Diablo News Diablo 3 Post-mortem with Jay Wilson Part 2

Our interview with Jay Wilson, Former Gamer Director of Diablo 3, continues today focusing on the Auction House and game controversies. Missed part one? catch it here!

A decade is a long time between games, what was the hardest part about bringing the franchise back?

Probably getting a cohesive vision from the team on what Diablo is. Diablo is as much myth as it is game. Like any myth, some things get blown to epic proportions, and those things change from person to person. What one team member views as essential to the series another may not even remember, or consider to be a liability. Because Diablo is so important, we’d all get very set in those views, and coming to good compromises and agreements could be very challenging.

Working within an existing series is always tricky, but it’s exponentially tougher when it is as beloved as Diablo. You want to be true to the series, without copying verbatim. Some people might prefer verbatim, but that creates stagnation and is the most assured way to kill the creativity of your team, and eventually the interest in the series. Creative people need to be able to flex their imagination and make things their own. Things need to move forward.

The auction house:How did it come to be? When did you change your mind?

I want to start this question off by reminding people that I no longer work for Blizzard, and don’t speak for the company, or the Diablo team in any way.

In my experience, and I’m in no way trying to brag when I say I’ve got a lot of experience on this topic not only due to Diablo but being at Blizzard and seeing the struggles of all our games, if your game is popular and has open trading between players then you are going to have security problems. There is too much money to be made by third parties for them to not do everything in their power to sell to and/or scam your player base. You can try to stop them case by case, and we did, but it’s always a losing battle. You’re always in reaction mode. There’s too much money to be made by too many people. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but by everything I’ve seen it’s true.

The two best ways to stop it are: 1) Don’t have trading, or heavily regulate it. I think this is actually a good choice for a lot of games. When you weigh the downsides of scamming, botting, spamming, etc. on your player base versus depriving the subset that like to trade from doing it, I think it falls in favor of no trading for a lot of games. That’s a hard truth for some, but the real world is filled with lots of unpleasant hard truths. Option 2) Build trading into the economy such that your player base won’t be tempted to third party groups to trade. Some games need trading to meet the vision of the game. Eve Online is a good example, and their Plex system is a great example of a way to remove gold selling third parties by building player to player gold selling into the system in a controlled manner. Unfortunately, without a subscription model, we had to consider other methods since we really wanted D3 to have trading.

The auction house came out of the desire to legitimize third party trading so that players would stay in the game to do their trading rather than go to third party sites, and as a result reduce fraud, scams, spamming, and the profit in hacking the game, making dupes, etc. The problem is, of course, it over-legitimized trading. It made it too easy. I think we all know this by now and the consequences. We worried about these consequences ahead of time, but we thought the benefits would outweigh the downsides, and WoW’s AH seemed like a good proof of concept. Obviously we were mistaken.

When did I change my mind? That’s hard to say. It was clear right away that it was doing harm to the game, but we weren’t sure right away what to do about it. Within a month or two I know I wished we hadn’t done it, but I wasn’t sure it should be shut down. To those discussing it online it seemed clear it needed to be shut down, but it’s harder to make that call when you can see how much your players are using the system. It was extremely popular among players if you gauge by usage, which can make decisions like that difficult to make. If you remove it you know for sure you’ll make a couple of hundred people on your forums happy, and they probably represent a significant portion of your audience, but how many of the hundreds of thousands of people who used the service daily liked it more than the harm it was causing? There were also legal questions about if we even could shut it down given that it was advertised on the box as a major feature.

This is a key element of game design that is hard to understand until faced with the decisions. Sometimes things that hurt the game in one way are justified in others. I could talk about all the design reasons that attribute points are bad, but the thing that blows those arguments away is that they are fun, which is why we added them back, in a way, with the paragon system. Are the choices we made their terrible? No, because there is a lot of fun to be had in the systems we built as well. Fun isn’t an all or nothing metric, and can overwhelm a lot of very logical arguments.

I know when Josh proposed we shut down the AH I supported him 100%, but he deserves the credit for pushing on it and ultimately killing it.

I’ve seen lots of people theorize that the AH was pushed on us by our corporate overlords, or that it was making too much money for us to shut down. Neither of those things are true. I won’t go into more than that because you either believe those statements or you don’t. Anyone who thinks Blizzard is motivated first and foremost by money hasn’t really paid much attention to how they operate, how many games they’ve cancelled that weren’t good enough, how much they support games that don’t have ongoing revenue beyond box sales, how much time they spend on developing their games, how much content and feature set they include in each product. In my opinion, Blizzard has always believed that if you do right by your players and your game, the money follows. That formula has proven right for them for twenty-five years. Why change it?

