During the Diablo III Midnight Launch last week I got the chance to sit down with two Blizzard developers. First up was Jason Bender, and then I got the chance to speak with Technical Designer Wyatt Cheng. This was my chance to ask more in depth questions about class balance, the differences between working on WoW versus Diablo III, and what advice Wyatt might have for new players just starting out Diablo III. I was most fascinated by his comparison of the goals of WoW and the goals of Diablo III.
Hit the jump to read the interview in its entirety, and then use said knowledge to fuel you're next play session of the game.
What are you playing in your spare time?
Right now, this past weekend I played three games. League of Legends has always been a standby, I think that’s for a lot of people, it’s a lot of fun, I was playing TERA a little bit because that’s the new game, and I like it, it’s pretty cool, and I actually fired up Orcs Must Die again. It’s one of my favorite games of the last year. And I realized that with Diablo III coming out – I’m planning on playing Diablo III as well – I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come back to Orcs Must Die again. I’m making my way through getting five perfect skulls on every level on their Nightmare, and I was like “if I don’t do that now this weekend, I probably never will.”
What does a technical designer do?
A technical designer ultimately is somebody who works as a designer. Their function is very much that of a systems designer – class, items, balance, monsters – but typically you also have a technical background. The technical background comes from either – personally I have an electrical engineering degree – some people have a computer science degree, or a math degree, something more on the technical side so that when that comes up you have some background to deal with it. Ultimately you still report to the design department which means that you always look at things from the design angle. Sometimes the technical designer will step in and bridge the gap between what design wants and what programming is able to do. At Blizzard we always want to work together, so I can get into a technical discussion with the programmers if need be.
Although lately I have been spending a lot more time doing – let’s see, the last nine months was balancing the game – items, skills, leveling curves, gold economy, all that sorts of things. Good stuff.
Coming from your background on WoW, how is designing different working on Diablo III than WoW?
Ultimately Diablo III is about making the individual person feel awesome. We talk about our customization all the time and we’ve said that we have billions of possible build combinations, and that’s really at the heart of Diablo. So if somebody for example, comes up with something that’s a little bit stronger, and we say “hey, you know what, this build is stronger than another build,” we’re okay with that. We like that. We like people to be able to do something that feels unique. We want the players to feel a bit overpowered.
Typically on a game like WoW where you have these progression raids, and everyone’s well orchestrated and the gear is handed out – basically it’s pre-designed for you. It’s much more about the social experience, it’s much more about group coordination, it’s much more about being there regularly at your raid time with your guild. There’s nothing quite like in WoW for me the shared experience of downing a 25-man raid boss that you’ve been working on really hard, and when that boss dies you get to celebrate together. That’s what’s awesome about WoW.
But those don’t apply to Diablo III, because Diablo III is about you saying “Hey, I found something that no one else found.” If you find something that’s really strong in a particular way, whereas WoW would say “Well if you want that, well how will that make the other 24 people feel?” – Like if a single mage is 40% ahead on the DPS meters they say “we have to reign that in, that’s no good, everyone else is gonna be mad.” But in Diablo, they say “well cool, you found a way to be awesome.” Who’s that hurting? No one, so we let that go.
In terms of the design, Diablo has a lot more random content. Everyone knows about random items, but we also have random environments which adds a lot more replayability. We also have the random emphasis on monsters, so that every encounter is different. There’s some really challenging fights in Hell and Inferno at the later difficulties, that for me – people talk about WoW’s end game, and I’m going to use air quotes with fingers– I think Diablo has “end game” as well, but it feels a lot different because it’s action based. It’s not group-coordination based, it’s not based on an interrupt rotation. It’s based on special awareness and reflexes and correctly choosing the skills, and building your character to take on these challenges.
Do you think that a lack of structure branching skill tree creates less of an impetus for players to create alternate characters of the same class?
I guess the question is are there permanent choices – I mean it’s not so much about the branching tree as it is those choices being permanent. I know some people have suggested things like respec costs, or no respec at all and you have to relevel. I will start off by saying – of course there’s always Hardcore. Hardcore is actually a lot of fun, so people will definitely be rerolling in Hardcore. I think the level up experience in Diablo is different than in a game like WoW – I use that as an example again. Where in WoW if I make a second Priest, I’m going to have all the same skills, I’m going to have the same talent choices, and I’m probably even going to do the same questlines. But because Diablo is random, playing through Diablo a second time is actually kind of a different experience because you can choose different skills. Different events might roll randomly. You might choose a different path. You can build your character in a totally different way. So you can create your own replayability. The tools are totally there for you to do that.
On top of that we make a big deal out of Twinking. Personally I think Twinking was one of the most fun things to do in Diablo II. I mean Twinking is even pretty fun in WoW. People are like “I have to be in a guild with +10% experience, and I have to have my 10% exp shoulders.” There’s lot of people that do that and you’re like “Woo Hoo!” You know?
