Diii.net was able to obtain an exclusive interview, Saturday afternoon at Blizzcon, with Julian Love, D3’s Lead Technical Artist, and Kevin Martens, the Lead Content Artist. I wrote most of the questions for this one, was able to ask almost everything on my list, and unlike most of the other group fansite interviews and public Q&A sessions, I didn’t ask any questions that could have been answered by a glance at the wiki, or by playing the Blizzcon demo for 30 seconds. *cough*
Issues covered include act boss confrontations, why they revealed the Monk this year, end game item balance, the themes and locations of each act, how the cinematics will be presented, art direction evolution, and more. Click through to read the full transcript.
These questions and answers are not a direct transcript, since they were reconstructed from extensive notes. The actual video interview will be posted later this week.
Lead Technical Artist Julian Love.
Lead Content Artist Kevin Martens.
(Julian worked at Blizzard North before moving down to Blizzard Irvine as part of the Diablo 3 team, and he actually recognized Flux from his visits to Blizzard North back in the early 00s.)
Diii.net: Why did you choose to reveal the Monk this year? Was there some debate re: the Monk vs. the other unannounced class?
Kevin: It was largely chance that we developed and revealed them in the order we did. We did the Wizard last year and that was a ranged, magical class. So this year we thought the Monk, as the game’s second melee class, would be a nice change. The Monk is a good contrast from the Barbarian, our real tank class. The Barbarian can’t move as fast as the Monk, and he’s much tougher. The Monk does as much damage as the Barbarian, but he’s not as tough or durable. He has to keep moving to keep from being dominated, but if he moves right he can dominate. This was the right time to reveal the second melee class.
Diii.net: Besides the Monk, what was another new feature that you were interested to see how the fans reacted to?
Kevin: The randomness of the game. We showed some desert areas this year, and they’re very large areas with lots of different things to do, and different monsters to fight. We really increased the randomness in those areas, as compared to the smaller dungeon playable at Blizzcon last year. The placement of the adventures and quests is much more random, and since the same missions can spawn in different areas with different monsters, that adds a lot of variety and replayability. We’re curious to see how the fans explore and what they like in this build.
Julian: I’d like to add that we’re careful about the variety in Diablo 3. We think that’s one area of contrast to D2. In this game we don’t just do randomness for the sake of randomness. We don’t just drop in random art tiles, for instance. The randomization in D3 promotes a higher level of gameplay.
Diii.net: We’re curious about the overall item balance and design theory of the game. What do you plan to be the best type of items, long term? In Diablo 2 now Runewords and Uniques dominate; what’s the plan in D3? Uniques, sets, rares, of player created items?
Kevin: We’ll have all those types of items in D3. Rares, sets, uniques, and more. And we also have runes that go into skills, for more variety there. At this point we’re not sure what the most popular or valuable items will turn out to be. We’ll tweak that during internal testing and see what shakes loose in the beta in the future. Way in the future. Elements of the economy could change drastically over time. Usually we can predict what the players will like and find valuable, but not always. We’re sometimes surprised by what becomes popular.
Diii.net: Speaking of the beta test, what’s the date on that? Can you give us any loose estimate?
Kevin: We’re still working on content and doing a lot of iterating. It’s hard to know when the game is ready for testing, since just because something is in the game doesn’t mean it’s good enough to ship. The Blizzard secret is endless iteration. Go over and over until something is perfect. How any given feature works with other features, classes, and all the content. We never know exactly where we are in the process since we’re working on everything at once. Julian, how do you describe when we’re done?
Julian: We know we’re ready when everyone is spending their time playing instead of working. That means it’s time to ship.
Diii.net: And how long will that be?
Kevin: (Losing patience.) It’s indeterminate.
Diii.net: I’m curious to hear more about the big bosses in the game. The only one that’s been seen is the Siegebreaker, and Jay Wilson said that he wasn’t even an Act Boss. So what does an act boss look like? What will an encounter of that sort be like for players?
Kevin: Players will know they’re up against a big boss when they have to change their gameplay style. You won’t be able to just charge in and keep using the same tactics you use against a group of Fallen. You have to be more careful against a big boss. A tank character can’t just stand and tank as he’s used to. New strategy will be required. We want to make bosses interesting and powerful. They should be a challenge and be varied in what they require of all classes and abilities, as well as from parties. We want to make bosses more interesting than in the previous Diablo games. We look forward to showing them off, but we can’t talk about any specifics yet.
Diii.net: When Siegebreaker dies in the WWI gameplay movie, he spawns about a thousand skeletons from his corpse. Is that the sort of thing we’ll see from big bosses? Multi-stage events?
