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Diablo III Game Director Discusses Monks, Health Globes, And The Mysterious Fifth Class

by Phil Kollar on Oct 27, 2009 at 03:02 PM

If you’ve had to chance to check out Issue #199 of Game Informer (that’s the one with the hot Epic Mickey cover that’s on newsstands now), you may have chanced upon my preview for Diablo III, wherein I laid out details on the game’s recently revealed Monk class. While there’s a lot to be excited about from the game’s fourth announced class, there’s plenty of other interesting changes that Diablo III is bringing to the franchise.

I had the chance to speak with Diablo III game director Jay Wilson about some of the biggest changes and how Blizzard’s fans have reacted. How did a Halo-style health regeneration system almost end up in Diablo III? How is this new hack-and-slash RPG inspired by Zelda and fighting games? And who is (or is not) the fifth playable class? Read on to find out!

Game Informer: The big news for Diablo III at BlizzCon was the new Monk class. Has there been any other big news or interesting updates on the game since BlizzCon?

Jay Wilson: No, I don’t know that we’ve announced anything big since then. We usually save up for BlizzCon. That was our last big new information push.

GI: Of course there’s one more class left to be revealed at some point in the future. Will eager Diablo III fans will have to wait until BlizzCon next year before we see that class?

JW: We haven’t decided on the release schedule and when we’re going to announce that class. It will depend heavily on when the class is ready to be shown. If it’s ready to show at the next BlizzCon, then yeah, maybe then. Or if it’s ready sooner, then we might do it at some other event.

GI: Let’s focus on the Monk for a little bit then. The idea of a Monk in Diablo III is interesting because you aren’t just doing a melee fighter, like a lot of people may think of because of monks from other RPGs. Diablo III’s Monk has strong magical abilities as well. I’m curious where that idea came from.

JW: When you’re dealing with a melee character in a game like this, they’re actually some of the more challenging characters to make. When we were thinking up the idea of what character we would want to do, we knew we wanted to make a faster, more fragile, high DPS (damage per second) melee character who was a nice contrast from the Barbarian. We pegged that as one of the things we really wanted to do. We wanted a magical character, again, because it was a great contrast from the Barbarian. It also opens doors for us to do different kinds of abilities that you wouldn’t normally get to do on a melee character.

That was one of the reasons we liked the Monk. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely one of them. It felt to us that the more priest-oriented holy abilities hadn’t been explored on that type of a character in depth, and we thought that would be really fun to add in and would be a nice twist on the class.

GI: Speaking of the Monk’s abilities, I think it’s really interesting that each Monk ability has three separate moves that can be mixed and matched with the other abilities. That makes for a much more engaging melee character. I would have to imagine it also means that from the animation standpoint it’s pretty complicated to work on the character. Did you have any films or other sources that you were using as inspiration to help flesh out some of those moves?

JW: The biggest inspiration was fighting games. Especially on our animation team, but across the whole game, we have a big fighting game culture, bigger than any team I’ve ever been on. We like us some fighting games. (Laughs)

When we decided to make a character like this, we really wanted to make a fighting game character. We looked at Street Fighter and God of War and games like that, more melee brawler-type games. We knew walking in that it was a more expensive character animation-wise. This character’s going to have more animations than any of our other characters, maybe more than two or three characters put together. But every class has a different cost associated with it. The Barbarian takes longer to iterate his skills and get it right, so we tend to have to do more versions of his skills before they really shine. The Wizard is really effects-heavy. The Witch Doctor has whole creatures that we have to build for him. Every class has their cost, so we thought it was acceptable for the Monk to have more animation, and at least it was a very different cost than any of the other characters.

GI: Are there any specific fighting games that are particularly popular around the office?

JW: Right now, Street Fighter IV.

GI: Are you guys psyched about the Super Street Fighter IV announcement?

JW: There’s debate. [Laughs] There’s back and forth. Everyone’s pretty excited about it. Of course, we’re all debating about who they chose to put back in. But yeah, we’re pretty excited about it. A lot of the guys are playing UFC right now, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. I hear it’s pretty good. We’ve got a big arcade machine in here that has like 200 games on it, so we’ve got all kinds of games. My classic favorite is Samurai Shodown. I particularly like the fourth one.

GI: What really struck me about the Monk announcement was just the realization of how different each of the classes will play. I’ve read elsewhere that you are planning to have class-specific questlines in the game as well. Do you expect that there will be enough differences in both play style and content that players will want to go through the game numerous times with the different classes?

