will have their own items and if you guys trade, there’s even more to trade on. Another tendency in this model is that when people's bags fill up, they don’t want to go back into town because they want to keep moving forward - so they'll just open their bags and just throw out the things they don’t want. When it starts hitting the ground, everyone comes and focuses on that, and they start doing the same thing. Then you just get these little 'pow-wows' of people all tossing items out of their bags and picking up the things they can use. Those kind of things make cooperative gaming positive. Bringing people together to experience things together is what we’re focused on.

AG: How do you see the whole balance of the loot dynamic? Say like in Too human, the idea that there is too much loot so you struggle so long to get one thing. Then when you finally get it, you’ve already got something better in your sights. There are some games that need a lot of loot. Where do you see the balance there?

Jay: Well it's interesting. People talk about Diablo 2 saying "Oh Diablo 2; loot just flies from the heavens and ends up in giant piles". If they actually look at the number of drops in that game versus other games - I’ll use world of Warcraft as an example because its one a lot of people would know - Diablo 2 drops way less loot then World of Warcraft. Now there’s a higher percentage of magical loot, but over all there’s roughly a 50-60% chance the monster will drop nothing in Diablo 2 - and they never drop more than one item.

In WoW, it’s very uncommon for a monster to drop nothing and drops often contains multiple items.

So overall - while it's not a completely fair comparison - generally there's not as much loot in Diablo 2 as people think. I think sometimes when people are making a clone of Diablo, one of the mistakes they make is to think the loot in Diablo was good - "we should provide even more loot!" The reaction to that is that when they don't get that number right, people become loot weary. 20 magic items hit the ground and people are like "whatever, I know there's going to be nothing there for me to use - it's all kind of the same." So it's really important that in the early game you get loot and rewards that go towards progression, but you really need to pace them out.

In Diablo 2, what they did really well was in the first 10 levels you were constantly upgrading, but after that you could play five to six levels and see nothing. I think that's really critical to understand - that key of early rewards, then pacing them later on to make sure it keeps the player interested.

AG: This is the same question I asked the StarCraft 2 guys: Cheating has always been a problem in online games and it's not going to go away some time soon. Has that been factored in Diablo 3 and have you guys made any fundamental changes to how the game works to combat cheats effectively?

Jay: The way we handle cheating is almost the same across all our games. Battle.net is the same group for all of us except WoW - but they have representation there as well. Can I give specific examples? Not really, because it's kind of technical and I'm not very technical. But the same group that work on Diablo 2 worked on WoW; worked on StarCraft; worked on StarCraft 2 - Security is their obsession. I would hazard to say we have the most security conscious and experienced staff in the world at solving this problem and that's what they will focus on. It's one of the reasons why the online group is a common support group for all us - we all benefit from the experience of all the previous games.

AG: I have a question that is slightly thorny: There was been a lot speculation around the departure of art director Brian Morrisroe from Diablo 3 - from when the art style was revealed; all that mixed reaction from different people. Why exactly did he leave and was it anything to do with that?

Jay: It actually had nothing to do with the project. Brian really loves the project and his leaving was amicable - we actually still talk to him fairly frequently. He left to create a start-up outside of the games industry; he felt an opportunity that he just couldn't pass up - a once in a lifetime thing. I hate to see him go because he’s so good for the team, such a good art director and I really enjoyed working with him. But he felt like this was a fairly safe point for him to depart and pursue his other interest. Because the art style is established and because our art lead structure is strong. While I can't say it has helped the project to have him leave, I think it's done as minimal damage as possible to the project as it could have. It certainly has nothing to do with the art style controversy or anything like that, and our art style direction will not change.

AG: Were you surprised by the reaction from certain courses, that it had stirred people up a bit?

