When I met Jay Wilson today, Blizzard's lead designer on Diablo III, I opened our conversation with two loaded little words: Art direction. I didn't need to say any more, of course, because Wilson already knew about the fan-fit I was referring to.
"It's a complex issue," he said. "It's been a big issue online, but for the most part, the response we've gotten has been very positive. We've got petitions, a few people on forums [who are] very loud, but it's really more of the 'squeaky wheel' syndrome." "Certainly, internally there's no doubt. I would tell people who don't like the art style that probably, getting the art style was the hardest thing."
But there's a careful method to all of it, Wilson explained: Wilson said that what we see now is the third iteration on the Diablo III design. As with many of the decisions the developer makes, much of the art design issue was based in gameplay principles. "Diablo is a game you play for, hopefully, hundreds of hours, and one of the rewards is a variety of different-looking environments." P
eople looking back on old Diablo, he said, may have a selective memory. "People remember the Act I dungeons... but they kind of conveniently forget the green fields of Act I, and all of Act II... and it's palaces, its bright deserts."
Actually, Wilson said the team originally shot for a "very desaturated, very dark" gameworld. "We had all kinds of problems with identification of units... combat wasn't very good, and the worlds got homogeneous very quickly. As we played through it, we didn't like it, or think it was very much fun."
Diablo II, said Wilson, was actually "very saturated, very bright." What about the complaint, then, that Diablo III may be "too much like WoW" in style and vibe? "There's a philosophy that goes across all of our games, and that philosophy stays true from game to game... so it probably draws some comparisons," Wilson said. "One philosophy is that our artists feel like if they're just using photorealism, not creating a unique look for the game, not stylizing so that it's uniquely Blizzard, then they're not doing their jobs."
Color choices, he said, promote telling units apart and telling players apart from monsters, philosophies that cross all of Blizzard's titles. "If you do follow those rules, there's going to be some similarities."
And what's so bad about drawing some comparisons to the hugely-successful WoW, anyway? "We definitely learn from all our games," said Wilson. "We don't say, 'oh, we don't want to do anything those games did' — it's all Blizzard, we're all a family. WoW pulled stuff from Diablo II... if we think it's a smart choice, we try to pull stuff from them. We don't really worry about whether it's different. What matters is, does it make the gameplay better? That always wins."
There are some cases, though, where the sharing of art philosophy doesn't always work — WoW game director Jeffrey Kaplan said that the team takes care not to make the gravestones in WoW's pivotal cemeteries too Gothic-looking — those tombstones belong in Diablo. "Diablo can do a lot of things WoW can't even do," Kaplan said. "We can't do the level of violence that they can do in Diablo III; we would lose our rating if we do the things that Diablo III does. They have a much darker vibe."
In other words, said Wilson, the Blizzard team won't pass over a good idea just because it's not brand-new. "If we're actually making the game worse with no other reason than to be different from WoW, then it's a bad choice. We don't think, when people play, that they'll have any problem telling that it's a different game."
The preliminary art we've seen so far, Wilson said, is from early on in the game. "We want to generate the feeling of everything getting worse... it's part of our narrative. It makes the more gloomy part of the game a place where the stakes get higher." "If you start out at the apocalypse, and then move to more apocalypse, it's not going to have much of an impression on players."