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The Art Director and Systems Designer of Diablo III sit down with The Escapist to chat about just what’s taking Blizzard so long making this game.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm might have been the main event at this year’s BlizzCon, but PC gamers of all walks of life are dying to get their hands on Diablo III – playable here for the third year in a row, but still with no release in sight.

We sat down with D3 Art Director Christian Lichtner and Systems Designer Jason Bender to speak about the game’s art direction, the newly-revealed Demon Hunter class, and why the game is taking Blizzard so darn long to finish. The interview in full is below:

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Christian Lichtner: My name’s Christian Lichtner and I’m the Art Director on Diablo 3.

Jason Bender: I’m Jason Bender, Systems Designer on Diablo 3.

The Escapist: The big news for D3 this BlizzCon is the Demon Hunter – and that’s all five classes revealed. How long have you guys known that these were going to be the five classes? Did you know close on, or did you decide it over the years?

Christian: We actually knew that we wanted to do a ranged class from the very get-go. Literally, from the beginning we knew we wanted a ranged class. We started designing it very early on and through very different circumstances we kept bumping it off. “OK, we’ll work on this class next, we’ll announce this one, we’ll announce this one,” until literally the ranged class became our last announced class.

At that point, we had taken all of our concept lore up until that point – and we showed some of that during our presentation for “The Hero Emerges” for the Demon Hunter. It’s very interesting because we took a breather and I said “OK, now that we have four classes up there, what do we really want to push on this?” We looked at what we had up until that point and we said “There’s some things that we need to tweak.” That’s how the Demon Hunter was born.

It was very much a goal for us to find a class that we could have be a little more mysterious, a little bit on the darker side, maybe someone where you’re not quite sure where she’s at with things. She reads a lot of demonology, she’s really adept at runes, she does gadgets and traps. Having her be the contrast to the monk – which was announced in 2009 – was really something that we really wanted to do. We had a nice balance. Also, we were huge fans of Diablo 2 obviously, so having a medieval-Gothic class was a nice tribute to Diablo 2.

Jason: [D3 project lead] Jay Wilson was really big on the barbarian. The barbarian and the wizard were obvious choices for him. From there, that’s really how we can grow to these more – I don’t want to say esoteric – but they’re a little bit more unusual classes. It’s hard to start with the Demon Hunter and go to the barbarian from there, right? We had a couple that we knew we wanted to nail and that we had a very clear vision for, and the rest grew from that.

TE: So the design for the Demon Hunter was very much influenced by what you didn’t use on the other classes?

Christian: In some ways, yes. In the beginning, we knew it was going to be a ranged class. That had to be a gimme. Also that it illustrated a ranged class. Visually speaking, you want to make sure it weaves correctly. Usually people who choose a class will choose it for a reason. “I want to be really strong, I want to melee, and vice versa, I want to be a caster.” So, that was a big deal then.

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TE: Were there any classes or concepts – not just ranged classes – that never made it into the final idea, that you started work on but they just never jived with the game?

Christian: For the Demon Hunter, for example, we had a desert ranger at some point and it was awesome, it was really cool. It was an interesting take on the ranger, we didn’t have that before. Like all our other classes, we tried to give it a little bit of a twist. One of the things with that was when we were doing the desert ranger, we found that stuff was getting a little bit clunky, we had a little too much cloth on him. And while it looks really cool, it also starts looking bulkier. And whenever we start seeing a class that looks really bulky, we start thinking short sword, or daggers, or fist weapons – stuff you can melee with. We wanted to strive to stay away from that. There have been other ideas that we had that were really, really cool that I think we’re going to save.

Jason: We have a lot of stuff. If you think about the sweep of things that were in previous Diablo games and also what the world can sustain, you have all kinds of stuff – because we had bows, we had armor, we had spears, and we have all these things that we can break the toy box to draw from. Some of them we just have now in our back pockets for if we need them later.

TE: Looking at the reaction to the Demon Hunter, a lot of people are saying that she resembles Sylvanas from World of Warcraft. “Oh, that came out of WoW!” How much of the art – there is obviously a very definitive Blizzard style – how much is influenced by that overall company style and how much do you find yourself going back to D2 to scribble things out?

