While a lucky few Diablo III fans have been able to get a hands-on feel for the long-anticipated sequel with the recent beta, those who missed out on keys have only the game's nebulous "when it's done" 2012 shipping date to look forward to. We recently chatted with Diablo III's lead world designer, Leonard Boyarsky, about different methods of storytelling, why hindsight doesn't always matter, and the Diablo mouse.
GameSpot: You joined Blizzard in 2006, but you're no stranger to the role-playing genre, having worked at Interplay and helping form Troika. What does experience with other development teams and a fresh set of eyes bring when you begin working on a game like Diablo III?
Leonard Boyarsky: I can't speak to how other people have approached the franchise in the past, because I didn't work with any of the previous designers, but when I approached it, I came in looking at it from a deeper story standpoint than I think it had in the past. Shockingly, I found out there was a deeper story there; it just really wasn't presented in the best possible format. There was huge dialogue, paragraphs and paragraphs of dialogue when you talk to an NPC, and it didn't grab me the way it could have in previous iterations. I came in, and [vice president of creative development] Chris Metzen and I had a lot of conversations about bringing the emotional resonance to the series. It was all there in the background, and we just wanted to bring it to the forefront.
GS: You've worn a lot of different hats in your development career: project lead, art director, designer, and writer. How has your own role flexibility helped with working across teams with different tasks?
LB: I think I speak pretty good artist [laughs] because I've had that experience in the past. I think it helps to have that experience when you talk about things you want to see in the world and your ideas. It also helps to know what is and what isn't possible.
GS: What are the non-negotiable elements that make up a Diablo game?
LB: For us, it's not so much on the story side; like I said, I feel like that's where Diablo had the most room for improvement, on story delivery. The action RPG side was where I think all the checkboxes were. It had to have a great item game, it had to have unrelenting action, it had to have mouse-breaking capabilities, it had to have all those things that people remember so fondly from the first two games, and I think I'm pretty confident we've accomplished that and brought it even further.
GS: Are those expectations challenges or opportunities? Were there any off-limit elements of the franchise when you started working on Diablo III, or was all previous work up for potential change?
LB: Everything was open. There were obviously things set in stone in terms of story and what the world was, but we wanted to open up the world into a lot of different areas and bring the story into some new areas. I think it was more of a mood and feel thing, where we ran into areas that we didn't want to touch, and it was more us searching around and trying to find that Diablo sweet spot for our story delivery and our tone. We knew what we wanted; we had a really good idea of what it was, but for us to put it down in a game and have other people feel that was the biggest challenge, I think. It took a lot of iteration. We were changing dynamics, the player now spoke a lot more, we delivered dialogue in a different manner; just all that stuff.
GS: Is that a constant challenge for you as developers--understanding the intentions of what you're trying to achieve, but not knowing how the audience will receive the content?
LB: I think early on it was a bigger issue, and through the iteration process we've really dialled it in. I think that's one of the things that we're fortunate of here at Blizzard; we have time to iterate and have great designers on other teams. Any game you're working on, just by the nature of the beast, you get too close to it to actually be able to see what you need to see. To have fresh eyes to look at it and give you feedback is invaluable. I think the challenge with Diablo that I've found, that's been a little bit more than some of the other games I've worked on, is the economy of delivery systems. We don't have a huge amount of dialogue with which to convey ideas, we don't have a lot of the RPG conventions that I fell back on in the past, like dialogue trees, to really convey a lot of the stuff, so for us to convey the mood and vibe in a really succinct manner was a really big challenge, but I think after a lot of iteration and a lot of great feedback from other designers I think we've pretty much hit it.
GS: With such a long time between sequels, even though you didn't work on the originals, what were some of the lessons the team learned from the 20/20 hindsight of the Diablo II development process?
LB: We did have some people from the previous game, but Jay Wilson, our game director, was new--he started about a month before I did, and we totally rebooted the game then. We obviously looked a lot at what had been done before, but we'd have to talk to him about lessons in terms of skill system and item game. I didn't have a lot of direct contact with previous designers, so I didn't get their wisdom passed on to me in terms of story delivery or quests or anything like that.
