Blizzard’s Diablo 3 team is talented and seems to be creating a great game, but none of them were working at Blizzard North 8-10 years ago when the series got its start. This has created an interesting situation, since almost all the guys who created the Diablo franchise are now working on other games, for other companies, and watching the development of Diablo 3 just like any other fan. How do they feel, watching the franchise they created being continued by a new design team? What changes do they see in the game, from the early version of D3 they plotted out at Blizzard North?

    While all of the D2 guys we’ve talked to have opinions, only a few have been willing to go on the record. We’ve already posted a statement from Diablo-creator Max Schaefer, and an interview with D2 artist Ben Boos. Today we’re adding another interview, this one with Michael Huang. Michael spent six years at Blizzard North, and was the Technical Producer on Diablo II. He also managed the Diablo II website before the game’s release. Mike wrote about his time at Blizzard North in a guest article we posted back in early 2006. After leaving Blizzard North he worked at Castaway Entertainment on the now-canceled Djinn ]project, and has been working as a consultant since 2005.

    Diii.net: Did you pay attention to the D3 announcement, or is Diablo in the past and you’re concentrating fully on your current projects?

    Michael Huang: Absolutely. As soon as I found out about it, I had to go watch the videos they released and see what the game had become. I had left Blizzard North when the game was still in the prototype stage and undergoing lots of change, so it’s exciting to see what they’ve done with the Diablo universe. I end up using the lessons learned from developing games at Blizzard in my current work as a designer.

    Diii.net: What do you think of the look of D3? Is it similar in tone/mood/theme to the game you envisioned and worked on at Blizzard North? There has been quite a bit of debate about the graphics with some players complaining that it’s too bright cartoon/rainbow-colored.

    Michael Huang: I think the game looks great. Using Havok for physics should give a more realistic experience to the environment. When I left Blizzard North, the D3 team was still in the prototype stage, so the game has taken some rather substantial graphical leaps in the years since. People’s memories of how dark and grim Diablo is largely dependent on their playing environment, and largely subjective. Someone who plays the game alone in a darkened room with the lights off late at night is going to have a different experience than someone who is playing the game with fluorescent lights on overhead on an airplane.

    There’s a lot of criticism floating around right now about D3 looking or feeling cartoony; I think that’s just people needing something to complain about. If you look back at what people were saying when we were developing D2, you’ll see the same sort of of complaints. During development of D2, we were constantly asked whether D2 was going to be a 3D game, and we said no, because the technology in 1997 when we started game development wasn’t there yet; polygonal realtime 3D still had a lot of technical limitations, which meant we couldn’t achieve the look we wanted for the game. When the game released was in 2000, the first thing reviewers tended to mention was the 2D sprite based game, but it didn’t matter, because it looked as good (or better) than any 3D game on the market at the time.

    One of the most visible differences in Diablo 3 is just how detailed everything is; the high-resolution screenshots really show off the work that the artists have put into modeling and texturing the game. I mean, you can even see the bellybutton of the Witch Doctor. We had bellybuttons on the textures for the Sorceress and the Barbarian in D2, but it’s definitely not something that you could make out at game scale; the technology just wasn’t there at the time.

    Diablo 3 definitely shows off the power of realtime 3D rendering of the environment; in some of the screenshots, you can see the same area, but from a different perspective. One of the things that we had to do with Diablo 2 was strike a balance between things fantastical, while at the same time remaining realistic, all while working within the style constraints of Diablo 2. If you look at the Act 3 Jungle, those trees look very realistic, but they also look like they belong inside our game. If you took those trees and put them in Warcraft III, it doesn’t work; the style is too different. The outdoor foiliage of D3 feels very impressionistic to me, and while it’s different than what we did in D2, I think it looks very good. I think the indoor environments fit the Diablo universe; I love all the stuff that the artists add in there like the cobwebs and cracked stone and such; it really makes the place feel alive.

    Since the Diablo series is largely a point and click game, it doesn’t make a lot of gameplay sense to make things hard to see or interact with, because there are few things more frustrating than being hit by things that are invisible or hunting around for something hard to see and target. One thing people need to take into account is that Diablo 3 is a true 3D game, while Diablo I and Diablo II were sprite-based—with 3D there’s a lot more possibilities in lighting available to the developers, and it really feels like they want to take advantage of the technology. If a character throws a red fireball, it should cast a red glow in the area—we have the technology now, and the graphics card can handle it, so why not?

