Diablo 3 Post-mortem with Jay Wilson Part one


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.

 

 

Comments

You're not logged in but can still post comments. Register or login to remember your details.
  1. great guy , pitty the (D3)haters wanted this guy gone !!

    • One can be a freakin’ amazing, great guy and still make a shitty game. It’s a pity you can’t see that.

      • Oh come on. It was still a hugely successful game. People just like to shit on it because it’s “their” game and he didn’t make it exactly how they wanted it. Grow up. He made a very good game but sadly it wasn’t what most people spent the last decade hoping for. And I guarantee d3 is better than anything that brevik twat will ever make.

        • i so agree !!!!!
          +1

        • No, people don’t like to “shit” on it because it’s “their” game. It was not “hugely successful.” It isn’t anywhere near as good a game as Diablo 2 was/is, but it has gotten a great deal better in the last couple of years of patches. It was widely disliked by many millions of people who expressed their legitimate concerns on the forums and on this site, and waving your hand dismissing their valid points (like that “erg” moron) also on this site (who has to be all of maybe 15 years old and who also probably hasn’t even played Diablo 2 in his life) is really shitty to do to a lot of people just because you disagree with it.

  2. It is hard to meke on Blizzard South a Blizzard North game. Jay did a great job there. Even D3 could have been a better game.

    I like this:
    “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.”

    Wait a few months Jay and I reveal the next successor of x-com series (not that Firaxis’s x-com is bad, bat is far from the original). We have some work on the site and its ready to go.

  3. I find it really strange that the final art style was a hit internally. When I first saw it my heart sank with disappointment, so intensely that I still feel a bit upset about it. I played Diablo and Diablo II like a job for 10 years and really wanted a continuation. Diablo III still feels like it has nothing to do with the original series in theme and mechanics.

  4. Great Interview. I cannot help it but to like Jay as a person. I think he is a great person. I profoundly dislike how Diablo 3 turned out because it basically removed all the stuff I loved so much about Diablo 2 Lod. The game doesn’t feel like a “Diablo” game to me, or at least not nearly close enough to how a Diablo game feels.

    I really see the whole story of D3 and Jay etc. from a different perspective now. I think Jay Tried hard, but his vision did not align with the vision of Diablo 2 Lod people that LOVED the game from A to Z. I also believe that since D3 was a successor to Diablo 2 LOD, I think it was fair to expect the game to pick up where D2Lod left off, from itemization, map-randomness, character-development, mechanics-complexity, depth, replay-ability, story etc.

    I think Jay wanted to Re-Invent and revolutionize Diablo 3 too much and way too much of D2Lod was lost forever in the process. I think it was unnecessary to stray so far “from where the apple fell”. Improvements and new additions are absolutely great, but they should build upon what made the previous game (D2LOD) so awesome. Instead they decided to scrap everything from Diablo 2 LOD, absolutely everything.

    The only thing in Diablo 3 that reminds me of the previous games (to a very limited extend)are:

    -Skeleton King MiniBoss (Reference to D1 Boss)
    -Cain (yet he was killed by a butterfly in D3, a iconic character destroyed in the worst possible manner)
    -Barbarian class (yet is very different from D2Lod)

    That is it, nothing in the game reminds me of anything from D2Lod…

    I miss in particular:

