Diablo 2 Resurrected interview: “we’re not trying to fix Diablo 2”

Design lead Rob Gallerani and lead artist Chris Amaral on making "an authentic remaster of people’s childhood"

Diablo 2 Resurrected warrior

We’ve seen plenty of Blizzard’s upcoming Diablo 2 remaster over the past week. The recent technical alpha gave us a chance to spend some proper hands-on time with Resurrected, revealing a handful of key differences between it and the original Diablo 2. And it’s clear the community has been just as hungrily digging through the first couple of chapters, with some players managing to access locked classes and even uncovering an item duping glitch.

We last spoke to Blizzard about Diablo 2 shortly after the remaster’s reveal at BlizzCon 2021, where we largely touched on the team’s plan for tackling this passion project, as well as references to ‘Marky’ Mark Wahlberg, and features like mod support.

With the technical alpha at an end and plenty of playing time under our belts, we caught up with design lead Rob Gallerani and lead artist Chris Amaral. So read on for chat about monster redesigns, digging through reference materials, feedback on the technical alpha, and the importance of getting every detail right for fans of the original.

PCGamesN: Could you tell us more about Vicarious Visions involvement with Diablo 2 Resurrected?

Rob Gallerani: One of the really cool things about Vicarious Visions is the variety of games we worked on. So Tony and Crash were the last couple, but before those we worked on many different genres. You’ve got first-person shooters, we’ve done racing games in the past, right?

The hero of Diablo 2 Resurrected slaying a hollow demon

What’s really important is doing right by each fan base. So what worked for Crash Bandicoot is not going to work for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and what worked for that is not going to work for Diablo 2. The basis of it is that we’re making this game for the fans. This is an authentic remaster of people’s childhood. And that’s true for any kind of remaster you want to do, but I wouldn’t say that’s new to Blizzard, right? Blizzard has massive amounts of expertise as well.

How did you go about updating the monster designs for HD? I love the way the Gargantuan Beast looks in Resurrected, but I’m less keen on the Fallen.

Chris Amaral: All of the art in the game was given what we call a 70/30 visual guide. It’s a way to maintain the iconic shapes and the things that make Diablo 2 special. So 70% is keeping everything classic: maintaining the silhouette reads, the colours, the posing and all that stuff that makes the creature true to the original design. The 30% is where we’ve pushed and elevated that art.

With the Gargantuan Beast in particular, we actually found a whole breadth of original reference images and renders of the high-res sprites that were used internally. So we could really delve in and see what the inspiration was. And going from there we would just try and bring a more modern, contemporary look to the art. So the Gargantuan Beast is this hulking, massive character. He’s covered in fur, so we had to investigate and put a lot of effort into making a hair shader so it looks like fur.

A Barbarian fights against a crew of enemies

And then as far as everything else is concerned, we wanted to make sure the reads are the same, the colours are the same – that was really our focus. We want things to feel like they’re an evolved form of the original game, but still within the same realm. Bringing in those extra details and design elements helps to make everything feel more immersive, believable, and horrific. We want this game to feel like it’s an M-rated game and that it has that horror element like the original did.

You recently had the first technical closed alpha, how did that go?

RG: It went pretty awesome. The fans were really excited and we got a lot of great feedback. One of the most important things that you’re only going to get from people when they play it is whether it feels right. So we could give all these interviews, we could say as much as we want, but there’s only so much belief people have until they get it in their hands. It was awesome to actually take people who stream the original Diablo 2 all day, and see them literally switch over to the new game and not miss a beat – that was really, really valuable.

The other really great thing was that we got a lot of very specific low level feedback. It wasn’t like there was one giant problem that kind of got in the way and overshadowed all of these other things. It was details like the colour of a certain object or some other little thing. That’s great feedback to get.

It didn’t take long for players to crack item duping and swap to locked classes – did any of that surprise you?

RG: I mean… it’s the internet, right? Can any of us really be surprised about that? Just one thing to remind everyone of is that the game is work-in-progress, right? Everything is still being worked on.