Christian: That’s a very interesting question. As a company, we definitely have certain core philosophy when it comes to art direction and style that I think all of the different themes adhere to – StarCraft, World of Warcraft, as well as us. There are very good reasons for why we do those things, but they’re usually very much gameplay related. We really make sure that things weave correctly, we like to push things a little bit more so that – you know, “What’s better than a small sword? A really big one!” It just weaves better, it’s more fun.

This is the core philosophy that we all try to adhere to. As far as Diablo goes, though, there’s an interesting mix. We take the things from Diablo 2 that we really enjoyed, that we really thought were very successful. And we also try to mix it with things that we think makes for a better game in terms of just gameplay. And then you look at the merging of those two philosophies. We’re very, very happy with how it looks right now, we’ve gotten really good feedback on it. Some of the comparisons with Sylvanas aren’t necessarily justified because once you start seeing the class in action with some of the different armor sets, you’ll see there’s quite a difference between the two.

Jason: It should be noted that the inspiration comes from – not just D2 and not just other Blizzard art styles, but we look at Van Helsing or something like that. We look at Batman. We look at comics, cinema. I brought in a DVD to show the artists for particular things – just about the environment. We’ve been looking at Legend, actually, at one point. There’s some really interesting, crazy art. I don’t know if anybody remembers that movie, but it’s got a very cool rendition of a demon in it. There’s some environments that we liked.

I’ll go on Google and I’ll be like “I know I saw this cool armor with this cool character” and I’ll take that image and send it to one of our artists and go “See that? This is so inspiring.” And they can interpret that into something that works for us. We draw our inspiration from the same place that we think our fans do, which is all culture.

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TE: You mentioned earlier that a lot of the art design is influenced by how it works in the gameplay perspective. Like you have to have a really recognizable silhouette. “I can tell that this is character X, doing Y.” There’s a perception that modern games are just brown and gritty with huge guys in huge power armor and it’s starting to look the same. Do you think that’s something other studios could stand to do more of, to have something more vibrant?

Christian: I can’t really speak for other companies, but I will tell you that I think, for us at least, what ends up happening is that there’s a few levels to this. For example, we design our skill systems with the class in mind. “Use these colors for these given skills, but don’t use these ones.” For example, you’re playing co-op or PvP, and you see some spell being cast from the side of the screen or some skills being used, you can tell right away – oh, maybe that’s a wizard, oh that’s a monk versus the Demon Hunter.

So those are things that don’t bother you while playing, but definitely factor into it being fun. We also try to de-emphasize the background a little bit and push the foreground a bit more. There’s more contrast, more color in the foreground than there is in the background. And this is so the gameplay really is front and center, you can really see what’s happening. In that regard, we’re maybe not so different – I’m not so sure – but I do know that we really, really emphasize that very strongly. It’s one of the key ingredients that makes for a very successful Blizzard game.

Jason: When we look at the classes, we think, “What’s cool about being a barbarian?” If there are other barbarians out there in other games that are big and beefy, that’s not going to stop up from making a big, beefy barbarian. That’s what we think is cool. We do what excites us and then we try to make sure that it’s clear, it reads well, and that you’re making meaningful choices.

There are a lot of things that are just inherently fun. If you think you can make a choice as a player and you’re rewarded for making a good one, that’s a great fundamental rule. If you’re put into a situation where the choices are not clear and you’re frustrated, well, that’s not great. We have first principles we start from, but we’re really all about executing on the fantasy of that one thing. What’s the best barbarian, what’s the best wizard we can make? Because that’s what’s fun to us.

Christian: There’s sort of a riff off that, too. We also want to create contrast in a lot of ways. For instance, if you go through a brighter environment, we’ll follow it up with a dark one. So we feel like you can’t get the full experience of something unless you’re contrasting it against different things. Same rule applies for the monk vs. the Demon Hunter. Same rule applies for the environment. Again, we just feel that it makes for a better game and a more fun game. It’s a game that we’d like to play.

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TE: It was announced yesterday that you have a mind-boggling 97 billion character combinations, and that’s not even getting into traits or armor. Do you worry that it’s going to be a bit hard for players to tell the difference? They’ll ask, “What’s the difference between 20 points in this skill and 19 points in this skill, and vice versa?”