    – Map-Randomization
    – Story that is very loosely allowing my fantasy to go wild. it should give me a setting, that’s it. In D2 the simple and light story was created to accompany the already created game. In D3 however, the story dictated how the game was being made (big mistake)
    – Town with a fire burning in the center
    – Town people NPC’s that go about their life while I don’t interact with them
    – Cain for Item Identification
    – Magic Find (This is A BIG ONE for me – I love to wear MF gear or boost my MF by any means and make sacrifices in order to have better MF chances)
    – Unidentified items, where I cannot tell what item it is until I actually ID it
    – D2 type affixes and itemization in general (this is a HUGE ONE for me)
    – Character-Development
    – Skill-Trees where I can allocate plenty points into skills of my choosing
    – Items with +Skills to allow my skills be boosted beyond Skill-point-Allocation Cut-Offs
    – Charms
    – Jewels (including Rainbow facets)
    – Runes
    – Runewords that use white/grey items as a base making almost every item worth checking out
    – Potential BIS Rare items that rolled godly
    – 50% character power comes from Character Level and Skill-Tree (making gear less “Must-Have”, and thus easing the impact of slow godly-item acquisition, which means the “Journey” itself is endgame and highly enjoyable)
    – 6-8 player games
    – D2 classes while adding new classes on-top
    – Open-World-Unregulated PVP with permanent Opt-Out option for those that dislike PVP
    – Ears from slain heroes 🙂
    – Matt Uelmen Music and ambience (This is A BIG ONE for me)
    – Item Rarity and drop-rate of D2Lod with slightly better chances for High Runes than it was in D2Lod
    – Set-Items as an mid-journey alternative until you find runes and godly end-game uniques
    – 1-99 Leveling scheme
    – Quests that give skill-points, resistances and attributes etc.
    – Diablo walks the earth…
    – Hellfire Torch
    – Annihilus
    – And last but not least, Trading… but without an AH and especially WITHOUT a RMAH.

    On top of all that, I think the problem for me is that they made the game WAY too easy and too Noob-Friendly. Gear rains from the sky, everyone gets to be World of Warcraft level 70 instantly, there are no godly items and objects reserved for real dedicated gamers (Torch, Annihilus, Godly Runes and Runewords etc). D2Lod did it great, the godly endgame items and objects were not necessary to beat the game, but they were the perfect carrot on a stick aimed at dedicated players that play a lot. I had to do MF runs just ONE more time… because MAYBE some godly rune or item would drop… In D3 there is no such thing… Everything is thrown at you from the very beginning and finding things is boring and saddening because you know youre one step closer to stop playing the game because the loot hunt is happening WAY to fast and there is no “Long Journey”. I play every season and I am fully endgame geared within the first 24 hours and after 48 hours of play time I am done, because there is nothing worth doing anymore, the “Journey” is over by then.

    • Ears from slain heroes still got some +1000

    • Take your head out of your ass and learn that D3 is not D2 LOD and your nagging will go away !
      i’m sure that D3 was the same then D2 but with better graphics you would nagg and whine about that !
      get a life and grow up !

  5. Jay is not a bad person. He’s just an average person and an average game designer at best that can easily be manipulated by his co-workers. I think his IQ is not that great. To make matters worse he doesn’t have the instincts of a great artist or a great designer. But he can be a good team player. He just needs the right direction. Blood, Warhammer and Company of Heroes are good examples of that.

    But who am I to judge? I’m just a random person that has never met the guy. Perhaps I’m wrong but the end product and his public comments create this profile for him.

    I have nothing against him. I just don’t like what Blizzard has become. I hope Kotick will do something about their stupid culture.

    • Yep, I was thinking about the average IQ when he was praising the other Blizzard employees and laughing.

      Spot on with the artistic instincts, Jay seems too focused on rules and order, being clinical. He’s afraid to follow his heart/instincts. Therefore D3 feels soulless.

      • I kind of always felt that way, just like you guys describe. But with all this said, I think its important to accept and embrace that this world is made interesting by creating many kind of people and many kind of minds.

        Although no one has said it directly, I don’t think it is wise to think that one form of life is “better” than another. I think there is a place for all of us in this world, and the extreme diversity and diverse levels of capability among our species is a beautiful thing, even if it makes it harder for some to deal with “lesser evils”. 😉

        With intellect, comes the ability to grasp or develop concepts and draw parallels more easily than others are able to. Also, at some point on our journey to wisdom, we should realize that in reality we know nothing in the grand scheme and that there is more out there to learn and experience than a billion life-times are able to assimilate. So I think we might be wiser interpreting diversity of individuals and perceptions about other’s intellect in a very careful fashion, as intelligence and capabilities come in many forms and shapes.

  6. “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.”

    And yet D3 as released had incredibly rare legendary items that were complete shit when you found them.

    I remember with my first Wizard, that I found only 2 legendaries by the time I got to Act 1 inferno (where I promptly hit a brick wall).

