On Saturday morning I happened to bump into virtually the only Bliz North holdover on the Diablo III team, Julian Love, Diablo III’s Lead Technical Artist. We met by surprise; I was playing the D3 PvM demo and sitting along the central aisle when Julian came by, recognized me from the old days (and an interview I did with him last year) and waited until I was done to say hello. I got off my machine when the 15 minutes were up, grabbed my bag, shook his hand, asked him one question about how the show was going, and ten minutes later we were still talking when he checked his watch and realized he had to run to another appointment.
It wasn’t an interview; it was just a conversation between two fans of the game, one of whom has a (temporarily) far greater store of knowledge about it. So this isn’t a Q&A format; it’s an essay form reconstruction of the notes I jotted down immediately after we talked, then typed up a few hours later. The writing process took place at a corner table in the Sandbox Bar and Grille in the Desert Palms Lodge on Katella Ave, just down the block from the Convention Center. While I admit to eating fried shrimp and drinking a Newcastle draft during the editing process, I did not imbibe sufficient quantities to impair my judgment. I am therefore confident that the following conveys an accurate reconstruction of our conversation.
Click through for the full “interview” write up, with discussion of skill runes, PvP Arenas, what the Bliz devs learned from watching fans play this weekend, and more.
One aside; just before I saw Julian, I’d finished the demo with a Demon Hunter, my second successful clear of the entire demo in about 9 tries. It wasn’t easy to do in the 15 minutes allotted. You’ve got to run past a lot of monsters, avoid any long slow boss battles, and get lucky/choose wisely on the level layout spawn of the first dungeon. This is not at all how you’d play in the actual game; ignoring item drops, rushing past monsters, avoiding all the corners where the big chests and boss monsters spawn, etc. But if you wanted to get to the skeletal final boss, The Keeper, and then into the amusing “End of Demo” area, you had to rush to do it.
Happily for me, I was playing about my 4th session with a Demon Hunter (probably my fave char, at this point) and was just able to Vault down the final stairs through the last golden doorway just as the “Thanks for Playing” message appeared. Through that door was an amusing Easter Egg. It was a small final room with invisible walls that kept you from moving very far, the floor was entirely black, and there was a huge “Diablo III” logo under your feet. When the room appeared you got a congrats message, some amusing MSPaint style rainbow graphics appeared, and then after a moment a non-stop barrage of Meteors started falling from above. They were real attacks; damaging, and with no where to run and no way to heal, they would kill you.
In a game on Friday I got through very quickly with a Monk, and spent a good three minutes standing in the final area, just looking over my Skills and Traits and such. I died at least five times then, each time selecting the “respawn at last checkpoint” which put me right back in the center of the final room. There was no way out and nothing further to do except glory in my achievement, wish one of the special “Win a signed poster” items was found there, and die in a fire. Again and again.
With that accomplished, I stood up, grabbed my bag, turned around, and was brought up short by Julian, who said, “Hey Flux!” and shook my hand. He was in a blue Blizzard hoodie, all the better not to be pestered by Diablo 3 fans. I didn’t let that stop me.
Skills and Characters
After a few pleasantries I asked him how the show was going, and what he and the other devs thought of watching the fans play. Julian said that he and the other devs liked to watch, and that they’d gotten a lot of interesting feedback. One thing he said the were going to have to work on was the visibility of the skill tree and the interface and the points to be assigned. He said that lots of people were just playing “vanilla,” using their default skills and not tapping into the real power of their character.
The demo characters were all set up with pre-assigned skills, so you couldn’t help but use the LMB and RMB skills. I assume Julian meant people weren’t using them wisely, weren’t using the 1234 skills, and were certainly not assigning their new skill point from level 10.
I pointed out that new points in Traits would probably give the same problem. No one really had traits points to assign in the demo, since you get them them every other level; 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, etc. The demo chars started at level 9, and while lvl 10 was achieved in about 5 minutes, it was very hard to get to 11. I only did it once in about 8 games, and that was right at the end of my 15 minutes, in a game I’d killed all of the big bosses, rather than trying to race through the whole demo in the time limit.
