Devil May Launch Soon: Blizzard’s Bender on Diablo III

By Nathan Grayson, Sunday, 30 October 2011 08:56 GMT

At Blizzcon 2011, Nathan Grayson sat down with Blizzard’s Jason Bender to discuss one of the hottest tickets of the season: Diablo III.

Controversy: Diablo III

Requires an always-on Internet connection, even in single player.

Will not support mods.

Players will be able to trade in-game items.

Raising ire among the core PC gaming fanbase and still expected to sell by the metric boat load.

No launch date has been set, but the game is in closed beta.

Diablo is a game about clicking on things until they die. From the outside looking in, you’d probably figure that making a new one can’t possibly be all that complicated. Polish up the graphics, add some more silly suffixes to your item-naming technology, resist the urge to turn it into a first-person shooter – that kind of thing. Then it drives off the lot, and you set to work on next year’s model.

And yet, here we are, ten years after Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, and Diablo III’s only just now looking poised to cross the finish line. So, what in Beelzebub’s sounds-like-the-noise-a-fly-makes-when-it’s-in-your-ear name is going on here? Especially with series like Torchlight producing multiple entries in half the time, what could possibly be keeping Diablo down?

I hate to invoke a cliché, but details. The devil’s in the details, and that’s absolutey what sets Diablo apart from its undifferentiated army of imitators. Even at the eleventh hour, Blizzard’s still twisting and tweaking every little thing to make sure it’s a pitch perfect resurrection. That in mind, I sat down with senior systems designer Jason Bender to talk about release dates, beta tests, how the auction house could wound Diablo to its very core, why always online isn’t the end of the world, and – of course – the mythical console version of Diablo.

VG247: First, the most obvious one: A lot of people were expecting a release date announcement this year, but no dice. I mean, the boxes were nice and all, but what about the game you’re putting inside them?

Jason Bender: Yeah, so we get a lot of feedback that’s like “Hey, we played the beta. It’s pretty good! That thing’s done. So, game now? That’d be great.” But that’s just the beginning of the game.

We’ve finished most of the game, but we want to tune Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno so that they’re awesome. We’ve spent so much time on normal difficulty that we haven’t had as much time as we’ve wanted to make sure that Inferno’s gonna fly. So we’ve been focusing on that and making sure the monsters are viable and the player’s skills are tuned correctly.

Also, Jay Wilson mentioned yesterday that we’re redesigning the skill system to some extent. It’s got pros and cons right now, but we think we can do better. So we’re doing what we can to make the skill system more interesting.

When is the beta actually ending?

I don’t have information on that. I do know that we’re gonna run a little longer. You know, we have made a lot of changes since it’s been out there. We’re making little incremental changes to the beta. We’re not making massive [alterations].

Beta gameplay footage – wizard.

Are there any plans to kick things up a notch and, say, add new areas or skills before it’s all said and done?

So, in talking about that, we’ve basically decided we can either continually update the beta with more stuff and get a little bit of data, or we can finish the game. And we’ve decided – when in doubt – let’s just try to finish this game as soon as we can and make it as polished and tuned as we can. And if we do too much more in the beta, that takes away some steam from polish of the actual game.

So “when it’s done,” basically. Speaking of, what does that actually mean? How does Blizzard ultimately decide something’s done? Do you take a vote? Consult a Magic Eight Ball? Stick a fork in it?

[Laughs]. That’s a good question. We know a game’s done when other game teams aren’t getting their work done because we can’t pull them away from their computers. This happened with StarCraft II. We were seriously losing production time because StarCraft was killing everybody. And it was like “Well, I guess it’s done, because we can’t pry people away from it.” That’s kind of the litmus test.

But it’s a lot of things. I mean, when Jeff Kaplan, Tom Chilton, Dustin Browder, and Rob Pardo say, “This feels done to me,” that’s a good sign. You’ve got some pretty wise voices talking. And also, we have a beta out there, and we heard a lot from the community about what they think is done and what isn’t, and we’ve reacted to that too.

Battlefield 3 recently got wailed on (and wailed at) for having a beta with bugs in it. Yes, I know. Oh horror of horrors, etc. But in that respect, are real betas risky nowadays, seeing as people seem to expect this polished pre-release preview?

It’s always a risk to decide how much you want to show the community and how much you don’t. Every team has to decide for themselves what kind of information they want from their beta. And I think that has a different objective.

One of the things we get a lot is “Hey, this feels pretty good, and here’s some feedback on the game design.” They focus on the front end stuff, but what they don’t realize is that they’re helping us test our servers and stability and frame rate. There’s all this technical stuff, like “Well, how’s this gonna run on a lower end video card?” And we have, say, 3000 people with this video card in our beta, so we can actually see how it’s running. So much of this is behind-the-scenes that the people aren’t really aware of.

