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While the crowds gathered at Irvine Spectrum, frothed into a frenzy during the midnight launch of Diablo III, I got the chance to sit down in a relatively quiet corner with Senior System Designer Jason Bender to talk turkey about Blizzard Entertainment's Action RPG.  The resulting conversation was fascinating, spanning everything from the reason Blizzard hires so many RTS game designers to exactly why Jason loves so much about the Treasure Goblin.  

I almost didn't get the chance to talk with Jason, but I'm glad I did.  What he had to tell me opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about game design concepts, and what it really means to be a system designer. Hit the jump to read the interview in its entirety, that is if you can take some time from playing your Demonhunter.


What are you playing in your free time?

I’m playing Witcher 2, Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning, and I’m still playing Company of Heroes because Company of Heroes 2 was just announced.  So a little of everything.  Lots of RPGs with some RTS pepper on it.

Can you explain what a Systems Designer does for those not in the know?

Most people don’t know, it’s funny that way.  We get to do a little bit of everything, which is why they don’t know. So we start off a lot of times on concept stuff. Let’s say monsters – so we work on monsters, environments, we work on weapons, and we work on how much experience you get, how much gold is dropped.  But when we work on monsters, we might say ‘hey we want this monster to be a Zombie Summoner.’ We present that to the team, and they of course have their feedback too, and then we take that all the way through while the artists work on it, and the engineers hook it up, and then we tune it and then we make sure in the end that it is as fun as it is supposed to be. So we take something from conception to final polish and guide it along the way, but the whole time we’re taking feedback from everybody and picking the feedback that we think is right to make it work.

Coming from your RTS background, what kind of experience do you rely on when you are working on a project to Diablo III?

There are some things that are common [between the two genres.] So one of the things we want to do at Blizzard is provide a path to hardcore.  We want it to be accessible – everybody knows how to play the game, but if you stick with it long enough, you can become a hardcore player.  So for us that is often times introducing things at the right rate as far as complexity, streamlining things.  Certain things are universal.  Dumping 25 new choices on a player at once where you could give them three and then three choices a couple of minutes later – that’s just bad globally.  That translates across genres.

Blizzard hires a lot of RTS designers, because RTS is very complex to make.  I mean, just look at StarCraft II, it’s insane.  That means that we have a good sense of everything from the camera and the point of view to how much a player can micromanage at one time to how much macro they have in their mind – and some of that translates directly to the channels that the player is thinking about in their brain. You might have heard that people can only remember seven numbers at one time on average.  I kind of look at that the same way, we really can only occupy the player with only seven things kinds of things at once, and two of them are how much health and how much mana do I have.  When you look at it like that, you can kind of see why Jay Wilson says we are going to try and keep this down to six skills, because you can handle six skills at once.  But you’re not going to give you them all at once.  So a lot of RTs theory plays into how you react to the world with the tools you have.

We’ve been hearing on the wind whispers of a console version of Diablo III, and at the same time hearing that Blizzard is hiring console developers.  What advantage is there to hiring console talent even if a console version of the game doesn’t come to fruition?

Here’s the deal:  We’re hiring for the console, and we’re checking it out, we’re trying it – we’re trying things.  The key thing is like Jay said – if we can’t make something that we think is awesome, then we’re not going to ship it, so there’s no point in announcing it until we are confident that we have something that’s worth being announced.  So we are hiring the kinds of people that know how to make console games and we are definitely looking at it, but there’s nothing to announce because that would imply that we are confident that we want to move on with it. 

But there are definitely advantages in that we’ll never know it’s good if we don’t try.  There are a lot of people that prefer to play on console.  I still split my time between the PC and my console, but I gotta tell ya, I like my couch. So if I can sit on my couch with a controller in my hand – and the audience tells us ‘Man, Diablo sure looks like it would make a great console game,’ with the camera, and the powers, and everyone says  ‘How about that?  Huh, huh?’  So if we are going to take everybody’s feedback seriously, we should look into it. 

That’s what I said when I played The Witcher.  I said ‘That is a game really should have a console version.’

But there is an argument that they could have stayed on PC. But it was good on them, and I play it on the console to be fair.  I play RPGs from the couch, so I typically play from the couch, although not all the time.

And we all pine for what was StarCraft Ghost.

The games industry doesn’t supply nearly as many games as people hunger for, so it’s on us to do what we can to try to explore and see what we can make.

From the gamer side we understand it is a bigger challenge obviously  because the hardware is constantly changing.

That’s one advantage of looking into console is that an Xbox 360 isn’t going to change much. As opposed to every PC being different under the sun.

Was there any discussion along the development cycle about adding a Blood/Gore slider for those who are a little tamer?

There’s discussion on everything at some point or another.  We do have a low detail mode, but that’s more for clarity more than anything.  Some people play on that mode because they want to see what is going on, and some people play on it because they want a better frame rate.