In Diablo we have something unique, in that in Diablo III there are items with plus experience gain, and these items will actually help you level faster. We’ve actually been kind of generous as well with the level requirements on items. So you can actually feel very overpowered. I don’t know if you remember like in D2 you go back and you can Twink your character with just tons of high level items that don’t really belong that low in the game, you actually feel awesome. You’re tearing through the game. First time you played the game it took you like 100 hours – I’m just throwing a number out there – second time it’s like 50. And then once you know the game really well, and you have tons of Twink items, suddenly it’s like 40 or 30. It’s super fun to have that feeling of power. I think people sometimes underestimate how fun that is.
I remember in WoW on my Warrior there was a questline that needed you to kill a level 40, but you could skip it at level 30. It was like this big two-hander. And if you got your friend to help you finish the quest, suddenly you had this amazing weapon at level 30 and it would carry you through and for like the next six hours you were just slaughtering everything. Imagine that in Diablo III you’re able to do that times ten and it’s actually built into the game for you to create that experience for yourself.
We’ve got millions of beta testers that have already gone through the content that are finally able to get past the Skeleton King and level 13, is there any advice regarding game mechanics that they haven’t been able to touch yet during the beta?
Well they’re going to get a lot more runes. And I would encourage people to experiment with the new stuff. I think people had a lot of time to exhaustively check out everything, but once we unlock the floodgates after level 13 or past the Skeleton King, there is a tendency to kind of rush. Take your time, check things out. There’s a log there. I’ve even seen this internally. Once people hit like level 24 to 30 they kinda get into a rut. They’re like “ah I found some skills, they work for me, I’m just going to stick with these skills.” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. If you find some skills you enjoy playing, have fun, have at.
But if you start to feel like “I’m kinda getting a little bored.” – you’re not going to be bored – but if you get a little bored, change up your skills. There’s tons of skills out there, there’s no penalty for trying those skills. If you don’t like them, switch back. Don’t be afraid. There’s no respec cost. Just have fun with it.
How do you feel that the current lineup of classes compare to those we had in Diablo II?
I’m going to go ahead and say that’s not a fair question. I mean Diablo II classes were awesome. At the end of the day the structure is the same. You know you want you’re melee bruiser, you know you’re going to want your wizard sorceress casty person. Diablo has always been about fantasy fulfillment. And there are these archetypes that are so strong and ingrained. And when we were talking about classes people would brainstorm out these more quirky niche classes. I’ll just throw out a joke one: For April’s Fools we did the Archivist which is a total joke, but some people thought we were serious. I mean yes any class can be cool, but at the end of the day we have to hit these strong archetypes that fulfill a fantasy. And we want a lot people to have that fantasy. I think Diablo II’s classes hit a fantasy for a lot of people, Diablo III’s classes totally hit a fantasy for people. If you look at the poling numbers on what classes people are going to play at launch, they are within five or six percent of each other, which is awesome.
I think people can identify with a class. Sometimes people are like “Oh I don’t want to play the Witch Doctor, he’s too creepy.” And that’s totally fine. I don’t want every class to appeal to everybody because honestly that means that we watered it down for broad appeal. We want that strong fantasy fulfillment.
What is the feature that you are most excited about in Diablo III?
The ease of coop play. In Diablo II the experience is – either I join a game and there is a list of game descriptions, and I click on it and sometimes it’s full or when you get into the game the first thing you do is TP because you can’t even get to the other people in the game. Sometimes you can’t find your friends in the game, and your friend would have to send you a name and password. I mean, just painful. Great for its time, but it’s been ten years, or fifteen years, right it’s been forever.
Diablo III: Got my friends, we can form a party, the party leader picks a quest, we’re in together. What if one of my friends leave? What if another friend comes on? It says “Hey, you’re friends are playing. They have an open spot Click this button to join them.” How easy is that? You don’t have to make up names, you don’t have to set up passwords, don’t have to worry about collision. I log on, none of my friends are on. Oh great, I’ll hit a public game. You don’t have to say who I want to play with, you just specific a quest step and boom you’re in a game. You’re probably in a fresh game at a quest step you wanted. If you’re not you can Banner quickly using the Banner system to teleport to one of your allies.
Things like stick together, or per player loot so you’re not fighting over loot– there are so many mechanics that make it so you’re not annoyed by the other players in the game. Sometimes people say “Why only four, I want eight people.” But if I remember correctly, when I join an eight person game, but then we all would spread out, so it’s not really a coop experience, that’s like a solo experience with eight people that happen to be there. Here we have a coop experience with people that actually want to be together, work together, get those loot drops, use your skill synergies that feed into each other, coordinate as a team and figure out how to split the enemies up, divide and conquer. It’s a much better coop experience.