“We’re lucky that we have a really healthy community. Our community’s full of smart, passionate people who spend a lot of time talking to one another.”

And then another thing is we’re lucky that we have a really healthy community. Our community’s full of smart, passionate people who spend a lot of time talking to one another. So there’s usually someone out there to remind people “Hey, this is a beta. It serves a purpose – to make the game better.”

This is a problem we had… we released a bunch of legendary items that were absolutely – I cannot stress this enough – totally temp. I had just personally thrown a bunch of random affixes onto these things. And in some cases, literally, this item only has three random affixes. That’s all it has. I didn’t even choose any affixes. And those went up on the website because we wanted to show people some of the cool stuff we’re working on. And we got a bunch of feedback like “This item’s terrible! The Ring of the Zodiac doesn’t have any resistances on it!” And we were like “OK! All right!” We realized we probably could have held those back to at least put affixes on there so people wouldn’t be confused.

But generally, our audience is pretty clever. They know what’s going on.

You announced that 70 percent of Diablo III’s items come from upper difficulty levels. Do you think it’s dangerous to wall off so much content for so many players, or is that just sort of where hardcore gaming is at this point: The base game’s accessible to everyone short of your grandmother – who doesn’t have hands – and better players can choose to seek out more of a challenge?

It’s interesting, because it’s tempting to think of it like a wall where there’s half the players and the other half. Diablo’s a great example of a game that’s more of a slope. We expect everyone to be able to finish Normal, and then we’re trying to make a better ramp into Nightmare than Diablo II did. It wasn’t that obvious to everyone that you were supposed to play Nightmare after Normal. A lot of people thought “Oh, it’s just harder? What’s the upside?”

But we’re trying to make it clear that, no, we want you to go into Nightmare, because we actually expect you’ll be able to play Nightmare. Nightmare’s very playable. After you’ve gone all the way through normal, you should have the practice and chops you need to handle Nightmare. We don’t think there’s really a wall there.

On Hell [difficulty], there is a bit of a wall. We don’t expect everybody to play that effectively in Hell. It might be beyond some players’ abilities. And then Inferno is not meant for everybody. That is specifically meant to be for people who are a little crazy [Laughs]. So we actually said, “Inferno is not for you to part of the audience.” But we think that’s OK because there are so many things you can get as you play through the game that you’re not really gonna be hurting for that top tier armor. If you really want it, you’ll really work for it.

“As casual as it seems we don’t try to handcraft Diablo so that everyone can beat it all the way through to Inferno.”

And, you know, it’s funny, because – as casual as it seems – we don’t try to handcraft Diablo so that everyone can beat it all the way through to Inferno. You opt into the game as much as you want, and that’s true with viability of builds and a number of other things. But Jay said it really well yesterday in our panel: “Hardcore games for everyone is what Blizzard does.”

And if you want to continue playing Nightmare, your character will get better loot and experience. And even if you don’t get better as a player, you can creep your way toward Hell. But the fact is, we’re humans. Our brains get better at what we do as we do it. So people will get better over time. But honestly, there’s a wall there. There’s a bit of a wall.

Right. And Diablo players climb over that wall not for fame or glory or heroism, but for shiny stuff. Top tier armor’s basically a badge of honor at that point. Don’t you think, though, that the Auction House will diminish that? Like, a lot? I mean, let’s say you just beat Diablo in a gory, no-holds-barred 27-hour clash for the ages/fiddle contest, and then Richie Rich strolls by after having purchased the same gear. Isn’t that just, like, completely soul-crushing?

Diablo’s funny in that a lot of people sort of jump mentally to WoW. “Hey, check out what I got!” Yeah, but you’re not necessarily in Orgrimmar with a 150 people running around right next to you.

Yeah, but there’s still an element of showing off. Especially when you’re online.

Certainly, certainly. So these items do have level requirements. And another thing to note is, for people who really want to show off, Hardcore doesn’t have a real money Auction House. So if you really want to be awesome, you either at least have to have earned enough gold to have bought the item and also have the level. And you have to have a character who’s survived to that level in Hardcore. Running around in good gear in Hardcore mode at level 60 – that’s pretty much all you.

And the more demand there is on the Auction House, the more those items go up in gold cost.

Even so, someone could earn those things through heaping gobs of time – and only a modicum of skill. The possibility’s there.

I don’t think everybody’s going to be able to get a level 60 Hardcore character. That’s pretty brutal. You need to get the experience to get up there, and playing at level 50+ is no joke.

“That’s how the Auction House is gonna work. So if you really want to get up there and buy that armor, you can do it.”

