Diablo 3

Behind the Gear: How Hero models work

diablo19 - Behind the Gear: How Hero models work

My last post talked about some of the philosophy that went into building our hero characters. In this one, I wanted to talk about how they are constructed. This continues from my 2014 documentation – some details are out of date.

The observable facts of Diablo 3 hero models

  • Diablo 3 has 12 playable heroes- a male and a female Barbarian, Crusader, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witchdoctor, and Wizard.
  • These 12 characters each have their own unique physical geometry and animations.
  • Diablo 3 heroes can equip items in several slots in their paper doll, but the only ones that will be visualized on the game model are Head, Shoulders, Torso, Gloves, Pants, Boots, Held-Left, Held-Right.
  • Any armor item worn by a hero will have one of 18 appearances in-game. The same armor item will have one of 18 different appearances when worn by a hero of another class.
  • Armor is customizable by means of Dyes that can be applied to armor pieces individually.
  • Heroes can equip many kinds of held objects, including weapons and shields. These objects usually inherit visual FX based on the item’s randomized affixes. Held objects are not dye-able and not a part of the character, like armor.

Less-apparent functionality of hero models

  • Each hero model is comprised of four sections: Boots, Legs, Torso, Hands. Each section has four looks, each with different geometries. These four looks are called Naked, Light, Medium, Heavy.
  • When a character equips armor in the game, we look up the geo and texture linked to that item, then swap in the correct body section and apply the appropriate textures.
  • There are 18 armor appearances per hero, counting one ‘naked’, or zero-items appearance.
  • Armors designs commonly benefit from transparency. In the creation of armors using the same geo, we frequently make areas transparent to disguise the recycling.
  • Though one tier of armor art logically includes the matching helms and shoulders, these are separate models bound to the hero model as attachments. We call them snap-ons.
  • All 12 heroes use unique models for their helms and shoulders, though the helms and shoulders of one class’s male and female may closely resemble each other.
  • Hero models, as well as attachment items, sometimes benefit from engine cloth- generally skirts/loincloths. Some of the characters’ hair meshes and some dangling armor elements are managed by physics. Some ‘cloth’ elements are hand-animated in order to provide stylistic control, as with wizard robes reacting to spell explosions.
  • Some heroes have one or two features that break conventions.

World of Warcraft comparisons

  • World of Warcraft heroes have fewer polygons than Diablo 3 heroes.
  • Any World of Warcraft armor textures can be applied to any WoW hero model, and most WoW NPCs. This is not true of Diablo 3 heroes. Each class of Diablo hero has exclusive armor art.
  • World of Warcraft heroes have a much larger library of armor textures available to them. There are 200+ torso armor textures available to a given WoW hero. For Diablo characters, there are 18.
  • Because each Diablo 3 hero benefits from their own custom UV arrangement, Diablo 3 heroes are far less prone to texture stretching.
  • World of Warcraft characters have a Cloak attachment that is hand-animated. Diablo characters do not. One of the six Diablo 3 hero classes has an alternate chest geometry that resembles a cloak. It uses engine cloth.
  • Diablo heroes’ armor pieces can be customized with Dyes.
  • World of Warcraft weapons have more texture variants per model. Most Diablo weapons have no texture variants.
  • There are only ~200 weapons/held items in Diablo 3. Counting texture variants, World of Warcraft has thousands.
  • Diablo 3 hero armor and weapons/held items very rarely have floating pieces.
  • Diablo 3 heroes employ more instances of physics and engine cloth.

There is a lot of information there, so let’s take some bits apart.

  1. In D3, you can equip many kinds of gear, but not all of them appear on the actual model. This has important implications for itemization.
  2. Snap-ons are an important part of how characters art visualized. When you are deciding how a character looks, you can either build their clothing and armor into their model, or you can attach snap-ons to various hardpoints on their animation rig. Two common ones are on the head and hands. The disadvantage of a snap-on is that it moves rigidly, like it’s glued to the character. The upside of snap-ons is that it’s really easy to use them to modify characters. Designers can do it in the game, even after a character has been modeled. We used snap-ons to attach helms and shoulder pads to heroes, as we well as any held items. Whether or not an item was built into the hero model or was a snap-on had big implications for itemization.
  3. A couple heroes had more torso geometries than others. This started with the Monks. We had a bunch of
    c29tOjJ - Behind the Gear: How Hero models work
    concept art of the Monk wearing large beaded necklaces, and we wanted that to be a part of the armor design. However, they were poor candidates for snap-ons- they needed to flex and conform to the movement of the monk's torso. Putting the beads into the Heavy armor geometry meant that EVERY monk armor of Heavy armor category would have to have beads, which wasn’t appealing from a standpoint of variety. So the Monks got special additional Medium and Heavy torsos, so the artists could decide when to add beads.
  4. World of Warcraft is a train that does not stop. I am sure that some of the details and ALL the numbers I listed for WoW are out of date. They were accurate in 2014.

What I think is important to talk about here is that I am describing a system. It works in the game, and it follows a distinct logic. But you have to remember that, when we started, we had to invent this system! How heroes in Diablo II were visualized is nothing like how D3 heroes work. We had to create this system in a massive negotiation between the leads of several disciplines.

