WWI 2008: D3 Lore and Environmental Art Panel

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The third Diablo III panel at the 2008 WWI was held Sunday morning, June 29, 2008.

Panel Details[edit]

This panel featured a presentation on the Lore and Environmental Art, and a Q&A session.

  • Bryan Morrisroe, Art Director.
  • Leonard Boyarsky, Lead World Designer.

(This transcript below is not verbatim, but is more note-like in covering the key points without including every word spoken.)

Lore, Plot, and Story[edit]

Leonard Boyarsky began the panel by speaking on the game story, and related issues.

Unexplored Potential[edit]

We saw there was a lot of unexplored potential in the previous games. Diablo is unique in fantasy worlds since there are no elves or dwarves. It's a much darker world, in fact it was created by angels and demons, and now it's being fought over by the forces of dark and light. We think that's a fascinating setting and we've only scratched the surface in the previous games. Lot of depth yet to be mined. Not looked into previously.

We start with the world. We start somewhere. Civilizations don't just pop up out of nowhere. They are the result of environment and political forces. Where do they come from? People like? Ruling classes?

As an example of that we're going to look at Caldeum, one of the new cities in D3. It's the largest trade center in all of Sanctuary. Lut Gholien, the act two town in D2, was an outpost of Caldeum. Historically speaking a trade center lke Caldeum is a place of innovation. Lots of cultures and people meeting and talking there. Lots of innovation. The government just makes sure money keeps flowing. Main city of the area was Kurast, the jungle-overrun town of Act Three in Diablo 2. When Kurast fell, the government and elite moved to Caldeum, and their influence changed the place. Culture clash. How does that change day to day life for the citizens? We considered that sort of thing when we looked at the area, and designed the story and quests.

We also went deep in our world exploration in areas you won't see in the game. Places the characters came from had to be understood so we could flesh out their background. That background information helps us as developers, and we want the player to feel that there's a world outside their immediate exp.

Skovos overhead view.
Skovos is a great example of this. Place where Askari society is from. They gave us the rogues in D1 and amazons in D2, but their society has never been explored in the games. They're very ancient and haven't had much contact with the outside world. No trade or exchange of philosophies. How do they develop differently in isolation? They trace themselves back to the mythology of the angels. They were founded by angel and her human lover, and this gives them a very different view of the world than other societies.

That's the extent we go to as designers to flesh out the world. Make feel like living place.

We don't want to belabor this sort of thing when player is running around playing the game, but we think about how we'll get the information across to the player? One way is that some of the NPCs reflect upon where they come from. This helps us in 2 ways. For a great RPG you need great NPCs. When they give you a quest, you should feel as if you are playing in a living world with depth to it. To make living characters, they need to have culture. Characters reacting and speaking and dressing to reflect their culture tells the player about it without long monologues. We research places in our world and use them as influences for the game designs. We styled the residents and architecture of Caldeum to give a certain vibe to the player. An Eastern feel in the buildings, clothing, daily life, etc.

Story[edit]

What is the purpose of story in action game? Some say you don't need one. I disagree with that. I feel the main reason you need a good story in an action game is because it gives emphasis to the actions of the characters. The story gives their actions meaning. As developers, if we can make you want to find out what happens next in the story as much as you want to level up or find equipment, it's a reason to drive you forward and keep you engaged in the game for longer.

Voice[edit]

We've also extended use of player voice in the game. In D1 and D2 players had voice, but just to make brief comments; to tell you the inventory was full, or to make a remark on the environment. In D3, we want you to feel that you're playing a very specific character. You're not just a generic barbarian or witch doctor. We've given the characters specific personalities and voices. And with this comes a unique conversation system; one that's very different from what was used in the earlier Diablo games. In the past you received monologues from NPCs(non-playable characters). Now you have conversations with them; in which more story is imparted in a more lively fashion. These make the character feel more alive and more heroic, and less like an errand boy. We also tell the story through dialogue and lore books your character finds in the game.

Using the Environment[edit]

Another tactic is to use the environment to tell story. How we do that is to set up visual clues or scripted events. For instance, if I find group of cultists summoning a demon and it turns on them, that tells me that their level of competence is not very high. If I follow trail of corpses and find a warrior meditating atop a heap of dead demons, that tells me a lot about his character without him saying a word.