But yeah, it’s true to some extent. That’s how the Auction House is gonna work. So if you really want to get up there and buy that armor, you can do it. But I also think there are other [ways to display your accomplishments]. You have your banner and your achievements. You can’t buy your achievements, so your banner is actually a really good way to show off what you’ve done. For example, we actually have banners that are entirely custom, that you can’t modify, for doing things that are really hard – like killing the end boss on Inferno Hardcore. No amount of money’s gonna buy that.

But, you know, it’s a different world. We expect that people are kind of gonna get it. It does sound alarming, though, because we’re not used to it. And it’s kind of new. But at some point, everything’s new.

Certainly. Thinking about that, though, and the way it ties in with your always online/no mods policy, you’re essentially working with a closed platform. Recently, Gabe Newell lamented the fact that closed is the new open – that freedom’s falling in the face of surface-level convenience. Seeing as you’re sort of on the other side of that argument, what’s your take?

Depending on the game, he’s absolutely right about part of the market. I mean, I am 100 percent with him in that, in some games, I just want there to be a god mode right there in the menu. Like, I want to play Sim City, and I just want some money. I’ll worry about the trash and the crime and the fires. There’s enough challenge there. I don’t care about the money. I think Sid Meier built these options into his games as a general rule.

But we have different problems. Our problem on Diablo III, for example, is we want people to play cooperatively and hook up with their friends really easily, but we don’t want cheaters or hackers. One of the reasons we did the Auction House is that we don’t want people going to shady third-party websites and getting their account info stolen. I mean, that’s terrible. So we decided to say this is a game about playing – oftentimes with your friends.

And the complaints we got from Diablo II mostly involved cheaters and hackers and tons of stuff that really makes the experience bad. So, for the game experience of Diablo, having an online requirement [is a natural choice]. And people forget that it’s server based. You send us the info, so we can catch cheaters very easily. It’s not easy to cheat. People are going to have to put some effort in. That allows us to keep the quality up for the vast majority of people.

But some games – I would agree with Gabe on this – you just want to cheat or mod, and that’s right for those games.

Which is a very reasonable way of looking at it. But then there are folks like id Software’s Tim Willits, who want it to become the standard and see Blizzard as a sort of standard-bearer for that. So do you think that making a game that will almost certainly see huge success while flying the always online flag will ultimately harm the open platform/mod scene?

It’s also expensive [Laughs]. Not everybody can do it. In some cases, smaller developers kind of have to not spend millions of dollars on servers.

What I love about what’s happening with games right now is you’re seeing a resurgence of these smaller games that do one thing really well. Minecraft is an example of how much demand there is for people to just do whatever the heck they want. That’s never going away.

“For games like Diablo III, it’s right for us to be online, control the experience, and make sure it’s clean.”

So for games like Diablo III, it’s right for us to be online, control the experience, and make sure it’s clean. But for other games, it’s right for them tp stay offline, give people all sorts of wacky control, and let them hack the bejesus out of it. That’s always gonna be true. There will always be people who take these online games and rip ’em apart. So the demand is there. And if the demand is there, hopefully someone will try to create a game to fill it.

You’ve mentioned a console version of Diablo in passing, but you’ve been fairly secretive otherwise. Obviously, though, it’s a thing. So why not just announce it already? Why does Blizzard feel the need to be so guarded about these things?

Yes, if you look at our website, we have a number of open jobs for people. We really need people to help us explore that possibility. So if you’re an experienced developer, please look at our website and see if you want a job [Laughs].

But with Diablo, we realized that, obviously, it’s a great PC game. Diablo II told us that we like to click on things and beat candy out of them. So in Diablo III, that was right for us. But everyone who plays Diablo goes “You know what? This would be kind of fun on my couch with a controller – if we could do it.” It’s a serious question, and we’re treating it seriously. We have a team of people investigating this. We talk about it regularly, and we’re looking into it. For my part, I’d love to play it, so let’s hope we come to something good.

I think we’re open, but if we find that it’s not right – that it’s not working the way we expected it to – then we’re not gonna announce something we’re not gonna make, right? So at this stage, we really are investigating the viability to see if it’s something we want to pursue. We try to make every game we make fantastic, so we don’t want to put half-effort into anything. So if we decide that’s what we’re gonna pursue, we’re gonna go guns blazing. Once we’ve committed our guns, then we’ll have an official announcement and it’ll be all exciting.

Are you at all interested in expanding Diablo into something beyond click-click-click? I mean, you’re building a pretty robust universe. Could we see Diablo: Ghost Adventures somewhere down the line?

Diablo is right now what it is. It’s the game style and the world. So right now, we’re pretty happy with it as it is. If we want to make another game in the future, we’ll decide what the genre’s gonna be, what the controls are gonna be like, etc. But right now, it’s pretty cool, because Diablo is its own genre, so we’re pretty happy with what we’ve got.

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