JW: I believe there will be. One of the primary goals when we make classes is that we try to differentiate them as much as possible. We want each class to play completely differently. That’s why we only have one class currently that’s a mana user. We don’t want everyone to use mana. If they all have different mechanics, then they’re all going to feel different. Each class also has a different perspective on the story. We’ve made the player characters more of a voice to the story than in previous games. As they move through the game, they have dialogue and a view of what’s happening and a reason why they’re involved in the plot. They each have a character arc and a place that they’re going to, and it’s not exactly the same for each one of them. While the story’s the same, their perspective alters it. We’re trying to do some class-specific content for each character so that there are different goals to accomplish and some different content to see with each of them.

GI: With the character arcs, will it go as far as characters actually taking different actions in the storyline or even having a different ending?

JW: We experimented with that early on. We played with the idea of dialogue choices or different ways of completing the story. We found that because of the high speed of the game and the focus on cooperative play, it didn’t work very well. Players didn’t want to slow down to make character or dialogue choices. How do you have multiple endings when you’ve got four people in the game? They all can’t control the flow of the story. We experimented with it early on but ultimately rejected it for those reasons.

GI: I’ve looked around a bit on the Diablo III forums to check out what people are talking about and what the community seems to be excited about. It seems like there’s a bit of controversy over the decision to focus on health globes rather than health potions. That’s going to be the main form of health regeneration in the game. First off, can you explain what health globes are and how they’ll work in the game?

JW: Health globes are items that drop off of enemies. They don’t follow the regular rules of item drops, so they don’t affect what regular loot drops. They drop completely separately from loot. So a monster that would normally only drop one piece of loot can still drop a health globe as well as that piece of loot. When they drop, they stick around for about a minute. When you pick one up, you get healed, and if there are any teammates around, they get healed. 
If we look at Diablo II and the original Diablo, the potion system is essentially a one-size-fits-all kind of solution for combat problems. Any kind of combat problems, any kind of enemy you run into that’s a challenge, you can keep hitting the potion button until he loses. It’s a one-note solution that is pretty boring. It creates a combat model that’s very simple. You can argue, “Well, it worked for Diablo and Diablo II. Why not just leave it the same?” The reason is because we can make it better. We can make combat that has more depth. I don’t think anybody could argue that Diablo II had really deep combat. It didn’t. It was fun, but the combat was really simple. We wanted to add more depth.
The great thing about the health globe system is that it doesn’t slow the game down at all, but it creates highs and lows in the combat. There are times when you have lower health, and you have to be more careful. There are times where you’re looking for that one more monster. It lets you help your friends as well by picking up globes and healing them. Also, when you get in trouble, it forces you to rely on things other than this one-size-fits-all potion solution. It lets you use a skill.

When you’re in trouble in Diablo III, you don’t hit the potion button. If you’re a Wizard, you cast a frost nova. If you’re a Barbarian, you stomp on the ground and stun everyone around you. If you’re a Monk, you blind your enemies. Each one plays differently, and there’s actually several different versions of that even within a single character. You can pick the escape skill that you prefer the most to the style of play that you like the most. It means all the classes are much more differentiated from one another, and even within a class you can see some really interesting gameplay differences. That all really supports our model of making more interesting gameplay across all of our games. We are very much a gameplay first company. The biggest problem with the potion system is that it did not promote really interesting, differentiated gameplay across and within the different character classes.

GI: Just to be clear, will potions be removed from the game entirely? Or are you just focusing less on them?

JW: We do have potions in the game, but they are less of a focus. We put them on a cooldown, so you can’t use them very often. While you can use them in an emergency and sometimes you will, usually potions will be used as a way to smooth out the rough edges. If your health gets really low during a battle, you’ll use a potion to recover afterward so that you don’t have to walk into the next fight with nothing. But potions are a lot more valuable now too, so you have to weigh their use a bit more. That’s what we wanted. That’s a far more interesting decision than just mashing on the potion button until you run out and then running back to town and buying more potions.

GI: I’m fascinated by the very vocal portion of the community that seems kind of distraught by the health globe decision. Do you have any idea why certain community members are so outspoken about wanting to stick to the old method of health recovery?

JW: The biggest reason is just because it’s what they’re familiar with. It’s what they know. They look back at the game that they loved. I loved Diablo II, so I understand how they feel. Whenever something changes about a game that you love, it’s very scary. You have to ask, “Are they ruining it? Are they changing it into a different kind of game? Is it not going to feel like Diablo anymore?” I think those are their concerns. And for us, that was our concern when we experimented with different gameplay systems.

