On the Gamescom 2010 show floor, Blizzard's imposing stand featured a huge enclosure. Its black walls, printed with glowering artwork, enclosed dozens and dozens of PCs hosting a playable demo of Diablo III.
This demo was a whole year old, having debuted at BlizzCon 2009. Despite that - and despite the fact this room was closed to the general public, with press and other privileged badge-holders being waved through by ever-vigilant staff - it was constantly busy, usually with a queue waiting for an open slot. That's how badly the world wants a taste of Diablo III.
At the other end of the vast Koelnmesse complex, in another, much smaller, but still brand-black room, sits Game Director Jay Wilson. It's end of a long, noisy day, and he's looking understandably tired. Wilson is a relatively easy man to perk up, though; you just need talk to him about game design. So I do.
Eurogamer: You've just announced the Artisan crafting system. Why did you decide to put crafting in Diablo III?
Jay Wilson: A lot of it was looking at systems that existed in Diablo II, and ways that we could expand. There were a lot of systems in Diablo II that were good systems, but maybe weren't used well or weren't recognised as good systems.
Gambling worked pretty well if you knew it worked, but a lot of people didn't, and rune words were cool, but any system that requires you to go to a website to know what to do seems like a bad system.
So we looked at things like that and said, you know, what we really want is a one-stop shop for everything to do with creating and customising items. One place where we can reliably put features and players understand where to go, who does it, and also get introduced to it in such a way that we can lead it earlier in the game, so that players understand what it's good for.
And they focus on the item game, which is really what the game's all about.
Eurogamer: So the mystic and the jeweller are the other artisans, alongside the blacksmith?
Jay Wilson: Yeah, those are the three artisans. They each craft items depending on their specialities: so the jeweller does rings and amulets, the mystic, staves and wands.
They each have unique abilities they can do: you've seen the blacksmith's, the mystic can do enchantments and divinification [equivalent to using a scroll of identification on an item] and the jeweller can de-socket gems and also combine gems to make higher-quality gems.
Eurogamer: Is there a limit to how much item customisation you can have in a Diablo game?
Jay Wilson: Yes - the tooltips are the limit! Once we run out of space in those... And we fill them up quite a bit. So yeah, that's the big thing, because we really wanted to make a lot of those elements more prolific.
The thing about getting an item is, it's so exciting when you get one - but if that's it, if that's the end of the story, then that's kind of the end of the excitement. But if you have all these things you can do to it - you can go and get an enchantment and you can go and get sockets added to it and you can go and find really good gems to put into it - well, that just extends the excitement of getting an item.
We really liked that notion because it's what the game's all about.
Eurogamer: So the artisans will be NPCs who follow you through the story, is that right?
Jay Wilson: That's right. They stay in whatever passes for town, wherever you go, so they don't go out into the combat world with you, but yeah, as you progress through the story, they follow you.
You get basically a whole entourage of quest givers and artisans who go with you. We wanted more of a feel that the player is a hero - and people gravitate around heroes, they believe in them, they want to help them, they want to be around them.
So we wanted that notion that as the player moves through the game, they just collect all these people who are like a support network, but also are there to bask in the aura of this really good, heroic character.
Eurogamer: I guess you've been watching the launch of StarCraft II very closely. Have you learned anything interesting from it - in terms of the use of Battle.net, maybe?
Jay Wilson: Most of the feedback we've got from the actual game we got from the beta. So there haven't been any big surprises yet, but it's still kind of early. The interesting thing will be to see how people end up using Battle.net, how the structure and their play sessions are, and also how they interact with achievements in a game like that.
Achievements can have a huge impact in terms of motivating a player, and we always want it to be a positive one, but sometimes it can motivate behaviour that is not inherently fun and we don't like to encourage.
It may be that those players don't mind it, but when it gets right down to it, if somebody feels like they've got to do something kind of repetitive and boring to get an achievement or some kind of reward, then we've clearly designed the game wrong.
I think good achievement design is actually some of the hardest design. They shouldn't be, but they're so powerful, and you can really send the player down a bad path.
I'd rather use achievements to say that there's things that we know are fun that players won't ever try. Some players will, but not all players will, and we can really point out these fun things to do. Because of that, I think achievements are a really exciting and powerful feature.
Eurogamer: Another key aspect of Diablo games is randomisation, in the loot tables and the dungeons themselves. Is there a particular trick to designing a randomised game? Is there a different mindset you need to have?
Jay Wilson: I think one of the key things is you have to understand and accept true randomness. A lot of times [people think that] whenever an item drops sooner than it seems like it should, or you get like eight swords in a run, the loot system's totally broken. No it's not, it's random. That's what it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be unpredictable.
It takes a lot of getting used to. If you play a game that doesn't have randomness like that, the result is generally going to be the result; and so you can play it, judge the result, make a change. With randomisation, you have to play it, play it, play it, play it, play it, think about it, play it, think about it, play it, make a change. And then repeat. You can't be too reactionary.
So it makes the tuning process more involved, but you get so much out of it. Once you get those systems going, it's a game you can play over and over and over. You get far more bang for your buck, but that initial investment in tuning is tough.
Eurogamer: One thing I noticed playing the last build of the game is the change in the barbarian's resource mechanic from the first time I played it, when it was just a simple mana pool. Is that something we can expect for all the classes - these more involved resource mechanics?
