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How Blizzard makes games like Diablo III Exclusive
How Blizzard makes games like  Diablo III
August 8, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

August 8, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Design, Production, Exclusive

How does Blizzard maintain its game quality? By refusing to compromise and by understanding that "core" and "casual" are not hard-and-fast distinctions, but two ends of a spectrum.

That's according to Jonny Ebbert and Tiffany Wat, lead console designer and associate producer for Diablo III: Reaper of Souls - Ultimate Evil Edition. The game is soon to come out on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and has gone through a number of refinements (and a full expansion) since its original release on PC a couple of years ago.

Defining, expanding, and teaching the audience

As a developer, there's arguably nothing more important than figuring out who your audience is, and possibly nothing more challenging. For Blizzard, it's not about slicing it into segments like "core" or "casual" -- it's about creating games that lots of people want to play.

It's also about allowing that audience room to grow: "Always try to make it as simple to learn as possible," says Ebbert. "If a game is compelling enough, people will learn crazy complicated things, if they're that engaged."

"Always try to make it as simple to learn as possible. If a game is compelling enough, people will learn crazy complicated things, if they're that engaged."

"If you breadcrumb it properly, that's just how life works," he adds. "You always start off very simple, and the more you practice, you can get more complex -- in every activity."

Blizzard's job is "about providing compelling things to bridge that gap, to bring people across," Wat says. So that underlying assumption about there being distinct casual and core game audiences? "Realistically, it's just not true," says Wat. "There's definitely an in-between."

That is, in fact, World of Warcraft's business model: It's a machine to turn newbies into hardcore raiders. "People who've hardly played games, I've seen them go from the newbie UI where you have just one button to push to the raid UI where even I look at it [and say], 'Aah! I can't do that!'" laughs Ebbert.

"'Easy to learn, difficult to master' is a mantra at blizzard, constantly," Wat says.

As for Diablo III, "You can figure it out pretty quickly, at least get an idea of what you're supposed to do," she says. But the game offers "a tailored experience for everyone" from hardcore min-maxers to someone who's never played games at all.

"Sometimes you need to let the players encounter some resistance... Players are smart. You need to trust them a little bit."

According to Ebbert, the tendency of game developers "to build a 50-foot ramp for a one-foot step" can actually get in the way. "Sometimes you need to let the players encounter some resistance," Ebbert says. "It's something you need to constantly gauge."

Ebbert recounted a recent internal meeting: "We'd introduce a feature and say, 'Well how would a player ever figure that out?'" One developer, he said, went on a rant about how he used to reconfigure his computer's BIOS just to play games. "We don't want to go that far, but players are smart," says Ebbert. "You need to trust them a little bit."

The 'incredible pressure' of being Blizzard

The Blizzard name brings "incredible amounts of pressure" with it, says Ebbert. "We have really high standards because our fans have really high standards."

(There's also the commercial expectations: before the new console version of the game ships, Diablo III and its expansion have already sold 20 million copies -- without China.)

The company went into development of the console versions of Diablo III with "a really pessimistic eye" ("usual" for Blizzard, says Ebbert). "We went in expecting it to be very difficult, and it was. We tend to prepare for the worst at Blizzard. I think when we were first going in we thought, 'This might not even work.' And the more we were just diving in the more achievable it started to feel."

"We tend to prepare for the worst at Blizzard."

"We didn't want it to be a port. We looked at every aspect. If you were just a brand-new player picking up this game, how should it feel? If anything didn't feel right, we had to fix it," Wat says.

Even console players who might not have a lot of direct experience with Blizzard's games are aware of its reputation; though it started off on PCs, Diablo III had to feel right on a console, while living up to that quality bar.

Porting meant complete overhauls to its control (a move from indirect to direct character manipulation) and camera systems, as well as revamp to its skill systems. "The same game has different expectations based on the input," Ebbert says. "The controller makes it a different game."

Maintaining Blizzard quality

The team who worked on the console edition came from outside the original Diablo III team, and had several developers with console experience -- something Ebbert says helped them "cheat a little bit" in figuring all this out.

"We had fresh eyes, and fresh perspectives, and we were kind of able to look at it from the eyes of a new player."

"If you think message boards can be brutal, internal feedback can be even more brutal."

