At Blizzard's recent Worldwide Invitational, Diablo 3's World Designer Leonard Boyarsky and Art Director Brian Morrisroe got on stage in front of a crowd hungry for details on Blizzard's latest project to talk about combining art and lore to expand the world give the player a deeper and more engaging experience. Diablo is a unique fantasy universe in that instead of having Dwarves and Elves, it has Angels and Demons. The game's setting makes it a dark fantasy environment that the previous games had only scratched the surface of.
To get the world right, the designers had to consider more than just what they knew would be in the game. Civilizations don't just crop up out of nowhere -- they're the result of environmental, political, and social forces. What this means is that some design time had to be spent fleshing out areas not even seen in Diablo 3, so players can feel there's a larger world beyond their immediate experience.
"Time had to be spent fleshing out areas not even seen in Diablo 3, so players can feel there's a larger world beyond their immediate experience."
As an example, look at Skovos, an ancient society that gave us Rogues and Amazons seen in the previous games. Skovos is an island and has little contact with the outside world, tracing its lineage back to early Angel mythology and claiming an Angel founded their sect. The purpose of story is to give context to player actions and deepen the experience of the universe -- so designing the art with this lore in mind makes for a more engaging game.
The game's story is told with dialog and lore books in-game, but it can also be told with environment. For example, imagine what you would think if your character ran into someone peacefully meditating atop a pile of demon corpses or saw a group summoning a demon which turned on them. These scenes tell you something about those characters without a word of dialog.
The designers also decided to expand the use of player voice in Diablo 3. You're playing a very specific character in this game -- not a generic off the shelf fighter or witch doctor, so they're given specific personalities and voices. This is more engaging storytelling and lively because you won't just be listening to monologues, you'll be driving the action.
The story of Diablo 3 is set twenty years after Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction. (Warning: spoilers from Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction to follow!) Deckard Cain is convinced Hell will invade at any time because of Tyrael's destruction of the Worldstone and feels guilty for not having better read the signs. What happened to Tyrael (who hasn't been seen since the worldstone was destroyed) is unknown. As the invasion hasn't come, the events of Diablo and Diablo 2 are seen by the populace as legend.
"With Diablo 3, they started by going back to Diablo to identify the strengths of its style: an emphasis on horror."
On the art side, Blizzard's philosophy is: stylization over realism, strong silhouettes, don't be afraid of color, dynamic animations, support the gameplay, and make it epic. With Diablo 3, they started by going back to Diablo to identify the strengths of its style: an emphasis on horror. They then moved on to Diablo 2, which succeeded by expanding on the original and introducing lots of new areas. Said Morrisroe, "Our memory of what Diablo and Diablo 2 were was a bit different than the actuality of it. Visually we were remembering it as more of a dark, colorless game, but there was a lot of vibrance."
The Diablo 3 team has had to tell themselves not to be afraid of color. They've spent time researching horror movies and other resources how they use color to establish mood -- and have learned they can use color to their advanatage. They have a selective pallette of bold reds and greens which, on their own, may not convey a horror theme, but as used in-game by the art team create a dark, horror environment without resorting to washed out colors.
The design team is walking a fine line where they're trying to update a much-loved classic title while respecting the franchise and its fans, whose expectations are set by the previous games. They're exploring a new visual look and Diablo 3 will be 3D -- though it will maintain the fixed isometric camera.
Stylized does not necessarily mean cartoony. (We're hoping this means we don't see any gicantic shoulder armor similar to WoW.) The Diablo universe is very dark and the designers wanted to bring a certain level of grit and realism. But they also wanted to take the player to a fantasy realm, something they'd never seen before. "if we just took photos and applied them to a bunch of polygons," said Morrisroe, "that's just not doing our job."
"Another design goal is strong silhouettes -- they wanted everything in the game to have big, bold shapes."
Another design goal is strong silhouettes -- they wanted everything in the game to have big, bold shapes.This allows more creatures to be seen at once (more things to kill!) and helps the game's overall "readability." It also adds to the epic feel by avoiding the straight lines and angles you see in real life -- the game can delve purely into fantasy.
It doesn't matter how talented the artists are if the gameplay isn't enjoyable. The art team realizes the art has to feed the gameplay -- not the other way around. [Ed: if we wanted a gorgeous slide-show, we'd never have moved on from Myst, would we?] The art includes dynamic animations (read: items you can destroy) that help bring a bit of life into otherwise static scenes.
Finally, the game's random dungeons, which you no doubt remember from previous incarnations of Diablo. Yes, Diablo 3 will have random dungeons, which consist of basic room designs with different entries and exits. These are put together like puzzle-pieces to result in a random, yet interesting, dungeon with many possible combinations and lots of replayability. Designing rooms and areas starts with a basic sketch and iterates from there: sketch to more detailed drawings to color studies and finally to the finished product. They iterate through designs until they have it perfect.
Next: Q&A with Brian and Leo