Given Julian’s thoughts on this one, if we see some sort of huge flashing color display in the final game, with blinking arrows and fireworks urging us to distribute our skill and trait points, you can assign some of the blame/thanks to the Blizzcon 2010 testers.
On a related topic, I asked Julian why there were so few skills available for the starting characters in the PvM demo. He took my question to be wondering why there weren’t more skills available right away, and talked about how this was the natural character progression and how we’d be focused fairly narrowly at that point in the full game.
I agreed with that, but restated my question since I’d been thinking more about why there weren’t more skills just to play with for fun at this demo. I figured they’d throw in more for variety to get fans interested, rather than presenting an exact recreation of the actual game. In last year’s demo the characters started out around level 12, and had 6 or 8 skills already with points in them (remember that passive skills were still in the skill trees back then). Plus with 20 minutes to play (only 15 this year) it wasn’t hard to level up twice, giving you access to yet more skills. Most characters last year had at least 5 or 6 active skills to experiment with, compared to just 2 or 3 this year.
Julian said that this was intentional; that they wanted the demo to be more like the real game, with more of a careful focus on a few skills with multiple points in them, rather than a whole big assortment that was more than most players would really be able to use intelligently.
Which is probably true, but I wanted MOAR. I had to play the Demon Hunter multiple times to experiment with any skills other than Vault and the starting two arrow skills: Entangling Arrow and Bolo Arrow. Since level 10 was the only level up you could earn in time to test out your new skill, I did Grenades, Scorching Arrow, Knife Nova, and Multishot in four different games. How much of a factor that was for less-fanatical testers is a question you can probably answer on your own.
We spoke about skill runes for a bit, mostly taking turns marveling at how cool they were and how big of a difference they made. They are nothing like socketing an item in D2, in terms of just adding a bit to what’s already there. Runestones completely change skills in D2, making them vastly more powerful and useful, or totally changing their approach. They really can make your character, even at low levels.
For example, I found the starting Witch Doctor quite weak, with just the slow, single-shot Poison Dart, the slow, not very powerful Zombie Charger, and the tanking, but not very killing, Mongrels. When I stuck in some runes though, things changed greatly. Neither of the two runes I had in my inventory to start with did anything very interesting to Poison Dart, but one added poison damage to the Mongrels, which turned them green and just about doubled their damage output, and when I got to level 10 and added Firebats, a rune (Indigo, IIRC) in there increased the range, damage, and speed of the bats, turning them into very effective killers. I found the skill very weak at its starting level, but even with just the one level 1 rune, it instantly turned into a very effective attack, arguably overpowered, since in almost every encounter I’d just get my 3 mongrels tanking, hold down right click, and send out a steady stream of homing, speedy, deadly Firebats that would essentially clear the screen.
I related those thoughts (in abbreviated form) to Julian, and almost mentioned how the wizard’s Magic Missile went from peashooter to shotgun with an Indigo rune turning the single shot into a 3-shot blaster (at no increased AP cost), and he just nodded and smiled. As he and the other guys presented in the opening panel, runestones are really, really important and effective. I don’t see any character ever using any skill in the base, default level. Literally ever; every single runestone improves a skill over the default; the challenge will be finding or crafting your runestones to high levels, and deciding which type works the best in a given skill, depending on what you want to do with it.
One other runestone thing he confirmed for me. I hadn’t found any runes while playing a Monk or Demon Hunter, and neither of those characters started off with runes in their inventory, as the other characters did. Julian said that it wasn’t just me; there were not runestones for those characters in this build, even though their skills had sockets. His explanation was that the basic skill development and balancing hadn’t progressed far enough to nail down the basic skill functions for the DH and Monk yet, so adding in runestones would just have complicated things.
One last runestone issue I asked about was something our chat room was buzzing about since Friday’s Diablo III panel with the revealed runestone info, and everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) new skill, the mega-toad. Created by a rune in the Witch Doctor’s Plague of Toads skill. I told Julian that toad-jokes were running wild, and while most people were excited to try it out, others thought it was corny or cheesy and that it wouldn’t really be that useful. “It couldn’t eat Diablo!” I said.
