Diablo 3 interview: behind the scenes with Leonard Boyarsky and Julian Love


Leonard Boyarsky has made many of our favourite games. He started as art director on Fallout, before becoming the lead designer on Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and then Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. He now works as World Designer for Diablo III. Julian Love, meanwhile, is a Blizzard veteran who now works as Diablo III’s Lead Technical Artist. We met them at Diablo III’s launch event in London. They seemed nice.

How have your previous games informed your work on Diablo III?Boyarsky: As a game designer and as an artist, every game that you successfully make it through the rigours of creating gives you more insight into what you’re doing. A lot of my direct experience, I had to throw it out, because we were going the exact opposite way. My previous games (Fallout, Arcanum of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines) have a lot of dialogue, part of the gameplay itself was doing the dialogue and making it through the dialogue trees, whilst here we were doing the exact opposite, we were trying to make it an immediate experience. Obviously, the stuff I’ve learned about storytelling and characterisation comes through, but the biggest challenge from our side on the story was delivering to players without disrupting the action.

So how would you tell a story without going into the depths of something like Fallout or Bloodlines?
Boyarsky: The very tight balance between characterisation and story; our main conversations had to give you the information you needed, but we didn’t want to be too dry. That’s your leeway, how you’re going to make the characters come to life. The Lorebooks, the way you can play them while you’re running around and fighting, I think that was a great addition to the storytelling, a textbook example.

It’s System Shock.
Boyarsky: I have no idea what you’re talking about [grins].

How does the technical art inform the characterisation and feed back into the story?
Love: That stuff’s represented by graphics. There’s audio, dialogue, the written word and what you see. A lot of the time, what’s transpiring on screen is carrying a lot of the weight. We have to make sure that, when we’re putting that stuff on screen, that we’re not just making stuff that looks beautiful, but that’s it conveying the story intention and the gameplay, so that’s our first rule. What is it that needs to be conveyed, what does the player need to know, what is the story behind the action on-screen, and make sure we’re supporting that first. Then, make it beautiful.

How often do you make elements dissonant? Like Minsc’s Giant Space Hamster Boo in Baldur’s Gate? To screw around with people’s expectations?

: Not as much as you’d do in a game with a lot more character development. But, let’s use the Witch Doctor as example. People expect him to be one way, culturally, and we made him very zen-like and philosophical. But for the most part, in a game as streamlined as ours, there’s really not that width to go… and in the lorebooks we can add the background, but in the conversations themselves it just added confusion. Because we have so few words to get across what we’re trying to say in the game, what we’re trying to impart to the player.

Do you think, in that sense, you’re limited by the wide audience you’re going for, that you can’t play that complicated stuff.
Boyarsky: No, it’s more of the style of gameplay. There’s a very dedicated fanbase and we wanted to deliver for them what we thought would be the next evolution of storytelling in that style of game. It wasn’t a matter of feeling like “well, jeez, we can’t do what we want to do.”

I only tried the solo in the beta; how does your storytelling bind into multiplayer then?
Boyarsky: The story you’re telling in multiplayer is the story of you and your friends adventuring in this world. Because that’s a much more dynamic and involving story than we’re ever going to write. Me and my friends barely escaping with our lives is so much more visceral and so much more immediate than anything that we could put in. If you play with people who just run around and not stick together, then you’re going to have one type of experience, a very high level experience. Without too much trouble, you could play with a bunch of guys who want to adventure together. I’ve played both styles during testing; one’s much more action-based and fly by the seat of your pants, the other is kinda cool you’re getting the story in with your friends, type comments about what the NPCs are saying, and where the plot’s going.

How big a part of the market do you think solo gamers are?
Boyarsky: I really don’t know. Diablo is first and foremost designed as a co-op game, because that’s part of the appeal of the franchise.

The franchise is tremendously dark; the hero of the first game ends up the villain of the second. Are you working to surpass that or are you trying to make it all carebears and fluffy clouds?
Boyarsky: The series definitely has a specific tone that we wanted to continue with, but that’s not to say we were constrained by it. It’s like any universe that you’re playing around in, you have to be true to the spirit of that universe. The Diablo world is a very grim place. It’s not happy. Being virtuous is not good armour against the stuff the world is going to throw at you.