We make it engaging for the player without slowing the action, and that helps draw the more action-oriented players into the story. Using techniques like telling the story with the environment helps draw in those who aren't that interested in the story to begin with.

Specific story of Diablo 3[edit]

Takes place 20 years after events of Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction. When that game ended with the destruction of the Worldstone, Cain was convinced that Hell would invade. Everyone thought Hell would invade once Tyrael destroyed the Worldstone. Hell did not invade, and no one knows why.

Cain feels guilty over events in the first 2 Diablo games. He was raised to know the lore and legends of the Horadrim, and he feels he should have know what was coming when he saw the signs of Diablo rising again. He could not have done anything about it, (and if he had we wouldn't have had a game), but that perceived failure is what drives Cain. He's been researching for twenty years to try to figure how he can help defeat the forces of Hell when they return.

Most people who lived through the key events during Diablo 2 are no longer alive. The game world is similar to the Middle Ages, when people were lucky to live to forty. Cain has been very, very lucky. The people who did survive the events of the last game were mostly heroes, or were common, normal people who were seldom able to deal with it. Regular individuals couldn't cope with the experience of seeing such evil face to face. Most went crazy, and if they still survive 20 years later, they are scattered and aimless. The general population didn't see it, and put those bizarre events behind them. The plot events of Diablo 2 are now seen as myth and exaggeration by most people, which makes Cain's job that much harder.

Tyrael[edit]

People often wonder what happened to Tyrael. He was an angel who helped mankind in previous games, acting against the non-interventionist wishes of the rest of heaven. At the end of D2X Tyrael was forced to destroy an important artifact known as the Worldstone, and he's not been seen since. No one has heard from him. The last time Cain saw Tyrael was when the angel went into the mountain to destroy the Worldstone. Was he subsequently punished by angels? He was in front of artifact when it blew up, and sure he's an angel, but was he affected? Changed? No one knows. Why hasn't Hell invaded, since the Worldstone was supposed to be the power that was holding them back. No one's heard anything from hell, and this has helped most people to conclude that the rumored plot events of D2 were exaggeration.

We'll look into that in the game, and we know you guys want to know more now, but we're not going to get into those details today.

Environmental Art[edit]

(Bryan Morrison, Diablo III's art director spoke in this section of the panel.)

That's a lot of info Leonard kicked out, especially when you take it in combination with the design goals Jay Wilson was talking about yesterday. As an art staff its our job to take all that story and design and use it as a stepping stone or a base for how we approach our art style.

We also have three some core Blizzard values in our art. 1) Stylization over realism. 2) Strong silhouettes. 3) Make it epic and support the gameplay. I'll talk more about those philosophies in this presentation, and give some details about how we create our art style.

History[edit]

Our first approach to this project was to look back on how it got started. The most important thing was to understand where we came from, and to get in touch with the expectations our player base has for this franchise. We're fans ourselves, so we wanted to explore what got us into the game and what made it so enjoyable to play and work on the franchise.

When we looked back at Diablo, we tried to condense it to its core. And we discovered that it was visually a horror game. So that's what we were going after. A horror genre feeling.

After playing through Diablo, we looked at D2 and tried to figure out what we did right there. The game continued with the horror vibe, but it expanded the universe. D1 was about Tristram, and took place in a very limited area. D2 opened that up into a grander world. It explored lots of areas in the universe, and that's what we wanted to push in d3.

Horror Movie Visuals[edit]

An interesting thing we found in D1 and D2, from an art standpoint, was that our memory was different than actuality. Visually speaking we remembered very dark and colorless games. Playing through though, we discovered a lot of vibrancy and creatures and environments, and we wanted to expand on that in d3. To embrace the core values of the franchise, and still move forward.

Taking all that into consideration, and considering the story in the previous games, we knew that updating that would be quite a task. We have a fantastic group of artists to work on it at Blizzard. We sat down and took the core values and redefined our artistic goals. We updated engine, we're in 3d now, but we decided to stay with the isometric view, since that was true to d1 universe. And the isometric view is a good decision for art staff. Makes it easier to make things come to life, and to work on the environments and gameplay. (Since they only need to be seen from one direction/angle.)

