GDC 2012: Diablo III's Art Director Shows Off Design Process

In advance of Diablo III's May 15th ship date, Art Director Christian Lichtner spoke at GDC about his team's approach to resurrecting the franchise's classic art style in an ecosystem of first-person shooters and hyper-realistic cutscenes.

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Blizzard's Christian Lichtner at GDC

Diablo fans rejoice, for the release is nigh. In advance of Diablo III's May 15th ship date, Art Director Christian Lichtner spoke at GDC about his team's approach to resurrecting the franchise's classic art style in an ecosystem of first-person shooters and hyper-realistic cutscenes. 

"Great art is ageless," says Lichtner, a mantra that guided many of his design decisions. For Blizzard, this means creating highly stylized characters with strong silhouettes, bold coloring, and dynamic animations. Many Diablo fans have criticized early screenshots as saccharine and inappropriately joyful, though Lichtner believes the painterly textures they've adopted will help future-proof the game as graphics technology and trends continue to evolve. Fans should be pleased with the way the art's evolved over the past few years, as the series' dark gothic sensibility shines through, and the UI and camera are delightfully familiar.

Color Tones in Diablo 3

Where Lichtner excelled in his role was by subordinating art decisions to gameplay priorities, ensuring not just a beautiful visual experience, but a clear and well-composed gameplay gestalt. The most obvious example of this is in adopting a layering system for any given moment in the game. By conceptually separating the background environment, midground action, and foreground UI, proper focus could be put on each and guide the eye accordingly. In early iterations (shown below), the screen elements appeared cluttered and indistinct. The final game art was able to better guide the player's focus by stylizing and dimming the background, baking in high-contrast character lighting, adding a bright red cursor outline, and creating clearer player paths.

Powerful powers are powerful in Diablo IIIIn character design, Lichtner wanted "to sell the fantasy the player has for each class." The team wanted the player heros to immediately read as their intended class, whether it be melee, caster, or "thief." To achieve this they used archetypal characterization, though small design twists produced variations like the aging barbarian, the Caucasian Eastern monk, and the heavily-armored caster. Costumes, though stylized, were designed to be theoretically build-able (automatically making Comic-con 2012 more awesome). Armor progressions were designed to start barebones but recognizable and end up incredibly ornate, giving the player a real sense of accomplishment in earning those items. To round out the Diablo hero fantasy experience, the skill effects were designed to be larger-than-life and give a real sense of power.

Most major bosses went through 50 or 60 concept revisions. "We like to infuse the monsters with some kind of intelligence or vanity," said Lichtner, to give the impression of a hierarchy and culture in Hell, often communicated through clothing or human-like accessories. Initially, showing Z-depth in giant demons proved difficult with an isometric camera, but the "Evolution of the Siege Breaker" graphic shows how they overcame the issue with higher contrast and baked stage lighting. Three of the Diablo paintings shown here illustrate the effectiveness of Blizzard's painstaking iteration, as the final Diablo concept is pitch perfect. 

See more Diablo 3 art and concept iterations on design3. 

The Evolution of Diablo

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Dan Miller-Schroeder is the design3's Instructional Designer and is constantly on the hunt for bringing educational material to the design3 community. Find him on design3 as "danms" or follow him on Twitter @d3danzo.

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