That's important, because candidly sharing feedback inside Blizzard is key to meeting its high quality bar. "Actually, internal playtests are the most brutal. Sometimes -- if you think message boards can be brutal, internal feedback can be even more brutal," Ebbert says, laughing. "We're very hard on our own work."

"If you're giving honest feedback -- if you truly don't think a game experience is fun when you're doing a playtest -- it is in all our best interests to be honest about that," Wat says. "We would do ourselves a disservice if we're not being honest to our peers about what the game experience is like."

While she acknowledges that feedback can be subjective, "at the end of the day, games are experiences, so if you're not sharing what your personal experience is, then we're not doing our job to make the best quality games," says Wat.

When approaching a project, "we have to have the proper design values," Ebbert says. The company has widely publicized its core values, and it judges its games against them regularly. "When we go through the team feedback we're kind of running it through those filters," says Ebbert.

And then, "at the end of every project we will do a postmortem and we will rate our own game. We'll go through the values. We're pretty hard on ourselves; we're not just giving ourselves straight As," Ebbert says.

Diablo II came out in 2000, however. The company is not just being judged against its creative principles, but against nostalgia -- the version of the game not that people played but which lives on in their heads and hearts.

"It's a very high bar," Ebbert admits. It's also a moving target: "Our values are constantly evolving."

The company will take a look at its older games when paving its path forward, but it can't slavishly stick to them. An older game is "like a time capsule of what our values were back then," he says.

And sometimes, the developers reach a realization like this one: "by today's standards, that wouldn't fly. Games have become too refined." The only way through is to judge a game against the company's current values and move forward from there.

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Daniel Jovanov
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Not all gamers are smart--I saw my brother stumble through the intro stages of GTA V--but if Blizzard can get even my dumny bro to play WoW for "faiv yeersch" (5 years with a lisp), then it must be doing something right. (Though if I remember correctly, I even had to teach him the UI.)

Andreas Ahlborn
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The Blizzard Magic totally escapes me.

Some months ago my eldest son pitched Diablo 3 to me and urged me to give it a try. I´m a 30+ years gamer, but the constantly needed clicking hurt my fingers after 20 Minutes, also it got boring rather quickly.

I also can`t see where -besides from learning shortcuts- this kind of gameplay involves any "mastering" process or skill progression. All my son is talking about is that his OP character can now do 1.000.000 damage per second.

I can appreciate the professionality of the design and the reduction to the most common denominator but I personally find it rather "soulless" and the expansion title "Reaper of Souls" therefore a bit ironic.

Ben Sly
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Blizzard games in general have a slow ramp up but do gradually get to the point where skills eclipse the importance of grinding gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, for both WoW and Diablo 3 that is at (or even after) max level, which is already after you've sunk in a massive amount of time into the game. But using some well-designed optional achievements, they do tend to allow for a player to voluntarily increase the difficulty and pick the level of challenge they're most interested in (I personally don't know how well Diablo 3 does it, not having played it - but my guess is that they probably did something).

Starcraft 2 and its expansion let the player choose a difficulty setting right out of the gate, as well as gave you 2 generally interesting achievements per mission to shoot for if you still found the game too easy. That had a much different effect from Diablo and WoW's treatment of difficulty levels in which they were part of the leveling and gear progression.

Ultimately, I do personally enjoy the depth of Blizzard's non-Starcraft-2 games once they do get challenging, but - since you have a very large amount of grinding before you get there - I don't find it worth the time sink. It's a shame because I do think that Blizzard is one of the few video game developers that do polish their games for deep and balanced gameplay.

That is, unfortunately, a downside of what the article was talking about. In both Diablo 3 and WoW, they kept the game to a single difficulty progression which starts too low to interest hardcore players. They trust that the Blizzard name and polish keep said hardcore players around until the game starts getting challenging for them, and hope that that's roughly the point where casuals also get to a similar skill level. That single difficulty progression is, like most serious design decisions, a tradeoff: it does let them polish the hell out of it as is the Blizzard way.

Matt Robb
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With the expansion release, they adjusted Diablo 3 to have difficulty levels out of the gate. If you can manage playing on higher difficulties, you'll level faster as well. Just throwing that out there, might make you enjoy the game more.

