Diablo 3 Post-mortem with Jay Wilson Part 4

Our interview with Jay Wilson, Former Gamer Director of Diablo 3, continues today focusing on PVP, skills, talisman, and what happened along the way.

PVP- What happened here? I have yet to attend a Blizzcon but I heard good things about the demo that was seen early on.

This is so hard to explain, but I’ll do my best without writing a novel about it. 🙂

There were two opinions of what we should do with D3 PVP. The first was allow structured dueling of some form, but not try to make it a serious, balanced, competitive mode. The other opinion was to try and make an e-sport. The team generally fell behind the idea of making something closer to an e-sport. I don’t think that was even a conscious decision, it’s just what sounded cool to them, and they ran with it. Within the team the mode was pretty popular, but outside of the team the reception was a lot more mixed, and for those of us within the company with a lot of experience making PVP, we were very concerned, myself included. Every game I’d made before D3 had a serious competitive mode. Dawn of War was played in the World Cyber Games for two or three years, so it wasn’t my first experience with PvP. What I saw when I looked into the future was the team receiving overwhelming pressure from the audience and the company to turn the mode we were building into an e-sport, with all the fanfare and attention that brings.

Diablo and Diablo 2 were released in the wild west time of gaming. E-sports wasn’t a thing then. PVP abilities didn’t generally have spreadsheets applied to them on forums to determine optimal ability usage, or if they did these things weren’t adopted by the general population. This all became a reality after D2 was released, several years into its release.

I believed, and still believe to this day, that a hyper competitive e-sport would have been one of the worst things that could happen to Diablo 3, and would have been almost unavoidable with the direction we were going. Remember when I mentioned that the Game Director is not all powerful? One of the examples is that it is near impossible to resist the tide of public and company pressure when applied to something like this. The result would have been outcries and demands for game balance in a game that ‘should’ be all about crazy and insane impossibilities. It’s my opinion that Diablo works best when it embraces a very whimsical approach to game balance. That’s one of the reasons that the stepped difficulty system works so well in Diablo, because when players get overwhelmingly ridiculously powerful they can just keep cranking up the knob until the game is challenging again. This kind of approach to power creates wild imbalances that can be corrected from patch to patch, but they are generally corrected with a hammer (everyone gets a new uber set!), not the scalpel PVP needs.

Long and short of it, I was convinced that a competitive PVP mode would demand game balance that would at best harm, and at worst ruin, the fun of the single-player/co-op scramble for crazy power that is the heart of Diablo. It would be the constant downer that would curtail ability powers, restrict item and set design, and generally run the show despite being played by a minority of the player base (some might argue that if it were good PVP everyone would play it, but that’s just not true. Even very popular PVP games almost never see a majority of their players playing PVP if they have strong single player. A general guideline is that 25% play PVP if a strong single player is available). Single and co-op were by far the priority for Diablo 3, so we made the hard decision to remove PVP rather than risk that harm. It would have been easier, both from an amount of work and a criticism point of view, to leave it in. Certainly some players would have preferred we did, as for some PVP is the priority. I just didn’t, and still don’t, believe that it’s the priority for Diablo.

If I could have a do-over I would have encouraged the team to implement a dueling system for core release, and that might have been it. We had ideas for some team-based player vs. monster vs. player type stuff that might have worked, but it never got a head of steam.

Wizard melting cultists with Disintegrate 4

What skills were the most problematic to balance/create?

Um, that’s really hard to remember. Seismic Slam was hard because it was the first FX heavy ability, and involved ground FX. Originally we actually had modeled terrain that broke apart, but that sounds cooler than it actually was. The look at ship was far better. Seven-sided strike was mechanically difficult to work out. Combo abilities on the Monk were more time intensive due to needing a new system for combos and being more animation intensive. Disintegrate (which I still to this day can’t seem to spell correctly without auto-check) was the first ability that required a unique death effect, which spawned a large system that got applied across tons of abilities. It’s hard to remember balance issues, mainly because compared to implementation they’re almost always easier to deal with, since the answer 99% of the time is to tweak the math, whereas when an ability looks boring the answer could be one of many things.
Also keep in mind, because of runes it was more like Diablo 3 had hundreds of abilities on our classes, instead of dozens. Some rune changes were simple, but many radically changed abilities. As a result, ability design is a bit of a blur in my head. 🙂

What happened to the talisman?