Jay Wilson: We're trying to - as long as we can come up with original and cool mechanics for each one. Right now, all the classes have unique resource mechanics but some of them are more successful than others.
The Monk one's probably the one that works the best. I really like it. It's called spirit, he gets it through combo moves, it builds up slowly, and then he's got certain moves that use up spirit.
So it's all about building it up over time and really thinking about it: "Do I want to use my awesome attack power here for a lot of damage, or save some because I have a really good skill for getting me out of trouble?"
There are some interesting decisions to make there, but it's not so frequent a decision that it feels like you're staring at it all the time, which is one of the problems we've had with some of the mechanics.
The Barbarian we're still working on, we still haven't gotten Fury just right. Mostly it's dealing with exactly that issue - you feel like you have to manage it all the time. Each class is a different challenge.
Eurogamer: The action RPG is a genre that frankly hasn't changed a lot since Diablo II. There have been good games, Torchlight is a recent example, but it doesn't seem to have advanced much over the intervening years. Do you think you can do much with this game to change that?
Jay Wilson: Yeah, I think we look at a couple of things as not good enough. Whenever we decide to make a game, especially if it's a sequel, it's always because we look at a game that we've made or a genre that we like that we see flaws and problems in. And we go, "We want to fix that. We love it, but it would be even better if it was like this."
So when we looked at Diablo II, the main things that we really focused on were: the combat model doesn't have as much depth as we'd like; it can be a very simple, one-button game, and that can be good, but we'd kind of rather it be a mostly one-button game and occasionally a three- or four-button game. That's got more depth, it's more interesting, it's got more mechanics to it.
And that funnels down into class design and monster design; when you've got more mechanics to play with, they can be deeper as well. That's why we changed the health system, that's why we created the skill hotbar, that motivates a lot of the changes we've made, right down to the resource mechanics also.
The other side is story. This genre, even though half of its blood is RPG which is a story genre, most of these games are not very story-intensive or don't tell great stories. So that's something we really wanted to focus on: creating a world where story is pervasive, that felt like as you moved through it, even though it's randomised, there are events occurring that tell you what's happening in the game world.
Eurogamer: Can you give us an idea of the tone we can expect in the story, relative to the previous games?
Jay Wilson: Well, one of the things that we talked a lot about when we started the project was... Look at the tone of Diablo II's summaries of their story. There's a lot of talk about destroying evil for all time, take out Diablo and then evil's dead forever. I felt like that was a terribly arrogant idea that only humans would have; only humans would think that you could destroy evil forever.
That was the first hook that we talked about. What we really wanted was the idea of a story where we do have some time away, it's about 20 years later, and things have actually gotten better because evil's been "destroyed". But the truth is that it's actually all just been a ruse, it's all part of the plan. It's really just making sure everyone's nice and complacent for the real war that's coming.
So that's really the tone, and that's one of the reasons why, towards the beginning of the game, the game looks nicer. But by the end of the game, it won't look nice at all.
Eurogamer: You were speaking just now about the extra depth, the four-button game... Have you reached points where you've had to pull yourself back and say, no, I'm adding too much to this?
Jay Wilson: Yeah, there have been, definitely. Not really the combat model, because the combat model is so core to the game, and we have a lot of rules that we put down for ourselves. One of them is: we can't add to the control scheme. If we add something, then take something else out.
So the potion belt's gone, we have the skill hotbar. It's got one extra button and we also have the extra button on the right mouse side, but we removed all the F keys. That was a big complexity that we pulled out of the control scheme and I felt like it paid for us to add a little bit back.
There have been other features, some of which we've cut. The original incarnation of artisans was different, not really appropriate for the game, and so we changed that pretty drastically. So we've had features from time to time that we were really excited about, but when we actually started putting them in the game, we said this is just adding a lot of complexity, it's not actually making the core game any better. And so we got rid of 'em.
Eurogamer: Are you going to have new stuff to show us at BlizzCon?
Jay Wilson: Yes. I'm not going to say what any of that is... But I will say, in terms of the amount of things that we're showing, this is our biggest BlizzCon to date. We've got a lot of stuff now. We're cooking a game now.
Eurogamer: Blizzard has a very vocal community of fans - are there ways in which you've already responded to their feedback?
Jay Wilson: Yeah... I know we had a lot of controversy about the art style stuff, but hidden within that was some really good specific issues that we did address.
I can't wait until the point where people are playing it and we can get more regular feedback, we can get really specific. That's the best part - when you have people playing it and you can really respond to their desires.
Eurogamer: You enjoy that?
Jay Wilson: Oh, yeah.
Eurogamer: It doesn't frustrate you ? "Now I have to make all these changes!"
Jay Wilson: No, no. It's something we believe really strongly at Blizzard: the game can always be better. So because the game can always be better, you want as much feedback as you can get. You start eating that up, because the more you can get, the more you can make the game better. That's what we're all about.
So we really try to separate our egos out from it, because it's about the game being better, and if the game's better, we look good. If we don't listen to that feedback then we're letting our own pride get in the way of the quality of the game. At Blizzard, nothing gets in the way of the quality of the game.
Jay Wilson is Game Director on Diablo III. A release date for the game is yet to be announced.