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

Our interview with Jay Wilson, Former Gamer Director of Diablo 3, continues today focusing on PVP, skills, talisman, and what happened along the way.

PVP- What happened here? I have yet to attend a Blizzcon but I heard good things about the demo that was seen early on.

This is so hard to explain, but I’ll do my best without writing a novel about it. 🙂

There were two opinions of what we should do with D3 PVP. The first was allow structured dueling of some form, but not try to make it a serious, balanced, competitive mode. The other opinion was to try and make an e-sport. The team generally fell behind the idea of making something closer to an e-sport. I don’t think that was even a conscious decision, it’s just what sounded cool to them, and they ran with it. Within the team the mode was pretty popular, but outside of the team the reception was a lot more mixed, and for those of us within the company with a lot of experience making PVP, we were very concerned, myself included. Every game I’d made before D3 had a serious competitive mode. Dawn of War was played in the World Cyber Games for two or three years, so it wasn’t my first experience with PvP. What I saw when I looked into the future was the team receiving overwhelming pressure from the audience and the company to turn the mode we were building into an e-sport, with all the fanfare and attention that brings.

Diablo and Diablo 2 were released in the wild west time of gaming. E-sports wasn’t a thing then. PVP abilities didn’t generally have spreadsheets applied to them on forums to determine optimal ability usage, or if they did these things weren’t adopted by the general population. This all became a reality after D2 was released, several years into its release.

I believed, and still believe to this day, that a hyper competitive e-sport would have been one of the worst things that could happen to Diablo 3, and would have been almost unavoidable with the direction we were going. Remember when I mentioned that the Game Director is not all powerful? One of the examples is that it is near impossible to resist the tide of public and company pressure when applied to something like this. The result would have been outcries and demands for game balance in a game that ‘should’ be all about crazy and insane impossibilities. It’s my opinion that Diablo works best when it embraces a very whimsical approach to game balance. That’s one of the reasons that the stepped difficulty system works so well in Diablo, because when players get overwhelmingly ridiculously powerful they can just keep cranking up the knob until the game is challenging again. This kind of approach to power creates wild imbalances that can be corrected from patch to patch, but they are generally corrected with a hammer (everyone gets a new uber set!), not the scalpel PVP needs.

Long and short of it, I was convinced that a competitive PVP mode would demand game balance that would at best harm, and at worst ruin, the fun of the single-player/co-op scramble for crazy power that is the heart of Diablo. It would be the constant downer that would curtail ability powers, restrict item and set design, and generally run the show despite being played by a minority of the player base (some might argue that if it were good PVP everyone would play it, but that’s just not true. Even very popular PVP games almost never see a majority of their players playing PVP if they have strong single player. A general guideline is that 25% play PVP if a strong single player is available). Single and co-op were by far the priority for Diablo 3, so we made the hard decision to remove PVP rather than risk that harm. It would have been easier, both from an amount of work and a criticism point of view, to leave it in. Certainly some players would have preferred we did, as for some PVP is the priority. I just didn’t, and still don’t, believe that it’s the priority for Diablo.

If I could have a do-over I would have encouraged the team to implement a dueling system for core release, and that might have been it. We had ideas for some team-based player vs. monster vs. player type stuff that might have worked, but it never got a head of steam.

Wizard melting cultists with Disintegrate 4

What skills were the most problematic to balance/create?

Um, that’s really hard to remember. Seismic Slam was hard because it was the first FX heavy ability, and involved ground FX. Originally we actually had modeled terrain that broke apart, but that sounds cooler than it actually was. The look at ship was far better. Seven-sided strike was mechanically difficult to work out. Combo abilities on the Monk were more time intensive due to needing a new system for combos and being more animation intensive. Disintegrate (which I still to this day can’t seem to spell correctly without auto-check) was the first ability that required a unique death effect, which spawned a large system that got applied across tons of abilities. It’s hard to remember balance issues, mainly because compared to implementation they’re almost always easier to deal with, since the answer 99% of the time is to tweak the math, whereas when an ability looks boring the answer could be one of many things.
Also keep in mind, because of runes it was more like Diablo 3 had hundreds of abilities on our classes, instead of dozens. Some rune changes were simple, but many radically changed abilities. As a result, ability design is a bit of a blur in my head. 🙂

What happened to the talisman?

