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.