Bashiok responded to a fan who was angry at the slow and seemingly-undirected development progress and pace of Diablo III.
That’s the iterative game design we embrace. It’s what we do. I think the issue is that Diablo III is really the first game, in my opinion, where the window into the design process has been open all the way from the beginning* (and boy oh boy has it been open for a long time). We didn’t have BlizzCon during the development of Diablo II, Warcraft III, or even World of Warcraft. We didn’t have websites that supported big in depth articles, we didn’t have billions of people on the internet, we didn’t have twitter and Facebook and live Q&A chats and all this stuff we have now that offers unparalleled access into the play by play development of a game. For us we enjoy being able to share that stuff. You all get to follow along in the process of us creating our games! We think that’s awesome. But it has some pretty big cons in that sometimes it’s hard to understand why we work the way we do. I’m not going to ask you to “Trust in Blizzard” or some other far fetched motto, but I do want to impress that this isn’t different than the development of any of our other games.
*Sure there was StarCraft II but the design changes aren’t quite as HUGE because they tend to be more about individual units and their balance, although there were some very substantial changes to StarCraft II systems very late in the development process.
My coworker Rush pointed me to this thread late last night, and we fell into debate over it. As most of you guys know, this site is the evolutionary improvement of Diabloii.net, and we’ve been online, covering the Diablo games, and under the same management since 1997, shortly after Diablo I’s release. We followed the development of Diablo II very closely, enjoyed a lot of collaboration and access to the developers (we were famously responded to a fan who was angry for a weekend in early 2000, the first outsiders ever granted such access), attended every E3 that Diablo was shown at, etc.
As all of those events considerably predate Bashiok’s employment with Blizzard, (or that of anyone else currently on the D3 dev team) you may wonder what we think of his claims in this post. Click through to find out. It turned into quite a lengthy essay, with a great deal of first hand info about how Blizzard North handled things back in 1998-2001.(Very differently than they’re handled today.)
(I was tempted to just put a Rickroll video here and end the post with that. But it would have been wrong!)
The State of Diablo III’s Public Relations
I’ll start off by conceding some of his points. Bashiok is correct in that we’ve seen more updates about the D3 development process, from 2008 until now, than we did about any previous Blizzard titles, including Diablo II. Bashiok is also correct in that there was no D2 Twitter account, no BlizzCon before 2005, no D2 Facebook page, no D2 community manager, no BlizzCasts, etc. So yes, we get more regular and frequent updates these days… but that does not mean we’re more enlightened or informed. The existence of a D3 invited to visit to Bliz North, and twitter feedk, and a CM to make regular forum posts, etc, means that they have to communicate regularly to justify their existence. But does the frequency of updates, and the abbreviated format of something like twitter, just lead them to say the same thing over and over again?
(I have sympathy for Bashiok and the other CMs in this way, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve never wanted that job myself. The CMs are seldom allowed to share new info, yet they’ve got to communicate something to keep the fans engaged. Of course they’ve got to reword the same old stuff over and over again. What else can they do?)
So yes, we get much more communication, but if 99% is just mouth noise that adds nothing to our knowledge of the game, is that such a good thing? This leads towards the whole question of who Blizzard is marketing this title towards, and why we hardcore fans assume it’s us, but that’s not really the point of this article, so I’ll leave it alone.
The other major issue is that 99% of D3 info communication is filtered through PR people (the vast majority of whom are much less communicative than Bashiok), and take the form of scripted Blizzcon panel presentations, selected screenshots, edited gameplay footage, carefully-polished playable game demos, tightly-timed, PR-supervised Blizzcon interviews, well-supervised fan visits to Blizzard HQ, etc. Overall, there’s a level of oversight and control of Diablo 3 info that’s quite noticeable, and while I’m sure some of this is useful to the developers — they don’t have to spend time engaging in forum debates, answering fan emails, etc, as devs at smaller studios do — it does limit the variety and honesty of the game info that’s released.
