Three former Blizzard and Blizzard North bigwigs gave a panel talk last weekend at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, discussing the Diablo series and their respective roles in its history. Matt Householder was a producer, Matt Uelmen did music and sound design, while Jay Wilson had various roles before becoming lead designer on Diablo 3.
The timeline gets pretty interesting around the mid-2000s when, basically, World of Warcraft takes off and Blizzard North has just been shut down (the studio’s last day was August 1, 2005). It was around this period that Jay Wilson joined Blizzard, and the Diablo 3 that Blizzard North was working on was offered “in-house” under his direction.
One of the areas Wilson discusses is the tradable rune system that Diablo 3 had at one point, before switching to a more selectable system with an element of player choice. “Blizzard at the time was, and this is less true now and I think better, so obsessed with perfect game design,” says Wilson.
“I would describe it as… if you look at Ferrari, they’ll make a car impossible to make it go around a corner 0.1 second faster. Lamborghini just wants the car to look cool and fast. Sometimes that’s better but that’s what we wanted. perfect design so if we found a flaw we removed it.”
Wilson clearly retains a fondness for the older system, and here he finds fault with that perfectionist mindset. He says that Path of Exile is an example where it does “a great job with similar systems [and] it has problems but it’s great fun so who cares.”
Talk then moved to the more controversial elements of Diablo 3: the “always online” requirement, and the real money auction house.
“When I was at Blizzard, the reason for making the real money auction house was security,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t money, we didn’t think we’d make that much money out of it, [but] the biggest problem with Diablo 2 was item cheating and cheating hacks and all the gold vendors and all that stuff.”
As Wilson succinctly says: “There is almost no way to fix that problem without somehow controlling the commercial market. There are many good ways to do it, but that was our idea at the time. The commercial market is in the game: we control it. , so the hackers does not
“Same with [always]-online,” said Wilson. “As soon as you go offline you have to give the client server and once you do that, the hackers have you. But I couldn’t say those things because you don’t poke hackers. You say “oh we’re doing this for security reasons” and the hackers say [puts hands on hips] “Oh really?”
The most interesting element of the auction house was that, when it was decided to remove it, Blizzard started to panic internally about something that seems relatively minor. It was on the box as a selling point.
“The short answer about the profit,” Wilson said, “it made some money, nothing compared to WoW, we never expected it to be… we really thought of it as a courtesy to make the game safer.
“If it did more than 10 or 15 million [dollars] I would be surprised. It sounds like a lot of money but WoW probably did that every 10 seconds. It wasn’t very popular.”
Then, the delay between decision and action: “The reason we didn’t remove it as soon as we saw it was a problem was legally we didn’t think we could because it was advertised on the boxes…” said Wilson.
“So we actually took a long time to try to work out all the legal stuff before we finally said okay we think it’s worth trying if we get a lawsuit, oh well.”
It’s fascinating to hear Wilson talk about Diablo 3 from this perspective because, at the time, his hands (and tongue) were understandably tied. It’s easy to forget how heated the debate raged around this game and the decisions made by Blizzard: now “always online” is so common that no one would bat an eyelid, but back then it was treated as a gross offense by some players. The auction house also divided loyalties like never before: and one strain of that was players who saw it as simple profiteering. Next to some of what Blizzard itself is doing right now in terms of monetization, $10-15 million in lifetime profit seems outlandish.