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Bill Roper of Blizzard - Part Two

Interview - Blizzard's Bill Roper talks about the Diablo II expansion set and the future of

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Although the Diablo II expansion set adds a whole new act for the solo player to fight his way through, a lot of the massive success of the Diablo series (particularly amongst hardcore gamers) can be put down to its multiplayer support. Unsurprisingly then the company's plans for online play were the main topic of the Q&A session with Blizzard's Bill Roper when he dropped by London as part of his recent European press tour...

Expanding The Expansion

Blizzard certainly have big plans for online gaming, ranging from upgrades to their service to additional updates for players of the Diablo II expansion set after it has been released. Bill told us that "one thing which we wanted to add was something that gave some longevity to the product, specifically for people playing on the Realms".

"Something we found we were able to do when we went through and did the revisions on the item code is that we are able to turn items on and off, and what that allows us to do with the expansion set is to now go through after the game has come out and introduce things. For example, we can have a new unique item which is really powerful and let people know through the website that we have this new unique that's been rumoured throughout the land. The great thing is we can have this item only be available for two weeks on the Realms, and so players can now go through and have this other thing which is totally outside of what the game was when it shipped. So we're trying to find a lot of little things like that which we can do over the course of the life of the product after the game has shipped."

Adding new items is a fairly simple job, but other additions may prove to be more effort than they are worth. "We talked about a lot of things, but it always comes down to what the time investment is. We could introduce new monsters and things like that, but then we have to go through a whole testing and balancing cycle on them, and get them to the players - the art files tend to be rather big. There's a lot of things that hopefully we will be able to do fairly easily and simply that aren't a big impact on people, so they don't have to go through a big patch download. As people get ideas they jot them down and put them off to the side, and once the expansion is done we can go back through that with the programmers and say ok, how much of this is really possible."

Diablo II Arena

One of these ideas was to build gladiatorial arenas where players could go to fight under controlled conditions. Unfortunately when Blizzard started to think about it more carefully it soon became obvious just how hard it would be to add these.

"It was a great idea that we came up with - we'll have these arenas that people can combat in - but we didn't really plan it out very well at the beginning", Bill admitted. "So when we tried to implement it in the expansion we realised that we wouldn't be able to do it justice, and people would probably be disappointed."

"We would have to have a way for people to gamble, so we would have to have some variation on the secure trading type thing where you can put items up. We'd have to have an area for it, and we'd want people to be able to come in and watch you battle. That got very strange on what we would have to do to make it work the way that we thought people would want it to work. And then we looked at how many people would really use it, and out of all the surveys it was a fairly small percentage of even the core players."

"Of course they're core, they're a very vocal minority, but at the same time if a thousand people use this and it takes us six months to program it correctly, is that worth holding everything up for? Or is that worth not getting in 50,000 new types of item combination? So it was a tough choice to make not to do that, but the biggest thing that it came down to was that we really felt that it would take too long to do it right, because we didn't really plan to do it right!"


When Bill Roper showed us the latest build of the Diablo II expansion set last week it was actually content complete, meaning that the artwork and code was all in place and everything was just waiting to be tested and balanced. Part of that process is a "bigger than normal closed beta", which has just been officially announced this week.

"We're not going to do the big gigantic open beta like we did before, we're looking at having probably between six and eight thousand people", Bill told us. But there's bad news for European players hoping to get a sneak peek at the changes. "We are going to keep it US and mostly west coast, because the thing that we're primarily testing with the beta test is going to be some of the server changes we've made. We don't want to just put it out there when the expansion launches and then, god forbid, something is wrong with it and now nobody can play."

"So we're going to be doing a mainly server code beta test, and we're going to have a test realm up with one game server. The reason we're doing it [in the] US is not from any jingoistic approach, it's just that where we have the servers located on the west coast is about ten minutes away from our office where the team is. So we can have it running there and then if something goes up in flames they can get in the car and drive down and fix it immediately." 2.0

As well as adding support for the new expansion set, there are also a lot of other big changes being planned for, both on the software and the hardware side of things. "There's a lot of features that the team is excited about implementing; things like buddy lists [and] ways to increase the ease of use of", Bill revealed. "One of the challenges which we've had is that as has grown, it's a pretty amazingly complex system that keeps getting more complicated."