Short answer: we didn’t think it was fun.
Long answer: there is a tricky balancing act when doing class and item design. There is a point I call the ‘spreadsheet moment’ where the variables have become so complicated that the average player can’t make a decision about their character or an item in their head. They require a spreadsheet, not for perfect optimization, but just to get an idea of what they’re doing. I’ve been known to map out abilities for a game I love in a spreadsheet for optimization. As a designer I want that level of depth in a game I make, but there is a point where you dump so much math on a player that they’re no longer capable of just making a decision and running with it because it’s what they like. When that point occurs we all portal back to town and alt-tab to the internet so someone who is better at math can make the decision for us.
Gamers are smart. They can feel when the math has gotten so complex they can’t process it in their heads, and the reaction is to assume that their ‘must’ be a clear correct singular decision. We desire that correct decision because humans like to apply order to things that seem chaotic. When we’re that sure of a singular right way to do something, no one wants to be the dummy who did it the “wrong” way. Unfortunately when players enter this mindset their no longer making the choice they want to make, for the sake of fun, but rather the choice they feel they have to make for the sake of being right.
I think in the past whenever I talk like this there have been some players who think I’m wanting to dumb things down, or maybe that I don’t think they’re capable, or that I’m otherwise advocating an overly-simplistic game, or some similar argument. There are definitely a group of players out there that thrive on maximum complexity. I love those players, because they’re the ones that find holes in games (my own and others) that need to be fixed. They’re the ones I turn to as a player when I don’t have the time or mind to figure something out. They’re very valuable, and Blizzard design philosophy has always valued them, but you only have to look at Blizzard games to also see that they’re broad appeal is in finding a way to make a game for those players that doesn’t intimidate the player who doesn’t want to dive quite as deep. We sometimes refer to those players as “casual”, but I think that term is loaded. I like to think of them more as “busy”. 🙂
The talisman added a layer of complexity onto what was already becoming a complex system. Items, gems, enchants, abilities, passives, runes…it’s a lot of systems. We added several more item slots over Diablo 2 as well. Add to that, the talisman as it was originally conceived was Tetris-like in complexity. That game, while fun in a vacuum, didn’t sit well alongside the 200 MPH action of Diablo 3. No one wanted to stop to do it. The system kept getting simpler and simpler in an effort for the team to like it that it finally reached a point where it was so simple that the originally envisioned fun mini-game was gone, yet it still added tons of math complexity. Ultimately the best judge of a system sometimes is how the team feels when you take it away. Most of the time there is protest. People like features, especially ones that are already implemented. With the talisman, the team was just relieved when it was gone, and that told us loud and clear that removing it was the right decision.

Hostility- Was there ever any talk of allowing players to attack one another within the game world like in D2?

No. Not serious talk, or talk encouraged by me. I expressly forbid it in the core pillars of Diablo 3. Hostility in D2 hostility features were so neutered that it was hardly worth doing. Once you were experienced you never fell for it. I’m not saying it was never fun, but when it was fun it was an exception, not the rule. That’s a small bonus for the major downside: players, especially new players, don’t want to play with strangers, and the numbers on players per game in Diablo 2 backed this up. When you can make a private game what’s the point of hostility? If you’re going to do something, go all the way: Dark Souls or WoW PvP servers are all hostility done well.

Our priority was co-op. From day one I wanted ‘every’ resistance or bad experience that could prevent players from playing together to be removed. Some may call this a carebear approach, but I call it picking a horse. I’m a big believer in you do something all the way, you do it right, or not at all if doing it conflicts with something more important. Co-op is one of the best things about Diablo. It deserves to get priority. It deserves to be the best damn co-op game in the world, and it can’t be that if you hold it back with a lot of other conflicting priorities that create exception cases of fun that aren’t the rule.

I see the next question is about Hardcore, so I’ll mention I think that’s a good example: lots of people wanted us to kill Hardcore internally. It creates big customer service problems and costs. It has lots of potential bad experiences for players. We had to create a whole separate auction house and player economy, which also doubled the potential storage space required per player for something that we knew only a small subset of players would do. I don’t remember any argument ever budging me an inch from the decision to do HC. It’s core Diablo DNA in my opinion, and most importantly, it doesn’t harm any other core goal of the game.


I cut the next question due to it not leading into anything, but still found it interesting to hear that my favorite mode almost didn’t make it in! We finish the interview with insight as to what Jay is doing now, and reflections on his time with D3.




