Group Fansite Interview



In addition to our Blizzcon interview with D3 lead developers Julian Love and Kevin Martens that I posted yesterday, I was part of a fansite group that interviewed those same two guys earlier in the day on Saturday. This is the write up of that discussion.

It’s not actually a transcript since my recording device was fail. Knowing I couldn’t just tape it, I took extensive notes, and used them to write up this article about the interview. It was more a chat, really, and even if I had a recording, simply typing up the info with speaker tags wouldn’t be a very good way to present it, since we were essentially having a multi-person conversation about D3 and Blizzcon. With seven people in the room, it was much more of a discussion than an interview. Comments were made on all sides, jokes flew, and the two devs had a number of questions for us, since they were curious to hear feedback on the demo build.

Click through to read the full article. Topics covered include the Monk’s lore, D3 looking too easy in the gameplay movies, quests that force players out of their comfort zone, the pros and cons of the isometric view, the (intentional) lack of plot-specific quests in the 2008 and 2009 Blizzcon demos, and more.

Group Fansite Interview

Saturday, August 22, 2009.
Diablo 3 Developers present: Julian Love, lead tech artist.  Kevin Martens lead content artist.

The first question concerned the Monk’s lore; the background story and history of the class. Nothing was said about that in the press CD material and it hadn’t come up in the Monk character panel, so I was curious to hear what the developers would say. Not much, as it turned out, since they wouldn’t give us any details. They just talked about the extensive research that had been done into monks in history, literature, and role playing games.

There’s a huge, many, many hundreds of pages long game “bible” for each of Blizzard’s game series, and the Diablo one now contains a great deal of information about monks as they’ve lived all over the world and in every culture. What parts of that information the developers took for the Monk, and how they crafted his backstory… remains entirely unknown. (None of the NPCs you could converse with in the Blizzcon demo had any responses tailored for each class, as Captain Rumford did last year, so there was zero info about the Monk’s background or personality to be found in the game this year.)

There wasn’t exactly a second question, but at some point the Monk lore conversation turned into a quick summary of the Monk’s powers and skills. Both of the D3 developers stressed that the Monk is nowhere near the balancing stage. The version of the character in the Blizzcon build was not meant to be fair and even. He was still just a collection of cool skills and powers, and the damage he could deal out was crazy high. They were curious if the Monk felt strong enough, and since I had played the character (None of the other fansite guys volunteered that they had, which made me assume they had not.) I said that yes, I thought he was wildly overpowered, but also a great deal of fun. Of course the Monk won’t remain so godlike, but the devs explained that they hadn’t gotten to the balancing time yet.

From there the issue of D3’s multiplayer looking too easy (in the new Monk gameplay footage) came up, and Kevin and Julian both wanted to explain. They said the players controlling the characters are guys on the development team who play a lot of D3 and are expert, and that the game isn’t really balanced yet so the characters are generally overpowered. So of course they’re racing through the monsters like bowling balls, since they want to show off a lot of features, very quickly, in the gameplay movies.

The next question was from one of the three late-comers, and it was a groaner—one that anyone who had spent 5 minutes with the demo could have answered. He asked if it would be possible to earn experience from quests or missions, instead of just from killing monsters. Julian answered, and asked (unnecessarily) if the guy had played the demo. The questioner admitted (unnecessarily) that he had not, and Julian proceeded to explain that lots of the quest rewards granted experience, as well as items and other traditional quest bonuses.  (Most of the quests in the demo gave experience bonuses.)

Kevin then took over, and talked about his favorite quest in the demo, the timed dungeon. Kevin loved that one, since it changed up the game play. (I interjected that they also liked it because people died on it, and they both smiled and nodded while we fansite guys laughed.)  The quest is called the Collapsing Tomb, (or something like that) and it puts the player into a dungeon, with a 4:00 timer that counts down from the moment you appear through the swirling portal. Though the tomb is full of monsters, the real value there, according to Kevin, is in the chests.

