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Speaking Of Devils: Diablo III Interview

Desperately Seeking Sanctuary

Diablo III is now a thing that you're capable of owning and (hopefully) playing. Just before the launch, when those network problems were yet to freeze Hell over, I sat down with senior world designer Leonard Boyarsky and lead technical artist Julian Love to keep them company as queues formed in the streets outside. Along the way, I discovered that having an ex-Troika chap on your game means that 'lore' is a very important word indeed, that the distant roguelike heritage hasn't been forgotten and that technological progression doesn't necessarily alter design principles.

RPS: Is it a relief to be on the verge of launch after all this time in development? It must be good to be here.

Boyarsky: It’s awesome to be here.

RPS: Not London, obviously, with the rain and the gray. But at launch.

Love: It’s great. And we love London too!

RPS: It’s not too bad, I guess. You should check out Manchester though. Is there a sense of relief to be finished, or does this just feel like the start of a new phase of work?

Boyarsky: Well, the work never ends but we’re taking some time to enjoy the fact that we’re finally putting it out there and people can get their hands on it and be able to play it.

RPS: And do you have a break now? Or is it straight back to the grindstone?

Love: This is our break right now! Talking to you. (laughs)

RPS: I wanted to talk a little about how technology has changed since the first Diablo. I used to play with my sister and I would lug my PC around to her flat, come rain or shine, and connect it to her’s so that we could play together. Things are a little different now. How does that change the approach to design, the shift in the social aspect of technology?

Love: I don’t know if it really changes that much in terms of how we made this game. The core aspects haven’t really changed. You’re still bashing the heads off of monsters, you’re still picking up loot. Diablo has always been a multiplayer-focused, or capable, game.

If anything has shifted at all, it’s just that the multiplayer aspect is much more approachable and accessible, and commonplace. People are much more aware of it, especially on the heels of a success like WOW. There’s much more of an expectation for that sort of thing. It allowed us to maybe put a little more emphasis on how smooth the multiplayer experience was. But it didn’t really change too much of the core ways that we went about it.

RPS: Over the previous seven years, would you say that the shift toward connectedness has been more important than any advances in visual capability?

Love: I think Diablo just plugs into that stuff really really well. It’s always had that multiplayer aspect going on, even in its earliest version. So it’s really just about extending both of those things.

Visual technologies have changed, allowing us to do more and take advantage of that in ways that are appropriate, and the online technology is more enabling for the kind of game that I think Diablo always wanted to be. So it’s allowed us to be slicker about it.

Boyarsky: It also, I think, allows us to gain interest from people who might not have known that this is a game you can play online with your friends. Everyone knows about playing online now…

RPS: I think there are quite a few of us out there who know people that we played Diablo II multiplayer with and haven’t really had a similar co-op experience since. Hopefully we get to see them again now, but do you think there’s something specific about Diablo’s world that brings them back, or do they just like clicking on monsters?

Boyarsky: I think that Diablo I and II, while we would have changed some stuff about the story delivery systems that were in place at the time, they did deliver a very rich world, and a rich world that had a very interesting history. That was something that we wanted to pay off.

Obviously you don’t need to play the first two games to understand this one or to enjoy it, but there are a lot of hooks in there, and stuff we talk about that people who played the previous games are going to pick up on and think, ‘oh, that’s definitely the world I love’. I think it is important for those things to be in there for people who are fans of the game and want to revisit a specific world.

RPS: The way that lore is delivered this time around does seem to place an emphasis on it that wasn’t necessarily there before. It’s like having a talking bestiary and history book rolled into one. Do you hope to engage people with that aspect a little bit more?

Boyarsky: I hope so! I think so. One of the anecdotes I’ve been telling today is that there are obviously people out there who just want the action elements of it and they could care less about the story. In fact, they’ve told me to my face, ‘I don’t care about your story! Don’t let it get in the way of my Diablo experience!’

We had a couple of those people after we had refined and iterated on the story systems that we’re using in Diablo III, to a certain degree they came back and said ‘you know what, you guys were successful on that.’ It’s delivered in a way that’s making those people interested in experiencing the story now, which is the greatest gratification.

RPS: I’m a lore guy.

Boyarsky: Awesome. I love players like you.

RPS: I’m very much on board with the style of delivery. Beyond the books and bestiary type monologues, I wonder about the loot system and how all that ties back into the world. Is there ever a sense of that for you guys, that all this stuff that exists to collect actually has meaning beyond its numbers?

Boyarsky: Wherever we can throw those things in, for people like me or you that’s added value. But the gameplay is the most important thing above all. So we can’t try to connect everything back if it interrupts the action.