  7. The pillar idea sounds great on paper but clearly wasn’t executed. I think why there’s so much disdain for D3 is precisely that these ‘core values’ were completely missed. At least Jay came off human in this interview and not an arrogant prick as in the infamous ‘f that loser’ comment.

    • He’s addressed it before at a game developer conference. He had like 7 pillars (or maybe 5?) for Diablo 3, things like “visceral action” and “powerful heroes”. I think he conclusion is that they nailed the action one, half-delivered on the powerful heroes, and then failed to really meet the others.

  8. Permaximum – “I just don’t like what Blizzard has become. I hope Kotick will do something about their stupid culture.”
    Lol, what? I think you might be calling upon the wrong hero.

    Top_Commander – I agree with much of what you said, but wow that was a lot specific stuff. Why not just say “I want an exact D2 remake with upgraded graphics, plus new classes and items” to save some time? Just kidding I get it, but yes, in a bunch of key areas D3 failed to capture the fun of D2:LOD.
    -PVP in it’s weird casual glory, but also hardcore tournaments, or low level dueling.
    -Trading barter-style with it’s personal touch. Trading up and up until you get that one thing you really needed.
    -Magic Find!!! Can’t stop, won’t stop! Shako, chance guards, war travs. All these godly items that exist only so that you can try to find other godly items. Such a brutally awesome feedback loop.
    -An actual out of game social interface and letting me pick what game I’m joining. Downsides? Yes, but I’ve always felt really disconnected in D3.
    -Power distribution, just like you said. Character skill points filled a huge gap between having all the perfect items. Any color item could have a use at any point in the game.

    K, I’m done. Oh, and George probably already did his research and knew this interview was happening 2 years ago. In fact, he probably did an interview with Jay Wilson but kept it to himself all this time. 😉

    • Haha I know, a very specific list indeed 🙂

      I don’t want an exact copy of D2.

      If I would be in charge of making D3 and Blizzard would say “Listen we want to capture the magic of D1 and D2, but we also want to make a new iteration of D3, how would you do it?”

      Here it goes:

      -Potions spam removed and replaced with potions like D3, except no cooldowns, and instead potions deplete one third every time you use it. You have 3 full “drinks” before it is depleted. It takes 7-10 seconds to replenish one third of the bottle. This means in encounters where I really need to drink mana or Life potions I get to use up to 3 drinking-instances for a maximal recovery and then need to wait until the potion is refilled by one third, to have one further full recovery drinking-instance. It should also allow you to drink even when the potion has only recovered 5 or 10% of the potion, but the yield should be accordingly and only recover 10-20% of my life or mana when used at that moment.

      – Gold is either auto-pickup or the piles that drop are much less frequent, but larger instead, and then we still have to pick it up ourselves, but the frequency of having to pick up gold should be much less frequent than gold drops in D3.

      – Stamina removed. Characters run by default, but movement speed is not as ridiculous fast as it is in D3 (I am talking about endgame geared movement speed of parties, its just ridiculous)

      – Hostile PVP is removed and every player has to accept a duel in the open world. Players can also turn off PVP entirely in the options, so no one bothers them because no one can challenge you through the challenge system.

      – Trading is improved by adding an ingame-Trading platform, that only allows you to trade items for items. Further, Item-Rarity-Classifications exist, and the trading platform detects the rarity level of the item you want to offer for trade, and views items of other traders that match the rarity classification. Imagine it like placing a shako in the trading window, and the trading-house matches you with other players that offer an IST rune or Arachnid-Mesh-Spiderweb-Sash (while assuming all these items have the same rarity-classifications, which is determined by drop-chances). Further, open trading exists in-game that is unregulated, but more dangerous, so players can either use the safe trading-house or they can use open-trade in-game. To use the safe trading-house, you must go into the game-world and kill monsters to find loot, and the loot you find, determines what other items you can trade for in the trading-house. Items that are traded through the open trading in-game, become account bound after the first trade. When an item first drops, and you trade it in-game with some player, it becomes account bound to that player. However, if you use the trading-house, the item remains tradeable.

