When StarCraft II is released, it will have been over a decade since a game bearing its brand hit retail shelves, and if Diablo III doesn't ship in 2010 -- which is likely -- it will share that distinction.
Developer Blizzard Entertainment is known for its relentlessly iterative process, which is what leads to the infamous "when it's done" release mentality, and Diablo III is no exception. Thought to have gone through several complete reboots since the closure of original series developer Blizzard North in 2005, the game has already seen significantly redesigned elements since its formal unveiling last June.
To get a sense of how that design process works -- and when the team knows it's actually done -- Gamasutra sat down with two Diablo development leads: lead technical artist Julian Love, a Blizzard North veteran, and lead content designer Kevin Martens, who spent nearly a decade at BioWare before coming to Blizzard.
The pair discussed Blizzard design and art philosophy, the evolution of the Blizzard North style, the action RPG genre, and Blizzard's flat development structure.
Diablo III was announced last year; it's been playable twice at Blizzcon now. Mike Morhaime suggested it probably won't be out until 2011. Does it feel like the development time has been extended to a surprising degree? Do you ever think, "Oh God, this really will be a while longer now?"
Kevin Martens: Here's the secret to Blizzard games, and this is a secret that won't help any of our competitors: endless iteration. We'll take something, we'll put it in the game. Maybe we'll like it when we put it in, maybe we won't. We'll leave it in there for a while, we'll let it percolate. We'll play it and play it and play it, and then we'll come back. We might throw it all out, or we'll throw half of that out and redo it.
It can be a long time, but it is fun to work on as well. That's the thing that keeps you going. Multiplayer always works, and the builds are always playable. We've played them constantly, and it's fun. You actually look forward to the weekly play session even though the game is still in progress. That's what keeps us going, and that's also why it takes so long. We'll do it over and over again until it's just right.
With Diablo, and StarCraft moreso, it will have been a decade since there's been a game in the series out. Blizzard North as an entity no longer exists. How do you determine what needs to be retained from something a decade old, and what needs to be modernized?
Julian Love: Well, as an ex-Blizzard North employee, I never got the sense that we were a standalone entity. We were always in contact with Blizzard South folks. They were always coming up. I think I saw it as we were one big company.
That said, [as far as] the real question in terms of how much we're going to take forward, we want to bring back all of the stuff that was great, that was fun. We certainly want to tap into what was great in the first two games and make sure all of that stuff is coming back, and pile in all the cool stuff we can to bring it over the top and make it the definitive version of the series.
On the topic of Blizzard North and Blizzard Entertainment though, I do feel there was a difference in style between the Blizzard North and South games. The Diablo titles had a more baroque, intricate look, more tilework and stonework "along the grid." Diablo III is more of a blend of that style with the current Blizzard South style. How long did it take you to settle on the look for Diablo III?
Julian Love: Well, it took a while for us to settle on the actual style, but I don't think it was due any kind of difference between Blizzard North and Blizzard South philosophy. It had more to do with the fact that we were moving the game from a two-dimensional technology platform to a three-dimensional technology platform.
Issues like lighting and separation between the characters and the backgrounds are handled in entirely different ways -- ironing out how to get what we felt was a Diablo vibe while still managing to get the characters to pop.
Looking at D2, for instance, those characters are super bright, super colorful. They pop out of the backgrounds. So, we had to try to bring that forward, but at the same time we don't want to just rest on that art style and do the exact same game.
We want to elevate that. We've got to look at the other games that Blizzard does, learn from the things that they've done that make those games better, and really progress. I think what you're seeing in the art style is our idea of the actual progression of the Diablo universe.
I loaded up Diablo II last night, because I realized I still had it on my laptop and I figured, "Why not?" One thing that struck me was the character select screen -- all those characters arrayed there are proportioned in a very straightforward way. They basically just look like normal humans with crazy armor and weapons.
And I was at Blizzard office recently, and there's a plaque on the wall with the official artistic principles of Blizzard: "Bigger is always better. Less if never more," which evokes the WarCraft look with its much more heroically exaggerated characters. It does strike me as two different philosophies, at least to some extent. How much of that do you think about?
Julian Love: Well, obviously, there were two very largely different groups of artists. Some of the artists from D2 are still working on the game today.
I think what you're seeing there is a Blizzard philosophy that may have been there but may have not been disseminated across the entire company, which is, "You find the line by crossing it."
I think we've gotten really good at that now, allowing ourselves to push things to a point where they go too far, and then you look at them and you say, "Oh, okay. Now we know where the line is." But if you're trying to just edge up to the line, you might never find it.
That's the goal here, to push things as far as they can possibly go. So you're seeing things that are progressing maybe a little bit beyond where D2 was.
But definitely, I would say that our proportional sense for Diablo III is far, far less than let's say what happens in a game like WoW, where armor doesn't even look like it could function. We still put a lot of effort in to try and make sure the armor looks a lot more functional, that it doesn't look like it's just insane and total high fantasy.
