Interview – Diablo III’s Jason Bender and Christian Lichtner talk Demon Hunters, PVP, Blizzard on consoles, tons more

By Nathan Grayson
27 October 2010 08:30 GMT


BlizzCon has come to a close. We came, we saw, we conquered.

OK, no we didn’t. We actually spent the whole time playing Diablo III. But then, the game’s mix of hack ‘n’ slash demon-dicing and subtle strategy is already – near as we can tell – polished to perfection – even though Blizzard’s still keeping any sort of release schedule so tightly under wraps that we wouldn’t be surprised if there were exploding collars involved. And of course, let’s not forget the Demon Hunter and PVP arenas. Both made incredibly strong debuts at this year’s show, putting new and disturbingly addictive twists on the classic Diablo formula.

Put simply, Blizzard’s Diablo team’s still got it, so we took a couple of its members hostage and demanded a pre-release copy of the gam- er, we mean, we sat down for a nice, polite chat with senior designer Jason Bender and art director Christian Lichtner, and there was no duct tape involved. Read on for their thoughts on why Diablo III still has no release date, the origins of the Demon Hunter, what it’s like to balance a game where each class has 97 billion potential builds, female characters in games, why Diablo III isn’t on consoles, and more.

[Interview by Nathan Grayson]

VG247: First up, the most obvious question: why’d you opt to stay mum on a release date this year?

Jason Bender: It’s just premature. We want to make sure that we announce when the game is done, you know? That’s how we do it. We want to make sure that when we’re ready to do it, we will – rather than a sort of arbitrary BlizzCon date.

Are we close-ish, maybe? Basically, at this point I’d sell my soul to the real devil so I could play a game about the fake devil.

JB: We can’t say. We can’t really illuminate that. But, as you can see, there’s a big difference between last year and this year. We’re making massive forward progress. There are runes, and we’re incredibly excited about how much progress we’ve made there. We just have a lot of work to do still.

You announced the Demon Hunter class this year, which had many Necromancer and Paladin devotees diving into their tissue boxes. So then, why her? Why did you decide to create a ranged class?

Christian Lichtne: A ranged class was a class we had planned very much from the beginning. But as we were announcing classes, we kept sort of bumping that forward, going “You know what? We’re not quite ready to work on this one.” It sort of had to simmer.

There was a lot of early content we had done with it, and when we were ready to really start working on it, we had just announced the Monk class. We looked back on all the work we had done up to that point, and we sort of started pushing in a slightly different direction. Sort of a woodland ranger vibe early on. We really went with the Demon Hunter because it gave you enough contrast against the Monk, for example. We also wanted to start pushing a more medieval gothic vibe because we’re big fans of Diablo II obviously and we really want to pay tribute to that.

You also trotted out PVP arenas this year, which rock, by the way. What kinds of gametypes can we expect to hack ‘n’ slash tiny people to tinier pieces in?

JB: We’re doing a sort of best-of-series team deathmatch type. It’s team-based. Teams are gonna be three or four; we’re not sure. We haven’t settled on it yet. And then you do a best-of-series so we can focus on just keeping the action going. We found that our gametypes work well when it goes fast. When it goes quickly, we don’t want to have the matches go to long because we don’t want anyone sitting on the sidelines while they’re waiting for the match to finish. That can lead to people punching out and trying to match for a new game on, among other things.

That’s what we’re sticking with for now. We’ve been testing it a lot. We’re really liking it. That’s not to say we might not come up with something else in the future, though.

On that note, do you plan to continue tweaking and adding to the multiplayer component after launch?

JB: Yeah, it’s an evolutionary process. I mean, right now, we like what we have so far, and it’s constantly evolving. And we’ll have to see what we do post-launch. You know, the options are unlimited. We just need to make sure that we’re focused on the right thing. If we go too broad with too many gametypes, it just dilutes the essence of the game.

In a panel, some of your fellow Diablo III devs were discussing the fact that the game’s PVP reward system isn’t based on loot or gold or other traditional Diablo standbys. Instead, it’s all about earning titles, achievements, and the like. Why’d you decide to go that route instead of giving players new toys for all their hard work?

JB: It’s definitely more of a Call of Duty-style progression speaking very generally. Part of the reason is that we want to make sure you’re playing PVP for the right reasons. We want PVP to be inherently fun. And Diablo is primarily a PVE game – cooperative with lots of loot, right? We don’t think the best way to get loot should be to grind in PVP and be like “Well, I don’t really like PVP, but it’s where I get the best loot.” We really want to make sure you’re playing PVP just because it’s fun and for bragging rights. We intend to support it, but really, PVE and cooperative is where the loot’s at.

You’ve claimed that each Diablo III class has roughly 97 billion potential builds, which would basically be a balancing nightmare from which you’d never awaken. So instead, you’ve decided to take the focus off relentless tweaking altogether. What about the fans who want an E-Sport, though? What about the Internet rabble-rousers who know Blizzard as the company that constantly obsesses over near-perfect balance? What do you say to them?

CL: I think our focus is very much on the PVE experience. The point of PVP is more for players to really beat the crap out of each other. It’s fun! And like we said before, you can’t feasibly balance 97 billion builds. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t gonna be some of that happening. I just think it’s being realistic. It’s not even the point of the whole PVP experience.