RPS: It has to serve the mechanics before story?

Boyarsky: Exactly. But as long as it can do that, we try to get those little nuggets in wherever we can.

RPS: That word ‘action’ you used a moment ago, which is part of the naming convention now, with ARPG. Diablo somewhat altered the meaning of that term, or at least made its own subgenre?

Boyarsky: I believe so.

RPS: I’ve read about your attempts to make action more active this time around.

Love: It starts with ensuring that you’re not adding anything that’s inappropriate. You have to look at what expectations exist and how people want to play and make sure that you don’t impede them. The other aspec t is to look at the way the game plays and explore ways to enhance that.

One way we did that is to make it much more visceral. How can we get monsters to respond to players’ impacts more. How can we telegraph the strength of the barbarian or the magic nature of the wizard, and then even personalise those things, to get into a little more depth. So the wizard is the only character in the game who can actually disintegrate monsters, so when you see a monster disintegrated there’s no question about who did it. It’s a very personal sort of event that happens.

All this stuff just tends to make combat more in your face and more intimate.

RPS: In terms of the way that differentiation of the classes works, have you seen anything that surprises you in the way that people use the classes in the beta?

Love: Not yet. After we ship the game tonight and it goes live, I’m sure some thing will start to emerge. There’s so much to be explored in terms of customisation, choices of skills and loot, that for sure people are going to discover things that we didn’t expect. But so far in the beta we haven’t seen too much of that.

RPS: In terms of the classes – and this is sort of weirdly phrased but hell, why not? – does a person’s choice of class tell you anything about them as a person? Personally, I tend to pick the one I like the idea of most from a fictional perspective, but I suspect many more people make their choice based on how powerful they perceive it to be, or how it fits their playstyle. Are there any patterns to those choices?

Love: As I recall there is some thinking that goes into that. We sat down and had discussions along the lines of, ‘what will make the barbarian really cool?’ I think there’s a tendency to not make him too technical. He has to have enough depth for long-term players to find something and to have something to do later on in the game.

Looking back at Diablo II, that barbarian didn’t have that. He still fulfilled the meat and potatoes role but never really graduated from that level of depth for the hardcore player to have real attachments to him. I think you can have attachments to him but they’re not really in gameplay depth.

So there’s definitely an effort being made in Diablo III to provide that depth for all the classes, but at the same time we’re making sure that people who really want to play a rogue class and have a character that loves to fire bows, and has that whole fantasy fulfilment. And people who want a meat and potatoes bash ‘em type class can have that wish fulfilled by the barbarian.

RPS: Just to go back to the world briefly, there was a shift from the first Diablo, which was very claustrophobic, a dungeon full of horrors, and then Diablo II planted a world on top of that. In the third game did you want to continue that progression?

Boyarsky: Well, we tried to open up the world because we want it to feel like a place you’re inhabiting. But we did want to go back to…well, it’s very hard in an action game to get that horror feeling, but we wanted to try and invoke that and get back some of the Diablo I stuff. That’s one of the reasons we have you start in Tristram, besides the story itself. We thought it would be really cool to revisit that area and revisit the cathedral that you were in back then. We really wanted to touch on that and make it part of the experience.

RPS: And in terms of expanding the world and bringing people into a wider space, there’s a possible tension between difficulty and discovery. You can challenge players but you also want them to experience and explore. Does that involve altering the pacing, or do you rely more on allowing people to ramp up the difficulty by working up to ‘inferno’?

Love: (laughs) Inferno is nightmarish. Are you talking about the possibility of people wandering into areas that they shouldn’t be in, where they’re going to get shredded?

RPS: Yeah, that’s part of it.

Love: The way that we lay out our areas and the way that our dungeons are set up, it’s a progression. There’s really not a lot of places that I can wander off that I shouldn’t. I can run ahead, skip past monsters, and end up with a bunch of zombies behind me and then run into stuff that I’m not prepared for, with all these monsters behind me as well. So you can do it that way.

But our exploration comes from showing you these cultures and their histories, through the lore books and stuff like that, ‘cause if you’re in an area, that’s pretty much the area that’s good for your level. But it should feel kind of seamless, it shouldn’t feel that we’re restraining you to an area.

RPS: And how does that work in terms of threat? Do you want players to feel that they’re constantly in danger, or do you want them to feel empowered?

Boyarsky: It’s both. One of our standards, or one of our core beliefs for the Diablo series, is that you should feel like you’re a badass. To put it frankly you should feel like a really powerful guy. But you always want these moments where it’s like…

RPS: Oh shit.

