I’ve been thinking for a while now about the work that went into the art of Diablo III. It was a wonderful process to be a part of, and I always wanted people to know more about how we did it. I thought I might write a little, for those who cared, about how it went and what we were thinking at the time. I get it if people are mad at Blizzard right now, and if they want to downvote my story because of current politics and current executive decisions, that's okay. I just want to want to write about the incredible creative experience that went into making Diablo III.
When I started, I was a producer for Character art- NPCs, heroes, monsters, and gear. I took on more as time went on, but I was always tied closely to those parts of the game. One part that I was particularly in love with were the items. I loved the Diablo 1 & 2 item systems, and I wanted to be a part of the next iteration. Item games are their own thing. You need someone who can be in love with a vast spreadsheet of items, in love with the idiosyncrasies of each entry, and really care about every dagger, helmet, and amulet on it. And while I may not be the combat designer you think of when you think of item design, I am indeed that item guy.
The Diablo III loot system is vast. You probably know how it works, but you may not know what it takes to make such a system. You have to do a lot of planning, you have to carefully categorize, you have to budget, and you have to have a gut understanding of what is fun in a Diablo game.
This sounds a lot like a combat or a system designer. Starting out, I assumed that one of those guys would be assigned, say, creating all the Legendary Witch Doctor Mojos, and they would drive that process from start to finish. This person would know everything about how the class was evolving (keep in mind, this is mid-development, and everything is fluid), and would plan each legendary items for the class in the context of each other, and also every other legendary in the game. They would imagine a complete visual, ability, and thematic concept for each, then work with the artists and the writers to put out each item, a perfectly conceived masterpiece.
The reality is that game development is messy. The designers capable of doing that need to do other things… like, a hundred thousand other things. In the scope of making a game like Diablo, items can be designed later in the process than a lot of other things. Also, it turns out that being mathy and creative about game systems doesn’t always overlap with being thematically creative. For some designers, a halberd and a scythe are just names for two different two-handed bladed weapons. Those designers, while brilliant, are ignorant of player expectations and fantasies for those items, as well as their very different animation needs. Frankly, those guys need to stick to the mathy parts of itemization.
In the reality of our team environment, it made sense for us to come up with a bunch of cool, flavorful item assets that the art team was proud of, and then have Designers come in and marry them to compelling abilities and SFX. Since we were bottlenecked by designers, I took it upon myself to make sure as much of our items were designed in a connected fashion.
A lot of the things you see in games (characters, boxes, hallways, icons) get made in a linear fashion. There is the request, which becomes a concept sketch, which becomes a model, which gets animated, which maybe gets powers, which get FX, then maybe sound. It’s predictable and pretty reliable, but also makes it easy to lose the thread on what that thing is. Maybe the FX guy puts EPIC FLAME PARTICLES on the campfire because the modeler made it look sturdier and larger than in the concept, and the sound guy follows suit with EPIC ROARING FLAME SOUND. It happens easily, because everyone is just doing their part of a job. But the other way is to make things together with a group. Make a spike trap by having a modeler, an animator, an FX guy and a sound guy in the room together. Sometimes the sound designer has a great idea that influences the model, which isn’t possible in a linear pipe. There is a larger production story here, but I’ll just say that I am a fan of the second process.
To me, the creation of an item should be done in as much as a fell swoop as possible. I determined to have a plan for every item. Since the design work could not be completed at the same time as all of the art, I worked with the artists to give our gear identities so strong that they would inform the design work that would come later. Also, because it bothered me that writers completely disconnected from the items would come in and write (possibly uninformed) names and flavor text, I took it upon myself to do most of that, allowing for writer revisions later.
Taking this on myself was an act of nebulous authority. I was the art producer, and the items were my responsibility. Producers at Blizzard rarely add creatively to games- it’s a philosophical division of church and state. The thinking is that the people in charge of the schedule won’t schedule impartially if their own creations are the ones being scrutinized. It’s a good stance. However, I decided that I should break this unwritten rule because
· I love videogame itemization more than most people.
· I know a ton about the Diablo universe, including how things are named in it.
· I was dialed into the art team and could work better and faster with them than any other designer.
· I cared more than any person on the team about the feature.
That last one is a big one. You can’t always do it, but whenever you can give ownership of a feature to the person that cares the most, you should. Our lead designer had given me creative ownership over several smaller areas of the game already, so when I saw a need for a designer to come in and own these items, I just stepped in and did it.
And I’d like to talk about them. I figured I’d start with some Crusader Shields. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the ideas behind the items I will talk about all came from me. Go ahead and message me your hate.
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© Post "Looking Behind the Gear" for game Diablo 3.
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