One of the things that people have said is, “What if you guys try a regeneration system? Like a really fast health regeneration system? Something kind of like what Halo uses?” We actually did. That’s the first system that we tried. We liked that idea. It felt a little more realistic, even though it’s not realistic. But it felt more realistic than these magical globes that fall on the ground and recover health. The problem was that after every single fight, players just stopped. They stopped moving and waited for their health to recover. Even if they just had a little bit of damage, they waited for their health to be full again. It slowed the game down enormously. That’s exactly the opposite of what Diablo should play like. One of the things we really attacked with this system is that it has to preserve the gameplay of Diablo. It has to make it better. If it doesn’t make it better, then it’s not worth doing. I found that when people actually play the new system… I can’t think of anyone who’s come to me and said, “I prefer the old way better.”

GI: So your message to the community is just, “wait and see for yourselves”?

JW: Yes. I mean, if we put it out in beta, and it’s universally panned by the entire audience, we’ll look at it and try to fix it and maybe do a different system. I highly doubt that it will be. We play the game every day. If the game wasn’t fun for us, then we would be changing it already.

GI: I’ve also read on the forums that you’re changing boss encounters in Diablo III. Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I understand they will be a little more scripted, so you can have story elements and interesting set pieces during the fights.

JW: Yeah, that’s a fairly good description.

GI: Again, forum reaction has been a bit varied. Some of the users were making weirdly negative comparisons to God of War and World of Warcraft  -- obviously very popular games that not everybody would react negatively to. I’m curious about Blizzard’s philosophy behind this change.

JW: When people talk about the concern, it’s that you’re going to replay these fights a lot. If they’re overly scripted, they can be really boring to replay. That’s something we’re really conscious of. It’s not our goal to make these super-long, elaborate cut scenes that you’re forced to watch or really rote scripted fights that are incredibly predictable. But if we look at Diablo II bosses, they’re essentially giant bags of health and damage. There’s not really anything that interesting about them beyond a normal monster except that they’re going to kill you really fast, and you’re going to have to hit them about a thousand times before they die. That’s pretty boring. Our primary goal is just to make a fight that feels a little bit more exciting and interesting. As we continue to develop the bosses, the trick is to get the right balance of the abilities that the boss can do with not overly scripting them.

I actually like to use Zelda as a good comparison. I think Zelda has some of the best bosses. They’re simple, like Diablo bosses, but they use cool tricks to make them really interesting to fight. For example, they have the boss change in stages. So in stage 1, the boss does these two attacks, and it’s really simple. In stage 2, it builds on that. Stage 3 builds on that again. The fight ramps up. Because the fight changes, the fact that you have to hit this guy a thousand times is not that boring, because you’re having to deal with new challenges that are getting progressively harder throughout the fight. That’s the philosophy we’re going for, to try and make these interesting compelling fights that don’t just have the player in a battle of attrition where they see how much they can hit the boss before they run-away and regenerate health.

GI: Personally, I’m psyched about that change. That sounds really cool to me.

JW: Again, it’s one of those changes where I understand the concern. Pretty much anything we change, we’re going to have part of our community that’s worried. They’re concerned that we’re changing the game that they love. I don’t hold that against them. If anything, I applaud them for their love of the game. The only thing I would remind them is that we love it just as much. We’re really not trying to ruin it. We’re trying to make it better.

GI: Another big change between Diablo III and the previous titles is that you’re going to be beefing up random encounters. The term that I heard thrown around was “random scripted encounters.” Can you talk about what’s new for random encounters in Diablo III?

JW: There are some scripted encounters in Diablo II. A lot of the big Fallen camps in the first act are pre-done encounters. Some of the bosses and things like that. What we wanted to do was take the idea of scripted encounters -- we call them “adventures” -- we want all these events to occur that help define our world. If you’re fighting an evil cult, we want the cult going around the world raising demons and doing bad stuff to people. You want to encounter people in the world to make the world feel more real. But how do you do that within a random world? Our goal was to take the ideas of these encounters and make them random as well.

In dungeons it’s easy, because our dungeons are completely randomly generated, so we just create random scripted encounters. We set a whole bunch of locations in the dungeons where these encounters could show up, and sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes an area even has several encounters that could show up. The exteriors are a bit more static in their layout, but we can cut out big portions of the terrain and completely replace them, so when you go through the world, you might come across a giant goat man camp. The next time you come across it, it might be a cultist summoning ritual. The next time, it might be a field that has normal monster distribution. Our goal is that you’d have to go through the game several times in one area to see all the different events that can occur in that area. Those events will really enhance the game story and the feeling of the world and also will create some cool gameplay scenarios.

GI: It seems like it would be a somewhat daunting task to create enough of these random adventures to make sure that players don’t get bored running into the same thing over and over again. How are you guys setting out to do that?