But we decided to say ‘this is a Mature rated game.’ Jay Wilson constantly tells us as Systems Designers  that we shouldn’t do an option for it if we don’t have to be confident about what we are doing. Every time that you make a decision in design or graphics, or an approach to a monster – when you settle on something, you’re also settling on a hundred things you’re not doing. So basically we said, let’s put our focus on polishing the game up and be less concerned about [the level of gore].  However, that being said, we are sensitive to that, and there are certain regions where there are alterations to the graphics because certain cultures are more sensitive to that. We realize that it’s a very harsh game; we didn’t pull a lot of punches.

And it depends on your perspective as well.  We often get people who reference the humorous angle.  “I just punched a skeleton out of a zombie,” and that’s morbid but it’s pretty funny.  It can be shocking because the graphics are very detailed, and we’re going for a world that feels pretty visceral and pretty dark.  And that’s the difference between us and World of Warcraft.  A lot of people say they like Diablo because it’s so grim, but at the same time we try not to tell a story that’s needlessly graphic.  It’s pretty zany, because there are zombies and skeletons and what not, but we think that the story is more rich than simply gore-infested.

Are there any plans to include a Map Editor for custom level design for players?

There are no plans for Map Editing.  There’s a pretty big difference between StarCraft and Diablo in this way – we have a lot of random content. We would rather provide better randomization and replayability from our side and try to polish that and give people that we think is really good, rather than provide players the option to create maps themselves.  That’s another conscious decision not to supply that.  But at the same time, as people play the game we’re going to hear about what they want to play more.  If they say ‘Hey man, we like the environments in Act 2 and we don’t get to play those enough,’ we’ll try to do everything we can to provide the content in a way that feels really replayable and cool.

Everything from things like PvP to new ways to explore the existing story, and existing content.  We’re always working on our random dungeons.  You can see that there are some differences in our dungeons – some of them are larger rooms and some of them are smaller.  And we learned a lot in the process about how to make random things better. So that is something that we are absolutely obsessed with figuring out and we are working as hard as we can to make the random stuff as awesome as it can be.

Are there any truth to the rumors of a Killer Pony Level in Diablo III like the Cow Level we had previously?

I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of killer ponies or cows.  That’s above my rank.

What is your favorite feature in Diablo III?

I have two things in Diablo III that I smile whenever I think about them.  One of them is the Treasure Goblin.  I never get tired of seeing the Treasure Goblin.  Every time I see someone else playing and they run into a Treasure Goblin, I grin like a fool because half the time it gets them killed and I think that’s hilarious.  That was so much fun to tune.  Dave Pendergrass one of our engineers put a little extra love into there, but some heart into it and made it feel really good.  So I love the Treasure Goblin. 

I also, from the game designer standpoint, was the most amazed by the development of the Skill System.  As people who played the beta know, we ended up with something very different from what we started with. That was such a revealing journey of game design about how to treat points.  I’m a Dungeons and Dragons paper and dice player, so give me my attribute points and let me put them in the right places and let me spend things when I level up. And that’s the obvious way to go, and that’s where everybody starts.  What we learned is that there are a hundred different reasons not to do that.  Most of the time what happens is that people don’t understand what the points really mean until it’s too late and they’ve already spent them and they want to respend them, so if we give a respec, it ends up being this large pool of points that you take from one area and just dump into another area. And then you have to ask yourself why we gave you points in the first place.  So it all comes full circle to like why are they even there. 

I never thought that would extend to the way we do skills. The conventional wisdom said that if people can respec skills whenever they want, how is that meaningful as a build?  It turns out that people settle on a build, whether they have respec or not, they are going to settle on a build that they like and then they’re gonna evolve over time based on their play style or their mood.  They are going to say “You know what, I’m going to try Weapon Throw with the Barbarian now, I’m going to go Weapon Throw and Ancient Spear guy for a while, see how that plays.”  And then they might say “I did not know this rune with Whirlwind played out that way, well that makes me rethink my entire build,” and then they’ll play that way for a while.  It’s not like every five minutes people are flitting from flower to flower and changing their build for no reason.

We learn as we play.  A big part of game design is the process of learning.  That’s what satisfying to our brains, you hunger for learning. And when you learn a build, you don’t abandon that – you perfect it.  But when you learn something new about a new way to play, or you learn how the game works because you have been playing long enough, you have good reason to change how your character works, and that is a satisfying adventure. All the old thinking about the paper and dice character construction and not being able to respec ran completely afoul and contrary to that just for the sake of style. So it was a pretty tough journey for us to get our heads around as designers, and we dragged the community kicking and screaming with us.  But we also heard from the community, from the strike teams, from ourselves, from everybody that this was the right thing to do, and I am 100% confident that we landed in the right place, completely to my own astonishment.

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Great interview! It is awesome getting an inside look at the game that is dominating what little free time I have. ^_^

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