How Blizzard makes games like Diablo III

How does Blizzard maintain its game quality? By refusing to compromise and by understanding that "core" and "casual" are not hard-and-fast distinctions, but two ends of a spectrum.
How does Blizzard maintain its game quality? By refusing to compromise and by understanding that "core" and "casual" are not hard-and-fast distinctions, but two ends of a spectrum. That's according to Jonny Ebbert and Tiffany Wat, lead console designer and associate producer for Diablo III: Reaper of Souls - Ultimate Evil Edition. The game is soon to come out on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and has gone through a number of refinements (and a full expansion) since its original release on PC a couple of years ago.

Defining, expanding, and teaching the audience

As a developer, there's arguably nothing more important than figuring out who your audience is, and possibly nothing more challenging. For Blizzard, it's not about slicing it into segments like "core" or "casual" -- it's about creating games that lots of people want to play. It's also about allowing that audience room to grow: "Always try to make it as simple to learn as possible," says Ebbert. "If a game is compelling enough, people will learn crazy complicated things, if they're that engaged."
"Always try to make it as simple to learn as possible. If a game is compelling enough, people will learn crazy complicated things, if they're that engaged."
"If you breadcrumb it properly, that's just how life works," he adds. "You always start off very simple, and the more you practice, you can get more complex -- in every activity." Blizzard's job is "about providing compelling things to bridge that gap, to bring people across," Wat says. So that underlying assumption about there being distinct casual and core game audiences? "Realistically, it's just not true," says Wat. "There's definitely an in-between." That is, in fact, World of Warcraft's business model: It's a machine to turn newbies into hardcore raiders. "People who've hardly played games, I've seen them go from the newbie UI where you have just one button to push to the raid UI where even I look at it [and say], 'Aah! I can't do that!'" laughs Ebbert. "'Easy to learn, difficult to master' is a mantra at blizzard, constantly," Wat says. As for Diablo III, "You can figure it out pretty quickly, at least get an idea of what you're supposed to do," she says. But the game offers "a tailored experience for everyone" from hardcore min-maxers to someone who's never played games at all.
"Sometimes you need to let the players encounter some resistance... Players are smart. You need to trust them a little bit."
According to Ebbert, the tendency of game developers "to build a 50-foot ramp for a one-foot step" can actually get in the way. "Sometimes you need to let the players encounter some resistance," Ebbert says. "It's something you need to constantly gauge." Ebbert recounted a recent internal meeting: "We'd introduce a feature and say, 'Well how would a player ever figure that out?'" One developer, he said, went on a rant about how he used to reconfigure his computer's BIOS just to play games. "We don't want to go that far, but players are smart," says Ebbert. "You need to trust them a little bit."

The 'incredible pressure' of being Blizzard

The Blizzard name brings "incredible amounts of pressure" with it, says Ebbert. "We have really high standards because our fans have really high standards." (There's also the commercial expectations: before the new console version of the game ships, Diablo III and its expansion have already sold 20 million copies -- without China.) The company went into development of the console versions of Diablo III with "a really pessimistic eye" ("usual" for Blizzard, says Ebbert). "We went in expecting it to be very difficult, and it was. We tend to prepare for the worst at Blizzard. I think when we were first going in we thought, 'This might not even work.' And the more we were just diving in the more achievable it started to feel."
"We tend to prepare for the worst at Blizzard."
"We didn't want it to be a port. We looked at every aspect. If you were just a brand-new player picking up this game, how should it feel? If anything didn't feel right, we had to fix it," Wat says. Even console players who might not have a lot of direct experience with Blizzard's games are aware of its reputation; though it started off on PCs, Diablo III had to feel right on a console, while living up to that quality bar. Porting meant complete overhauls to its control (a move from indirect to direct character manipulation) and camera systems, as well as revamp to its skill systems. "The same game has different expectations based on the input," Ebbert says. "The controller makes it a different game."

Maintaining Blizzard quality

The team who worked on the console edition came from outside the original Diablo III team, and had several developers with console experience -- something Ebbert says helped them "cheat a little bit" in figuring all this out. "We had fresh eyes, and fresh perspectives, and we were kind of able to look at it from the eyes of a new player."
"If you think message boards can be brutal, internal feedback can be even more brutal."
That's important, because candidly sharing feedback inside Blizzard is key to meeting its high quality bar. "Actually, internal playtests are the most brutal. Sometimes -- if you think message boards can be brutal, internal feedback can be even more brutal," Ebbert says, laughing. "We're very hard on our own work." "If you're giving honest feedback -- if you truly don't think a game experience is fun when you're doing a playtest -- it is in all our best interests to be honest about that," Wat says. "We would do ourselves a disservice if we're not being honest to our peers about what the game experience is like." While she acknowledges that feedback can be subjective, "at the end of the day, games are experiences, so if you're not sharing what your personal experience is, then we're not doing our job to make the best quality games," says Wat.
When approaching a project, "we have to have the proper design values," Ebbert says. The company has widely publicized its core values, and it judges its games against them regularly. "When we go through the team feedback we're kind of running it through those filters," says Ebbert. And then, "at the end of every project we will do a postmortem and we will rate our own game. We'll go through the values. We're pretty hard on ourselves; we're not just giving ourselves straight As," Ebbert says. Diablo II came out in 2000, however. The company is not just being judged against its creative principles, but against nostalgia -- the version of the game not that people played but which lives on in their heads and hearts. "It's a very high bar," Ebbert admits. It's also a moving target: "Our values are constantly evolving." The company will take a look at its older games when paving its path forward, but it can't slavishly stick to them. An older game is "like a time capsule of what our values were back then," he says. And sometimes, the developers reach a realization like this one: "by today's standards, that wouldn't fly. Games have become too refined." The only way through is to judge a game against the company's current values and move forward from there.

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