Jason: That’s funny. We have a pretty systematic approach to this. We start with “What’s a cool skill?” – take skills with runes as an example. “What’s a cool skill? OK, Magic Missile.” “What are cool runes? Maybe Magic Missile tracks, maybe you shoot more of them.” And then we come up with some cool ideas for runes. Maybe they explode on the area when you use them. OK, how does that compare against my other skills? Is this redundant to my other wizard skills? It grows naturally. And from there – by the way this system works – we have a good grip on how all these things interact.

That said, in PvP, we’re not going to balance 97 billion things perfectly and we know that. That’s affected our approach to PvP to some extent. It’s more a fun party environment. PvP is supposed to be a blast, where you’re creative and you come up with really cool builds and we don’t really balance it. It’s affected the way we look at it – we’re not looking at it the same way StarCraft does where there’s perfect balance and it’s really important for the sport. We are more worried about how cool it is to have all these options in PvE and then the PvP grows from that as its own thing.

TE: It’s more drawing a clear line between the two. What you do over here won’t necessarily work over there, right?

Jason: Right. For example, I gave you the example of that particular skill. We know if you put a level 1 runestone, you’re going to shoot 1 extra bolt with Magic Missile and if you put in a higher level one, you’re going to shoot 8 or what have you. We make sure both of those are fun. From there, we’re pretty sure that the 3 through 7 bolts are going to be pretty good. And we balance it and we look at every one of these things individually. We have some very clever guys that spent a lot of time running the numbers to make sure it’s good. Also, we play the heck out of this game. We play a lot, so we have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t and that really helps guide us and simplifies the problems.

TE: From an artistic standpoint, Christian, was it hard to make these all feel distinct visually?

Christian: Absolutely. But it’s also a huge amount of fun! We love doing this stuff because we come up with crazy ideas. Zombie bear is one example. My personal favorite, Giant Toad – eating monsters and puking up the loot and gold – that sort of thing. Those are just fun. And we live for that stuff. Those are some of the things that, when we’re playing a game, we’re having a huge amount of fun and a blast doing that stuff. We think the players themselves will like it. But it is pretty intimidating coming up with these differences and iterating on it. It’s definitely doable and it’s fun. It’s a tough job, but it’s a fun job.

Jason: A trick we use is that when we introduce something to the team that they haven’t seen before, just to let the team play with it and see what they think … we kind of overpower it a little bit to give people a fair chance to like it. Then we know, once we get some honest opinions on what people thought about it, we can roll it back and bring it in line with everything else balance-wise. It’s a heck of a balancing act. It’s pretty tricky.

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TE: I was speaking with Alex Mayberry, one of the producers, a few days ago. He said that you guys were coming up on having the first pass on the game pretty much done. Are you guys getting antsy because this game’s been in development for so long now? Are you guys getting like “We want to get this out, we want to have people playing it, we want everyone to just have fun”?

Christian: We definitely want to make sure that the game is where it’s supposed to be, where it’s fun and awesome. So we’re very happy with it. I think at the end of the day, however long it takes, we’re willing to do that. I think that a lot of Blizzard games are played for a very long time. No one wants to ship a game that we’re not happy with. A lot of the time spent on it is really what you’re seeing with this – we’re making sure that things play the way we want them to be. Until it’s ready and we’re really happy with it, we won’t release it.

Jason: We do our best to crank through this stuff. We want to finish the game, we do. And we want people to play it, which is one of the reasons why we like to watch people play it on the show floor so we can give them a chance to really enjoy it. But it has to be done. You don’t want it when it’s not done. We hold ourselves to high standards because we’re playing this game too. Everyday we’re playing this game and I see stuff and say “Man, that’s just not good enough. Let’s fix it.” And then we do, but it takes time.

TE: One more quick question. Are you guys tired of the rainbow jokes yet?

Christian: We’re stoking the fire ourselves in some ways! No, not at all. I think we’re in good humor with things like that. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think that stuff is just awesome.

TE: I did notice at the end of the demo there – double rainbow!

Jason: Double rainbow!

Christian: What does it mean?

Jason: Even Mike [Morhaime] has a great sense of humor about that.

Christian: Again, we feel like we’re part of the same community as our players and as a result, we take these things and we run with them and have fun with it.

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Back in the mists of time, Blizzard said that it was attempting to commit to one high-profile release every year. With StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and WoW: Cataclysm both launching this year, do we have a shot at seeing Diablo III in 2011? One can only hope – but with Blizzard, who knows?

I’m totally rolling a Monk.

John Funk wishes the Monk could summon zombie bears, too.

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