    Diii.net: What do you think of the announced plot, new features, and the design direction they’re moving in?

    Michael Huang: I think it’s important to have some continuity between the games, but a game should also be accessible to a person who has never played a Diablo game before. It’s important to achieve balance between the familiar and the new.  The things that are familiar the older players will appreciate. With every new game, there’s an opportunity to innovate and improve on the old game. The only design decision I disagree with so far is the return of the Barbarian character class, and this is purely only on the reason that we did the Barbarian already in Diablo II. Blizzard Irvine seemed to really like the Barbarian character when we first demonstrated him during development of Diablo II, so I guess he’s back. I really wish that they had just taken the skills they liked and created a new class, but who knows, maybe there’s a story reason that the Barbarian is back.

    I remember when we were developing Diablo II, and many people asked us why we didn’t bring the Warrior (from Diablo I) back, and our response was that we had designed the Barbarian class. We could have brought the Warrior back and added all the same skills as the Barbarian and named him Warrior, but we didn’t. By creating the Barbarian class, we opened up a lot more possibilities and expanded the Diablo universe; with this new class, we could create a new backstory to the character, give him a tribe, a homeland, and motivations for fighting the Prime Evils. I should note that of the five character classes in Diablo 2, the Barbarian was my least favorite to play, so perhaps my viewpoint shows a bit of an anti-Barbarian bias.

    Diii.net: Was your original Blizzard North vision of D3 greatly different than D2, or more of an evolution?[/B]

    Michael Huang: I think it was more of an evolution. I left Blizzard North in 2003, when prototype work was still being laid out, like what classes were going to be in it, and what the environment should be like, and basic storyline stuff. 5 years is a long time in game development, and with all the changes that can occur during that time, I expect to see very little of what I saw 5 years ago end up in the final product.

    When I look back on the original design concepts for D2 and the game we shipped, there were a lot of changes that we made inbetween to tweak gameplay and the environments, but the story was basically set. We always knew that we’d be chasing the Wanderer from different areas of the world and having a showdown in Hell.

    Diii.net: During the WWI presentations, the D3 team frequently commented that they love the story of the world and want to work to develop more of it in the game. Was that a priority in your D3 design?

    Michael Huang: If you printed out all the dialogue in Diablo I, it probably ends up being about a couple dozen pages. If you printed up all the dialogue of Diablo II, it’s probably around a hundred pages, and as the games get bigger more dialogue and more story is necessary. Story is a lot more than dialogue, and what we write for the game usually turns up reflected in the game environment as well so the player gets to experience the results of the story and (hopefully feel emotive of it). An example in Diablo II would be Andariel destroying the Rogue Order, and taking over their Monastery. Players hear about what happened, and then experience it through fighting corrupted rogues as they make their way to Andariel’s lair. Blood Raven was always meant to be the Corrupted version of the Rogue character from Diablo I, to answer the question of what happened to that character. There’s a lot of opportunity for the Diablo 3 team to expand on the world lore of Diablo, and with each game, the story bible grows bigger.

    Diii.net: Any regrets that you’re not a part of the team creating the next game in the Diablo series?

    Michael Huang: I think when you look at a project as respected as the next title in the Diablo universe, it’s hard not to be a little envious of those working on such a well-loved (and well-funded) title. Blizzard is fortunate enough to be their own publisher, so they can do a project like Diablo 3, and create a good game that remains true to the franchise without too much outside interference. After working on Diablo 2, I definitely wanted a break from the Diablo franchise, but now I think enough time has passed that the D3 team can put some fresh spins on the game.

    Diii.net: Any bittersweet feelings, now that another design team (no matter how talented) is moving forward with the franchise you helped to create?

    Michael Huang: No way! One thing a developer has to accept early on is that a franchise doesn’t belong to any one individual person, the IP belongs to the company, and the company can do whatever they want with it. I’d rather see a new game than see the Diablo universe just disappear. I am very proud to have participated in the making of Diablo II, which people are still enjoying and is still on the charts years later. That’s quite an accomplishment, and I have every confidence that D3 will continue that legacy.

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