JW: We’re trying to get the right amount. It’s not our goal that players never ever see the same encounter. It’s our goal that they see them with a small enough amount of frequency that they don’t get bored quickly. Any one particular area you run through in Diablo, you won’t be going through it that often. Our target is something like seeing something new every time you go through an area for the first half dozen times. We’ve played around with the randomness to get that number right. What the right number is depends on the size of the area. For our BlizzCon demo it was somewhere between 12 and 15 events, which is not a small amount but it’s reasonable. It’s a manageable amount for us to create.

One of the things that makes a game like Diablo really hard to build is that when your entire game is randomness you’re going to get more hours of play than a normal game would, but it means you’re creating more content. It’s not as much content as you’d have to create to provide the same number of hours of play from a standalone game, but it’s still more content than a normal single-player single playthrough game. That’s something we just had to accept early on. This is what it takes to build a Diablo game. This is one of the reasons that they’re hard to build, but it’s also one of the reasons why 10 years later people still play Diablo II.

GI: Speaking of people still playing Diablo II, I have read that with Diablo III, you’re going to be heavily discouraging player killing and griefing, which are elements that are still fairly common in Diablo II online play. What steps are you planning to take to push players toward cooperative play and away from just killing everyone?

JW: One of the big ones is that we don’t allow hostility anymore. It’s just not part of the game. We had talked about all kinds of ways to introduce it and control it, but ultimately we haven’t found very many people who want it. We did a survey of our users who played the game at BlizzCon. We left out survey stations so they could give us feedback about what they thought of the game and what they were excited about. The lowest-scoring thing on the list of things they were excited about was PVP. It was around 3%.

I don’t think that means people don’t like PVP. That’s not what I’m taking out of that data. But I look at that and say, “People are probably thinking PVP like Diablo II.” There’s probably not a lot of people who really loved that part of Diablo II. There’s people who love it a lot, but the majority just don’t. What we’d rather do is create a PVP game that’s more inclusive of a larger audience. We want something that’s a great PVP game that a lot of people in our audience can really enjoy.

Most importantly, we’re a cooperative game first and foremost. Do no harm to the cooperative game is our prime directive. Anything, no matter how precious it seems, that harms the cooperative game and harms the idea of strangers getting together to kill monsters, anything that harms that, we take out.

GI: That’s actually another change I’m really excited about. I was always a little intimidated by Diablo II’s online play because of some of the horror stories I had heard from friends who played it. I was kind of scared away.

JW: I’m glad you like it.

GI: One of the other reveals from BlizzCon was details on the new Battle.net. Do you have any info on how the changes to Battle.net -- such as an account that’s persistent across games -- how those things will affect Diablo III specifically?

JW: We haven’t released a lot of specifics about how Battle.net is going to be integrated with Diablo III. What I can tell you is that all the feature set we’re doing with StarCraft II that can be carried over to Diablo III will be carried over. One of the great things about the new Battle.net is that it’s a universal platform for all of our games. It used to be more stand-alone, so it had to be individually developed, but now we’re really trying  to design it such that when the next game comes up we just integrate Battle.net into it. Persistent friends lists, being able to chat across games -- all of these great, convenient features are going to carry straight over. The need on both projects is basically the same.

More project-specific features -- for example, StarCraft II has the marketplace -- we don’t really have an equivalent to the marketplace. That feature won’t carry over to us. But we do have a pretty significant chunk of time allotted with the Battle.net team to focus on our own set of Battle.net features. We haven’t announced any of those, but we will be doing them at some point.

GI: Will Diablo III have Achievements?

JW: Yeah, I think we’ve said that all of our games moving forward are going to have Achievements.

GI: You realize you’re probably going to be ending a lot of people’s lives with that? Including mine? That’s dangerous.

JW: (Laughs)

GI: Before we go, are there any important Diablo III-related topics we haven’t covered?

Ryan Arbogast (from background): Let’s show him the fifth class!

JW: (Laughs) Sure, why not, it’s, uh…. I’ll tell you what the fifth class is not! It’s not going to be a bard.

GI: You just crushed my dreams.

JW: That is an exclusive. I’ve never told anyone that.

GI: That’s going to be the headline on all the blogs. “Diablo III Fifth Class: Not A Bard”

JW: That’s probably news to somebody. I’m sure there’s somebody somewhere who just knows the fifth class is going to be a bard.

GI: You’re ruining my dreams of singing to kill demons.

JW: That’s my goal in life: to ruin peoples’ dreams to sing to kill demons. (Laughs)

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