Prior to working at Blizzard, Jay Wilson worked on some big games, including Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War while he was at Relic. But none of his previous games were as widely-anticipated -- and garnered as high expectations -- as his latest work: Diablo III, launching this week for PC and Mac.
As director on Diablo III, Wilson had to digest everything that the 16-year-old Diablo franchise is known for, lead a team to determine what this latest entry should be, and how the Diablo team could achieve that vision. Reaching goals, said Wilson, meant crunching for quality, intense polishing, and listening -- as well as not listening -- to player feedback.
Diablo III is the first game that he headed up at Blizzard. Even though he was familiar with the high quality bar at the company, he told Gamasutra in this interview, "It just took a lot longer [to reach that standard] than I had anticipated."
I just read the Diablo II postmortem on Gamasutra, and about the crunch at the end of its development. How did you handle the final stretch for Diablo III? Was there just some massive crunch, like there was with Diablo II?
JW: Oh, yeah. We had a pretty big crunch. I wasn't there for Diablo II, so I can't really speak to it exactly, but as a company, I think we've gotten better in how we handle crunch. It's a little bit more phased, and we're able to take down certain [development] groups and give them rests. Not everybody really finishes at the same time.
There's the ability to keep people busy without keeping them in crunch when, really, their work is done. So a lot of it really is not just because of the time they put in; it's really the stress of trying to make the right decisions, and having so many balls in the air at once. Projects are really big now, and there's a lot of logistics to finishing them.
One of the first things we try to do is we limit how much time people actually work. We actually send people home so that they don't overwork. Our crunch was long, so what we try to do is make it long but not hard. We'd have weeks where we would just tell people they couldn't crunch at all.
Part of that was if we had a group that we felt was ahead, we'd tell them, "You guys are ahead. Don't crunch for a few weeks." Other groups, they weren't ahead, but they were tired, so we would give them a week off from crunch.
So we do things like that. We also just had groups that finished earlier than others. Mostly on the art side. The art finished early, which was a good thing -- you kind of want art to finish first.
So we have more capabilities now, when we have a group finish [their work]. In previous games I've worked on, you don't want anybody to finish early, because then what do you do with them? They're just sitting around. Nothing good happens from people sitting around. "Idle hands" is really a true statement. [Ed. Note: the full idiom is the "idle hands are the devil's workshop".]
And so we have a lot better management now, so we're able to do things like training courses, and help out some of the other teams. So we have a lot more capabilities to say, "Okay. It's okay for us to finish, to have this other group working, and have these other groups stop." So [we have] just a little bit more sophisticated ability to manage people.
How do you define crunch?
JW: For me, crunch is when people are generally working over 50 to 60 hours a week. That much or more. Essentially, if they're working more than 40, then I consider it crunch -- but for an extended period of time.
I think we always say -- one of the things that I try to push to the team -- is that while game development cycles have a tendency to crunch towards the end, usually for a few reasons, at Blizzard, it's actually driven by quality.
But most companies you work for, it's not actually quality that makes you crunch. It's usually bad planning, and a lack of focus. So if you can, for the majority of your project, be really focused -- and do like little mini crunches. Like once a month you have one week where you work a little extra to try and hit a goal, you can actually alleviate a lot of the end crunch.
And you've got to couple that with an appropriate level of ambition. I would actually say on Diablo III, we were overambitious in a lot of ways. I, as a game director, kind of underestimated the amount of time it would take us to get to the Blizzard quality level. I hadn't made a Blizzard game before, so now I know better, and I think we can do an even better job on it.
You came from Relic, just prior?
JW: Yep. And I worked on a game called Impossible Creatures, where we crunched like crazy, and then I worked on a game called Dawn of War, which was a lot less time and money than Impossible Creatures, and yet we made a better game and we actually didn't hardly crunch at all. And it was because I had really good understanding of the capability of the team, and what would be an appropriate ambition level for them.
It was a very ambitious project, but everybody was very focused on what the game was supposed to be, and how it should work. We all worked together before, too, which is a huge advantage. Because if you have a team that has put something out together, I wouldn't say their quality necessarily goes up, but their efficiency goes way up.