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The Devil's Workshop: An Interview with Diablo III's Jay Wilson
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The Devil's Workshop: An Interview with Diablo III's Jay Wilson

May 14, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

A lot of people are saying that; it's not just you. I think that a lot of people in interviews like this, with the industry press, talk about that. Or you see them at GDC, and they give a presentation; it's definitely not just you that's saying "screw design documents." They're talking about getting the actual feel down, iterating and iterating. How do you even start with that?

JW: Well, so what we did was we wrote those pillars. I think those pillars are really important. Because they're also things that everybody can hold in their head really easily.

There's a presentation. You don't hand a document to people. People won't read. That's the key. People do not read; doesn't matter what. Nobody wants to read a document, and if they do read, reading a document doesn't get them excited. And game development's all about getting people excited. Games are cool. Reading a document's not cool.

Reading a book is cool. [laughs] I don't want to put the message out there that reading is not good. But what I mean is, if I want to read, I want to read something cool. And a design document for a game, no matter how you spruce it up, ain't cool.

But I can sit here and tell you about a game, and I can get you excited about it. And that's what it should be. It should be about the team talking to one another, and should be about core ideas that everyone works to realize.

And maybe just pick content to build. The best thing you could do to make a game is to start making it. Don't worry about the high-level. Worry about the barbarian. That was the first thing we did. It went something like, "Okay, we're going to make Diablo. What's our first plot?" Okay, barbarian. What's one skill we can make that can sell the idea of what we want the barbarian to be?

And I was like, "Well I want the barbarian to be more powerful. I want him to be like The Hulk. I want him to shake the ground. I want him to be able to cause earthquakes with his fists." Okay, well, that's our first skill, then. We're going to have him hit the ground and make an earthquake. Okay, cool.

And then once we had that skill, and that skill was awesome, it was so fun that people could just play the game for hours just using that one skill. I didn't need to do a document about what the barbarian was. Everybody knew. They looked at that skill and they understood him. And that was way cooler than a document.

And yeah, I had documents on the barbarian, and I had some stuff that I wrote out, and things like that, but none of them were nearly as valuable as that -- as that one skill.

Usually what I use documents for is I do technical documentation for coders, so that they can implement features, or to write down large collections of data. So for example, we have documentation on categories of monsters, because we have all these different kinds of monsters that we're going to put in the game, and there's stuff to challenge the players in different ways, and be unlocked at different points. So I have documentation for that.

And the kind of key theme for anything that we document is: it's all functional. It's not about intent. I actually tell my designers if they don't want to put things in their documentation, I'm fine with that. You write out what you want your feature to be, and don't justify the feature. Don't say, "This is why we're doing this feature." If somebody wants to know, they'll ask.

They'll ask why -- or you should tell them why. A designer can sell the idea behind a feature way better than a document can. It's time-consuming to make documents.

They'll go out of date, and then nobody trusts them. All it takes is one document out of date, and then, all of a sudden, nobody trusts any documentation, and it all becomes a big waste of time.

I played the beta when you were doing those stress tests, and I used the barbarian. That was the first time I had played Diablo III; it just feels good. One of my friends who is a game designer describes it as "crunchiness."

How do you hone something like that? You were talking about making the barbarian feel like The Hulk, and making him feel powerful when he hits the ground. What's the mindset trying to accomplish that in terms of a good feel for the gamer?

JW: Well I think first thing you have to do is, you have to be able to paint a picture for your development team. A very, very clear, powerful image of what you want. And you have to not be afraid -- we call it the "come to Jesus" moment.

Every one of our processes have had that moment, where we officially come back and say, "You know what? Not good enough. We're going to rework a lot of this stuff. We're going to make some new skills. We're not hitting it." And you've got to be willing, at those moments, to shake things up quite a bit.

The witch doctor was actually one of the ones I had the biggest moment with. We all loved this idea of this witch doctor, but we never really doubled down on what he was supposed to be, you know? We didn't really have a clear image, and that was when we got together.

We had him doing abilities similar to some of the abilities that the sorceress and necromancer did in D2; a wall of fire was one of his abilities. One of our guys was like, "Screw that, I don't want a wall of fire. I want a wall of zombies." And everyone was like, "Are you crazy?" But some of us were like, "Yeah, crazy like a fox. A wall of zombies sounds awesome!"

We had no idea how we were going to make it, but we knew it sounded great, and you have to have those moments. And then you have to double down on them, and really sell them.

That's a lot of ephemeral-speak -- it's not solid. Somebody is going to read this interview and go, "But he doesn't really tell me how to do that." And the problem is it's not an easy thing to tell people how to do.

The core of it comes from being honest with yourself about when it's not hitting it, because a lot of people, I think, they reach the point where they don't reach that crunchy point -- which I think is a great way to put it -- because they're not honest with themselves in that they haven't reached it yet. As soon as you're willing to look at your current work and say, "It's not good enough, redo it," or even have the capability to do that, that's when you can start getting to those moments.

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