Jay Wilson - portly, laconic, in a black Diablo t-shirt, in a black briefing room, in Activision Blizzard's black business suite at the Games Convention - is in Leipzig to talk about the game he left Relic Entertainment and joined Blizzard to make. At Relic he worked on fan favourite Dawn of War and critic's favourite Company of Heroes, but he's jumped from RTS to action-RPG now, as the lead designer on Diablo III. As we saw at its June unveiling, it's a sumptuous, visceral update, whose traditional isometric camera belies some deceptively subtle twists in its design - all of which has been overshadowed by the fan-created brouhaha over its brighter art style. We sat down with Wilson to find out how he goes about making the old new, and the new old again.
Eurogamer: You've come fairly recently from outside Blizzard to work on a quintessential Blizzard game. Is that intimidating?
Jay Wilson: Yes, it was very intimidating. It's funny, when I first arrived, they had somebody they were trying to hire and he was really nervous about it, he wasn't sure if he was good enough to be working at Blizzard. And they were like: if we're trying to hire him, of course he's good enough. If you knew their interview process you would know that he must be.
For me, when I first interviewed with Blizzard, I was just trying to get information about how Blizzard worked. I wasn't actually trying to get a job, because I didn't think they would hire me. So yeah, it was intimidating to come in and work there and take over something like Diablo which is so precious to me. On the other hand, I would have hated to see somebody else take it over and not do it right, or I would have hated to see it not get made. So it felt like this weird sense of, almost, responsibility - like I needed to go do it because maybe somebody else wouldn't.
Eurogamer: You're a fan of the Diablo games?
Jay Wilson: As my wife likes to joke, Diablo was always said in hushed tones in my house. I remember seeing the first ad for Diablo on the back of the Warcraft II CD and thinking 'what is that?', and wanting to play it so bad. I was at day one for Diablo and Diablo II and [Diablo II expansion] Lord of Destruction, and I took days off of work for each one of them. At this point I think I've taken pretty much every class to Hell difficulty in Diablo II, and a few of them I've capped out. I only did one Hardcore character and I lost her, it was a Sorceress. I was grieving. Couldn't do it again, it was so painful.
Eurogamer: Notwithstanding your affection for them, was there stuff about those games that you wanted to fix?
Jay Wilson: Uh-huh, yeah, there's a lot of things, and I think a lot of those are evident in what we showed at WWI. I look at the Diablo series as an interesting mix of an action game and a role-playing game; and I felt that as a role-playing game, it really sold itself short, and as an action game, it really sold itself short. What it did right was the addiction, the drops.
But as an action game, we really felt that it lacked some things. You have a character class that has endless health, endless resource, they can run faster than almost anything in the world. When you combine speed with endless power and endless health, really, the only way you can challenge that player is to kill them. And you see that with Diablo II - you'll be running through the game having a great time and all of a sudden something will walk up and just step on you. That's the only time the game ever feels challenging. But that's also the time when you're most likely to lose the player, with such harsh penalties. So a lot of our focus has been, can we set the game up so that we can have a higher barometer of challenge for the player without making the early game hard?
So we rein that [health] system in, and having basically a little bit more challenge to recover health means that we don't need to make the monsters as gruelling - which is a good thing, but also means that a monster that can pin you down or slow you down or trap you in some way is suddenly way more threatening, even if he doesn't do as much damage. We've tried to get away from damage as the big scary thing; we've tried to get towards restricted movement, and having a health system that actually plays into placement, where where you're standing makes a difference. That really opens things up.
Eurogamer: I guess this is where the influences you've mentioned from enemy design in Zelda and World of Warcraft come into play...
Jay Wilson: Or God of War. Games like that are some of my favourite games. It would be far more interesting if we could have a boss monster that wasn't just a giant sack of health that deals out ridiculous damage. We've got monsters that drop health at percentages of their damage, we also sometimes spawn monsters that are just there basically to drop health. Even there: if you have a boss that just walks around and hits you, and a bunch of smaller monsters that continually spawn and generate health, that's already a far more interesting fight than you ever got in Diablo. And that's just the bear minimum of what we can do.
And then on the role-playing side, we've been focusing on more story. We want people to be able to ignore the story if they want, but we still want there to be a denser story, we want there to be a lot of scripted events that support the story, we want the story to be better formed and more interesting. Plus we want there to be some elements that allow players to feel like they're in a role-playing game. I think that one of the differences between Blizzard North and what we sometimes call Blizzard South is that Blizzard South, led by our creative director Chris Metzen, is just a little bit more story-focused. That's not a knock, but it can't help but be something that gets into the game now, because it's also a value that I have.
Eurogamer: I have to ask about the art style - I know you're not going to change it, but have you been surprised at the strength of reaction? 50,000-odd is an awful lot of petitioners...
Jay Wilson: Yeah, it's an anonymous petition, so I'm not trusting of that actual number... I think it's a very small minority of people who don't like the art style. And I actually think when they see the game later, they'll feel differently. I think there's a lot of selective memory of Diablo II - when Diablo II came out, it was panned for its art style. Way too bright and sunshiny and colourful, compared to the original Diablo.
We tried a more subdued look and the game was just boring to play, it was kind of difficult, it was hard to identify different types of creatures, it just didn't feel very fun. We weren't surprised that there was a strong reaction like that because we struggled with the art style so long. We had fights on the team about how we wanted the art style to go. We don't any more, everyone's really happy with where we're at. It's because we've walked through that process. If we could walk all of those fans through the process, we think they'd go, 'I see why you guys did this'.
Eurogamer: Have there been times where you've felt that you've overstepped the innovation line and gone to something that wasn't Diablo, and had to pull it back?
Jay Wilson: Not really. I'd say we're actually over-cautious to not go over that line and I feel we should push it a lot more. Some people don't like it when I use this series as an example, because it's Zelda, and Zelda is sometimes cartoony as well, but sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's very realistic. It really depends upon each version of the game, what's the art style that they want to follow, what's the game they want to make.
The other example I like to give is the new Battlestar Galactica series, which is vastly different from the original series, but I don't think anyone would argue that it is inferior in some way because of that. They pull enough from the original series to make it Battlestar Galactica, but they do a lot of things that make it something that is its own. That's really something that we wanted to do.
Eurogamer: Why do you think so few RPGs have gone with the isometric perspective - and why did you choose to stick with it?
Jay Wilson: I think people mistake camera view with technology. A lot of times people say - we had a few people, not very many but a few people in the company who said this - why do you even bother with a 3D engine if you're going isometric? That doesn't make any sense to me. A lot of people really saw it as a tech choice, and we saw it as a gameplay choice.
Because our industry is a technology industry and is very focused on innovation, there's this push to always advance. For us, yeah, we want to advance too, but the camera has nothing to do with that. The camera is a gameplay style, and a vastly unexplored gameplay style, especially with RPGs. It's so under-explored, and it makes for such good gameplay, it's so approachable, it's so eloquent.
This is the mistake I think a lot of developers make. They don't make it about the game they want. They make it about the tech they want to run, or the new engine, or the cut-scenes that they want to make. Somebody else asked: doesn't it restrict your scale and scope? Well, we use our cinematics for that, that's what they're for, that's why we make them, so that the game can be what it needs to be on its own.
So no, there was never a doubt. In my mind there was never a doubt that we were going to go isometric at all, it wasn't even under consideration, because it had to be Diablo. For me, that was one of those things - people look at the art style and say oh, they're not Diablo any more - if we'd come out and we weren't isometric, then I would agree with that.
Jay Wilson is lead designer on Diablo III, which is in development for PC and Mac.