WoW, unfortunately, is still really easy while leveling if you have any clue at all what you're doing. The old world update with Cataclysm breathed some new life into questing if you're into the lore, but that only goes so far.

Andreas Ahlborn
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When I look at the Diablo Wiki: there is nothing mentioned that besides from buffing monsters/nerfing players anything interesting is happening when a Player progresses multiple times through the game.

Anybody who is in Game development knows that cranking up numbers is surely the easiest/laziest thing to do as a programmer when it comes to make a game challenging. I can`t believe that people will put in hundreds of hundreds of gaming hours just to tread through a progression swamp that never changes its formula apart from some mathematical parameters.

But I guess 20 Million is a number you can`t argue with;-)

Florian Putz
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Haha, nailed it :D

Abdullah Kadamani
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I realize this is missing the point, but you do know you don't have to click nearly as much in Diablo 3 right? The game lets you hold the mouse button down to rapidly attack. Make no mistake there is still plenty of clicking but no more so than say Baulder's Gate or some other isometric RPG. Course I haven't played the game but are going off of what friends of mine have told me.

John Trauger
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D3 hurts my hands too. No other game I have ever played (and I've done games QA) rips my hands up like D3. The constant holding down of the mouse button seems to get to my knuckles.

I played D3 for a while back well before the auction house problems and it hurt my hands then too. Which is why I stopped.

By comparison, I play League of Legends, which has a lot of clicking too) and my hands are fine with it.

It's a pity because I like D3...despite

I didn't like the obvious effort Blizzard went to in order to make everything my characters owned obsolete though. I never had first-rate gear since I often play solo. My loot drops were crap (Bliz would say they're encouraging me to be social. I say they're penalizing me for wanting to play solo)

I Like getting a rare drop once in a while now, but not the same thing as tweaking the math so everything I worked for is suddenly sub-par.

In order to get my loot drops up to "occasionally good" (in the days of original-D3), I had to go to the auction house to buy decent gear and ramp up the magic find, which is how I occasionally found an item or two I could sell for a modest sum to support my buying needs. Because the gods knew my gold and loot drops weren't going to do that on their own.

With this new D3, the lack of an auction house means I'm completely at the mercy of "random". I've grown to hate random.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jonathan Jou
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How do you make a game as good as Diablo III, in a few easy steps!

1. Force players to suffer through 12 hours of tediously boring introductory "normal mode."
2. Attempt "skill diversity" and "build variety" by severely restricting possible builds and removing player choice by handing out skills one at a time with additional levels. (Combine 1 and 2 with slow EXP gain to make trying a new class 12 more hours of fun before you even get to use the full skillset!!)
3. Introduce a Real Money Auction House! Yay, real money! That's what everyone wanted. Yup.
4. Balance drops around, oh, the absolute amount of items found by everyone playing D3 in the world, so that no more than X of some powerful item exist (and can make it, say, to the auction house) and the average player can look forward to a long boss fight followed by mountains of worthless white loot! For bonus points, make the destructible pots in the final act drop better loot than the monsters.
5. Streamline the equipment system so that all equipment falls into two categories: exactly what you need, or something with the wrong primary attribute that's utterly worthless!
6. Enforce a connection policy that introduces single-player lag and prevents players from enjoying the game during server downtime or internet outages! Always online for the win!
7. Work very hard to make all sorts of builds sustainable, like the ones that have massive amounts of damage reduction, and then make sure that all the other builds just die instantly from spikes of damage. (For added Blizzard(TM) awesome, add some single-player latency so they can't dodge attacks!) Actually, just do that second part.
8. Reduce the total number of players in any session from the chaotic, hilarious eight down to a cozy four! Because who would find the possible skill synergy of eight players more exciting than four anyway?
9. Remove potions, and instead throw giant globs of red health stuff on the floor, so you can't ever prepare for a fight!
10. Remove item sets, which were quite simply the most effective way to reward loot grinding without making any individual item obscenely scarce, and make the unique items less interesting *and* useful than a magical item.
11. And finally, most importantly: have a beta, ignore all the feedback from the beta testers, remove Jay Wilson from the team, and then use all the feedback from the beta testers.

Richard Black
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Rarely do I get to enjoy a post that says everthing I could say, but better. The article above seems to run off the premise that I would ignore how fundamentally flawed Diablo 3 was and yet embrace it's expansion forgetting all that.