JB: So we do balance it. The numbers are different from PVE. We’ve been balancing it for a while, and crowd control stuff tends to be reduced. Counters are emphasized. But we don’t want to sacrifice PVE balance under any circumstances for the PVP game. Diablo is about running through the world, beating stuff up with your friends cooperatively, getting the next best sword – you know, what have you. That’s our primary mission. And it just happens that all these game mechanics are fun to play in a team-based environment. It’s a little more freeform PVP experience.

There will be balance. But we’re really not worried about trying to get the optimal build for each class figured out before the day-one launch, because it’s a different beast. StarCraft is about that: really tightly balanced beautiful strategy, so they emphasize that. We prioritize an experience that’s easy to get into, and you just can’t help but have fun.

Has Arena PVP always been a priority for you? When did you decide to implement it?

JB: I can say that we tried a few different things. The sky’s the limit when you first start out. And we zeroed in on [arenas} iteratively. You know, of all the things we tried, it just tends to come back to that being the most solid, the most fun, and the easiest to jump into. Having tried a whole bunch of different stuff, that’s the one that just popped up as being the best on its own. That’s what the feedback was. That’s not to say we didn’t learn a lot about other possibilities. That’s the one that just really nailed it.

How open is Arena PVP going to be as a platform? Where does it fall in the great Blizzard divide? Is it like StarCraft II: potentially able to house everything from puzzle games to Left 4 Dead rip-offs? Or is it like WoW, which is pretty much locked up tight aside from the occasional UI mod that skitters through?

JB: We’re not going to be very mod-heavy like StarCraft. We’re not supporting them the same way. So Diablo, for example, is really about us providing [the content]. That’s why it has randomization. The way you find the loot and all that stuff is really fair. Obviously, it’s not an MMO, so the problems are a bit different. But we really do want you to jump in with your buddies and slay the monsters and get the cool stuff.

That extends to PVP. So currently, we’re not gonna ship an editor that you can make your own maps in or anything. That’s not planned. But I can say that we’ve learned so much from and StarCraft that there are a lot of other ways we think we can make the experience much richer. I think StarCraft has taught us so much; things like achievements and titles and things of that nature, how people connect, how we match people up – ladders and such. We have a lot of work we can do there to really make the experience awesome in a whole bunch of other ways.

There’s been a fair deal of backstory to each character class. The Demon Hunter, especially, seemed like she had bit more depth to her than a pinky toe-shallow Badass Chick. How much will that matter within the game, though? Are these fairly fleshed out characters, or are they gothic Gordon Freemans for players to impose their own personalities onto?

CL: I think by definition classes are somewhat blank slate. We really want the player to invest heavily in each class.

That said, each class has a backstory to some degree that you’re playing through. But you’re actually playing the same experience – just from sort of different angles. In that regard again, the Demon Hunter was a class we created where we felt like we wanted her to be a little bit more mysterious – a little on the darker side. Maybe not all the questions were answered. You know, you weren’t quite sure exactly what her deal was. I think it’s a nice class to really contrast with all the other classes. So for everyone who wants to play Diablo III, they’ll have good choices to choose from.

JB: Yeah, you’re not playing, like, Bob the Barbarian or any particular guy. You’re playing your character. But we did want to bring out the history. The barbarians, for example, have a really rich history. All the characters have a backstory. The backstory does factor into the game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a giant throughline through the story that’s entirely different depending on which class you choose. The metastory is about the burning hells invading sanctuary and heroes stepping up to defeat this invasion because they’re the only ones who can.

Diablo’s actually defaulted some main characters – like the Demon Hunter and the Wizard — as female, which is great. Much of the time, when games do this, the result is either patronizing or offensively misogynistic. Why do you think that is, and what kind of considerations does Blizzard make in order to avoid that?

CL: I think we’ve been very even-keel with this. You know, we announced the Monk and he was male. We announced the male witchdoctor and the female wizard. So we’ve sort of got a nice selection. I think we try to appeal to both genders equally. We don’t have a preference.

I do know that for a ranged class – the female version, anyway — one of our goals is that we also wanted to make her a little on the sexier side, a little on the mysterious side. We had the witchdoctor and she was very scary; she had that sort of voodoo tribal feel. We really wanted to find something that was offsetting against that. Also, she looks a little more agile and swift – a little bit more of a feel for a ranged character class.

I sat in on a recent press conference where Jay Wilson and J Allen Brack were asked why Blizzard games aren’t on consoles. The gist of their argument? If Blizzard created a game that was a good fit for consoles, it’d be there in a heartbeat. Obviously, many gamers have responded to this with vehement cries of “Diablo!” Are they right? Or are Diablo’s demons invulnerable to all but the mighty mouse and keyboard?

JB: I think it is suited to consoles. We’re definitely working, obviously, on the PC version. This is something that’s been brought up a lot about Diablo. It’s sort of an ongoing question. And I’m sure we would all love to play it on console, but right now, we’re just focused on what we’ve got in front of us. Who knows what the future holds? It’s hard to say.

CL: We have said in the past that Diablo’s one of the games that really would translate [to consoles] well.

Are there any plans for a pre-release demo or something of the like for Diablo III?

CL: There will be a closed beta. I can say that. We definitely will have that. It’s incredibly important for us to get feedback from people. You know, we only want to put a game out there when it’s done. For example, when World of Warcraft had its really long beta, everyone thought it was madness. It was like “Who’s gonna buy this game? People have been playing it for free for months!” And all it did was make the game better. We need it. We need people playing the game and giving feedback, so we can make the game better.

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