BlizzCon 2008: Diablo III's wizard explained

In its first panel, Blizzard explores in depth the newest class as well as the top-level skill system for third installment of seminal dungeon crawler.


ANAHEIM, California--Blizzard president Mike Morhaime didn't have much to reveal during his opening remarks this morning. However, what news he did have to offer pertained primarily to Blizzard's newest game, Diablo III. Of note, the developer took the lid off of the third of five classes that will appear in the final version of the game: the wizard.

As shown during the brief trailer for the class earlier this morning, the wizard will resemble in large part the sorceress from Diablo II. Area-of-effect magic that damages multiple enemies at a time appears as if it will be the wizard's specialty, and the teaser cinematic highlighted damage spells that radiate out from the player as well as ones that jump from one monster to the next.

Not skipping a beat, Blizzard returned to the stage in Hall A of the Anaheim Convention Center to give eager attendees a look at Diablo III's class design. The session offered deeper looks at the newly unveiled wizard, as well as the previously announced barbarian and witch doctor. Lead designer Jay Wilson, lead technical artist Julian Love, and technical game designer Wyatt Cheng began with what everyone wanted to know: Who is the wizard?

Wilson, Love, and Cheng.
Wilson, Love, and Cheng.

In short, the wizard class is an iteration on the sorceresses from Diablo II, according to Cheng, who said that her specialty lies in channeling the powers of the universe to wreck destruction from afar. One of Blizzard's primary challenges in creating this class, noted Cheng, was creating a class that was familiar to those who enjoy playing the role of "blaster cannon," but also bringing some innovation to the ranged-damage class. Blizzard's answer here was to invoke a caster class that was rooted in pen-and-paper-style wizards, one that draws power from the universe, as opposed to aligning with good or evil, summoning, or pure elementalism.

Cheng also expounded on the wizard's character philosophy. "She's super ambitious, smart, and powerful," said Cheng. "She's the kind of person that would drop out of college to start a dot com."

The first of the wizard's spells shown was one that Dungeon & Dragons acolytes will know well: the magic missile. Functionally, it acts similarly to the firebolt in Diablo II. However, Cheng noted that giving players a raw-power spell as their first introduction to the wizard sets the tone of universal power. The technical designer then explained electrocute, which is an elemental spell in the vein of chain lightning.

Next up was slow time, which Cheng said would be a component of the reality-control kit. Slow time presented numerous challenges to Diablo III's design, he said, noting that it could really wreck multiplayer matches. The solution, then, became to implement the spell as a bubble effect emanating outward from the wizard.

Cheng then introduced the disintegrate spell, which he described as "a real face-melter." Again a callback to pen-and-paper forerunners, the disintegrate spell was actually a failed experiment with the barbarian class. It uses a charge mechanic in which players hold down a button and then sweep their mouse across the screen to aim the ray of power. The longer an enemy is targeted by the spell, he said, the more damage it will do.

Cheng then handed the presentation over to Jay Wilson, who spoke at length about Diablo III's skill system. Wilson began by explaining Blizzard's process in arriving at the skill system as it is in its current state. That process involved analyzing what worked in the original Diablo and Diablo II, as well as World of Warcraft. From Diablo, Wilson noted that skills were obtained from books, and though that system was exciting, it presented a number of challenges, including low class differentiation and character customization.

Moving on to Diablo II's skill tree, Wilson said that though it resolved the problem of class differentiation, it forced players to focus on only a few skills that were often unimportant. He also bemoaned the lack of a re-spec option, which would let players easily reset how they had divvied up their skill points. As for World of Warcraft's system, itself an evolution of Diablo II's skill tree, it didn't create the immediate impact on a character that Blizzard sought for DIII, among other detriments.

So as for what Blizzard sought to do with Diablo III, Wilson said that such a system must be simple to understand, compelling for both the early game and when players move on to hard difficulty modes, allow for a large variety of character-build options, and support six active skills. Those being the top-level goals, Wilson then regaled the audience with failed ideas, ranging from skill rings, to radial beads, to a skill wheel, to the Horadric skill cube.

"A lot of these turned out to be different ways to do the same thing," Wilson noted. "Different, but worse isn't better; better is better." From these experimentations, Wilson said that the folks at Blizzard arrived on two ideas they liked: randomly dropped skills, and modifying skills through item drops.

As it stands today--and to be clear, Wilson noted that this system is far from final--Blizzard is currently leaning toward a skill system that is an evolution from Diablo II that incorporates active and passive skills, synergies, skill runes, and the ability to re-spec a character. This system has several issues that have yet to be resolved, he said, bringing up such challenges as the intimidating number of choices and skills. Likewise, assigning skills is still unintuitive, and there is no way to enhance skills beyond their initial power level.

Wizard concept art.
Wizard concept art.

Returning to the idea of modifying skills through item drops, Wilson unveiled the rune system. This will represent a deviation from how runes worked in Diablo II; randomly dropped runes will enhance spells in Diablo III. As one example, Wilson said that the witch doctor's base skull of flame spell lets players toss a flaming head at enemies. With a rune of multistrike, the skull will bounce instead of explode on impact, hitting more foes. If you add a power rune, the skull explodes and leaves a burning flame pit on the ground to do additional damage.

Finally, Julian Love described how special effects will factor into character skills. From an art perspective, the formula is divided into two components: "stuff you do, and then what monsters do as a result." In the case of the wizard, they wanted the class to be a light show in which all of her abilities create screen-illuminating effects. As for how monsters react to these skills, Love said that monsters can die in several different ways, and those include being eaten alive by the witch doctors' swarm or exploding after what he called a "critical death." Diablo III will also feature hand-crafted deaths along the lines of what was seen in Diablo II.

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