Stylization over Realism[edit]

Getting back to our core philosophies at Bliz, one of them being stylization over realism. Stylization can sometimes be equated with cartoony or Disney art style. Not what we're going after with Diablo art style. We understand, looking back at D1 and D2 that the universe is very dark. It was created by demons and angels, and people in the world see such supernatural creatures on a daily basis. There's a level of grit and realism we want to bring to the game, but at the same time, it's important to take the player into a fantasy realm. To give the player something they've never seen before. If we just took pictures and stuck polygons on them, that's not us doing our job. We wanted to push the idea of bringing a unique, different look to the D3 universe, but not being too cartoony or deviating too far from what the previous games established.

Strong silhouettes[edit]

These serves multiple purposes in the environment. The biggest is that they support the game play very well. When you open up gameplay and use larger shapes to define your gaming world, it actually allows for more creatures on screen. And that's really the important thing for us. get as many on there at once so players can you kill as fast as possible. That's what Diablo is about it's and our job to support that.

Also strong silhouettes add to the epic feel. When you create large shapes, large bricks, walls wiht interesting silhouettes, it makes the universe more of a fantasy land. Look around real life; like this convention hall, everything is very straight and 90 degree angular. We try to avoid that in the game. In game world we want to transport you to a different location and really represent ourselves as a fantasy realm. It’s important to remain grounded in reality; we have walls that go up and down in straight lines; but within that wall we have bricks that stick out, railings at angles, and other things. It makes it more visually pleasing and supports gameplay by opening up space.

Color[edit]

Color was one of the most controversial things. Our memory of D1 and D2 was not what they really were. We thought it was a very gray, washed out universe, very dark, nooks and crannies of black. But when we went back and played we saw a lot of really vibrant areas, and that's something we latched onto. We did research on horror movies that we thought accomplished the horror vibe very well. One of the things was use of color to establish mood. Carried over into art style for d3. choosing palettes carefully.

Colors seen outside of screenshot without context the colors are very bright, but when seen in context of the game the colors are effective in establishing mood. Dark greens and dark blues to establish a horror vibe, ominous vibe. Big brother is watching. You can get away with using very vibrant colors which is pleasing, but at the same time maintain that core value of the Diablo franchise. A horror vibe. And when you're not afraid of color you can use to your advantage. Use it to lead gameplay where you want to go. When you have an overall screen of greenish light, you can stick an orange torch in, and the bright orange flame becomes a beacon for the player to follow. It makes gameplay better for the player to understand. Everything comes together seamlessly.

Dynamic animations[edit]

Big thing we wanted to bring into environments of D3. Make them feel more alive. Destructibles! How we use environment with selective destruction to your advantage. Use it to kill monsters with collapsing walls, or just for bonus fun visuals. Ultimately, how much breakable stuff we include comes down to fun. There's no scientific formula; it's just very cool to break stuff. That's what we go after; how much before it become overwhelming? Lot of it, lot of fun to go around stomping stuff.

The art's job is to support game play. It doesn't really matter how pretty things are if the gameplay isn't fun. That's our job. As beautiful as we make it, and talented as our art staff is, if we're not making it fun we're not doing our job well. If the gameplay doesn’t read well, you don't know where you're going, if creatures don’t pop out, if you don't know what your char looks like, etc. All revolve around making gameplay more enjoyable.

Design Process[edit]

How the overall work flow of our design process works. Talented design staff, as Jay talked about yesterday. We work with the level design staff very closely. Can't support gameplay w/o good rapport with designers. Up here is example of some early sketches of level design. How our random dungeon system works. Room by room basis. Each room has certain exits and entrances we can snap together like puzzle pieces. It all starts with design team giving us simple sketches, We talk about them, what we want to accomplish visually, what they need supported by art. That's where we start.

Also at this time we deal with the destructibles. What to be interactive. Has to decide in advance. How to break, how to bring to live. Sketches by Carl Lebaux. Entertaining sketches. Mine cart smashing, simple cave in. These things don't just happen in the game randomly, we put them in advance, and try to support overall game philosophy. We need to design up front.