Diablo 2 players do battle in the desert

There is a reason why we chose to show what we showed. When you look at the classes that were available: the Sorceress is a very ranged character with lots of effects, the Barbarian offers very close-range melee combat, and the Amazon’s kind of an in-between. We wanted to hammer on the controller and how the controller felt for people, and those were the three classes that were ready to be shown and that we felt could get us the most feedback. It’s not the greatest that players unlocked those other classes, but we’re not trying to hide anything – I think the statute of limitations is up on what Diablo 2’s classes are.

CA: In terms of the art side, I felt like act one and act two offered a really good vertical slice of gameplay. You have a good boss fight and a really good breadth of atmospheres like the deserts and the wilderness. Getting that feedback helps us, because I want to let you know that the art team is always reading everything online. All of us are constantly refreshing pages and looking around for feedback, because we want to make this the best possible game that we can.

It’s something that’s really influenced the entire team. It influenced me personally, because Diablo 2 made me want to become a dark fantasy artist. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and back in school I wanted to be something else. So this game really inspired me. And I want fans to know: thank you for the feedback, we’re reading it.

One of the things I tried to do immediately was access the secret cow level. Are the cows coming and how are they going to look?

Both: There is no secret cow level!

Are you sure?

RG: You’re just taking the audio from this interview, correct? Not our facial expressions?

Going back to that issue of item duping, does history help you stay ahead of that or is it always going to be an issue?

RG: Like all live games it’s something that’s going to have to be an active thing that we always work on. The technical alpha was an offline, local character experience. We had it connected to Battle.net, but that’s really just because of the nature of the technical alpha.

When your character is saved offline, there’s a lot players can do to that save. Right now, we’re focusing most of our efforts on the Battle.net saved characters and preventing duping there because it ruins the economy for lots of players. There’s no Soulbound, there’s no personal loot. And on top of that, unfortunately, a common way that people dupe items is by crashing servers, so we want to make the best experience for all players.

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Having a history of 20 years watching how people dupe items is definitely helpful, but it’s something that has to be actively monitored.

How many people took part in the alpha test, and are you hoping to expand on that number in the next test?

RG: I don’t have the exact number off the top of my head, but I do know that it was easily tens of thousands of players. I can’t say exactly how it was spread out, because most of it was a lottery, right? However, we did try to make sure that we got a nice spread of people from different regions and that we had streamers getting into it, mostly because they then reach other players. So if you didn’t get into the alpha, at least you can watch someone play it. We are hoping to increase that number come the beta, especially because the beta is multiplayer.

What’s your worst case scenario for any future tests regarding the feedback?

RG: Worst case scenario? Everything crashes and burns. But I think that we’re pretty well prepared for that. I mean, we have a huge veterancy of Blizzard making online games that support millions and millions of active players. So there are groups of people who tell us what to prepare for. So yes, there’s always a doomsday scenario. I don’t think I’m educated enough to even know how bad it could get.

I suppose the main reason I asked that is because of the backlash to Warcraft III: Reforged. So I’m just wondering what steps are you taking in order to ensure that sort of thing doesn’t happen with Diablo 2 Resurrected?

RG: Right now, we just have to get Diablo 2 right. What we’re doing right now is having fans see it before it comes out. So by having the technical alpha people get their hands on the game, and so we get feedback when there’s still time to work on the game. It’s really the best thing we have to hedge that.

One thing I noticed while playing the alpha is that the stash seems like it’s loosely based on the Plugy mod for Diablo 2. How much inspiration has been taken from mods that came out for the original Diablo 2?

RG: When we approached quality of life on this game, we definitely wanted to make the game more accessible, but not easier. So things like making the inventory huge, or making it so all of your items can stack, right? Picking which loot to take and discard is still an important decision, so we’re not going to make the game easier.

Diablo 2 Resurrected shared loot stash

Another thing is that looking at the mod community, it is a nice kind of litmus test to know, ‘oh, this audience – the hardcore audience – they like these types of things.’ We didn’t just say, ‘oh, take everything this mod does or take everything that mod does,’ it was more about whether the community would hate this quality of life change or not. So it was nice to look at the community and see, ‘oh, well actually 90% of the mods out there do this one thing.’