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  1. So many problems with Jay’s replies but don’t feel like analyzing every single one. I’ll pick on this: “…players, especially new players, don’t want to play with strangers”. Totally fair Jay, but then offer an offline mode. You removed an east coast server and took ages to address connectivity at launch. Blizzard have resources to load-balance or deploy additional hardware, god knows enough people purchased D3 to justify it. In the end, we were left with lag and a plethora of errors at the most critical time. Yes, we hold Blizzard/Activision to a higher standard before the sympathizers begin to criticize. D3 has always felt like the neglected bastard child in terms of a strong technical foundation and adherence to said franchise ‘pillars’.

    • That comment might be out of context, it was in reference to including a hostility option. Jay was mentioning how it could be a deterrent to playing with others, not as a universal truth about the playing population.

  2. Great job on this interview, Xanth!

    Jay has been so slammed around in the various Diablo communities, I was surprised to see him this open to a lengthy interview. This has been enlightening, and I always find stories from behind the scenes of game development fascinating.

  3. “Long and short of it, I was convinced that a competitive PVP mode would demand game balance that would at best harm, and at worst ruin, the fun of the single-player/co-op scramble for crazy power that is the heart of Diablo. It would be the constant downer that would curtail ability powers, restrict item and set design, and generally run the show despite being played by a minority of the player base”

    We have this now. It’s called Greater Rifts.

  4. If “It deserves to be the best damn co-op game in the world” then why can you only play with 4 people??

  5. In short, Jay Wilson was the wrong person to Direct a Diablo game IMO. He replaced Diablo “Pillars” with “Jay-Wilson-Pillars”. RIP Diablo. After the success of Diablo 2 LOD and the perception the game has created among Diablo Fans, one does not simply go on to change everything, just because it appears as the “right thing to do” in ones mind.

    I don’t think Blizzard is capable of creating a real Diablo game anymore. That realization really sucks :/

    The only chance for ever getting a real Diablo game that picks up where D2LOD left off, is when the future Director will be an actual D2 Player that loved the game from A to Z, while adjusting and fixing some minor aspects. (removing stamina potions, fixing potion-spam, aka small quality of life fixes)

  6. Honestly i have to chime in after 4 parts…

    This guy is so full of sh…. its not even funny. He has no clue what he was doing and whoever hired this guy to direct Diablo 3 should be ashamed of themselves.. but who knows maybe he bs’d his way to the job as well.

    Everything was “soo cool” or “we got this really cool new feature coming out” or “we got really COOL new character features” S..t..f….u………

  7. Great job on the interview, and I am not sure why everybody in the comments is so negative. D2 wasn’t perfect at launch, it took an expansion and major patches to get even close to the game most of us remember so fondly (and it still has major game design flaws and is plagued with bots and negative experiences). D3 is a distinctly different game that is still “diablo”-y. Some of the decisions they / Jay made were great, some have proven to be wrong with new patches, but I am glad he was involved and it’s fascinating to hear about the design challenges and how they thought about different things. He has no reason to lie about their player-centric and experience-centric approach, he’s not a Blizzard employee anymore! Take your tinfoil hats off, witch hunters!

    • What makes you think we are wrong and “they” are right, or vice versa? People that played D1 and especially D2LOD extensively, know that D3 is a failure in basically every possible way, in terms of “Diablo-Mechanics”, Loot, Character-Development, Longevity, Replayability, Music, overall Feel. Basically everything that matters in a Diablo game IMO.

      D2 wasn’t perfect at launch? Maybe, but the fundamental core-game was so solid, people loved the game regardless, don’t forget that. A game can be exceptionally well designed with a Base game made of “marble”, and then small issues and bugs etc do not make the game “bad”. But D3 does not have a Marble-Grade core, D3 was bad at launch, I mean… really bad. You could level 1-60, and that was it. Maps were static and people could not even change acts. Legendary items were identical to Rare items in every single way, except that the item-name was in a different color. The next issue was, that after reaching Hell-Difficulty, people did not find the necessary items in order to progress into Inferno Difficulty. This was a fundamental difficulty-design-flaw, that wasn’t tested properly before launch.

      Diablo 3 did not have the fundamental Marble-Grade Base-Game that D2 had, so all the issues were only Issues on top of fundamental design flaws. It was (and still is) a true Clusterfuck. All the issues above, have caused people to only “find” upgrades on the AH, and the AH was blamed for why Loot hunt isn’t satisfying in D3, while entirely covering up the fact that the Itemization in D3 is fundamentally flawed and rotten at the very core and outwards.