      – Rune drop chances, especially for HR’s would be slightly increased. Also the up-cubing for HRs would be improved by reducing the requirements for up-converting runes (only 2 runes of a certain kind are necessary from the start, to up-convert to the next highest rune)

      – I would copy everything else from D2:LoD in terms of itemization and affix design.

      – Classes would not have a “main-stat” like they do in D3. Further, all gear would be universally usable by all classes and almost all builds. Some Class-Specific items would exist for certain classes like the Sorceress etc. but the majority of items would be universally usable by all classes and most builds.

      – I would create D2 classes as well as D1 classes and create one or two new classes. The majority of players in D3 never played D1 or D2 so Blizzards argument “we wanted to do something new” does not work, because for the majority of new players, recreating D1 and D2 classes would be something NEW, since they didnt play D1 and D2 and there is a 12+ year long gap between D2Lod and D3. Further, this would also please D1 and D2 fans.

      – Talisman would be implemented to hold charms and free up our inventory.

      – Shared-Stash would be implemented (To be used by any of your characters)

      – World much bigger than D2 and maps are all randomly generated, so no map looks the same when you play it. The tile size is very small, so the generation of a map is done by a lot of “puzzle-pieces” and thus truly feels random. I would not use “huge tiles” for map-randomization as it doesnt appear random enough when playing.

      – 8 Player games

      – Rest everything like D2Lod, except more new Runewords and new unique charms, and unique items.

      – Cosmetics Shop implemented where people can purchase transmogs and Follower-Skins. Plenty other things that i wont list, but none of them should benefit in gameplay beyond visual aspects.

      – Developers continuously create “Small Tile puzzle pieces” according to act and zone, and add them through patches, so the Map-Generating mechanism has more and more potential tiles to pick from to generate random maps, the older the game gets.

      – Expansions bring at least one new class, new tile-sets, New globally-usable items, skills, Quests, and various mechanical features etc.

  9. Diablo 3 should have been made by higher quality designers who understood D2. It was inordinately stupid and arrogant to not stick with the formula for why the series was popular. These Wow developers made D3 into a version of Gauntlet.

    • You are exactly right. The people who just absolutely ADORE D3 on this chat area are the same people who most likely never even fully completed a single run through of Diablo 2. They literally could have just continued the storyline, put in the same D2 classes into D3 with new skills, builds, etc, made new uniques (not LEGENDARIES, and not ORANGE colored schemes)and updated the graphics engine and boom, D3 would have been 9.5/10 in the eyes of millions.

  10. Excellent interview. Can’t wait for the other parts 🙂

  11. Okay i just want to point out i am really really really fucking sick of all these diehard fucking veterans of diablo crying and crying and crying over the years about how D3 isnt D2. Im gonna say right now that if you are one of these jack offs you arent a true fucking diablo fan, simple. I loved all three of the games and i still play D3 to this day. Yes D3 was widely accepted as shit because it was a shock to everyones system. What do you expect from Blizzard to make an exact copy of the a game that was created with old tech over a decade ago? They had to start with a different approach and i just have to add that over the years they have really improved D3 so much and i feel that it isnt THE best Diablo game but it is up to scratch. Blizzard really are trying to make amends for all their shitty pissed off ungrateful spiteful fanbase.

  12. First of all its just game/fun not a matter of life or death, I have played since diablo 1 and still play D3 and in all these years peopel complain about everything, D2 was great but many even complained about this also, we want better graphics, more items, more skilss ect ect. In expansion LOD the same peopel again cry out loud we want this and we want that, the D3 arrived and still the same negative comments from everybody and then ROS still want changes, now suddenly the same dudes who say D2 was crap want the the crap back, allmost everybodt want AH closed (both houses) and now most want AH back and now we are waiting for Necro pack and god damm it even before its released dudes want Druid instead of Necro Sorry guys every game was good imo and there has been changes yes, its impossible to satisfied every Diablo player world wide. If you dont like the game then stop playing. This site has been a forum for Diablo haters if you dont like the game then again stop playing instead of call all there still like the game for idiots , jerks noobs ect. ect sorry for my English btw

Comments are closed.