In the case of StarCraft, there are plenty of RTS games each year. With World of Warcraft, there are a million MMOs every year. There aren't actually that top-down action RPGs. Torchlight is coming out, for one, but there are not as many examples. What's it like working in a genre like that where there aren't a lot of yardsticks?
Kevin Martens: Well, frankly, Diablo II is still on the PC sales charts every week. Over and over again, you have a big Christmas rush, and it bumps off, but then it's back on in early January again.
I think Diablo II is the standard for this kind of game, so largely what we're thinking about is making sure that we do the series justice -- which we feel that we are -- and making sure we're trying to expand the market. Personally speaking, I hunger for a game like this, one that's going to last for a long time -- something we can play for ten years, like Diablo II.
I think there's a massive market for it, but I also know the games are kind of hard to make and, really, it's hard to beat Diablo II. So that's the tricky part, and that's one of the reasons that there are not that many games out there. There's still a definitive one that's on the charts every week. That's the one that we have to beat. Luckily, we know a lot about it.
And more broadly than that genre, there is of course always widely-publicized pessimism about the PC platform, and has been for a long time. Does that concern you ever, either in a long-term sense for Blizzard as a company that is so devoted to the PC, or otherwise?
Kevin Martens: It has never affected us yet. The death knell of PC has risen and fallen over the years, and we keep releasing PC games, and they keep doing incredibly well. I think that there is a market out there for PC games. The latest consoles are great; it's easy to get the game running and all that. They're useful.
But everyone has a PC, and we try to keep our system requirements down as low as possible. That's one of the ways that we can make sure to appeal to enough people. Some of the really cutting edge games that come out for PC require a brand new video card and probably more RAM at least, if not a new CPU as well. That's really rare with Blizzard games. I think that's one of the reasons we still keep doing well.
Kevin Martens: If I could add to that -- the best evidence that the PC market is not actually dying is the 20,000 people that showed up this year at Blizzcon, and the fact that those tickets sold out in one minute flat. That doesn't seem to me that it's really good evidence of a platform with a problem.
We're heard a lot about some of what Battle.net is doing for StarCraft II -- a deeper league system, a mod community, and so on. Can you speak at all about how Diablo III will take advantage of the new Battle.net in gameplay terms?
Kevin Martens: We're definitely using it. A lot of the things that StarCraft is doing, we're paying really close attention to. We've got coders from the Diablo development team working on Battle.net to make sure that they're laying the groundwork for the things we want to do.
Primarily at this point, we're interested in trying to make the co-op game as fast and as easy for players to get into as we can.
More co-op support is our primary interest, and the rest of the Battle.net stuff, we'll develop as StarCraft II develops it. We're watching that process, and we definitely like what we see.
I notice you significantly redesigned parts of the Barbarian again after his previous unveiling. It's interesting to see the character undergo those changes from outside the studio. As far as that general iterative process you described earlier, does it feel in practical terms that you essentially have an indefinite amount of time to spend on any particular game? At what point do you say, "Well, we do need to ship this game"?
Kevin Martens: I would say when all of the elements are at an equal level of not just quality -- not just how polished and balanced it is -- but also an equal level of awesome. One of the reasons we keep retooling the Barbarian stuff -- some of the Barbarian skills were done a long time ago -- is because as we added a new class or added higher level skills in, we did something else that was more awesome. And part of the Blizzard design is that if something is too awesome, we generally try to make everything else as awesome as opposed to pulling that one back.
That's one of the reasons that the iteration takes a while, but it's also one of the reasons why everything is over the top. The example about art -- you find the line by crossing it -- applies to the design as well. You make things way cool, smashy, explodey -- everything. Then you pull it back a little bit, for balance reasons more than anything.
Julian Love: There is another thing I could mention to round that out. There is kind of a sign we look for internally, which is when we can't get any more work done on the game because everybody's busy playing it. That's when we know it's ready to go. I've had that experience within the company. It's just like, "Okay, nobody's working. Everybody's playing. Maybe it's time to go."
That sounds like Blizzard is fairly flat-structured from a design standpoint in many ways, where someone can just decide, "This thing needs to be improved, let's improve it."
Kevin Martens: Yeah. It definitely is. It doesn't even have to be within your area of expertise. If I have an idea for a spell effect, I can go right to Julian and say, "Hey, what if the guy did this and ice went out his spine and blah blah blah?" and vice versa. Anyone. QA guys come in and offer brand new class ideas. It's very open-ended. It's the good ideas that come to the top. It doesn't really matter where they come from.
Julian Love: Even in QA, we have a core value that says every voice matters. Literally, every voice. Anybody, even sometimes outside the company -- you listen to what they've got to say and consider it, which is exactly how we got to a new form of [the Barbarian's skill] Whirlwind. Even though it wasn't the message we wanted to hear, there's something to it.
Kevin Martens: We feel privileged that our other games are popular enough that we can take the time to do it. We know not every developer gets the chance to do that. So, we want to make sure that we use that wisely and make better games as a result.