Short answer: we didn’t think it was fun.
Long answer: there is a tricky balancing act when doing class and item design. There is a point I call the ‘spreadsheet moment’ where the variables have become so complicated that the average player can’t make a decision about their character or an item in their head. They require a spreadsheet, not for perfect optimization, but just to get an idea of what they’re doing. I’ve been known to map out abilities for a game I love in a spreadsheet for optimization. As a designer I want that level of depth in a game I make, but there is a point where you dump so much math on a player that they’re no longer capable of just making a decision and running with it because it’s what they like. When that point occurs we all portal back to town and alt-tab to the internet so someone who is better at math can make the decision for us.
Gamers are smart. They can feel when the math has gotten so complex they can’t process it in their heads, and the reaction is to assume that their ‘must’ be a clear correct singular decision. We desire that correct decision because humans like to apply order to things that seem chaotic. When we’re that sure of a singular right way to do something, no one wants to be the dummy who did it the “wrong” way. Unfortunately when players enter this mindset their no longer making the choice they want to make, for the sake of fun, but rather the choice they feel they have to make for the sake of being right.
I think in the past whenever I talk like this there have been some players who think I’m wanting to dumb things down, or maybe that I don’t think they’re capable, or that I’m otherwise advocating an overly-simplistic game, or some similar argument. There are definitely a group of players out there that thrive on maximum complexity. I love those players, because they’re the ones that find holes in games (my own and others) that need to be fixed. They’re the ones I turn to as a player when I don’t have the time or mind to figure something out. They’re very valuable, and Blizzard design philosophy has always valued them, but you only have to look at Blizzard games to also see that they’re broad appeal is in finding a way to make a game for those players that doesn’t intimidate the player who doesn’t want to dive quite as deep. We sometimes refer to those players as “casual”, but I think that term is loaded. I like to think of them more as “busy”. 🙂
The talisman added a layer of complexity onto what was already becoming a complex system. Items, gems, enchants, abilities, passives, runes…it’s a lot of systems. We added several more item slots over Diablo 2 as well. Add to that, the talisman as it was originally conceived was Tetris-like in complexity. That game, while fun in a vacuum, didn’t sit well alongside the 200 MPH action of Diablo 3. No one wanted to stop to do it. The system kept getting simpler and simpler in an effort for the team to like it that it finally reached a point where it was so simple that the originally envisioned fun mini-game was gone, yet it still added tons of math complexity. Ultimately the best judge of a system sometimes is how the team feels when you take it away. Most of the time there is protest. People like features, especially ones that are already implemented. With the talisman, the team was just relieved when it was gone, and that told us loud and clear that removing it was the right decision.

Hostility- Was there ever any talk of allowing players to attack one another within the game world like in D2?

No. Not serious talk, or talk encouraged by me. I expressly forbid it in the core pillars of Diablo 3. Hostility in D2 hostility features were so neutered that it was hardly worth doing. Once you were experienced you never fell for it. I’m not saying it was never fun, but when it was fun it was an exception, not the rule. That’s a small bonus for the major downside: players, especially new players, don’t want to play with strangers, and the numbers on players per game in Diablo 2 backed this up. When you can make a private game what’s the point of hostility? If you’re going to do something, go all the way: Dark Souls or WoW PvP servers are all hostility done well.

Our priority was co-op. From day one I wanted ‘every’ resistance or bad experience that could prevent players from playing together to be removed. Some may call this a carebear approach, but I call it picking a horse. I’m a big believer in you do something all the way, you do it right, or not at all if doing it conflicts with something more important. Co-op is one of the best things about Diablo. It deserves to get priority. It deserves to be the best damn co-op game in the world, and it can’t be that if you hold it back with a lot of other conflicting priorities that create exception cases of fun that aren’t the rule.

I see the next question is about Hardcore, so I’ll mention I think that’s a good example: lots of people wanted us to kill Hardcore internally. It creates big customer service problems and costs. It has lots of potential bad experiences for players. We had to create a whole separate auction house and player economy, which also doubled the potential storage space required per player for something that we knew only a small subset of players would do. I don’t remember any argument ever budging me an inch from the decision to do HC. It’s core Diablo DNA in my opinion, and most importantly, it doesn’t harm any other core goal of the game.

I cut the next question due to it not leading into anything, but still found it interesting to hear that my favorite mode almost didn’t make it in! We finish the interview with insight as to what Jay is doing now, and reflections on his time with D3.