Diablo III may well be the sequel that all the fans want, but after the long rumbling drum-roll of rumours and hints that presaged its announcement, there is an odd sense of anti-climax.
Thanks to World of WarCraft, Blizzard has the highest of public profiles – a vast base of existing users who are eager for its product and easily and directly courted. Surely few companies are as well positioned to pull a new and radical IP from their sleeve? Instead, and perhaps inevitably, Blizzard returned to a familiar licence, doing so in a way which, on the surface, appears to differ little from its predecessor’s formula. It’s an assessment that the developers find surprising.
“Coming at it from the RPG side I don’t think we did stick to the formula in a lot of ways,” says Leonard Boyarsky, lead world designer. “I feel that Diablo II had a lot of room to grow in terms of the story and the RPG. I look at other games that have come out more recently, that are ‘action RPGs,’ and apart from changing where the camera is, I think we’re doing quite a bit more than what they’ve done. We could have done a completely different game style but that wouldn’t have been Diablo III.”
“It’s not like there’s been a ton of great Diablo clones out there,” joins in lead designer Jay Wilson. “It’s a pretty small genre that hasn’t evolved very much in its gameplay. It’s the game we wanted to play – and, we assume, the game our fans would want to play. That said, there are some new features that we haven’t announced yet that take it away from what the previous games did, but still at its core it’s a true sequel.”
One vital aspect of the game that carries the essence of its predecessors is its camera angle. Although now fully 3D, it’s a direct progression from the isometric view of the previous games – and it’s this loyalty to the spirit of that old technology that has led so many to assume that the game has done little to update itself.
“Camera is not technology,” says Wilson, clearly somewhat frustrated. “People associate the camera with isometric and say: ‘Oh, why didn’t you update the tech?’ Well, we did update the tech. The camera has nothing to do with tech, the camera is all about gameplay. Isometric gameplay is very different from FPS or over-the-shoulder thirdperson – which is pretty much what the entire industry is moving towards. But then some of the biggest hits of the last year were Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and those were not high-tech games. Gameplay is what matters; it’s what’s always mattered to us.”
But Wilson is keen to impress that this is not just an HD refit of its predecessors: and by no means has Diablo III eschewed new technology in bolstering and furthering the series’ hack-and-slash core.
“I think the most obvious kind of thing to look at is the addition of physics,” says Wilson. “I think it just makes combat feel better, which is essentially its goal; we’ve added a lot of opportunities to use the environment against people, or interact with it. The environments of Diablo I and II felt very much like a box for monsters. And being able to make them feel a lot more alive is really the thing that we’ve brought up the technology to do.”
Similarly, Blizzard has tweaked the degree with which environments are randomly generated, attempting to achieve a better balance between unpredictable encounters and worlds that feel coherent, interesting and credible.
“We mix static environments with random environments,” Wilson explains. “With our outdoor environments, we’ve focused a lot more on static environments – there’s not the complete randomness that there was with Diablo II, and that’s mainly to give the world a feeling of reality. In Diablo II, the only way you could take an area as organic as the outdoors and make it random was to pull all the interest out of it. So it didn’t make for a very compelling layout. What we’ve tried to do with Diablo III is to ask ourselves how we could make the randomness in those outdoor areas mean more.
“What we did was to come up with ‘Adventures,’ which allows us to cut huge blocks out of the outdoor areas and stick whatever we want in there. So, the next town is always to the North, but you don’t know if you’re going to encounter a camp along the way or a lost caravan or a summoning ritual. There are all these different kinds of events, and you don’t know where they are going to appear. There’s still a reason to explore, and that’s really what randomness provides. The encounters are all random, so you don’t know what’s around the next corner.”
The dungeons meanwhile, which Wilson says make up 60 percent of the game or more, use a completely random system. “We do either one of two things,” he says.
“We have an assortment of layouts with randomised entrances and exits or we go for the full randomised dungeon which is essentially a bunch of components that get reassembled together. And all of them can also have Adventures as well.”
Wilson makes it clear that these aren’t the only ways in which Diablo’s gameplay has been extended and enriched, although such details are still under wraps. But even if Diablo III does no more than dust off the formula of its predecessors it will still be a formidable extension of a heavyweight franchise. The fans will almost certainly get what they want and more – Blizzard is already scrutinising the reaction to the game’s announcement and tailoring it to suit. But as solid a product as Diablo III promises to be, there’s still a part of us that wishes what Blizzard did next wasn’t something it had done before.