Diablo II Community Relations
Almost everything about Diablo 3’s info releases vary greatly from how things were handled by Blizzard North back in the Diablo II days. As I admitted above, the updates were less frequent back in the day, but on the other hand, when we did get updates they were always worth reading. I’m sure some of the same circular, progress-less iteration (that so many of you guys were enraged by in Jay’s update yesterday) went on in the Diablo II days. Bashiok’s comment in this post, about having to go full bore into trying new things out to learn if they really work or not, is logical enough. That said, D2 took a year longer than planned, required Blizzard North to quintuple in size to create it, and was still released just 3.5 years after D1. Plus D2X was released exactly a year later, as the first (and still only?) Blizzard product to actually make its initial release window. (If we see D3X within 3 years, I’m sure it will be a huge surprise.)
During the D2 development process, most of the new info came via media coverage. In those days magazines were still viable, and seemingly every other month came a huge new preview in GamePro, or PC Gamer, or other long-forgotten print mags. (You can see lots of magazine covers in our D2 art gallery.) These previews seldom made it online — many of the magazines hardly even had websites back then — and we were always delighted when a fan would send us scans of a new D2 preview from some German or French or English or Australian or US gaming magazine. (This was before digital cameras were common, so scans were pretty much it, grainy and hardly legible as they usually were. God I am so old.)
We also got regular interviews with the developers, much as we see today. The big difference though, was that Blizzard North employees interacted directly with fans. Not so much in the Battle.net forums, which were unmoderated and overrun with intolerable trolls, but through fansites. It was not at all uncommon for Bill Roper, Max Schaefer, or other senior devs to engage in detailed game discussion in threads in our site forums, and whenever they did Elly or me could email them (directly) and confirm that it was actually them, and ask for additional comment or clarification, if need be.
There were also occasional online live chats organized by Blizzard, semi-monthly fansite interviews where a site got to send in ten questions, screenshtos of the week, developer updates on the official site, and more.
Plus, they weren’t just making polite, content-free posts to seem active. See Faceboo, for a good example of the kind of detained conversation and engagement that went on.
We also regularly hosted D2 devs in our old IRC chat room. Max Schaefer (AKA Brocklanders) would routinely show up and sit for hours, arguing features and chatting with fans about anything and everything. I remember one day when he gave out literally hundreds of D2 open beta CD-Keys, to anyone who asked. This went on after the game’s release, too. Peter Hu spent long hours, almost every night for months, in our IRC chat while he was preparing the massive v1.10 patch. Lanthanide was actually the most regular attendee in those times, which is how he got his name Max’s legendary PK debate with Sirian, as Peter’s acknowledgement of his feedback and conversation.
Compare that state of affairs to the modern day, where we have never and will never see a forum post by Jay Wilson, or anyone else on the D3 dev team. Not even in the B.net forums, much less on a fansite. Imagine Blizzard running an unmoderated fansite IRC chat, with Jay Wilson and Wyatt Cheng there to answer anything and everything the fans throw at them? I’m sure the devs would love it, but they know they’ll never get the chance… not while they work at Blizzard, at least.
E3 vs. BlizzCon
There were no Blizzcons prior to 2005, but when D2 was shown at trade shows such as E3, ECTS, and others, it was an open bar of information. The first E3 I attended was in 1999, and after gathering questions in advance from our forums, I headed off with something like 7 printed pages, hoping I’d get some small percent answered. The first morning I entered the hall, wandered around until I found the Diablo II setup, and was amazed to see a dozen demo machines, all of which had the entire Act 2 playable on them. There were no lines (early in the day; the afternoons had much larger crowds and waits to play), no 15 minute timed play sessions on small show-specific demos, no one asking you not to take photos or videos of the screens, etc. (In 2000 I played through almost the entire Act 3 in one run, and was actually into the Durance of Hate when the show ended for the day and the machines were powered off. At that point Mephisto was still unrevealed, and all news of Act 4 was a total secret, so I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I’d had another 30m of play time.)
Better yet, rather than BlizzCon rentacops and Anaheim Convention Center employees who know nothing about the game and are just ushers, the booth was manned by actual Blizzard North employees. Everyone worked the show floor in shifts, and I mean everyone; artists, programmers, modelers, tech guys, even the lead devs, though they were generally running live demos, or else back in quiet rooms conducing media interviews. All of these people were available to answer questions, and they were all quite talkative and friendly; happy to have a chance to interact with fans. (Elly wanted me to add that things were much the same at ECTS and other shows. Max or other senior devs would show up almost alone, without any PR to keep fans back, or to stop the devs talking if they started to say too much.)