Boyarsky: (laughs) I didn’t want to say that! But it’s exactly right. You realise you have to stand back and rethink your strategy.

RPS: And how do you get that across? Do you overwhelm people, or do you suddenly switch things up and throw something at them that they don’t expect?

Boyarsky: Sometimes you’ll have a series of monsters that aren’t too big of a threat and then you can go one of two ways. You can throw a ton of them at the player and then they realise that five may have been fine, but seven is a little hard, and fifteen? It’s time to back up!

And then we have champions and rares, for instance, and these guys just come around and, especially on the higher difficulty levels, you see them coming around and you realise you better have no other monsters on the screen.

RPS: So then it becomes a case of trying to control and herd?

Boyarsky: Exactly. It’s kind of a mix of the two styles.

Love: The randomness can actually create an atmosphere where the player provides their own threat in a way. They can be lured into false sense of security because they’ve seen these monsters before, in groups, but then they come to another group and there’s one thing different about them, just because the random roll is different, and suddenly they’re in trouble.

RPS: That randomness is a huge part of the series and the genre. There are more and more ARPGs coming this year. Do you look at the competition – Torchlight 2, Path of Exile. Grim Dawn’s looking really interesting.

Boyarsky: We play those games. We’re game fans just as much as we’re game developers, but the funny thing is that we take more inspiration from other games in other genres.

Love: Yeah.

RPS: I’ve seen you guys mention God of War.

Boyarksy: Exactly! The monk is very much based around a fighting game, with that vibe to him. At least subconsciously you take a little from every game you’ve ever played. It just becomes part of you.

RPS: My question was actually going to take it further back. When I first played Diablo, having grown up on roguelikes, I thought – ‘hey, this is from that place’. How much does that heritage still matter? Is it still in the mindset?

Love: Very much so. That’s the root of the game. The core combat experience is linked to all that stuff. A lot of attention was paid to all that. We spent a lot of time working out how we could max out the effect of randomness on the world, rather than just making everything random, so it becomes mindless, we put it in just the right spots, just the right places.

So, for instance, preserving the feel of the overworld by having a lot of fixed locations but making it possible to plug in random scenarios, right? That’s one of the ways to express randomness that’s new to Diablo III. And then looking at the different ways that dungeons can be randomised, rather than just picking every room randomly, or every encounter randomly, you can take it to different levels.

We played around a lot with trying to find what were the right levels of randomness, the right ways to express it.

RPS: And what difficulties does it raise, in design terms, that the randomness is controlled to a great extent?

Love: The greatest difficulty is in testing it. You create all this content and then randomise it with all these permutations and it’s a testing nightmare. If you’re not too careful and you create too many dimensions of randomness - and it seems impossible that it would be this way – but you can literally create more permutations than the human mind can cope with.

So you have to make sure that you’re only doing the stuff that’s going to be meaningful, right? The stuff that’s going to lead to making the gameplay experience better but not detract from the development process.

Boyarsky: And keep it controlled that’s it’s humanly possible to test it.

RPS: Do you ever worry that balance may go completely out of the window due to some of those permutations, and a player can find themselves in a situation where the odds are completely against them? Or can it be the opposite – balance is so strong that those situations can’t occur?

Boyarsky: You can definitely get into those situations.

Love: Oh yeah.

Boyarsky: On the higher difficulty levels. I think that’s the genius of our system designers; those moments, when they happen, it feels right.

RPS: To me, those are exciting moments.

Boyarsky: Good!

RPS: So often a game offers a world gone to the dogs, but the player never feels the threat of that, never feels outdone. But how do you balance that possibility of defeat with the satisfaction of success?

Boyarsky: I think Julian hit on it. If I’m running through an area then I don’t know what’s going to be around the next corner because it’s randomly generated, in terms of monster distribution. I pretty much know where the bosses are once I’v eplayed through once, but in terms of uniques and rares and stuff like that, you just never know.

And on top of that you get uniques and rares that have randomly rolled affixes and sometimes you get a deadly combination. There’s been many times where it’s taken a couple of efforts to beat those guys.

RPS: So you find yourself in a horrible place and it’s something the world has conjured out of its component parts?

Boyarsky: Exactly. And then I go crying to the systems guys and say, ‘why’d you let this happen’?

RPS: (laughs) What’s the most exciting part of launch? Just having it out there and seeing how people react?

Love: Our fans have waited a long time and we want them to be able to play and enjoy the game, we’re excited to see what they have to say after all this time!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.