Jay: No, we expected a little bit of that. I think we usually have a good barometer of what's going to controversial and what's not and when we discovered this, when we found this art style, it was after several iterations of art styles that we really didn't feel worked for us. So when we presented it - we have a show and tell to the whole blizzard staff about every four months, the dev teams come in and look at projects and they give us feedback; you will never find harsher critics than Blizzard developers. They are the most detail oriented people ever - and when we first showed this art style, they were ecstatic, they loved it. It was the point where we really felt that we'd found our gameplay.

That was about a year before we announced. So yeah, we were not 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 really didn't affect us that much.

AG: I know that in StarCraft 2, a lot of the development was focused around multiplayer - a lot of the game design and the development being done was on multiplayer first. Is that something that you guys do with Diablo as well, or is a bit more focused on the single-player or a bit of a mix?

Jay: For us it's a little bit more focused on the singleplayer, it's not quite the same [as StarCraft]. I've played RTS' before and I've seen people do it both ways and I seem to prefer the method where you work on multiplayer first, because you're really establishing the core game mechanics.

For us, a lot of the core game has actually come out of singleplayer, but what we've done along the way, is we've always had cooperative play enabled. So people play cooperatively all the time. Any time anything does work for cooperative play we fix it right away. So any mechanics that don't work, any kind of balancing or tuning that needs to be done, we try to do it simultaneously for both – but we do focus on single-player more.

AG: Cooperative play is now a pretty big deal, not just in RPG's but in all sorts of games. The RPG traditionally was always a one-player game. In terms of how the way things have changed, how do you think the rise of cooperative play has changed things both for the player and the developer? For good or bad?

Jay: I'm going to side step that for one second, just to talk about cooperative play and the reasons why I think it's shown up. I think it's because developers actually realise that that's the way most people want to play and I think recognising that is causing a lot of developers to look back after games and figure out how can we bring people together. I think that's nothing but a good thing, because one of the things that going to start opening gaming up to a wider audience.

Game developers in particular tend to be a more competitive; a little more hardcore. They love to like... kill the crap out of one another.

So for them, they think that's what everybody prefers. Wouldn't that be what everyone wants to do? But a large majority of the gaming audience actually prefers a more relaxed gaming experience. I think one of the best examples is if you look on battle.net, the number of games that people player competitively, versus the number of games they play cooperatively against multiple A.I. - the cooperative games outnumber the competitive games, I think almost by a factor of two to one.

So it's a fairly large group of people that actually prefer cooperative play, even in the game [StarCraft] known for its competitive play over almost everything else. So I think what it's really doing is opening developers eyes to a broader audience, and that's nothing but a good thing.

AG: If you were picking the single most amazing feature of Diablo 3 to show to a new player, or a player that has played Diablo 2, and you're trying to make sure that no matter what else they do, they buy this game; what would it be?

Jay: Single most announced? Because we actually have some that are pretty awesome that we haven't announced yet. For me, it would be the character classes. I know that's kind of an odd feature; but one of things that I think was a hallmark of Diablo 2; one of the things that made it one of my favourite games, was that the character classes were extremely archetypal; they were kind of geared into something you just instantly wanted to play. They were very powerful, very visceral, very satisfying. Just running through the world, hitting someone with an axe felt really, really good.

So when we started Diablo 3, one of our main goals was not only to match Diablo 2 on that front, but actually surpass it and that's something I think we've really accomplished. If you look at the character classes, the skill set we've put on them is really imaginative, really over the top. They're very powerful and they're very cool; and original, we really tried to go for classes that are not your standard warrior, rogue, mage kind of thing. We're trying to... not provide something that's unknown to players but provide something that's maybe not the most typical thing you see.

AG: You kind of pre-empted my next question there. I know you've obviously not revealed all the classes yet, but can you confirm that the barbarian is the only character to return from from the previous games?

Jay: Yes. The barbarian is the only returning class. Originally we actually planned to have no returning classes, but as we developed the barbarian, it essentially ended up turning into a barbarian. We sort of got to the point where we went – because we actually had a different name for him originally - I think were going to call it this other name and everyone else is just going to call it the barbarian, so maybe we should just call it the barbarian.