      Blizzard has added blankets upon blankets to cover up the fundamentally rotten core of D3. They keep adding more and more until the Rotten core is not visible on first glance. They also either truly believe that D3 is amazing and designed masterfully, or they simply cannot afford to admit its a huge failure and must keep adding “blankets” on top of all of this to keep the game alive. D3 is probably too big to fail, and Blizzard knows it, so I guess they do the “right thing” I suppose, from a business and franchise perspective at least, by trying to keep it alive and pretend its all TOP-Notch.

      • I didn’t say I’m right and others are wrong, just that I didn’t understand the vitriol. Your perspective is appreciated, but you are comparing D3 vanilla’s problems with d2 LOD patch 1.10+… Not a fair comparison in my opinion. Have you played since Vanilla? The game is night and day different now. I know this is d2.net, but your complaints are about systems that were changed literally years ago. You should really come try D3 again if you haven’t played since the time when your observations were accurate.

        • Yes, I am still playing D3. I play every season on launch night for 24-48 hours before reaching between 600 and 800 paragon, just to hit that moment when you realize that there is no endgame and there is no point in pushing to become stronger, because the difficulty is not capped, so you never get to feel powerful. I kind of enjoy the race every new season, and the first 4-8 hours are best, but by that point I am fully end-game geared, and it gets incredibly boring incredibly fast.

          In D2, the whole journey from 1 to 99 is “endgame”. Skill-Trees and Skill-Points mean that you can use average or crappy gear, and still advance in power by leveling up by playing through difficulties and complete the game on the highest difficulty. If you keep playing, you keep leveling up and become stronger. You will find godly items, and those items allow you to farm Bosses and conduct MF runs more comfortably and more efficiently. These godly items are the reward for investing time and effort into the game. The whole journey to being fully end-game geared is part of the “end-game” in Diablo 2. Once you reach that point, you will keep doing MF Runs to gear your Alternate characters, to gear up your PVP characters, and to keep pushing at the final levels from 90 to 99. There is also trading, and finding ultra-rare items enables you to trade for ultra-rare items you did not find, but still want or need them. I personally think that HRs are a little too rare, but only by a very little bit. Otherwise, D2 is amazing to this day. It’s just that the controls and handling feels very outdated for today’s standards. I played a Sorc and a Paladin in the current D2 season to level 90 and 92 respectively.

      • It never ceases to amaze me the amount of time people spend bashing this game. Why do people allow this to consume their life having to rant on forums how bad a game they claim they dont play?

  8. Agree with @DeusEx. Jay exhibits a very ‘can’t do spirit’ evidenced by all his answers regarding missing features or broken mechanics. He lacks the creativity necessary to address fundamental problems, perhaps partly answering why he left the team. That being said, I don’t quite know how to measure ‘passion’ for game design from an HR perspective. Someone rolled the dice giving him this leadership role and clearly failed. If any lesson is to be learned is that Blizzard ought to vet these prospective positions much more critically, albeit difficult in this case with the dissolution of former team Blizzard North. Patiently awaiting more geriatric replies from Jay to put me to sleep…

  9. It’s weird that Jay seems to think a PvP mode would pollute the single player experience.

    Just do what Starcraft 2 did – which came out before Diablo 3 – split the single player experience from the PvP experience. You could have the items and skills in SP and the same items and skills in MP, but in MP they have different stats / abilities than they do in single player.

    Its more work, but you end up with something that people really want – e-sports D3 multiplayer, which seemed to be really well received at the E3s it was demo’d at.

    A better choice for a feature than the Auction House was.

    Also, there’s nothing requiring that the SP characters be the same as the ones used in PvP. For the initial release, the multiplayer could have been like it was at E3, where you started the game with set characters and equipment options. Would that be ideal? No, but it leaves obvious scope for an expansion to let you carry through your SP character into PvP, using the partitioned abilities / items idea I outlined above.

    If it seems a bit expensive, then I’m sure some sort of micropayment or nominal monthly subscription cost (like $5) would have helped ease that problem.

  10. Its so good that there is almost no stupid pvp in this great game
    you don’t need shitty pvp in every game to be a good game
    pvp is only good for fps crap or car (combat)games or those block things , pvp shit should never be in an (a)rpg game , NEVER !!!!!!!
    RPG is all about coop !

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