Diablo News Diablo 3 Post-mortem with Jay Wilson Part 5

Our interview with Jay Wilson, Former Gamer Director of Diablo 3, finishes today focusing on what Jay is doing now and his legacy moving forward.

For someone so involved in the process, what is it like to play your own game? Are you able to enjoy it or does knowing how the sausage is made ruin it?

 The sausage still tastes good even if you know how it’s made, unless it never tasted good in the first place. I’ve worked at places where you can barely play the game until it is near completion. Blizzard is not like that. In Diablo 3 we considered it a serious issue whenever the game wasn’t playable due to crash bugs or frame rate. This is one of the keys to Blizzard’s success. They play their games. I know that sounds simple, but if you work on something for years and still enjoy playing it you can be assured it has legs. Nothing reveals flaws of your game like playing it. I’ve worked at companies where playing your own game during the day was viewed as goofing off. I am highly suspect of such companies. You’ve got to taste the product to know it’s good.
You do burn out, though, in the same way you burn out on anything you like to do, although for me that tends to happen after ship more often than before. I went through a period after I stepped down from Diablo where I didn’t want to play it at all. I still liked the game, but I’d had my fill. Same thing happened with Dawn of War.

Diablo 2 is still up and running, WoW has been going for over a decade, is longevity a goal of the design process or more of a result?

 Yes. Absolutely. It’s more a Blizzard-wide thing then a project specific one. System requirements are rigorously set as low as possible. We embrace what we called a “painterly” art style because it ages extremely well. The whole design of Diablo’s item game, level up systems, adjustable difficulty, paragon system, seasons…all designed to help the game last. It didn’t come up a lot, but ideas that would hurt longevity are generally rejected.

In tandem what how hard is it to make a sequel to a game that people are still playing?

 Mostly I tried not to think about it. It’s not that different from making a game that is much beloved, or making a game in a license that is much beloved (Warhammer 40,000, for example). People still playing the game is a sign that it is important. There were a couple times I was asked to make calls on D2 patches, which was really strange. They were minor things, but it really nailed home for me that we weren’t just making a Diablo game, but we had inherited the Diablo legacy. That was quite frightening.

Life after Blizzard: What are you doing now? What is it like to be outside of the industry?

I’m working on a novel. I’ve actually completed a first draft, so currently I’m doing research for a second book while I take a break before returning to the novel’s second draft. My family didn’t want to live in California anymore, which was the catalyst for me leaving in the first place, so we’ve moved back to the Pacific Northwest, an area that makes us very happy. I work from home now, which means I get to spend a lot of time with my daughter, which is important to me since she’s only in the house for another couple of years. I wish I could say I’m taking it easy and living the good life, but I’m a bit too driven to relax much.

It’s a relief to be out of the industry to be honest. I really enjoyed it, but I’d been doing it for twenty years, and I think as Metzen said recently, my tanks were empty. Throughout my career I always had a burning desire to make something. Either it was a game I dreamed about or the game I was working on. It’s what drove me forward. I always wanted to make games I really wanted to play. I wanted a great Warhammer 40,000 strategy game, so I made Dawn of War because no one else was making it. No one was making ARPG’s in 2006, much less Diablo 3, so I was driven to make that. Now I look out at gaming and there isn’t that one game I can’t play that I really want to make. I think that’s a testament to the quality of both the game industry and the mod communities.

I loved having a team of talented people to work with, but it was also highly stressful. It’s nice to have a break from that stress, and work on something creative that doesn’t require the buy-in of one hundred other people to move forward. 🙂

Having a family, how hard is it to balance that with being in the industry?

I don’t think it’s harder than any other high stress industry. I’d guess doctors or police or others with more grown up jobs have it as hard, likely harder. My anecdotal experience is that divorce rates are no higher in the game industry than the national average. It is video games, after all. But it does test relationships, especially the long hours. I find relationships where there is not some shared interest or tolerance to games struggle. My wife isn’t a gamer, but she has no illusions about who she married, but I’ve seen relationships where the non-gamer judges the developer as being childish or lacking seriousness, or looks down on gaming. Those relationships don’t last in most cases. Like anything, you have to make the relationships in your life a priority, fight for them, and accommodate the other person.