Love: Our job on the technical arts side is special effects. Honestly, it’s right up our alley, it’s a field day. We get to do all the things you don’t get to do in any other game. When the game director comes in and says ‘these zombies are going to make other zombies spawn by barfing on the ground and the barf spawns other zombies’… you can’t believe you’re being paid to do it, at that point. For us, everything is gold. The only limiting factors you have to be aware about are, there’s dark and there’s morose, and there’s unintentionally dark. If you sprinkle it all over the place, for no good reason, then it loses a lot of its power. We have to make sure we’re always doing with an intention in mind.

Killing off disliked design elements; how hard is that to do? What have you killed off?
Love: The stuff we killed, we killed for a good reason. You go back and think ‘hey, there’s an element to how this plays that’s kinda punishing’ and it’s not fun. In a game that’s as filled with fun as Diablo II is, the fun of a lot of those systems can mask the pain of others. It’s easy to mistake that game for not having much pain in it. Right off the bat, things I’d point out about Diablo, it was a little bit too painful; the design of act three, the way it would drag you around repeatedly to the same areas. The question is ‘How can we take this and make it better?’ Sometimes it means killing something, sometimes just updating it or shifting it around.

Boyarsky: That applies to design across the board. The way story was delivered in Diablo II, it was just a wall of text. I love story in games and I didn’t sit through half the dialogues in Diablo II. One of the greatest compliments we got as story guys, when we were really paring it down to essentials, we put it front of people to see if it felt right and we got people who were self-proclaimed anti-story guys ‘I don’t want to think about the story, just don’t let it get in my way’, and they felt that we’d done such a good job of tightening the story up and delivering it in short bursts, that they were actually interested in reading the story now. That’s the biggest, readily graspable thing we delivered.

Horrible question; is this the story you’re most proud of having told in your career? Horrible question.

: Jeez. That’s a really good question.

It’s like ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’

: Exactly. Um. I think… all of them are awesome.

You love all your children equally.
Boyarsky: Exactly. Even the ones I beat.

There’s still a lot of story being told.

I don’t think in any way, shape or form we skimped on the story. The story we’re telling is more extensive and deeper than the previous Diablo games. It’s just the way we’re delivering it. To return to the horrible question, every game that I make, I’m really passionate about and, uh, I wouldn’t want to put out a game I wasn’t proud of. So making me choose between them is very cruel and sadistic.

Do you think modern social games draw anything from Diablo’s compulsion loops?

: Our goals in designing this game is just to make really compelling experiences. As far as that goes, look at the things WoW took from Diablo II. if you’re hooked into anything then you’re smart to take things from everywhere that are working that can be applicable. We look at different media and different things.

So what have you taken from elsewhere? Something from a movie, from a book..?

Love: Lots! Sometimes suprising. The Wizard has this skill called Distintegrate. And the public are “hey, that’s really sci-fi. Obviously, you’re lifting that from Starcraft.’ As one of the guys behind that, I can say no, it’s from Wheel of Time. Balefire was the description, so we had a concept artist who was a fan of that series paint it out. So it came purely from a fantasy standpoint. Other things. When we sat down in 2006 to reboot the game, we talked about how we can make the game more visceral. We looked at a bunch of games and God of War was one of them, with its violent combat ‘wow, Kratos is tearing the arms off of monsters’. We’ve got to find the Diablo equivalent to that; not copy them, but how can we get the Barbarian to get a little bit of that? He also has a little bit of the Incredible Hulk in the way that he feels. So, yeah, we were just sort of casting about looking at these influences, for the ones that plug in appropriately.

Boyarsky: The biggest thing I can think about is that we wanted the Monk to feel almost like a fighter game, kind of vibe. That was something you really didn’t expect. He’s a really great class to play, it’s got a really great feel to it.

Blizzard seem to be specialise in taking genres and perfecting them; how do you do a sequel to something that you feel like you’ve perfected.

: No-one gets to make a perfect game; there’s always room to grow and evolve things.

Boyarsky: As soon as we finish our work, we look back and think it could be better in some way. I think it’s just the perfectionist nature that lives in everyone who works at that company, at Blizzard. We’re never going to be happy.

That’s what patches are for, surely? You never need to release another game, just keep making DLC. DLC?

Love: Not in the way you’re thinking of. That we have stuff already on the disc that you’re going to access or compartmentalised things like that.

Random technical question; I know of an MMO studio that only put an 8MB downloader on their retail discs.

: Most of the data is on the disc.
Love: There’s a minimal day one patch that will stream down. A lot of the effort, of getting to the Gold Master, revolves around making that as small as possible. If we could make that zero, we would.

Last question; how would you end the world of Diablo, if you could?

A giant explosion.

Whatever it is, it’s going to very memorable and emotionally resonant.