Three former big names from Blizzard and Blizzard North gave a panel discussion last weekend at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, discussing the Diablo series and their respective roles in its history. Matt Householder was producer, Matt Uelmen handled 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, essentially, 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 time that Jay Wilson joined Blizzard, and the Diablo 3 that Blizzard North had been working on was moved “in-house” under his leadership.
One of the areas Wilson touched on is the tradable rune system that Diablo 3 had at one point, before moving to a more elective system with an element of player choice. “Blizzard at the time was, and it’s less true now and I think for the best, so obsessed with perfect game design,” Wilson explains.
“I would describe it as… if you look at Ferrari they will make a car unliveable so it turns a corner 0.1 seconds faster. Lamborghini just wants the car to look cool and go fast. Sometimes it’s better but we wanted it perfect design so if we found a flaw we got rid of it.”
Wilson clearly retains a fondness for the old system, and that’s where he finds the flaw in that perfectionist mindset. He says Path of Exile is an example where he does “a great job with similar systems. [and] there are issues but it’s a lot of fun so who cares.”
Discussions then moved on 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 I did real-money auctioning was security,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t money, we didn’t expect to get that much money out of it, [but] the biggest problem with Diablo 2 was item duplication and item hacking and all the gold vendors and all that stuff.”
As Wilson succinctly puts it: “There is almost no way to solve this problem without somehow controlling the trading market. There are many good ways to do it, but this was our idea. The commercial market is in the game: we control it, so hackers don’t.
“Even with [always]-online,” Wilson said. “As soon as you log out, you have to give the client server away and once you do, the hackers have you. But I couldn’t say those things because you don’t push hackers. You say “oh, we’re doing this for security reasons” and the hackers say [puts hands on hips] “Oh really?””
The most interesting thing about the auction house was that when it was decided to get rid of it, Blizzard started freaking out internally about something that seemed relatively minor. It was on the box as a selling point.
“The short answer about the profit,” Wilson said, “it made a little bit of money, nothing compared to WoW, we didn’t expect that to be…we really thought of it as a courtesy to give back the game safer.
“If it was more than 10 or 15 million [dollars] I would be surprised. Sounds like a lot of money, but WoW probably made some every 10 seconds. It wasn’t very popular.”
Then, the delay between the decision and the action: “The reason why we did not get rid of it immediately when we saw that it was a problem, is that legally we did not think we could do because it was advertised on the cards…” said Wilson.
“So we spent a lot of time trying to work through all the legal issues before finally saying ok, we think it’s worth a try, if we get a trial, well.”
It’s fascinating to hear Wilson talk about Diablo 3 from this perspective because, back then, his hands (and tongue) were naturally tied. It’s easy to forget how much debate raged around this game and Blizzard’s decisions: now “always online” is so common that no one would bat an eyelid, but it was later treated as a rude affront by some players. The auction house, too, split loyalties like never before: and a strain of that was players who saw it as mere profit. Next to what Blizzard itself is doing now in terms of monetization, $10-15 million in lifetime profits seems odd.