Q: When designing a character, how much of the design do you intuit, and how much is iteration? Does the final design often fall far from where you started?
Paul Warzecha: We have a lot of hands on that stuff. For example, in the case of the Crusader, it was actually opened up to the entire team for a while, and everybody had a chance to participate and do some quick sketches - whether you could sketch or not - or even just type up some stuff saying ‘this is what I think a Crusader should be’.
So we pooled all those ideas together, and it was Victor Lee who came up with that badass image of the Crusader walking out of the fire with that massive shield and the crazy flail. That was the one where everyone thought, ‘OK, that’s it, that’s the one.’
Then a senior character artist on our team, Paul David, took that original sketch and distill it down [into something that could be represented in-game].
A lot of times, there’s a lot left to the imagination in a quick painting or a sketch, and Paul had to figure out how to make it all work.
Q: Would you describe the darker, more Gothic tone in Reaper of Souls as a direct response to community feedback?
Warzecha: There’s an element of that, but I would also say that the individuals working on the game are every bit the fans that the players are. I think we all recognised that there was an opportunity to go back to that dark, Gothic, medieval world.
Going to Westmarch, it’s kind of the military centre of Westmarch. You’ve got this super-cool place. It speaks to being dark. Malthael is the Angel of Death. You’ve got the Crusader who we’ve talked about as being that knight in battle-scarred armour. Everything speaks to being a darker game, and it made sense that we’d go there.
Q: The monster animations in Reaper of Souls appear to be much more elaborate. Is that something the team identified early on as something to focus on?
Warzecha: It makes me super-happy that you say that, because it’s something that I’m really proud of the team for. We retooled how we approached monsters in this game. We started a monster strike team where we pooled resources from all the different departments - you had a sound guy in there, you had a designer, you had a programmer.
So then take, for example, the skeletons that shoot arrows at you. We’ve fought skeletons more time than I want to count in Diablo III. What was going to make these characters different [in Reaper of Souls]? Certainly they’re ethereal, they’re undead Westmarch soldiers, but the way they act and the way they fight you is different. We were sitting in a meeting and game director Josh Mosqueira gets up and says, ‘If I’m a skeleton and I’m shooting you, I want to shoot you, then take a few steps back and shoot you again.’ You’re not going to run away and look away from someone when you’re fighting them. So we actually had one of our engineers go up there and make changes on the fly as we were sitting in this meeting and have the skeleton start strafing back. Obviously an animator had to come in and match that up properly, but on the fly we had that character now stepping back and shooting you, and keeping you at a distance. All those little changes were things that came out of these tight-knit meetings.
Q: What can you tell us about how the bosses come together?
Warzecha: Very much like the monster strike teams. We try to get someone from each discipline. So you generally have an idea [what the bosses will be]. Obviously Malthael is the big bad guy, and one of the first bosses you come across is Urzael. There are some initial sketches and some ideas about what this character could be. But until we can test it out, we “grey box” it, [meaning] you come up with a very rough model with some loose animations, and you test that. How does this feel? Is it doing what we would expect?
There’s a lot of back and forth, and from each one of those meetings, you walk away with action items. Maybe he’ll move a little faster here, maybe he’s going to jump up in the air and pounce down on you, or shoot flames. The iteration [team] might get together two or three times a week to take a look at that. Every time you come back, somebody has plussed it a little bit until, ideally, you get it to the point where everyone recognises it as an awesome boss battle.
Q: Can you tell us about the design of Malthael in particular?
Warzecha: Yeah, so Malthael is the Angel of Death. He was the Angel of Wisdom. He disappeared for many years. He has come back because of what he has seen our hero do. He sees humans, and he understands that humans are the spawn of angels and demons, and he knows that there is demon in there. He just watched the player character kill this massively powerful being. The nephalem has killed the Prime Evil and his lieutenants. He sees a threat.
We kind of wanted to get that deathly feel, that sense of this emaciated, skeletal character. He still has the iconic hood, we still don’t see the face, but the cool blues, the metal, the filigree, all speak to that deathly aspect.
Q: And the twin scythes?
Warzecha: In some of the lore that has been written there was talk of Malthael, as the Angel of Wisdom, having scythes, and each of the different angels carry different weapons. I don’t know sometimes if it’s just fortuitous, or if it’s guys like Metzen behind the scenes with his secret plans, but it's the right choice for the character!
Q: Where do the ideas for bosses or mini-bosses come from?
Warzecha: It can come from anywhere, and it’s not even just the bosses. There are characters that came out of a need to have a specific type of gameplay, like, ‘We need a melee brute enemy in Westmarch’, that would be all that came from design. So then [we’d have to ask ourselves] is this a demon? Is this a fallen angel? If it needs to hit hard does it use cleaver-like blades, or does it use fists? Does it even need to punch? In the case of the Westmarch hound, what happens if it swallows your character whole? All of those are things that came out of the strike teams. It can come from about any direction. Some things are more art-driven at times, but ultimately everything comes back to that Gameplay First tenet.
Q: Is that also true for weapons, then? Do you receive the stats for a Legendary item and then imagine what it might look like, or do you design something and take it to the team who then fill it out with stats?
Warzecha: That is where there really is no stop or start! There are times where somebody comes up with something that looks really badass and the designer will come in and say, ‘I know just what to do with that!’ Then there are other times where a designer might like, ‘Hey, I need a design for a weapon where when it hits it spawns a demon that stays chained to you and follows you around. What [does that look like]?’
We’ve had them go both ways. We’ve even had items that were named after members of the team in some weird way. “Rogar’s Huge Stone” is named after Roger Houston. So it can come from anywhere.
Q: What's your background?
Warzecha: I’ve been with Blizzard for the last six years. I’ve been working on Diablo III the entire time I’ve been there. I came on right before we announced Diablo III, and I’ve been leading the character team ever since.
Q: Did you always want to work on character design?
Warzecha: Yeah, I’ve always been character-centric. I was at Ensemble Studios for several years, and another, smaller company before that. I’ve done a little bit of concept over the years, but I’ve always focused more on the modelling side, and that’s kind of now where my specialty lies: the heroes, the weapons, the monsters - that sort of thing.
Q: What draws you to character art more than anything else?
Warzecha: I like all aspects of it. Over the years I’ve had my hands in environment stuff, and effects work. But taking a character, and aside from just coming up with cool, compelling characters - something that you care about, creating that hero that you get to play as, and being able to establish the look and feel of that is super-exciting to me.