When we were planning the Crusader class for the Reaper of Souls expansion, we knew that we wanted to give the class at least two categories of class-specific gear. From vanilla Diablo III, we knew that class-specific hidden slots (rings, amulets) felt underwhelming and class-specific skintight items were a lot of work for medium payoff. Knowing that the Crusader was going to be a strong martial character, we decided early to make unique snap-on held items.
Even in vanilla, we planned on setting aside the visual/concept space of a “massive shield user” for a future class. All heroes can use shields, but we knew we were going to big with the concept on this one. The crusader was going to use shields and feature them in his skills. We were going to require an equipped shield for some skills, something that we generally avoided because it forced the player into certain gear choices. But we decided the Crusaders should wield their own category of super-heavy shields, shields that in concept are so large that you need special training to use them. We even animated the Crusaders to brace themselves dramatically, in anticipation of the giant boards they would hide behind.
Looking at the common Crusader Shields, what you see is a staggered linear gear progression, one that reflects some lessons we learned making items in Diablo III vanilla.
There is visual progress across the range. With a few hitches. The shields trend from wood and cheaper materials to increasing metal and expensive materials. The shapes tend to become more complex. The size tends to increase, though these game icons don’t always reflect model size. There is an overall increase in presentation and ornamentation. This is connected to our standing goal for common items that lower-level gear read sent as "lesser" to the player’s eye than higher-level items. The corollary to that rule is that it should not be a perfect progression. The reality of Diablo games is that lower-level item art will appear on powerful rare items, and so making a perfect progression with actual crappy items at the bottom is a detriment. We wanted, and got, an imperfect progression full of cool items.
The progression goes where players expect, and where it doesn’t. You have to simultaneously give players what they want when they sign up for a play experience, and also surprise them. The iconic Crusader is a blocky, nearly colorless combatant covered in steel armor. These shields support that concept while providing structured deviation. You probably weren’t looking for a Zelda-inspired sky-blue heater, but you get one on your upgrade journey, and it still works.
We also added clear iconography tying the items back to the class. One thing we wish we had done better with our vanilla classes was to brand them in the universe. It was very useful for the Crusader order to bear the trident symbol, and we were able to use that prominently on his signature shields. This helps set them apart from normal shields in the item pool, and emphasize the class theme. The black and white crusader kite was immediately iconic and helped inform the visual concept of the character. It’s no surprise you keep seeing that shield in new renditions of the character, on posters, or in Heroes of the Storm.
Then it was time to do CShield Legendaries. Scheduling out Reaper of Souls, I had planned the character and item art budget, and I had allotted the Crusader eight Legendary Crusader Shields. I figured that we would use one for a Set or other special purpose and that the remaining seven could follow several basic item notions that I wanted to explore:
1. A sibling for the classic D2 Paladin Shield, the Alma Negra.
2. A shield that looked like a church’s stained-glass window.
3. A shield that looked like the tombstone of a venerated Crusader.
4. A shield that looked like it had a gnawing demon head strapped to it.
5. An “Ultimate” design that exaggerated all the qualities of a Crusader shield in heavy wrought iron.
6. A mirror shield.
7. A shield designed top-to-bottom to honor one of our most passionate artists.
While planning these concepts, I would often take walks with our lead concept artist, Vic Lee. He gave all my crazy ideas patient, legitimate consideration. Sometimes he told me that they were unworkable, or not visually cool. But he would often improve the idea or add a twist that made it better. Like many of our artists, he was a great collaborator.
So here’s how my seven item concepts shook out:
The Alma Negra sibling was a slam dunk. The Diablo II Paladins and the Diablo III Crusaders, in the lore, are religious cousins, and I wanted the item to connect the classes. I also had a goal to tie our legendaries to our team members, so I talked to our environment artist Richie Marella. Richie was excited to participate and gave us a Rondache design that reflected the old item. When we talked about using his name, he instead asked that we honor his grandfather, Oscar. I thought it was a sweet request, and we ended up with the Piro Marella –
“I have shaped too much steel for the purpose of killing. I offer these shields in the hope that you will bring safety and mercy back to our world.”—Mastersmith Oskar Iach on presenting the Alma Negra and the Piro Marella to Akkhan
The stained-glass window was problematic. Some devs are very literal (“How would a shield made of glass work!?”) and some take too many liberties (“It only matters that it looks cool!”). In this case, people said I was asking for too much suspension of disbelief, but the idea was saved with a design that evokes a stained-glass window. And after I saw the concept art, I couldn’t complain. We had a beautiful, Crusader-appropriate item that looked holy and didn’t resemble anything else in the game. Instant success. I named it Hallowed Bulwark.
The gravestone idea was also a bust. Given the many cemeteries in the game the Crusader’s penchant for carrying the heaviest possible defense, I thought it was a perfect marriage. But the artists found that the visual skewed cartoonish fast. However, the exploration yielded a page of wonderful sketches, and from them came the design for the final product. You look, and you can still the original idea of a tombstone encased in a carrying frame. It ended up as Akarat’s Awakening.
The “shield with a head strapped to it” was a victim of its own success. You can say “this item is made of crude materials” and “it’s like a redneck trophy” but if you give that task to an artist that makes things look powerful and beautiful, then you are going to get something powerful and beautiful. Once this piece started going through the pipeline I couldn’t tell them that they were doing it wrong. It became its own thing, and that is game development. It’s about making the best thing possible, not the thing you want. The shield became Hellskull.
The “Ultimate” shield went perfectly. In the first round we had a page of concept art that hit the idea hard. The final art is a perfect reflection of that initial pass- a heavy, spiky, reinforced shield meant to be the final word in classic Crusader design. It ended up Sublime Conviction.
The mirror shield did not fly. There are things you can say in a meeting that will make programmers irritable, and one of them is “mirror”. I knew that we could find ways to convey the notion of a mirrored shield without literally incurring the GPU cost of drawing the game world twice, but reading the room, and I could tell that my appeals to the mythological significance of mirrors were just not landing. I called it a day, and the artists came up with an evocative design without a lick of input from me. In the end, the idea of vision stayed with the item- The Final Witness.
The Jeff Kang shield is equally sweet and stupid. Jeff is a talented artist who put a ton of himself into the Diablo III environments. I worked with him for years, but he was eventually offered an opportunity elsewhere that he could not refuse. I knew that the Crusader was his favorite class, and I worked with Vic to come up with a special item. As ridiculous as it may sound, we decided to stylize Jeff’s electric skateboard into a shield and put it in the game. Vic did the concept, I gave it the name and flavor text, and until now, no one outside Blizzard was the wiser. It’s a tiny bit stupid when you know the backstory, but I love the Jekangbord –
Centuries ago, the traveling warrior Jekang found allies among the Crusaders of Westmarch and joined their order. He fought with the order for many years, and when he departed for lands unknown he made one last gift of his renown holy shield.
Modeled, the items passed into the hands of the system designers, and then the tech artists who art-ified their special powers. It was a wonderful process to be a part of, watching all these little player experiences march through the pipeline of creation until one day they start dropping in the game. And hopefully, when they did, it was meaningful, or beautiful, or exciting, or a story-enhancing moment. Because each of these items was made to tell a story, and fill in the lines of the much larger story of the game. These stories were text, and color, and style, and made by people who loved Diablo as much as the players that they knew would one day play their game.
It makes me so happy to think back on how these items came to be. I hope this look behind the gear has brought you some enjoyment as well.
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© Post "Behind the Gear: Crusader Shields" for game Diablo 3.
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