Q: Are there any pillars you hold new designs up to that basically measure "is this thing Diablo?"
Kevin Martens: What you just referenced absolutely would be, which is replayability. Something that can only be played once is fine, depending on how often it is played. If something is going to get played a lot – if it's going to go into Adventure mode as a primary goal – that one has to have replayability built into it in some manner. It could be through randomness, it could be through the way rewards are done, or it could be done simply through frequency. If you only see something once every 15 hours, that is fine. So we have to hold that up for everything we do.
Set dungeons, for example, are an interesting experiment. You don't do them that often, so it passes that replayability thing, and they're more of a reward than they are a challenge. They're challenging, because you have to do not just complete the dungeon in a certain amount of time with a specific set using its primary ability really effectively, but they also have the mastery element of some really tricky thing that only expert players can do. And that one is a little less replayable once you've mastered it but that's OK, because that's only done once per Season as you get other sets so all of these systems tie in together, and we kinda track how often you're going to see something to decide how custom it can be versus how randomized it needs to be. So there's a long answer: that's one of the core pillars that everything gets put through that filter one way or another.
Q: What other pillars are there?
Kevin Martens: The fantasy of the classes are super-primary. We have so many skills and abilities for the classes, and we added all these items and things. I think you referenced this, as far as if you can just take the power of an item, are you ruining the fantasy of the item? That's way more important with the characters; they're the filter through which everything is done. They all have to stand distinct.
The Crusader and Barbarian both hit things with melee weapons and the things die, so the core fantasy is the same – it's a warrior thing. Those two have to stay super distinct so when we're building something that emphasises the Barbarian powers. It's really easy to accidentally get into what the Crusader can do, and so we have to make sure we are focusing on what made the Barbarian cool to begin with. If players wanted to play a dude in big heavy armour or a knight in shining armour, they would have gone with the Crusader. What did they want out of a Barbarian? What's the Conan fantasy? What's the Native American fantasy? What are all the types of Barbarians? Vikings? Mongols? Etcetera. So we have to pull all these references and make sure they don't cross over with the other classes in that part of it. I geek out on that stuff, right? That's the science of what we do. It's interesting, and it's beyond the art of the moment to moment stuff we're making.
Alex Sulman: And we've always said multiplayer is...
Kevin Martens: That's another core pillar.
Alex Sulman: We always like to build the game for that multiplayer focus. An interesting thing about Set Dungeons is when they were originally considered, they were very single player. When we actually thought long and hard about that, it was like, "Well, should we put them in as multiplayer? Should we put them in as single player?" We ended up reworking the design to make multiplayer interesting. If there's buddies with you, they can't complete the dungeon – only the person that "owns" the dungeon and starts the dungeon can complete it – but they can help you. But they can also hinder you, so there's an interesting push-pull there. Like, if they kill too many enemies, kill an enemy that you're supposed to do something to, then you fail and they've messed you up. So maybe you need to try again and strategise, so...
Kevin Martens: Like Firebirds...
Alex Sulman: Yes!
Kevin Martens: A Wizard Set Dungeon, it's about getting a tonne of enemies burning all at the same time, which means you have to be using fire damage on them. If your Barbarian just jumps in with his freezing Earthquake and destroys a whole group of enemies, there goes a chance to get 30 enemies burning at once, or whatever the specific number of Firebirds was.
Alex Sulman: And I think that creates an interesting level of cooperation, one that perhaps we haven't had in the same way anywhere else in the game. I admit, I was very resistant to it initially, I was like "No! This is how they were conceived! This is how they're going to be!" and Kevin was the one who was like "No, we should really think about this" and it's actually ended up I think giving it a fresh take on something the rest of the game doesn't have in the same way.
Kevin Martens: And since it only happens in a particular type of thing - Set Dungeons - of which there are 24 individual areas, we can try something as a bold experiment that doesn't change the entire game.
Alex Sulman: Yeah, exactly.
Q: Do you set expectations for new content? Pass/fail measures that you use to determine the success – or otherwise – of new material or changes to existing stuff?
Kevin Martens: It's probably a little more in discussion than it is formally written down. We're not super document-y on Diablo III specifically. The other teams do better.... we're not terrible, I shouldn't say that. Rather, we do a lot of it in gameplay testing and so when somebody is pitching an idea.
Alex Sulman: Set Dungeons kinda had an interesting genesis because they actually came out of a game jam. We spent a week just coming up with cool stuff. I actually built a super rough prototype of the Delsere's Opus one and had it working. I still have that video, from like five or six months ago, when it was kinda working – enough to get the idea across – and then ended up building it out, fleshing it out, and pitching it as a more solid idea and it ended up going ahead.
Kevin Martens: So I guess there is a point where we do have to start writing things down and that's if too many people are involved.
Alex Sulman: I think that's one of the things I've learned coming to Blizzard is: "Build it; if it's fun, we can do it." That's definitely really encouraging. We're at a point where we can experiment, we can come up with a cool iteration of a feature that we already have, refine it to build something new, and it ends up becoming a feature in a patch. Kanai's Cube is that...
Kevin Martens: Yeah, Kanai's Cube was originally going to be something very different. It was going to be a card based collection system.
Alex Sulman: Mmm.
Kevin Martens: Then we ended up saying, "Why do we need to add these new things – cards – when we already have a 'gotta catch 'em all' element in Legendary items? Can we build on that and have it be part of player character power? Yes we can!" So we did.
Q: There's an increasing interest in archiving video games, video game development, and the process that surrounds the video game life cycle. You mentioned earlier a video of an early iteration of a feature; do you keep that stuff? Is it stored somewhere for future reference?
Alex Sulman: I don't think we always intentionally keep it, but...
Kevin Martens: We should. Here's what we do: every month we have an "everyone shares all their work" meeting. We bring in food and drinks and we turn it into a party, so there's like an hour to two hour party once a month where everyone shows their stuff, and many times those are shown in video form or at least powerpoints with screenshots or embedded videos. We keep all those, so when we're going back in time, we're surprised. Sometimes, we'll start something then we'll end up cutting it and be like, "That was a really good idea; how'd that work again? I have no idea!" and you're poring through the folders...
I wish that we archived things a little bit better. Too many pieces have been lost. We just saw someone on the forums yesterday saying, "Hey, is there some way that I can play Diablo III 'vanilla'? I want to play it like it first was when it was really hard and you were really stingy with the stuff." And we were like "No!" It'd be kinda fun to do that for a week and people have that idea for WoW all the time. But we're always moving forward; we never archive stuff. All that stuff would break if we tried to go back to that. Servers wouldn't even support it anymore.
Q: I'm sure people 20–30 years from now would really appreciate it if you kept this sort of material, if you can find a way to do so.
Alex Sulman: I actually have a friend who runs a computer history museum in my home town in England – Cambridge – and they're trying to do the same sort of thing. It's tough! There are whole games that have been forgotten, games you don't know when they were released, games you can't run any more.
Kevin Martens: Yeah! I was going to play Diablo [one] and I had to do quite a bit of hackery to make it run on my Windows 10 machine.
◆ Alan attended BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard.