Three former Blizzard and Blizzard North grandees gave a panel talk this past 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, essentially, World of Warcraft is taking off and Blizzard North has just been closed (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 had been working on was moved "in-house" under his direction.
One of the areas Wilson discusses is the tradeable rune system that Diablo 3 had at one point, before switching to a more elective system with an element of player choice. "Blizzard at the time was, and this is less true now and I think for the better, so obsessed with perfect game design," says Wilson.
"I would describe it like… if you look at Ferrari, they will make a car unlivable in order that it goes round a corner 0.1 second faster. Lamborghini just wants the car to look cool and go fast. Sometimes that's better but we wanted that perfect design so, if we found a flaw, we got rid of it."
Wilson clearly retains a fondness for the older system, and this is where he finds the fault in that perfectionist mindset. He says 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 onto Diablo 3's more controversial elements: the "always online" requirement, and the real money auction house.
"When I was at Blizzard the reason for doing the real money auction house was security," said Wilson. "It wasn't money, we didn't think we'd make that much money from it, [but] the biggest problem with Diablo 2 was item duping and duping hacks and all the gold sellers and all those things."
As Wilson succinctly puts it: "There's almost no way to fix that problem without somehow controlling the trading market. There's lots of good ways to do it, but that was our idea at the time. The trading market's in the game: we control it, so the hackers don't.
"Same with [always]-online," said Wilson. "As soon as you go offline you have to give out the client server and once you do that the hackers have got you. But I couldn't say those things because you do not 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 get rid of it, Blizzard began to panic internally about something that seems relatively minor. It was on the box as a selling point.
"The short answer about the profit," said Wilson, "it made a little bit of money, nothing compared to WoW, we never expected it to be… we really thought of it as a courtesy to making the game more secure.
"If it made more than 10 or 15 million [dollars] I'd be surprised. It sounds like a lot of money but WoW probably made that every 10 seconds. It was not very popular."
Then, the delay between decision and action: "The reason we did not get rid of it right away when 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 and work out all the legal issues before we finally said ok we think it's worth trying it, if we get a lawsuit oh well."
It's fascinating to hear Wilson talking about Diablo 3 from this perspective because, at the time, his hands (and tongue) were understandably tied. It's easy to forget how white hot the debate raged around this game and the decisions Blizzard made: now "always online" is so common no-one would bat an eyelid, but then it was treated as a gross affront by some players. The auction house, too, split loyalties like never before: and one strain of this was players who saw it as straightforward profiteering. Next to some of what Blizzard itself does now in terms of monetisation, $10-15 million in lifetime profit seems quaint.