Leonard Boyarsky, lead world artist on Blizzard's just-annouced Diablo III, is a veteran RPG developer.
He was one of the original leads on Black Isle Studios' Fallout, and contributed to Fallout II. Before that title's release, he co-founded Troika Games with fellow Fallout creators Tim Cain and Jason Anderson; the trio designed Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura and Boyarsky led Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.
In 2005, Troika closed its doors, and Boyarsky landed at Blizzard. He sat down for a chat with Gamasutra to discuss why some ideas that look great on paper won’t work in a game - and vice versa - and why he doesn’t think Blizzard will focus heavily on a single-player experience any time soon.
How long has Diablo III been in development, and when was the project first conceived?
Leonard Boyarsky: I don’t know this information firsthand, but yesterday I was in a press conference with Mike Morhaime, and he said it really got going in 2004. [Before,] it had been kicked around. I’ve only been with Blizzard for two and a half years – so that’s how long it’s been going for me. It’s been around a while.
How many people are there on the team, and what have they worked on most recently?
LB: There’s probably about fifty people on the team right now. We’re hiring all the time. The team, as a whole, hasn’t worked on any game together - which is really amazing, because we have a really great team, really great chemistry.
It’s not enough to just put talented people together. You’ve really got to get that chemistry, and it usually takes shipping a game or two to really get that. And we’re really lucky we’ve got this great team together.
A lot of the artists came from up north. A programmer or two, not sure how many programmers came from up north. A couple people came from internally, but a lot of people are new to Blizzard.
I’d have to be guessing on this, but I think it was that they found the right people, the team just came together for them. Blizzard doesn’t make a game just because they feel they need to - obviously, they’re not in any financial need to do that. They don’t feel like they have to make this game or they have to make that game.
I think they’ve been working with the idea and working with the concept for a while now, and the team just started to come together. It’s just one of those situations. And no one had stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, we’re the team that wants to make it," at that point, so…
Blizzard has a tendency to throw away versions of the game if they’re not right. How much of that process did this game go through?
LB: I can only speak to my time here. I can say I’ve thrown out quite a bit of things that I’ve worked on. I think if you see the demo that we showed yesterday, I think you can agree that it’s at a great place right now, which is the end goal that we wanted to achieve.
We’ll just keep doing it until we think it feels right. And that’s one of the great things about working for a company with this philosophy, that they do that, because you could have the greatest designers, the greatest artists in the world, and stuff can look great on paper – even to guys who have shipped, I’ve shipped four or five games over twelve, thirteen years in the industry.
Our lead designer’s been in the industry a long time. A lot of people just assume you come up with a great game ideas and put them in. But the greatest idea on paper, once you put it in, could not be any fun. So we implement as long as it takes.
During your time on the project, what has changed?
LB: Well, one of the things we’ve been talking about recently is the health globes. We didn’t want to continue with the potion spamming, because we felt that limited our gameplay options. Especially with the bosses, we wanted to introduce maybe some different strategies and different ways of playing the game – as opposed to just running at a boss, running away, drinking potions, running back at a boss. It just seemed to get a little tedious after a while.
Not that we want this hugely complex game, but we figured we could mix it up a little bit. So we tried several different versions of health: health regeneration, which slowed down the game, things like that, and none of them really felt all that good.
Some of them sounded good on paper. Some of them, after we implemented them, we were like, "Who thought that sounded good?" When they first told me about the health globes idea, I thought, "That really doesn’t sound fun, that doesn’t sound like a good idea."
But after we got the health globes in, the converse of what I said before is true as well. I played it and I was like, "You know, this is really fun." Because it does have that thing where you never want to go back to town - "I’m busy raping, looting, and pillaging in a dungeon, I don’t want to take time to go buy more health."
You’re weighing your options there. You’re standing in a junction in the middle of a dungeon, going, "Okay, I’m almost dead, but if that next guy I kill drops that, then I’m good to go." That’s the perfect example of the kind of iteration that we do. And the only way you know is when you play it and it feels good.
Do you feel like Blizzard would ever make a true single-player experience again? And if so, what are the challenges it would pose?
LB: Blizzard has based its success on multiplayer. And I can speak to our game, specifically, in that we are focusing on co-op multiplayer. But we want out single-player experience to be robust as well. What I feel – I’ve worked a lot on single-player role-playing games in the past – I feel that although our co-op multiplayer is one of our main modes, I think our single-player is a main mode as well.
I feel like people would get just as much from playing our game single-player first, and then as they go up levels, start playing with friends. Some people just want to play multiplayer out of the gate - which is great. We encourage either type of gameplay.
I think World of Warcraft is also a good example of that. Most other MMOs, up until that time, you had to group to get anywhere. But that’s kind of dodging the question. I know what you’re actually asking. And that’s something you’d have to talk to the powers that be about.
I just think that it’s been such a successful model for them – and it does just bring something to the game. It does bring some limitations to what you can do with the game.
I think that’s something we’re trying to juggle, and that’s one of the reasons people ask, "Why isn’t Diablo III an MMO?" That’s one of the reasons – if it’s not a persistent world, we can limit the number of players, just in terms of what is fun for the kind of gameplay we want to present. You know, we can get a lot more into the story, we can get a lot more into role-playing experience.
There are gradations. It’s not a black and white question, I guess.
But is there anything you can do in a single-player experience that you’re missing out on when you go to massively multiplayer or co-op?
LB: I don’t know about missing out. The way we’re approaching it from a philosophical standpoint is that we want the single-player storyline to be a very strong story.
I think this is what people in the past have said - that you have a multiplayer game which has less of the immersion or less of the feeling that you’re changing the world, or you go straight for just pure multiplayer. One of the things we’re trying to do with this game is to break away from that -
So it’s a multiplayer story.
LB: It’s kind of like, "I’m playing a single-player experience, but I can share that with my friends." There are going to be things like class quests that only certain classes go on, but my friends can get experience from going on those and helping me.
Different classes might see the story differently, because they’re from different civilizations. Those are things people haven’t really explored in the multiplayer space. The one thing Blizzard does is, if multiplayer is a component, which it always is, we start with that at the very beginning.
But we want that - precisely what you’re talking about - we wanted that kind of single-player experience, which I think is the heart of a group-based, old role-playing experience when you’d sit around the table with your friends rolling dice.
That’s the kind of thing I think has been missing from a co-op multiplayer game, the feeling that you’re really progressing through a story.