Kevin: Some may be multistage. Some don’t need to be that way. It depends on the boss, the stage, the player level, etc. We require different tactics to keep it interesting. We can’t pre-plan everything at this stage, since we don’t know what range of levels the players will be when they reach the boss. And we need to consider how to keep the boss fun through additional encounters. So the third or tenth time a player fights the boss, it’s still fun and exciting.
Julian: We also want to use bosses to move the story forward. We have story-based elements to vary the bosses. For one thing, we gave the bosses different ways to kill players.
Diii.net: Like when Siegebreaker bites off the Barbarian’s head?
Julian: That’s his way of killing players, but that’s not the only way a boss can finish off a player.
Diii.net: Can you tell us something about the game’s act structure? Will D3 repeat the rigid structure of D2, where players move from one location to another in each act?
Kevin: We do have acts, but we can’t speak yet about their structure. We’re still working with the sort of different material you’ll see inside each act.
Diii.net: I was thinking more about the content of each act. If they’ll have such a clear, continued theme as they did in D2? In that game, you knew exactly which act you were in from any level in the act. Will D3 be that thematically rigid?
Kevin: We have strong themes to the acts in D3, but not as related as they were in D2. There is more variance in D3 than there was in D2. Sometimes the very strong relation between areas is good, but it can also be bad. We want more variety in each act in D3.
Julian: Sometimes in D2 we stuck with the same thing for too long. The backgrounds could have used more changes. For example, look at the Catacombs in Act One. When players reached them it was about the third time they’d seen a very similar dungeon type, and I think in that case that “beat” was too slow in the game. We want to keep a more rapid progression between different level environments in D3.
Diii.net: Fans have noticed the different areas you’ve revealed in your builds so far. We got Tristram and Act One style dungeons last year at Blizzcon. This year we’ve got the desert. Is this D2’s sequence again? Are we going to see a jungle area at Blizzcon 2010?
Kevin: The levels we’ve shown in our Blizzcon presentation are intentional. There are a lot of nods to D1 and D2 in D3. We’re showing new parts of the world, and hinting at the new power structure. We want players to understand more about Sanctuary by the end of the game. We want to make D3 something special in its own right.
Diii.net: Can you comment on the cinematics? The overall length and presentation? When will players see them during the game, and how long will they run for?
Kevin: That’s not really been decided, since they’re still a work in progress. Currently the plan is to show some at the beginning and end of each Act, but the exact structure isn’t yet finished.
Diii.net: Any idea how long they’ll be in total? Comparable to D2?
Kevin: We really don’t know yet, since all of the scripts aren’t finished.
Diii.net: Has the design team given any thought yet to things like Battle.net rankings, PvP ranks, ladders, season resets, and so on?
Kevin: It’s vague at this point. We find PvP a very important issue and want to do a lot with it, but we’re working on co-op now. As we work on the single player game, the co-op is a natural extension of that effort. But we’ll work specifically on PvP at some point. We might be able to show some of that next year at Blizzcon.
Diii.net: I guess the ladder and ranking issues are also tied to the revamp of Battle.net 2.0, which isn’t really online yet.
Kevin: Yes, we’ll learn from how things work with Starcraft 2, and we’ll revise things to work best with Diablo 3 when the time comes.
Diii.net: A question about the art design. It seems to have undergone some fairly major changes over time.
Julian: There’s been a lot of notice of that, but we don’t think it’s such a big deal. Honestly, the art changes have been very minor from our perspective, as designers. It might seem more major to the fans, since you guys see the art progressing as we mean it to progress. The beginning of the game is much brighter than the ending. The change in mood, tone, theme, and visuals encompasses a much greater scope than was seen in previous Diablo games.
As such, the brighter dungeons and other areas were shown in the WWI gameplay at the launch. Now we’re showing areas that are further along in the game, and the content is darker. And the future areas are much darker and grimmer than what’s been shown thus far. So it might seem that we’re changing art styles, but our methodology and approach are the same. We want the game to feature bright, readable, embracing color, with a lot of grit and gore mixed in. Where it’s appropriate, though. We’re not just doing gore for the sake of gore, but because it needs to be there.
Kevin: Areas you saw in previous demos look much the same now, other than some minor tweaks and improvements. We’ll add shadows or details, but nothing has been largely reworked since the game was revealed. The changes fans are seeing are more about new areas than any ongoing art style redesign.
That was our last question, answered just as the PR guy was coming in to tell us the 15 (more like 19) minutes were up. If we’d had more time, I’d have asked a follow up, since we weren’t really asking about the change in art from WWI to Blizzcon 2008 to Blizzcon 2009. We were asking about the change from past games, and Blizzard’s comments about reworking the art direction several times during development, pre-announcement. But that question will have to wait for a future date.
Thanks to the guys for their time and their thoughtful replies, and thanks to Tamer Asfahani for setting it up and pitching in on the beta and art direction questions.