 What advice do you have for anyone wanting to break into the gaming industry?

Get a degree appropriate to your discipline. If you want to be a designer, and don’t have access to some kind of game degree, focus on something to do with human nature. Lots of designers come from sociology, psychology, criminology, history, or english backgrounds, for example. However, the best advice is that you make things. Contribute to a mod, make a mod, design a board game, etc. Designers design things. They can’t help it. If you don’t compulsively play with mod settings and download level editors question whether you are actually a designer. Making things gives you a library of work to show to a company.

Plan for the first five years in the industry to be hard. The game industry is one of the highest demand industries in the world. It’s competitive, and it’s tough. Only the durable make it through what I call the “hazing period”. Work hard, be positive. Support those above and around you even if you don’t always agree with them. I’m not saying be a yes wo/man, but don’t be the opposite either. Express your opinion and concerns, but after that help to make things happen. People who make things happen get rewarded in the long run.

Most importantly, recognize that your value is in your ability to implement and create content, not generate ideas. Ideas are generally over-valued by most people. When I worked in the game industry I had teams full of people with ideas. The last thing I needed was ‘more’ ideas from someone outside the team. Ideas need to be turned into reality, and for that to happen you need to get your hands dirty. You need boots on the ground. I hand tuned 90% of the monsters and lots of class abilities in Diablo 3, even as Game Director. Getting my ideas into the game wasn’t a priority for me. Getting the ‘best’ ideas in the game was what mattered. So if you’ve got big ideas that sparkle in your eyes that’s great, but get yourself a skillset. Once you are making things in a game the opportunities to include your ideas are prolific, but in my twenty year career I never once hired an “idea” person.

You mentioned writing a Novel- any hints as to what it’s about? What genre at least?

I’m writing an urban fantasy (code for set in modern times but with fantasy/sci-fi elements) book about a detective who can see and talk to ghosts and solves their murders, at least for the first book. Most of my ideas are set in modern times, but with fantastical elements. I’m not trying to be the next Faulkner. I’ll be happy to make things that are entertaining and diverting for those who like this kind of stuff.

As we have hit the 20th anniversary of the franchise your name is now indelibly tied to the franchise.  When we look back in ten more years, what would you like your time to be remembered for?

I don’t know. That’s not really for me to decide. I’m most proud of the moment to moment combat in Diablo 3, and think that’s the top thing I can be linked to game-wise. I hope the team looks back on the game with pride and the their time on it as more positive than negative. I’m happy that it’s remained popular and found its following. I believe the success of it has guaranteed that Diablo should continue to have a future. If my back was a stepping stone for Big Red’s clawed foot then that makes me happy.

After a 19 page interview, I can’t say I know Jay. However I can say his passion, enthusiasm, and care for D3 came through. He doesn’t pull his punches, or sugar coat missteps. Throughout the process all I could think was how I would have loved to hear some of these things while the game was coming through. However the amount of time he gave me wouldn’t be replicable for everyone, and he would then spend most of his time communicated and very little of it directing. One thing that amazed me was Jay’s willingness to step back into the fray once more. Just look at the comments on each part of the interview, no matter what he said we’d expect more or want to chastise him for decisions from years ago. It becomes easy to understand why he would shy away from this. 

The job itself seems like a lot more work and pressure than most could handle. We as a Diablo community are a confusing group: nostalgic and constantly looking ahead; passionate and caring, but also vitriolic; Hardcore and casual; with a desire to be at the center of it all, while also being exclusive. This mix makes the person who takes on the mantle of Game Director almost set up to be considered a failure in some respect. As we move on with D3 and into the future of the franchise we should keep those things in mind, not just for the director’s posterity but for the franchise itself. Diablo is best served by those who are passionate about it, but when that passion turns to overwhelming vitriol what foundation is left to build on going forward?