I’ve been gone a while but I come back with what I can say is the biggest interview I’ve ever had, both in word count and the interview itself: Former game director for Diablo 3, Jay Wilson. I reached out to Jay after I noticed him talking about the game on twitter after a long hiatus. It felt like a long shot, and I understood any hesitation in talking about the franchise, however to my surprise he agreed. Due to length I’ll be breaking it up into five parts and making the whole interview viewable as one after that. What follows is a candid, introspective look at the genesis of D3 and the man behind it.
What is your gaming background? Favorite games?
I’ve been playing video games almost as long as there have been video games. Childhood is a blur of Atari, arcades, Commodore, and the NES. Most of my life I’ve been a big fan of action, strategy, and sandboxes where I can wreak havoc. Here are some of the games that had a big impact on me:
Starflight 2 – The scale of it blew my little mind. Explore a galaxy, land on planets, interact with aliens, and eventually go back in time and see what the galaxy looked like in the past. On top of that you built and progressed your ship and your crew. Few games do so much, and I remember it doing it all pretty well for the time.
Populous – First strategy game that made a big impression on me.
Tie Fighter – For the campaign, and for being the first game that really made me feel like I was ‘in’ the Star Wars universe.
X-com (original) – I love turn-based squad strategy, but I also loved the completely open metagame of worldwide base management, and the theme. If I had to pick a favorite game of all time this is it.
Doom – I played Doom for countless hours. It was really a revolution in what games could accomplish. Making levels for Doom as a hobby was how I got into the game industry.
Magic Carpet – A theme I’m starting to notice with this list is I always loved games that redefined my sense of scope and possibility. Magic Carpet did that in spades. The first time I created an earthquake that destroyed the terrain for what felt like miles I was hooked.
Diablo – First RPG I played that combined my love of action games while putting me directly into the dungeon. For me it immersed me in the world even more than Ultima Underworld (which was also awesome). I also loved the more grounded fantasy. Just people and demons and squigglies (bad things that aren’t demons).
Starcraft – This is really the game that got me heavily into the RTS genre, and eventually I got a job making them.
City of Heroes – First MMO I really liked, primarily because it gave me a sense of real power. Most MMO’s you fought really tiny, unimpressive stuff early on, and the combat was very slow. I also love superheroes.
World of Warcraft – First MMO I played like it was a job.
Minecraft – Mostly heavily modded, but I actively avoid playing it now because when I do all other life events get put on hold, except maybe eating.
Honorable mentions: Pools of Radiance, Mechwarrior, Outlaws, Fallout 1-4, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, the new X-com games.
When did you first join Blizzard and in what capacity?
I joined in 2006 (January 2nd, an easy start date to remember) as the Lead Designer of Diablo 3. There was a small team of devs from Blizzard North, some very solid tech, and a lot of existing work, but it was my job to work with the team to decide what Diablo 3 was going to look like. My mandate was pretty broad. I was not required to do anything other than to figure out what the next Diablo should be, but I’m fairly pragmatic so we tried to pull forward as much content and technology as possible.
In your role what were some of the highlights? Lowlights?
Working at Blizzard is a blessing from a learning and possibility perspective. It made me a much better designer and leader. I got to work with a team that could accomplish pretty much anything I could imagine, and whenever we had a deadline, especially a public one, the team always came together and accomplished amazing things. I was so lucky to be able to spend time with the other Game Directors, who are some of the best and smartest people I know. Blizzard’s people really are top-notch in both talent and just flat out being wonderful people to know.
I always really enjoyed Blizzcon, especially the Q&A’s. I like talking about Diablo because it’s one of my favorite things, so doing it with thousands of people was pretty awesome. The Demon Hunter unveil trailer as well as the original announcement were also favorites.