John Trauger
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Jonathan does neglect to mention how much of a money sink the new D3 skill system is. It's designed to slurp down your gold faster than you make it...and unless you're careful, it does.

Justin Schwieger
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Pretty much every point (besides the amount of players) is either no longer true, or was never true in the first place (like saying health potions and item sets don't exist in the game).

Robert Carter
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Your point number 11 is what made me so frustrated with Blizzard. He wasnt even shy about ignoring the feedback from the beta, he TAUNTED players about his ignoring any and all feedback!

When they announced he was leaving the Diablo team I was happy but I cant believe he wasnt let go entirely... I have nightmares this 'new project' they have him on is Warcraft 4.

Please dont do that to me Blizzard. Ive been waiting a decade for it, no reason to have him destroy two of your three franchises.

Kevin Keathley
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Step 1: Make Diablo
Step 2: Make Diablo 2
Step 3: Name Recognition

Matt Keast
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I played through Diablo III and the recent expansion, and I mostly regret the time I wasted on them. I think I played the expansion out of some hope that the Blizzard magic would take effect, since they are known for significantly improving their games with expansions (Warcraft and Starcraft both only come into their own and become definitive after their expansions).

It took me 60 hours to complete the campaign of Diablo III, on Normal difficulty. I did not do any grinding at all, and I believe I died less than 5 times over those 60 hours. The game never got remotely difficult.

In the expansion, I died once, and it happened in a totally random fight. Otherwise, I beat every boss easily, and this time I was playing Hard mode because I thought it would provide a challenge. Over the course of 80 hours of gameplay, I just spammed spells with little thought and easily steamrolled everything in my path. There was almost nothing that even resembled what I would call gameplay. Gameplay requires risk, and some semblance of skill or tactics. I literally could just trill my fingers on the action buttons and win 95% of every fight in this game.

I talked to a friend about this and he said "The game is designed to be played with friends. It becomes way more challenging and interesting."

Why even offer a single player mode, then? If a game offers single-player, it should be able to stand on that mode's merits alone.

charles mcdowell
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My wife and I enjoyed Diablo 3 on the console. The game became repetitive after awhile. I wish the story was longer with more side quest and places to go. By the time we got to lvl 60 with most of the cool stuff unlocked for our characters we just couldn't bare another go around the story with the same monsters all over again xD. Maybe there were more cool monsters and I just didn't play long enough : / . In the end it was a good game, but we went back playing border lands 2 which felt like it had way more content. I find all this strange because Blizzard AAA games usually keep you entertained for at least a few months if not years rather than a few weeks. Even with the awesome graphics, game play , and characters I just can't bare playing another minute through that same story, Items, monsters, and maps again.

Andreas Ahlborn
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This article pretty sums up the problems Blizzard creates in almost all their games for players:
Diablo 3 has it written into its Design, Wow and Hearthstone have it too, and I bet Heroes of the Storm will follow the same pattern:

"Instead of crafting gameplay based on skill, planning, or tactics, they wanted your entire experience to depend on how addicted you were to the game’s ridiculous systems."

Lucas Torquato
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I agree with the point of making your game easy to learn and, at the same time, deep enough to study and become a hardcore player. But Diablo III, at least for me, a bitter sweet experience.

The lore, the characters, the cinematics are always top notch. And the feeling of nostalgia was amazing. This is what made me play. The skills look fantastic, great animations and voice. But something started to feel not quite right after a while.

The experience wasn't changing. It is like: I am dying, buy/find gear, now I am good. And it gets worse: I am dying, buy/find gear, still dying/ switch that awesome looking skill that I love so much for a boring skill that I wouldn't level, now I don't die anymore.

I am not saying the game is bad or anything. Far from the truth. The game is amazing, but I don't think that the END GAME is as dynamic or fun as it could be. Well, it could be just me.

Interesting article.

Michael Joseph
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It's too bad the main focus of this article which accentuated Blizzard's old school professionalism, their focus on quality and polish and the value they place on their own reputation has been completely overshadowed in the comments section with criticisms of Diablo III's mechanics and gameplay.

But Blizzard can learn from this. Compared to 10 years ago, there are a lot more options available to players. And that means not only do your games have to be highly polished, they also have to start being more innovative.