In that dungeon there are lots of the D3 version of sparkly chests (which do not currently sparkle, just display a different name, something like “transcendent chest”), along with tons of regular chests. There are monsters as well, but they’re basically obstacles between the player and the chests, as well as the exit you must find before the time runs down and the tomb collapses, killing anyone inside it. (Chunks of rock are constantly crumbling and falling down while you explore the area.) The monsters there are worth experience just like always, but the real reward comes from item finds in chests. Plus, if a player escapes the dungeon before the collapse, they gain a substantial experience bonus; far more than they would get from killing the monsters in the tomb.

There’s no telling how many such timed quests there will be in D3, but the Bliz guys made it clear that this sort of quest is what they like in D3; ones that make players change their play style and step outside their usual comfort zone.  (I did that quest three times at Blizzcon. I died the first time, but escaped the second and third, once I realized that the goal was to hurry through the dungeon to find the exit while hitting chests, rather than exploring carefully, fighting monsters in small bunches, etc. So yes, it does successfully force the player to change their play style, and while my Monk died his only death in this dungeon from the timer running out, he also nearly died in combat a minute before then. His close call was caused by the timer, since I was racing along trying to find the exit and ran into a boss pack of teleporting mages that I didn’t have time to retreat from or try to avoid.)

The next question was from one of the three guys who arrived late, and it was one of those bad-job-interview type questions that almost invariably lead to vague answers. “What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in creating Diablo 3?” he asked, and Kevin answered with aspirational non-specifics.

Surprisingly, the difficulty in building Diablo 3 wasn’t from just one thing. (Such as say, virtually the entire founding creative team resigning from the company three years into development.) In fact, the hardest thing about making Diablo 3 was the fact that Blizzard only makes great games. And only makes big games. This forces the D3 Team to hold a very high standard on everything they put into the game, and they’ve had to repeatedly trash early work, and good work, since it just wasn’t good enough.  Things in the game often seem good now, but they’re not good enough to make the cut into the final product. Looking back it’s often easy to see what should have been done, but at the time it’s often very hard to make that decision.

On the bright side, they’ve found themselves returning to previously-abandoned features several times, when new solutions to previously insurmountable problems have come up. And they’ve been able to work those features back into the game, making them better than ever.

I asked the obvious follow up, but they refused to give any examples. They were clearly thinking of something specific, and something newly-returned, but they said they couldn’t talk about it yet since it was still one of the many not-yet-revealed game features.

The next question was about the isometric view. I asked if they’d ever experimented with other angles, and if they’d considered allowing a zoom in and pan around, if only so players could check out their character’s kit from every direction. (I’ll admit that this is a fairly lame question, but 1) I was saving my good ones for the exclusive interview, and 2) I’d been talking about this issue with some WoW playing friends that very afternoon. One of them was having a hard time getting into D3 at the demo station, since he was so used to overhead or PoV perspective in WoW and other such games.)

The answer was fairly interesting, to my surprise. Julian talked about the early work on D3, back at Blizzard North, and how they’d experimented then, and several times since, with different views of every type. They always came back to the fixed isometric view though, since it just worked the best for this type of game. They didn’t give any specific examples why, but said that even minor camera changes really ruined the feel.

I quickly leapt in with a follow up, pointing out that D2X had actually made a view change, when the resolution increased from 640×480 to 800×600 in the expansion. Julian nodded, but said that change had brought good and bad. For one thing, it annoyed a lot of the artists, since it made their monsters look bad. The game was programmed for the 640×480 resolution, and that was factored into the awareness range of the monsters. In 800×600 it was not uncommon for players to sight groups of monsters who could not “see” the player, and who were thus just standing around in their waiting animation, looking foolish.

The last question started off slowly, but got more interesting as the answer and follow up questions proceeded. One of the late three mentioned the twenty years that had passed between D2 and the start of D3, and asked how that element was dealt with in the game. Julian replied that they covered that sort of exposition in the game intro, with books and lore items adding info, and with NPCs (Deckard Cain?) also helping to explain the state of the world and flow of time. Julian said that no knowledge of the plot of D2 was required, and that new players would be gently eased into things.