AG: You can't tell us what the name was?

Jay: I'd rather not actually, because a lot of the ideas we've kept over, we might actually turn it into a different class down the road. So I'd like to hold it back.

I think the barbarian was one of the classes that we did look at really thought that he could be improved upon from the previous forms.

One of the things we really did not want to do – it's why we set that initial goal to not repeat classes – was, we didn't just want a rehash; we wanted to make the sequel and the sequel has new gameplay and new experiences. I know a lot of people really love the classes in Diablo 2 and it's not my desire to intentionally arc those people – I like those classes to; I love the necromancer, he's my favourite class from Diablo 2 – but as our goal we really wanted to provide new experiences; that was our focus.

AG: Have you copped any flak about that?

Jay: Yeah, and we will. Again, something not surprising at all. Everybody was very happy that the barbarian but all the necromancer players hate us [laughs]. I understand that, I don't begrudge them that; I would hate me too. What I would say to them is that – when we announce the next class that's going to be similar to a previous class – those people will hate us to.

You can't make everybody happy, but when the game finally comes out, I think players will find that there's a good class for them that they will love just as much as the ones that came before. And if they don't, I absolutely promise that in the expansions we will consider bringing back old classes. We just don't want to do it with our first, we really want to establish our own identity.

AG: Yeah, If they want to play Diablo 2, why don't they just play Diablo 2.

Jay: Yeah, to a certain degree. I mean, like I said, I sympathise. I understand why they want that but for us, it also comes down to what inspires us as developers. Good games come out of passion; and if one of the dictates had been – ok, we're going to take all the classes from Diablo 2 and we're just going to re-do them – I don't think a lot of people would have been very excited about that. Actually, I know a lot of people wouldn't have been very excited about that because it came from the team that they didn't want to re-do other classes.

One of my jobs as the designer, is not only to help steer everyone towards those choices, but make sure that the whole team is excited about the choices that we make. Sometimes that means we have to look at some things and go - you know what, maybe this could be awesome, maybe the necromancer could be a great 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.

AG: I know there's no set date, but we're talking about release late next year[2009], is that right?

Jay: There's no set date. When it's done.

AG: Would you say, obviously, that there's a while to go?

Jay: I will not speculate on that in any way shape or form other than when it's done [laughs].

AG: Blizzard has always been great at showing games to people at an early stage and I'm interested in that idea. Do you think there are risks of showing games to people early? What's your philosophy behind that?

Jay: There's only a risk – this is going to sound snarky – but there's only a risk to your ego. If your game is 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. A lot of the times I think people don't want to show their game early. It's something that some clutch close to their chests – they don't want something that misrepresents them. I can understand that, but the thing is – players only remember the last thing you showed them. So if you show them something and they're like "oh my god that was horrible" then you go "oh geez, then let's go back and make it better". But at least now you know why, at least now you have some information.

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 hear what people like and don't like about it; we want to give them several opportunities to play it before release. We play our games constantly before we release them; we give them to the other development teams and we get feedback. We do very long betas and alphas that we include a lot of people – not just from the fanbase, but from the game industry as a whole. We get a lot of other game developers playing our games – months and months before we release – and I would say, look at the success of Blizzard games. If other companies think it's a risk, a bad idea... obviously it's not, because we've done very well on that front.

AG: Isn't the danger of doing that, that you'll make a really good game that everyone will want to play [and be over it before the final product].

Jay: Yeah. I think it's hard for people when they get attached to something, especially an idea. I do this all the time. I get attached to something; I really want it to work; and I don't want other people to see it because they might tell me it's not working. The key is to use that feedback and not fight it, because eventually the whole world is going to have it, it's going to be theirs some day. Do you want to make sure that you give them what they want and 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. 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 what's the absolute best. It's design's job to make sure that the best ideas get into the game – That's the difference. A lot of people want to get into game design as a job because they think: "man, I get to sit around all day and come up with ideas!" but it's more about sitting around all day having your ideas torn down – that's a lot more painful. But that's the job.