Now here’s kind of a fun story for why we chose the size we did for the stash. Because you can toggle at any point between HD and SD, we have to make sure that shared stash is accessible in SD. Well, the 10×10 is actually the vendor screen grid. So we knew we already had art for that in SD. So that’s actually why we went with that number – it was bigger, it was art that already existed in the SD. Anything we add in HD as a quality of life change that didn’t exist in SD, has to still work. There was no shared stash in SD 20 years ago.

It’s the same with controller support, right? So if you switch to controller, you’ll notice that the HUD stays in HD, but the game goes to SD. And that’s because there was no controller HUD at all. And to try and fake that was like nope, I don’t think people will like that because there was no parity of what the controller icons looked like in the original game.

Are there any other examples of mod-inspired changes that are coming to Resurrected? And is there going to be any acknowledgment of those original mod creators? Or is this just stuff that’s coming to the game?

RG: It’s not that we’re looking at mods to tell us what we should do. It’s that the ARPG genre has been advancing for 20 years, right? We have the people who work on Diablo 3 and Diablo 4 right next door to us. So it’s just kind of looking at how the genre has matured and how those players are used to playing the game.

Combat in Diablo 2 Resurrected

We want to bring some of those changes to Diablo 2 Resurrected, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t make it not Diablo 2. We’re not trying to fix Diablo 2. We’re not trying to make Diablo 2 a different game. We have other games if you want that. Take auto-gold for example, auto-gold is something that many, many, many games just do now. But if you look at how we put auto-gold in Resurrected, you still have to run over to it. We don’t make it like a giant vacuum, there’s still the physical aspect of having to run around.

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When we added controller support, we initially thought to just make the inventory into a list, because moving items around Tetris-style is hard on a controller. But when we did that, it was totally usable, but it wasn’t Diablo 2 anymore. That’s really kind of the process we go through for what quality of life changes we want to make. Do people expect it? Like, even item compare? A lot of people didn’t even remember that item compare wasn’t in the original game.

That’s news to me.

RG: It’s just become such a staple, and so that’s where it’s okay, because people forgot it didn’t even exist in the old game.

I was really impressed with how Resurrected handles the map. I remember having to toggle it on and off constantly in the original because it just got in the way so much.

CA: A little art detail on that map is that the map art is actually pulling from all the sprite art from the original game. So we’re using the original sprite art to create that map. So it’s kind of a cool nod to the original game.

Presumably, the hope is that Resurrected will draw in a lot of new players as well. How do you go about making a game that’s 20 years old appealing to a new audience?

RG: We definitely want to focus on the authenticity of it, this notion of playing it because it’s a piece of history. We want people to understand that when they’re going into it.

The other part is, in this day and age, any time we instruct a player on how to do something, we’re actually taking away from the community coming together to talk to each other. And it’s so much easier to learn and share now with forums, YouTubers, and streamers. So that’s something we don’t want to squash.

That being said, one of the biggest things we’re focusing on is discoverability. For example, a lot of people were like, ‘oh, I wish you could automatically sort your belt when using a controller.’ And we’re like, you can, it says so right at the bottom of the screen. But clearly, we didn’t do it well enough to let players know. So those are things where it’s not making the game easier. It’s not changing the vibe of the game. But we want people to kind of stumble upon this stuff without having to go to the internet to figure it out.

Last time we spoke you mentioned finding reference images of Mark Wahlberg for Larzuk, did you find any other quirky references?

CA: Not so much wacky or quirky. I mean, we did a lot of digging and we found areas where the original game would pull a certain piece of art. I think I gave an example of the succubus, which was actually just a re-envision of the assassin. They made the assassin first, took her model file, gave her wings, gave her slightly different armour. So any time where we saw there was a choice made for the original game, we made the same choice for Resurrected, just to really stay true to the decisions that were made originally.

RG: This even extends to gear and stuff. You can tell that over 20 years ago, someone went to a library for a historic reference of a Roman shield. And we now have the ability to find the exact same historical pieces in the Louvre or the Smithsonian. It’s not just remastering what was made, it’s also how they made it back then.

CA: Yeah, and it’s also about matching their intention. If something was red, were they trying to give a bloody visual effect, or did it just have a tint of red?

Diablo 2 Resurrected is set to release at some point in 2021 – hopefully appeasing ARPG fans as they wait for news on Diablo 4 and Path of Exile 2.