Once we get sketches and decide what we want destructible. Then art staff goes in and we work with design but it's an iterative process. We do "calls outs", "design studies," and ultimately it's leading up to the progression to the final piece of art you see in the game. Very iterative process. Sketch to final slide show. Takes a long time. Final in game isn't the same as sketch, but there's a natural progression when you work closely with design and story. Everything comes in as a team to get final artistic look.

Now let's open up to questions: (Applause.)

Audience Q&A[edit]

{The audience Q&A ran fairly short on this panel, since Leonard gave long answers, which then had to be translated into French by an extremely thorough translator.)

Q: Question about Diablo the character. In d2 he was killed, his soulstone smashed, Baal's Mephistos. All destroyed completely. How do you justify Diablo coming back yet again?
A: You don't know for sure Diablo's coming back, just because it's called Diablo. It's a very complex chain of events that we don't have time to go into here.... we don't want to divulge story yet, let's just say it's sure to be entertaining when you see it.

Q: In previous game we had quest to achieve to get Horadric cube. Will you have lore or mission about getting some special items/ for example cube will it be there again?
A: The way the process works is we look into the story and lore and we want that to drive the gameplay and quests. Even if I knew for sure, which I don't, we wouldn't be divulging specific details yet. There will be quests related to lore. That's what we want our quests to be this time. We don't want to have quests just to get this or that. We want it to resonate with main story. So things like Horadric cube we don't know specifically, but we know everyone loves that type of thing we work on story side with game and item designers and that stuff comes bout organically. That's how it came about in D2 also, they didn't set out to make the cube, it just came about through the game design process.

Q: How about the random generation of the outdoor environment. Will you keep this in d3? Random generation of loot as well?
A: Question was about how random outdoor levels? We're still exploring that. Core value of Diablo franchise to have that. One of the interesting things we're doing artistically is to do random adventures in which small pockets of the environment are swapped out each time. Artistically we're developing different stool sets to do what we did in d2.

Leonard: Random adventures: We'll have a plot of land that can have a bunch of different occurrences. Scripted, AI driven, or just cool scenery. So when you play through the area multiple times, you don't know what will be in each area. Visual story telling. Side quests, maybe just as cool eye candy. One way we're keeping randomness within story telling. Self contained ways to explain a specific detail of universe. Give player a bit of info they'll want to research more in depth, and a guy in town might have more detail to offer. You might get that little tidbit while you play, and your friend might not when he plays that same area in a different game. There are a lot of different ways to utilize these things we haven't really explored yet. It's a deep system that we'll play around with as we continue development.

Q: Will we see how the cities have changed in the last 20 years?
A: I can tell you that the game starts in new Tristram. Just outside of old Tristram. Deckard Cain comes back. You'll see some NPCs and a hero or two you've played before. Beyond that you'll just have to wait and see.

Q: Do you guys have plans to make new villains? We've had Mephisto and Diablo and Baal, will we see them again?
A: Leonard: how can I answer that... yes and no. there are 7 lords of hell, can we count how many we've killed in the series? And there are new ones we'll come up with along the way.

Q: in your presentations you said that the regular people forgot what happened. How can that be, when so many saw it? Kurast was entirely overrun by jungle. Hard to believe people forgot that and see as fairy tale.
A: Leonard: (dry sarcasm) I guess we'll have to start over then. If you think about the world, there are magic and mages summoning demons all the time. You can barely walk down the street without being attacked by goatman. Civilizations fall all the time by being overrun by weird creatures. People realize that.

Their disbelief is more about whether or not there's a vast war going on between heavenly and demonic forces. Obviously something very weird happened 20 years ago. Tristram and Kurast were destroyed. But the human capacity for rationalization is very strong. People who do remember what took place were on the periphery, and just saw some demonic things, but not much worse than usual. Also, there's a denial mechanism; people don't want to believe something that bad happened.

Unless a person was personally involved, and saw things with their own eyes, they're just taking someone else's word for it. Was it just a bad thing that happened, or was it really a struggle against Diablo himself, the lord of hell? It's on that level. Is this just a world with lots of random bad things happening, or is it truly part of an eternal struggle between the forces of hell and heaven? Part of it's political too.