Diablo III design disassembled

BlizzCon 2010: Blizzard's dev team goes into the nuts and bolts of crafting its celestial action role-playing game.

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Who was there: Jay Wilson, game director of Diablo III, was joined by Kevin Martens (lead content designer), Josh Tallman (concept artist), Peet Cooper (senior environment artist), Jason Bender (senior systems designer), Jill Harrington (senior technical artist), Steve Shimizu (lead gameplay programmer), Christian Lichtner (art director), and Michael Nicholson (senior user interface artist).

Death, destruction, and colorful armor await.
Death, destruction, and colorful armor await.

What they said: The BlizzCon 2010 panel served as a breakdown of Blizzard's methodology in designing all aspects of Diablo III. One of the more interesting topics came from what the development team learned from Diablo II. More specifically, something that bothered Blizzard about Diablo II was the introductory conversation that set the scene for the story. At a little over a minute, it was simply too long and prevented players from getting into the game itself. Ultimately, this went against Blizzard's policy of action-based storytelling. It wants the player to be able to experience aspects of the story without drawn-out expository sequences that interrupt the flow of the game.

The end result of this is a game that tries to tell a story in multiple ways, some more direct than others. For example, a level can tell a story based on its finer details, whereas interacting with non-player characters during a dungeon sequence creates opportunities for smaller bits of story.

What's more interesting is the addition of optional story elements in the form of lore books, which players can choose to ignore completely or they can track down every single one, depending on what they want out of the story. When used, these lore books play an audio file narrated by the character they're associated with, but the key is that the player can still fight and do other things while it's playing.

The panel then transitioned into some visual design elements surrounding the siege of Bastion--a fortification being attacked by the forces of hell. The concept team originally thought of a battleship when coming up with a structure capable of defending itself. As such, the outside portions of Bastion look similar to that of a ship, with a lot of sharp angles forged in iron, ballista perched on the walls, and objects that look like anchors but serve as anti-siege weapons.

Conversely, the inside is meant to look a little warmer and lived in, as if soldiers are there prepping for battle. The end result is the use of more wood and less iron for a generally softer but well-worn look. All of these visual elements then combine together to tell a story that players can fill in on their own.

From there, the discussion moved toward game design elements, specifically treasure distribution and environmental interaction. Not surprisingly, Blizzard wants to make sure barrels, chests, and anything else that contains loot are all placed in logical places and given context. For example, a player is more likely to find a treasure chest in something like a library where people store things than in something like a stable.

Treasure is one easy way to interact with the world around the player, but Blizzard knows that people just like being able to smash various things, whether they're barrels, walls, or some kind of device. But the team also stressed how objects in the environment can tell a story with expressly doing so, citing the torture racks in the Hall of Agony as a major example.

Eventually, the subject of loot and customization popped up to the delight of the Diablo fans in the audience. First, the team stressed how important customization is for Diablo III, and armor is reflective of that. Players will be able to customize the color of their armor by securing dyes found throughout the world, some of which will be incredibly rare. Likewise, the team revealed that there will be 14 levels of gems (and six types), which can be found in the world, but anything past radiant has to be made by the jeweler.

And speaking of the jeweler, the panel revealed some inspiration for the artisans, which includes the jeweler, the mystic, and the blacksmith. The existence of the jeweler is in direct response to people not willing to part with their gems in Diablo II for fear that they could use them in a better-socketed item later. The jeweler can remove gems from any weapon for a small fee. Meanwhile, the mystic can craft wands, identify items, and even enchant some equipment. The previously revealed blacksmith can add sockets to items, as well as repair them. All of the artisans level up as a player's character does, and this is reflected in their respective store fronts.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about Diablo III's monsters, and how they die is ultimately more important than how they live. Members of the team explained that if monsters aren't fun to fight, then the player ultimately isn't enjoying the game. As such, enemies are designed in such a way that they can be difficult to combat, but that difficulty springs from not making effective use of abilities as opposed to just being completely cheap.

The team also stressed how important death animations are, as they generally deliver a sense of satisfaction for the player. There was a funny moment where a movie revealed how people don't generally pay attention to various animation states of creatures before engaging them in combat, so Blizzard has to find other means to give enemies personality, such as spawning animations, when they're not fighting.

Takeaway: It's really interesting to get some insight into why and how Blizzard approached Diablo III's design. What's clear is that the team is trying to make a cohesive world that not only gives context to everything in it, but also makes the game fun to play. The byproduct seems to be a game that focuses on action but manages to tell an engrossing story through its finer details.

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