Our Lead Designer, Jay Wilson, could have put forth a lot of demands, but he mostly asked for that our heroes have as many items visually represented on their models as possible. He also wanted Pants in the game. The Artists wanted to have as much freedom as possible to make every piece of armor look as cool as possible on the heroes. The Programmers and the Tech Artists had already implemented a look system for heroes on the Blizzard North version of Diablo III. Their goal was to make sure that whatever strategy we selected was practical and performance-friendly. The producers just wanted a system in which art could be produced at a reasonable rate of speed.


Even though everyone was working together and in good faith, that negotiation took a long time. The Barbarians and Witchdoctors that appeared in our announcement video used an in-between armor methodology that doesn’t match how they work today.

But one thing that we agreed to early was that we were not going to use shared hero models. World of Warcraft has shared models to tremendous success. A single chest armor texture works on most of their humanoid races, including heroes and monsters. That was terrific for them, but we didn’t want our human Wizard and our human Barbarian to look anything alike. So we decided on unique bodies and subjective armor. The same Level 10 boots look like leather boots on a Wizard and wrapped sandals on a Barbarian. It’s a little weird, but from the perspective of the player, it mostly works. But since that level 10 boot item is something different for each hero, we had a lot of support to do. Every pair of boots in the game is actually multiple assets. It was a lot of work and a lot of data to keep track of, but we knew it was the way to go for our game.

But I think that the most significant challenge of figuring out our hero look system is best demonstrated by Phroi’s Barb.

Phroilan Gardner was a Diablo III character artist that originally worked at Blizzard North. He is a
V5tpQ8N - Behind the Gear: How Hero models work

talented painter with a
dOkCEed - Behind the Gear: How Hero models workstrong vision for characters. He was particularly in love with the Barbarian, and more than anyone, Phroi is responsible for the look of that character. His Barb concepts are some of
my favorite images to come out of Diablo III.

Phroi modeled the first Barbarian. What we needed at the time was a cool character- how different items would change the character’s look wasn’t yet set. But we had Phroi’s barb in-game, which was valuable for development. You need something to test environments, monsters and abilities, with, and it helps if it doesn’t look like a stick figure.
AlWtEAU - Behind the Gear: How Hero models work

Phroi’s barb looked a lot like his concepts, with giant claws, a spiked belt, and a massive chain girdle.

As we started figuring out how putting gear on a hero would work, Phroi’s barb looked less and less practical. That massive spiked belt looked awesome… would every belt look like that, just with a different texture? We were going to need a lot of torso armors. How could we develop a massive array of armor pieces if they were as specifically-detailed as this model?

Phroi’s answer was that he would gladly model every piece of gear for the barbarian. And I believe that he would have! But the answer from production was that we didn’t have enough time to build every hero that way. And the answer from Tech Art was that we couldn’t build a game with so many variants of the body section. Further, that belt, which looked so good with the chain girdle, wasn’t always going to play nice with pieces like shoulderpads. We needed a more standardized armor solution.

The artists acknowledged this with some disappointment. Everyone loved Phroi’s barb, even those who felt it wasn’t practical. But in the end, everyone contributed to the system that we ended up with.

At the end of the planning and negotiation, we had a system wherein Heroes are made of four chunks- a head and torso, arms, legs, and boots. Each of the four chunks has four geometries (think “bulk versions”), and they are modeled to be mostly naked (1), up to heavily armored (4). All four bulk versions of the arms plug in seamlessly to all four versions of the torso, so they mix and match perfectly. The rest of the work was in painting textures for the geometries on each chunk of the heroes’ bodies.

The upside of Phroi’s barbarian was that it would offer highly unique designs for each armor of the character. Our system's weakness was that our chunks could only be as different as our four bulk versions.

So we did what we could to get some of that uniqueness back into the armor geometries. Our first tool was the artists themselves. They could paint five completely different armors on the same body geometry, and you would never know they had the same shape. These guys were freaking talents. Second, we knew that we could conceal a lot of the shape recycling with Helmets and Shoulderpads. Remember, those are snap-ons, and not modeled into the armor. If you have to make two sets of Barbarian armor on the same geometry, but you can paint one to show a lot of skin and have a metal helm, and the other one is painted to be covered in fabric with a tasseled helm, people aren’t going to notice that they share an underlying shape.

We also gave the Monks special alternative torso geometries that add large beaded necklaces. Some of our
coolest Monk concepts included the necklaces, but we didn’t want beads on EVERY monk armor. So Tech Art hooked up some
variants that had that special look.

Also, we used transparency on a lot of models to cover up the similarities. Take a look at these two (gorgeous) armor sets that Character Artist Cory Robinson did for the Demon Hunter. These both use the same heavy geometry (“bulk version”) for the torso, arms, legs, and feet. First off, look at how much they differentiated simply through high-quality textures and dramatic changes in the Helm and Shoulderpad snap-ons. It’s hard to tell that they have the same wireframe. Now look at the tier 15 Sovereign armor set. It has the same heavy bulk geometry as the other two, and the artist has once again used texture and snap-ons to create a new visual concept. But the massive arm spikes are suddenly gone. The geometry is still there- that part of the armor has just been made transparent, giving it a different profile (and a less evil visual) than the others. That little trick was used all over the hero armors so that your eye wouldn’t start picking out similarities, and make the gear feel stale.

When I think about how much art we made and the complexity of the system, it still amazes me that we made it work. And no one person could have done it- this was a giant group achievement. And I still love pulling up armorsets to gawk at- they really are works of art.

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