GS: Was there a risk that because you didn't have direct contact with those who worked on the series previously, you may have fallen into the same design holes they did?
LB: I think we approached it differently, and with some different goals in mind. It's a different day and age, and, I think, even in action games people expect more story now. I don't think we could have gotten away with something that didn't have a deeper delivery system of story.
GS: EA's Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is pinning its hopes of success on a dynamic class concept, rather than choosing and sticking with one archetype. They believe the latter is an outdated notion in this day and age. Why have you opted for set classes in Diablo III, and was a dynamic system ever on the table?
LB: From my side of the table, it's all about archetypes. When I set out to play a certain type of hero and click on that button to pick that hero, I want to know what I'm getting in for. To me, that resonates with people when they pick and build that character. If you veer off from what the base of that character is, it's kind of like taking it away from that visceral...when I play a barbarian, I want him to feel like a barbarian. I'm not familiar with the game you just mentioned, but it sounds to me like they're going down a totally different road. We made our choice. We wanted to go with archetypes. We felt that added a lot to the world and the game.
GS: Blizzard is incredibly close to its community. What are some of the things fans have been calling for inclusion of in Diablo III, and have you implemented any of them? Are there ideas that simply wouldn't work from a balance or gameplay perspective?
LB: From a story standpoint, it was very interesting early on. I read our forums a lot to see what people expected, because we didn't want to give people exactly what they expected, because that would be kind of boring. But you don't want to go off in a totally different direction than what people are expecting to see, because that would feel like you cheated them. They've invested this time into the series. Diablo II's expansion, Lord of Destruction, ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger, so we really felt there were certain things we had to deliver, and just touching base, looking at the lore forums, and seeing what people were talking about and what their theories were as to what was going on in the world, were very helpful in knowing what they expected from our game. One of our villains in the game is the Maiden of Lust, and her concept was up on the Web, and two years ago at BlizzCon someone at the costume contest was dressed as her. She was originally a totally different character and she had been cut from the game, but we saw that costume and it was such an awesome costume that we said we had to put it back in the game. So that was an instance where we were really inspired by a fan and had to change the content of the game.
GS: With people dissecting the lore, and you as a team cautious of making it too predictable, have you found yourself in the position where you've changed content because players have already guessed how it will play out?
LB: No, not really. We figured out what we wanted our story to be and pretty much stuck to it. If some people guess what we're doing, that just means they'll be pleasantly surprised. Sadly, it's a minority of people who really care deeply about the lore. There are a lot of people out there who do care deeply about the lore, but in terms of our overall fan base, it's not the top thing on people's list. I think that the kind of people who really care about the lore and delve into that will feel proud if they feel like they figured it out. We haven't seen a lot of people make correct guesses, by the way! [Laughs]
GS: What were the key world-design goals heading into this project? What was it you were you aiming to create?
LB: We just really wanted to expand the world of Diablo, the world of Sanctuary. We wanted it to feel like a lived-in world, we wanted to show different cultures, we wanted to get behind the scenes about how these cultures work together and talk about the world as a whole. We just really wanted it to have more depth.
GS: Diablo has always been known as the clicking game. How are you breaking that mold, and have you considered bundling a mouse with a copy of the game?
LB: [Laughs] I'm sure we have! Don't we have a Diablo mouse?
PR person: We do!
LB: I'll bring that up with the licensing guys. I think that's perfect. As far as the clicking goes, and how we've changed that up, the guys change the skill system every day, sometimes five times a day. But when I played Diablo and Diablo II, I was a one-skill spammer--I didn't bind my keys. But in Diablo III it's much easier to have access to a multitude of skills at once and use a variety of things. It's still got that mouse-clicking and spamming feel to it, but it feels like there's a little bit more strategy, and you plan your strategy out a little more.