Julian laughed and made clear that they’d entertained similar discussions at Blizzard. And he defended the mega-toad as well. “It can eat a ****ing Champion!” he said, excited. I laughed, and agreed with his emotion. I didn’t get to ask what the mega-toad would do to a bigger boss, but in theory it would deal some decent damage with the tongue attack. I’m also curious; what would the boss do? Will the monsters get some AI to go and kill the toad, rather than just blinding chasing the Witch Doctor as he ran around his lawn statue while it gulps them down one at a time?
Champions and Bosses
On the subject of bosses and champions, I asked Julian about something I’d seen many times. During a battle with a boss or some champions, my ranged attacking character would often get yanked into the middle of the mob. It looked odd, and was quite dangerous; the last place a Wizard or Demon Hunter wanted to be was surrounded by the boss and his minions.
Julian said that yes, that was a boss/champion ability, and that the graphics for it weren’t done yet, since it wasn’t real clear to players what was happening. The theory is that the boss has an ability sort of like the Barbarian’s new Ancient Harpoon skill, and can spear and drag a player into melee range, adding much danger for ranged attackers. You just don’t see that clearly what’s happening, and it’s not listed as one of the boss’ properties, so it’s startling and confusing when it happens. It actually looks like a malfunctioning knockback, as if you’re being knocked back the wrong way, or else that you’re lagging a bit and are desynched.
I mentioned the worst new boss property I’d seen, that of Linked Health, and Julian looked delighted. I’ve found one constant while following the development of all the Diablo games; the devs are never happier than when players complain about something deadly. Linked Health occurs on champion packs, and it’s what it sounds like. All of them share one huge health pool, so you can’t kill one, then move on to the second, etc. All of them (usually 3 or 4 in a bunch) keep living until you get their health very low, and when all of them are down to a sliver they de-link, and the one you are damaging will die, with the others going down quickly afterwards. Assuming they don’t kill you first.
A couple of other minor issues related to respecs. I’d found a small object, something like a “book of respec,” but hadn’t tried using it. I asked Julian about it, and he said it was brand new and he wasn’t even sure how it worked; if it just removed one skill point, or if it freed up all the points on a given skill. He said it didn’t really matter what it did now, since they’d just put it into the game and it was bound to change during development anyway.
I asked about respecs for Traits, and he gave the same answer. Nothing was in yet, but since Traits were still so new that wasn’t unexpected, and they really hadn’t had time to work on it yet. As for the number of traits, he said the same thing Jay said during the Friday panel; that there were probably too many, since seeing 30+ listed all at once was bewildering to players. I think they’ll whittle down the number a bit, perhaps add more points to each of them, and do something to present them in some more limited fashion. Seeing every single trait all at once it’s too hard to decide what you want to do with them, as a new player.
Arenas and PvP
The last thing we talked about were the PvP Arenas. He said the devs had been watching players a lot on those, and that they’d been playing the exact same arena/characters in-house for weeks, testing it out. I told him that in my first Arena game Friday morning, the Barbarians were wreaking havoc since the Wizards and Witch Doctors didn’t know how to use their skills well enough to get out of the way and to take the Barbs down from a distance. But that when I played again Friday night, the people in the game had clearly played a few rounds, and that the Witch Doctors were doing really well, using Mongrels and long range Firebombs to constantly deal damage without taking any themselves. This let them win by attrition, despite the fact that Wizards and Barbs could deal a lot more damage in the short term.
Julian was interested, and said that he was sure player tactics would evolve over the course of the show. He said that at Blizzard they’d found that any combination of characters could beat any other combination, in this demo version. It was all up to player skill and especially teamwork. Teams of three that worked together and supported each other, especially once the players knew the controls and what the skills did, were able to win almost every time, no matter what their classes, or the class mixture or their opponents.
Thanks to Julian for stopping to say hello and for answering all of my questions. I think we shook hands and said goodbye three different times in about ten minutes, and every time another question popped into my head and we were off and chatting on a new topic.