The community: from the start D3 had one stupid “controversy” (too many pretty colors)after another. Is pleasing an online community a Sisyphean task? – that may be a loaded one. Perhaps how is it interacting with such a mix of vitriol and passion.

I’m not sure I’d say the controversies were stupid. Players had legitimate concerns and complaints. That’s fine. They need to be expressed so discussion can happen about what the game should be. Changes were made as a result of the discussion about the game’s appearance, for example, they just weren’t changes that removed or dampened all color.

The problem is more about how we’ve evolved to have these discussions. Things get too focused on being right at all costs, walking into discussions angry and disrespectful, winning arguments at all costs, name-calling, or the idea that game devs should have no creative input, are working for their customer base exclusively, and so need to do verbatim what players tell them, which is rarely clear from the dev’s standpoint.

We live in an interesting time. One in which I’d say we have two realities. We have the real world reality, and we have Internet. They certainly influence one another, but everything gets amplified on the internet. It’s a place where those with the loudest opinion can overwhelm larger groups who are quieter, or absentee. If you only have exposure to the internet reality then you are going to have a skewed, usually more negative view of things, but my view was also partially of the real worldreality. ThereIn reality we got a lot of different looking, generally more positive or constructive, feedback.

Most importantly, Diablo 3 always had extremely high concurrency numbers, so if we ever doubted whether the game was popular or liked all we had to do was pull up the current numbers of how many players were online, no matter what time it was, and we could feel a lot better. If the game didn’t have substance those players wouldn’t have stuck around. Yes, long-term consistent sales were another factor, as were long-term reception, but the best metric is always that people are playing your game.

The truth is most of the time it was great interacting with the community. They were passionate, supportive, and wanted us to succeed. Our success meant a great game for them to play. People sent us letters, cookies, pictures, etc. Before and after ship I never had a single person be mean to my face. Most now apologize for how they perceived I was treated, which is nice, but the truth is my experience has been that the vast majority of people were great to me, even if they disagreed with me. It’s only a small few that weren’t civil, they were just very vocal and at times nasty.

Is it possible to please an online community? Depends on your definition of pleasing them I guess. Someone is always going to have a problem with something, and that’s okay. There are people who will never be happy with Diablo 3 for one reason or another. I’ve certainly had that happen with things I love, so I understand the feeling, and it never bothered me when people felt that way. Would I like to make them happy? Of course. I would’d have loved to give every person the exact Diablo 3 they wanted, but it was beyond my power.

The only thing that bothered me was that we’ve tolerated an extreme level of interaction. Extremely hostile, violent, threatening language got normalized on the internet, and we’re seeing the consequences of that now. I’d urge players to not let the most extreme people own the conversation, or the conversation will cease to happen. Devs often get told to “suck it up, buttercup, you wanted this”, but the truth is no one wants abuse, or to be scared for their safety or the safety of their family (as I was for a time). It’s not acceptable, and talent doesn’t have to tolerate it. They can go do something else, and then we lose our best game devs as a result. At some point, mistakes have become unacceptable to a contingent of the audience that has a very loud voice. And what people don’t make mistakes?

No, the above is not the primary reason I left the game industry, but it was a factor.

You mentioned how your job often had you often saying “no” to ideas, What was the hardest thing you had to turn down?

Reflects Damage.

Usually ideas about bosses. People had big dreams about the crazy things we could do with bosses, but when you have a game where players are as customizable as they are in Diablo lots of ideas don’t work. For example, if you want the ground to collapse beneath the player such that they have to jump to a nearby patch of stable ground, well that works great for a Barbarian with Leap, or Wizard with teleport, but what about the other classes? What about the Barbs who didn’t take Leap? As a result, enemies often had to accommodate everything that was possible for the players to be, which limited the diversity of what they could do.

I look at player abilities and monster abilities as linked systems. You give monsters crazy abilities, and then you make sure the player has the tools to deal with those abilities and vice versa. When you don’t know what’s going to be in the player’s tool belt you can’t throw problems at them that require specific, exclusive tools.

Jay continues the interview and reveals the thought process behind the characters, and fame in part 3!

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