Internally the first time we showed the game to the company with the ‘new’ art style was a big turning point. Before then we’d gotten good, but not ecstatic response when we showed the game internally. After we showed it with the new art style, which is pretty close to the look the game shipped with, it was like night and day. Everyone in the company seemed to buzz about what we were doing and the general feeling was we were on the right track.
Lowlights: I’m going to avoid the typical stuff. Everyone reading this hopefully knows that things like Error 37 and the Auction House sucked, and were unfortunate issues, but honestly those things were transitory compared to the longer term stresses.
Running a project for seven, nearly eight years, is grueling. There is a lot of time for self-doubt. Imposter syndrome was huge. From the day I started until the day I left I kept waiting for security to show up, tell me there had been a mistake, and escort me out.
As the Game Director you’re also the guy who has to say no…all the time…to everyone. Everyone has ideas, and lots of them are great, but not all are possible or compatible with the game being made. As a result you’re constantly crapping on people’s ideas, which doesn’t feel great, and feeds right back into the self-doubt stuff.
The truth was, though, if I quit then Diablo 3 might not have happened, and I couldn’t live with that, so I never doubted that I should continue.
What is the biggest misconception about being a Game director?
That it’s an all-powerful position. That you snap your fingers and everything moves in the direction you say it should move in. It’s not just making a game, it’s also inspiring and directing a large team, and balancing lots of priorities against one another. There are changes that some of the public asked for that I could have never gotten out of the team even if I wanted them. As Game Director you spend a lot of your time trying to herd everyone’s individual talents and instincts into a cohesive whole. You have to take advantage of the talents of the people you hire, and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
The people at Blizzard are stunningly talented and it’s really worth getting their input. They are amazing people, and can do amazing things, but if they are a square peg then you will spend a lot of time, and you will make them very unhappy, forcing them into a round hole, even if that round hole is really really really what you want. (As much as I knew and I tried not to make this mistake, at times I definitely did.) When you do this to your people you won’t get the best work out of them, and at Blizzard the best work is always what is needed.
Similar to this idea is that the game director designs everything, which is far from the truth. Game Directors often design less than any other designer on the team due to all the other pulls on their time. But ultimately as GD you are responsible for it all, so maybe that’s the same difference.
What goes into taking the idea of D3 and making it a reality? – this could be long form would just love to hear how it happened
Every game is different, and every team/leader has a different approach. For me my approach is: Brainstorm, Pillars, Prototype, Production, Polish.
When I started on Diablo 3 we had over a month of brainstorm meetings that the entire team was invited and encouraged to attendto. We discussed every possible topic we could think of. This was the chance for everyone to get their ideas in, and for me to take the temperature of the kind of game the team wants to make. During this time we also studied and played other games in the genre, especially Diablo 1 and 2. I spent countless hours dissecting Diablo 2 in particular, right down to playing through multiple times with a stopwatch so I could get an average of how quickly different kinds of items showed up, how often new monsters were encountered, frequency of environment changes, etc.
Pillars is the point where you lay down the most important core values you live by. Diablo 3 had seven, and I’ve covered them in the past, but they focus on things like replayability, itemization, and co-op. The goal is to provide guide posts to make future decisions by, and give the team an idea of what we’re making. I’m a big believer in a small number of project-wide pillars, as well as very important systems, like class design, having their own subset of pillars.
Prototype is taking a small slice of the game and building it to prove concepts and allow you to iterate until you ‘get it’ and it’s exciting and fun. Production is once you ‘get it’ you start building it in earnest. Polish is once you’ve got a lot of stuff built you play and improve it.
At most companies each one of those steps is chronological. When I was at Blizzard, prototyping, production, and polish weare repeated over and over, because we were willing to throw out ideas we weren’t happy with. Two good examples: we threw out a lot of environment and character art when we changed art style mid-project, and I can’t tell you how many times we re-did the skill system.
The whole goal of the interview was to peel back the veil of Blizzard and hear the real human stories behind them. Jay opens up about the Auction house and revitalizing the franchise in our next part.