Like I said, I had a huge list of questions to start off my first E3, literally hundreds on every aspect of the game, and when I first got in there I fell into conversation with (IIRC) added to the Act 5 mercs in v1.10. Standing by a demo machine, watching my first in-person Diablo II, we talked non-stop for something like 2 hours. I finally took a break from chatting to play for a while, and after that I talked to other employees and went through all the rest of my questions. By noon of the first day, when I headed off to pay $20 for a bottle of water and soggy romaine salad (the food at the LACC in those days was an extortionist affront to the culinary arts) I’d gone through my entire list of questions, and hand written several additional pages of notes on things I hadn’t even known enough to want to ask about, before the show.
That was how things were in those days for games at E3, for other Blizzard games as well, and it’s still how the show operates. I was last at E3 in 2007 (IIRC) to cover Hellgate:London, and the Flagship booth was virtually identical to the D2 booths I’d spent so many hours at in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Employes running demos, standing around, and eager to talk. Blizzard no longer attends E3, and while Blizzcon is a huge spectacular, and the panels can be fun, nothing from Blizzcon holds a candle, not even one of those skinny little birthday cake candles, to the amount of info a dedicated fan or media member could gather at E3.
If you’re press you can get an interview at Blizzcon, but you only get fifteen minutes, and if you’re a fansite (major media get private, longer interviews) you’re herded into a little room around a little table with 3 or 4 other fansites/small gaming sites, all taking turns asking questions of the developer(s).
You can line up and ask a single question at an open Q&A, but you’re speaking into a microphone while standing 30 feet away from Jay Wilson up on the stage. You might run into a Blizzard employee walking around the show floor and say hi, but there’s no place at BlizzCon for fans to directly interact with the developers. I bumped into Julian Love and we spoke for half an hour in 2010, but that’s noteworthy since what was assured in 1999 is almost unheard of today.
Let me note that this wasn’t some idyllic 90s thing. I covered Hellgate:London, and I’ve recently interacted with the guys making Path of Exile and visited Runic Games to play Torchlight 2, and those smaller studios behave much as Blizzard North did back in the day. The developers interact directly with the fans, they’re happy to answer any questions since they want/need the media coverage. Obviously some of Blizzard’s changes are out of necessity; as their games are just so popular now, but even back in 1999, the Bliz North guys Mike Scandizzo to know to stay out of the reach of Bliz Irvine’s PR tentacles.
All of this is, of course, intentional. As Blizzard has become more corporate and profitable (and larger) over the years, they’ve steadily built up the protective wall of PR, and steadily scaled back the access to their developers. Some from necessity; obviously Jay Wilson wouldn’t get any work done if fans could email him directly, but it’s more of a philosophy than purely out of necessity. So yes, Bashiok is correct in that we’ve gotten more updates during D3 long… long… long… development — than we did during D2’s.
On the other hand, the direct access to the people actually making the game, not just via PR-controlled interviews or public statements, was worlds apart from the modern day. I felt a much stronger connection to the development process of D2 than I ever have with D3, where I’m always conscious of the information being managed and produced and carefully-polished for public consumption.
I don’t think I’m alone in that impression. After all, we’ve seen numerous recent controversies, such as Blizzard’s attempt at forcing mandatory Real ID on Battle.net, the introduction of Real Money Trading into D3, and the Online-Only DRM of D3, where a lot of the fan outrage has come from feeling like we were being managed and manipulated and lied to. Blizzard’s excuses and justifications such as, “it’s a better gameplay experience!” in defense of removed features and added security measures rub a lot of us very wrong.
Compare it to something like Max’s justification of the PK switch; you could disagree with him (I did) but at least you felt like it was his honest opinion, and that he was leveling with you. Not like the entire explanation was a carefully-constructed artifice, manufactured from discussions with numerous employees and lawyers, where the only honesty and reality included was as sugar to help the medicine go down.
Obviously, you guys can form your own opinions on the info release style of Blizzard North back in the day, vs. the Bliz Irvine PR style we’ve seen with D3. I preferred the good old days, but then I’m nostalgic and weird. I did want to share out this info though, so you guys could judge Bashiok’s comments with a bit more objectivity. (In fact, I hope Bashiok takes insight from this too, since there’s no way he could really know how things were way back then, years before he joined the company.)