Q: What – specifically – does a lead designer do?
Kevin Martens: Diablo has a lot of moving parts. There's level design – which usually means monsters, monster density – where loot is placed, and the actual loot itself. What the powers do, what the classes do – that's more or less under system design. Everything from experience balance to all the set re-dos that we recently did, and of course multiplayer balance.
I work with a lot of talented, experienced guys and we do all that, and these days we're getting pretty fast at it, which is why patch 2.4 is probably the biggest patch we've ever done... probably... it is definitely the biggest! We actually have more new Legendary items in this patch than we've had since Reaper of Souls itself, since people started playing the expansion.
Q: How does a Legendary come into existence? Is it from looking at a mesh of data and saying "there's a gap here", or is it more like a graphic designer coming to you with some shiny new thing that you need to then get into the game?
Kevin Martens: Both those things and many more. These days, a lot of our items are trying to add gameplay variety. We look at all the skills that the players are using and then we look at the ones they're not using and we say, "Hey, what if we added an item to make this better?" We used to tune the numbers and try to make the skill better and that's OK, but then it just keeps moving everything around. Putting it into the reward system has actually been a really interesting twist for us, which has worked out really well.
As an example, we have War Cry and Threatening Shout, two of the Barbarian buff abilities. They're not unused, but they're just used occasionally. We thought, alright, these are two almost passive buff sort of things: you hit them once, then you have them for a little while, then they time down. What if they were actually used as attacks? So we added a new sword, which in this case is called the Blade of the Tribes – it's a big two-handed sword. This one is kinda like you said: we saw the big two-handed sword and we said, "We have to use this." It's one the artists happened to make.
Sometimes we make something that's specifically asked for, other times we make something awesome and then we'll say, "Oh, I know what power to put with that." The sword was one of those ones. It makes it so each time you cast those two buffs, they actually cast not just Earthquake – which was one Barbarian's big, 30-second cooldown spells – but also Avalanche, another one of his big skills. Used with the leapquake set, which is one of the four big Barbarian sets, it means that rocks and earthquakes are happening every damn second. Leap also does Avalanche and Earthquake, so the whole ground is broken and rocks are tumbling down all the time!
Many of our items follow that exact thing. For the new demon hunter we redid a set called Shadow's Mantle to make it a ninja set. It was like "let's find a new way to have the demon hunter to play… what if they didn't use bows at all?!" No arrows are shot by this demon hunter, no crossbow bolts. Throwing stars, throwing daggers, and a fan of knives – we made a melee demon hunter! I think part of that is my influence because I love playing the classes the exact opposite of the way they're intended to be played. I like playing a ranged-only Barbarian, a melee-only Wizard, and things like that. We actually embraced that specifically with the demon hunter and the shadow's mantle set.
So sometimes it's just a fantasy, like, "Wouldn't it be awesome if this class did something they shouldn't even be able to do?" With all these different items – not just the set, but the legendaries overall – you can pick and choose here and there.
Q: The new Kanai's Cube in 2.3 that lets you use Legendary effects without having to equip the item itself has been quite the game-changer. The fact that you can now use an effect without the weapon it was designed around, however, must be something of a compromise for the design team. How'd you get past that?
Kevin Martens: That was a worry, but we felt like the somewhat obvious awesomeness of being able to have even more variety in your builds and more "augment abilities", essentially, was worth that trade-off. We had a pretty long PTR before we went live with it, and it turned out that that concern has not been a problem, so we're building on that in 2.4. We have a new recipe where you can take ancient items – also released in 2.3 – and permanently augment them by adding legendary gems. You can "burn" a legendary gem, and the higher level that gem is, the more you're augmenting your item to get a permanent, massive stat increase. So yeah, even more popular now!
Q: Tell me more about Set Dungeons; they sound like something that will create a whole new collection-based gameplay compulsion!
Alex Sulman: They're new dungeons built around the six-piece sets we have in the game. There's 24 of these dungeons – they're all spread throughout Sanctuary – and there's a tome of set dungeons book in the library in Leoric's manor. If you go to that wearing a set, a clue drops. That clue gives you a cryptic indication of where the portal is which is in a fixed location, somewhere in the world.
Kevin Martens: There’s a different clue for each of the 24 sets.
Alex Sulman: Yeah because there's a different location for every dungeon. Once you find the dungeon, and approach it wearing the set, a statue appears and there's a portal and you go into the world. Each dungeon is a fixed layout, with a fixed population, and a fixed difficulty level, and they have custom objectives that are built around the powers of the set. So every dungeon is unique to the set that it reflects and these challenges are built to help you learn the set, have fun with the set, and figure out why that set is good and also to attempt to master the set and if you master the set you complete all the objectives within the time limit you can earn rewards (pennants and sigils etc).
Kevin Martens: And if you do all 24 of the sets, you're that good of a Diablo player (you find and then master playing all of them), you get Dragon Wings, which are pretty spectacular.
Alex Sulman: Yeah, they're pretty sweet.
Kevin Martens: They got a good applause at the panel!
Alex Sulman: And that's no mean feat – collecting all 24 sets, for all the classes, completing all the dungeons, and all of that.
Kevin Martens: Some of our more serious players will start collecting sets right now.
Alex Sulman: Haha yes!
Kevin Martens: So that, as soon as patch 2.4 launches, they'll already be racing to find the set dungeons to complete 'em, because that's the way they roll!
Q: Is it a challenge to come up with stuff that's awe-inspiring the first time you see it but not horrible and frustrating when you confront it for the thousandth time?
Kevin Martens: Why, yes it is!
Alex Sulman: Yes. It is!
Kevin Martens: Glad you asked that question! If you've been playing Diablo III since it launched, we had this serious problem of playing the story over and over again; we more or less fixed that with Adventure mode. Adventure mode is taking basically everything that's fun in the story and the levels and mixing and matching them with a series of bounties. So it has you go all around the world doing whatever we find interesting in some random order. Even so, with the amount of time players put into this, they even start to get bored of that – it doesn't seem to be enough content. That said, we're adding 175...
Alex Sulman: More than 175!
Kevin Martens: …More than 175 new bounties just to the Adventure mode portion of the game, then all the new zones we've added – a dungeon, two areas, and an entire zone – all of those, of course, you can play them with those bounties, but also those will be rolled into Nephalem Rifts to make the other aspect (Greater Rifts, Nephalem Rifts) more varied for people.
So, as randomised as our game is, people play it so much that they actually kinda see everything. Mathematically, they probably haven't seen everything, but if you've seen one area enough times, even if it's been six hours since you last saw it, it's like "ah, I've seen it". So, we keep adding new zones and stuff as well.