One of the biggest problems has come from the sheer number of people that use the service now, far more than originally envisioned when was only being used for Diablo. "There was certainly a period of time in the history of where the team was constantly playing catch-up. They work on stability, they work on how many people could be online, they work on access and bandwidth issues, they get all those things fixed, and then we get another 25,000 people online concurrently and all new stuff will break."

"It's only really in the last few months that we have got to the point where really what is stopping us from getting more people online are things like the number of servers and bandwidth. So that's been more of a logistics thing to increase, and the upside of that is that the team has now been able to focus on different things. We've seen a lot of new things come in like the Realms selection, where you can choose which Realm you're on, and gateway selections, things like that, and I know that they have a lot of plans going forward, not only through the expansion but through Warcraft III as well."

"We're now up to version We've done all these little iterations on it, and the team is really looking forward to doing 2.0, and looking at a lot of features to put in like buddy lists and things like that to really make using, and the chat portion especially, much more friendly and easier for people."

Big In Korea

Of course, there's no point in making easier to use if you can't connect to it, and so a lot of work is also being put into dealing with the bottlenecks in server numbers and bandwidth which are now holding the service back. And surprisingly one of the ways in which Blizzard are going to improve the service for American and European players is by adding more servers .. in Korea.

"Actually a lot of the issues in both Europe and the US with people being able to get on and play stems out of Korea", Bill explained. "There are so many people in Korea who want to play, and they can't get on in Korea so they go to the other realms. US West, for example, is always full. And it's not always full of people from the western part of the USA, it's a lot of Koreans on there. So one of the ways, strangely enough, we will be able to address a lot of the [problems] in the US and Europe is by putting up more servers in Korea."

"Over the next four weeks we are putting up another 100 servers in Korea, so we are doubling the size of our Asian realm, which hopefully will help. The plan is that we're going to launch a new realm in Asia, a brand new place for people to go where there's a new economy, there haven't been any of the duping issues involved and those type of things, and [which] will have a lot better access for those Korean players. Our intent is to hype it up a lot over there, draw people that have gone to the other realms back into their more geographically local area, which will then allow more breathing room for people to come on. And at the same time we will be increasing our realms in Europe and the US."


Security is something else which has improved greatly since the early days of, with the Realms now far more civilized than when Diablo was first released. "When compared to the original Diablo, the client-server system has been a huge success. We don't have people killing each other in town anymore and we don't have people taking over other people's characters." still isn't perfect though, as shown by the "wholesale slaughter" of characters on the Realms during the holidays. And there seems to be a pattern to these attacks. "I didn't find out if it was an attack or just a failure where a bunch of the Realms were down for a day, but it happened to coincide with our tenth anniversary party. So we were all out saying 'yay, we're ten years old', having a great time. And then when our programmers stumbled back to the office they went 'ah crap, all the realms are down', so they've got to reboot everything. Somehow [the hackers] always know the one time when we're not near the computers, they're really smart like that."

In fact Blizzard show a grudging respect for these people, although obviously they would rather they were doing something more creative and less disruptive with their time. "We have done a lot of grass-roots work in the community, trying to get people to realise why we're doing what we do and why we don't want people to cheat and hack. Some of these people, we talk with them and they realise that we're not this big evil company trying to stomp them out of existence and stuff, we just want to have a good experience for our players. And some of those guys have decided that they would rather work on something else, or do things that make the game more fun but are not malicious. And we have actually hired a couple of those guys. One of the guys that was really big in the mod community for Starcraft now works on our team. Because they're talented. Don't get me wrong, these guys are good. But we'd rather have them work nicely with us wherever possible."


But what are the Blizzard employees of the future going to be working on? One of the genres getting the most attention these days is massively multiplayer games, and it's certainly something that Blizzard have considered. In fact, Bill Roper described it as "the holy grail of game designers".

"We all got into this business to make games and worlds that hopefully would keep players entertained and happy and having fun for years. And massively multiplayer games are definitely one of the keys to achieving that. The fact that you can have a world where any time you can go in and play, and your character continues to grow whether you are there or not, and being able to create something so compelling, is definitely alluring."

"It's amazing how integrated it becomes in people's life. They're almost too integrated at times, I would hazard a guess. But at the same time it's a very different world to go into, from game design to business models and all kinds of things like that. So if Blizzard ever goes into something like that I think it would obviously be a very different idea and model than we've done with anything else."


Bill Roper interview - part one

Diablo II : Lord of Destruction preview

Warcraft III preview

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