Down on BlizzCon's show floor, there's a small clump of crumpled-looking Blizzard employees. It's Saturday evening, and they've been organising the tide of humanity desperate to play Diablo 3 for two solid days. But they aren't the target of my sympathy. It's the peripherals I feel sorry for.
Those patient enough to brave the hours of queueing get to play Diablo 3 for a short burst. The artificially constrained play sessions mean gamers are more eager than ever to carve their way through mounds of flesh. Looking out across the Diablo 3 show area, I can see legions of mice sitting quietly underhand, gently glowing in pain as their masters pound their tops.
BlizzCon saw the debut of one of Diablo 3's first cinematics – a lush, gothic creation that tells of a black soulstone. It's a good reminder that this game that involves clicking on things many thousands of times has a weighty storyline behind it. But how do you get gamers to stop hammering on their mice for a second and listen to what they're being told? I asked Julian Love – Diablo 3's lead technical artist – how his team have done it.
“It's a big mistake to overload and pester the player with the story. They really do just want to keep fighting.” KILL THAT ZOMBIE HE'S GOT A PAIR OF TROUSERS... sorry what, Julian? Carry on. “But you also find a maximum level where players tire of it and want to take a break. We make sure that the backgrounds in the game can appropriately telegraph 'this is a rest point' – that it's not combat – and then schedule them appropriately so that players are okay with that.”
Diablo 3's recent beta has helped Julian and his team schedule these breathing spaces, and shown the danger of overstuffing the game. “We maybe had too many systems too early in the game: our new crafting system, our follower system, and ways to get back to town. Players would end up being forced to ignore things. So we've rescheduled the way those things are going to be introduced.”
Some mechanics were excised entirely. “We fooled around with, and even announced, the talisman. What that led to was players getting a new item and sitting around, trying to figure out what they should be doing.” The result is a stats screen that spits out big, easy to understand numbers. Attack, precision, defence and vitality combine to make your character's power output obvious. Press a gleaming blue doublehanded war-axe into your barbarian's hands, and the extra damage it deals is easily demonstrated by the game's UI.
But Diablo has always catered to the calculator fiends, and Diablo 3 is no different. “There's a little panel in your character sheet you can roll out that gives a deep breakdown of everything that's going on.” Somewhere, Tom Francis has just let out a happy little sigh. There are so many sockets, slots, and holes in which to jam enchanted doohickies and magical wotsits that your level 20 monk likely won't end up anything like your friend's level 20 monk. That difference will also be reflected in the game's visuals – something Julian wanted to mark as a difference between Diablos 2 and 3.
There are obvious character demarcations: the game's customisable banners can be altered with augments earned through achievements, and dyes let players choose this season's hottest demon-slaying colour. But customisation goes deeper than this overlay: gear is visualised. Snaffle two pistol-crossbows for your demon hunter and you'll strap them on and start spewing bolts – a marked difference from a demon hunter chum “There are so many slots in which to jam enchanted doohickies and magical wotsits” who might be using a heavyweight bow and loosing arrows at a more leisurely pace. And your skill choices provide another layer of unique prettiness: even if you've stepped out in the same shade of leather bracer as another member of your party, Julian confirms that “there are trillions of skill possibilities, and all of those changes have a graphic change associated with them”.
Blizzard have been making Diablo 3 for a long time. Julian does a quick mental count when I ask him what's changed during development. “I've been on Diablo 3 for nearly nine years. Right now combat's very immediate; we really didn't have that focus early on. Our goal now is to make every click feel awesome. But that wasn't a big goal at the beginning.”
“It's so much easier to make things complicated than to make things simple: most of our designs started out as a convoluted spaghetti mess. Over the years what we've done is simplify, simplify, simplify – pare them down to a point where they make sense and I think they're still fun.”
Looking out across the sea of clickers on the BlizzCon show floor, their grins illuminated by arc lightning and sprays of rotting blood on LCD monitors, I'd say they agree with Julian.