I followed up on this one, with one of the questions I’d been planning to ask in my one-on-one interview. I asked why there hadn’t been any mentions of the larger state of the world, or the overall game plot, in any of the quests in last year’s or this year’s build. Many of the quests mention the general troubles in the world, and rising darkness, but there’s never anything specific about the events 20 years ago, a Dark Wanderer, specific demonic enemies, angels engaged in unrest, etc.

Julian smiled at this one, his expression that of a man who cherishes a store of private knowledge. He explained that those larger plot references had been carefully removed from the Blizzcon demos, and that the levels and areas and quests in the game were chosen specifically since they did not give any larger view of the world.

The demo started with the player standing right outside the locked gates of some major city, surrounded by NPC warriors (including and apparently led by Asheara) who had only bad news and worries about the overrun desert and their inability to reach besieged and endangered Arcarnus. Julian said that just before this demo a player of the full game would have learned a lot of info about the overall world, and that’s why the demo started on the other side of the locked gates, with NPCs who didn’t talk at all about why they, and your character, were locked out in the dangerous Borderlands, on the wrong side of a stout gate leading to the safety of a large town.

He also said that the city in which the demo ended, the ruined, overrun, and despoiled Alcarnus, was much different in this demo than in the full game. In the demo Alcarnus was a dead end, filled with DiabloWikiDark Cultists and caged prisoners. There was a High Council-like pack of enemy mages to kill, and lots of their lesser minions, but there was no plot information with them, and no ultimate goal. Upon reaching Alcarnus, the main quest of the demo was finished, but without reward, and if you looked at the Quest window, it said something like, “Upon reaching Alcarnus you find a scene worse than you could have imagined.”

And that was it. There was no way to advance beyond the city, no portals to pass through, no NPCs to speak with, and no big boss monsters to fight. I was rather disappointed with that, actually. Spending an hour or more working through the whole demo, and at the end… nothing.  It was intentional, of course, but still frustrating in its anticlimactic conclusion.  Knowing that this area and the quests associated with it will be different and much more interesting in the final game does provide some consolation.

That was the end of the interview; a PR rep came in and shooed us out, and while the other four D3 fansite guys went to the next cubicle to do their joint interview with Jay Wilson, I went out, met Tamer with the big camera, and we went right back in to talk to Kevin and Julian for another 15 minutes. It was funny, since I didn’t know who the exclusive interview was with, and Kevin and Julian certainly didn’t expect me to come back in thirty seconds after I’d left. They probably thought I’d dropped my wallet.

It was interesting to talk to the same two guys under such different circumstances. The first group one was more like a discussion than an interview, since there was a lot of back and forth and joking comments. The Bliz guys talked to each other as they went, debated about what they could say, asked us questions about our experiences with the demo, endured pointless questions from some of the not-very-informed fansite guys, etc.

The second interview, where I was the only questioner, was much more productive. I asked pointed and specific questions, added redirecting follow ups when I thought they would help, and Tamer chimed in with a few as well. During the second interview Kevin and Julian sat in front of the big D3 banner instead of at the table, and they gave much more detailed, formal, thoughtful answers, and there was no joking around or back and forth banter. As a result the second interview resulted in far more info, though a few fewer laughs.  And since info, not lulz, was my Blizzcon goal, I preferred the second. YMMV?

Also, not to be snarky, but why do sites schedule interviews if they’re not going to get there on time, be informed enough to ask useful questions, or post about the news afterwards? I hoped to link to a transcript of this one, or at least listen to it to refresh my memory before I wrote this up from my notes, but there is no trace of it anywhere. It’s like my 7th press room Dr. Pepper of the day caused me to hallucinate the fact that there were 4 other “reporters” there. Srsly. Witness this tale of two searches. And try to lay off the caffeine for a while.

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