AG: It's interesting in different mediums. Bands don't tend to release snippets of songs, or if they do, they tend to be very close to when an album is coming out. With films, you might get a tiny scene released but you certainly don't get a demo of the entire film before it comes out. But to hear the way you speak about the process, you see it as a strength.

Jay: It's an advantage of the medium and it's also one of the things that makes games really hard to make. The best games are made through iteration. They're so complex and there's so little known about the formula for making a great game. It's always this weird alchemic process. We used to have this joke in one of the companies I worked for where we'd say "if it's not fun, then make it fun" and we've got like a pretend cookbook that we pull down and go "okay we need 10 of these and 3 of these and 4 of those and there you go – fun!". Most of the time it's a lot of trial and error; let's try this out – oh that doesn't work; let's try that out – oh, that's good. It's more like cooking without a cookbook and no knowledge of the ingredients whatsoever.

AG: You throw it all in and just see how it goes?

Jay: Yeah, you just throw that in, taste it and go "eeewww" so you throw something else in and go "oh, that's ok"

AG: Ok then, to wrap things up - what games have you played in say, the last 3 years or so that you've enjoyed

Jay: Well, I'm currently playing the PS3 Ratchet and Clank which I absolutely love. I play a lot of World of WarCraft. I play a lot of RTS'; I actually played C&C 3 earlier this year, which I know took me a little while to catch up to, but I have like the laundry list of games. I really enjoyed GTA 4 – I liked the way they introduced their campaign.

We joke about GTA 4 – it's like an MMO with one quest. How do they pull that trick off? If we gave people one quest, they'd skin us alive. But really it means they get to pace their own game, yet give people this kind of open world illusion of complete freedom – which is wonderful. That's a great way to make a game and really fun. I'm probably missing a bunch of games – I've played tonnes of Rock Band, love Rock Band.

AG: So can we expect car jacking in Diablo 3 then?

Jay: Oh absolutely, we just added it last week!

Latest Comments
Posted 10:16pm 02/10/08
Awwww... can't believe you didn't ask about the issue of Australian lag to bnet or the fact they're not including LAN. Theres too many questions that have already been asked in other interviews :(
Posted 11:50pm 02/10/08
Yes, sorry :( That was actually on my list of questions to ask, but I had asked both the StarCraft and WoW guys and gotten what I thought were fairly non-committal answers, so I bumped it down the priority list.

My gut feel on this issue is that they take it really, really seriously, but at the moment they feel like that there's just not enough people complaining about it to justify any serious infrastructure changes. I suspect they think (or more likely, know - I'm sure they have pretty detailed statistics and reports on this stuff) there's enough people that are happily playing/enjoying their games with the current setup.

I don't think it will change until Australia (or at least our region) is big enough to justify a new localised community, which I suspect is aways off.
Posted 12:07am 03/10/08
You're probably right. I guess we can only hope.
Posted 03:10pm 04/10/08
we do have a large localised community. war online oceanic servers are quite large, and populated. i would dare say that the size of our demorgaphic isnt the issue at all.

Posted 03:35pm 04/10/08
Open Battle.Net at the moment is peer-peer for game data, so as long as you match make with locals its not too bad. Realms is arse though for latency - I went back and gave it a run after the DIII announcement and its still pretty woeful from AU.

If they make a fast-paced hack 'n slash like DIII Realms-only with no LAN play its going to turn it into a single player game for me pretty much (unless someone manages to hack it apart and implement unauthorised LAN / local).
Posted 01:12am 05/10/08
"So for them, they thing that's what everybody prefers." Think?
Posted 03:53am 06/10/08
They absolutely need LAN. I attend a college with a really restrictive firewall. So if I will be unable to play with my roommate. Heck, if the game data is stored on their servers, I won't be able to play at all. I also know that there are a lot of other colleges and places that have firewalls with no available NAT translation and would prevent this game from being played.
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