Blizzard’s Jay Wilson On Environments, Or Why An Interdisciplinary Approach Is A Must

5 Aug

Blizzard has gotten a lot of flack for the ‘more WoW-like’ art style being applied to Diablo 3. Well, MTV Multiplayer snagged lead designer Jay Wilson and has gotten his opinion on the fan-altered shots generated by the online petition fans started to express their discontent with the new, cheerier look. What followed was not just a great defense of the new art style, but in that defense Wilson manages to dispense some important knowledge on the subject (that is, he gives some tips we can use!).

When asked about why Blizzard’s own attempts at a more somber and desaturated style didn’t work, Wilson responds with this:

This is what we were thinking what “Diablo II” looks like. And then we played through, and we were like this isn’t very fun. And then we started going, “Why was ‘Diablo II’ so much more fun?” And some of the Blizzard North guys [the team that made ‘Diablo I’ and ‘II’] knew why right away. They were like, “Well, because we didn’t make all the areas like this.” And if you think about even the areas they did, the creatures were really bright. Like in the gray and dark dungeons, those are the places that you run into the ghosts who were almost like glowing brightness, and that was so that they would stand out from the backgrounds.

It just goes to show that a unified art style doesn’t have to be overbearing — the Diablo III team is working to establish common rules that tie the look together while not relying on familiarity to tell you which game you’re playing. Look at the first Gears of War for instance; the only way they felt they could tell players that they were in the Gears universe was to stick to certain architecture and varying levels of desaturated cityscape. Diablo III seems to be following another, more systemic route.

It’s a very simple game, and [you need to ] constantly vary what you throw at the player — big look changes in the environment, creature changes with different behavior. And not just behavior; we spent a lot of time trying to make creatures show up and die more interestingly. Because those are all the things that keep you going. Each one of those things is a reward. When you pull all the color out of the environment and you make it too homogeneous across the game, essentially what you’re doing is you’re pulling away the player’s reward of feeling like they’ve progressed because the area they’re in now looks like the area they were in 30 to 45 minutes ago.

So that’s one of the reasons why we really felt we had to do this. We had to move to an art style that had a lot more variety in it and was capable of a lot more.

Things like the contrast between player characters and the environment/enemies, the subtleties of the almost cartoonish models and texturing, and the consistent game elements (like treasure chests and monster closets) are all elements that help define the style while not restricting the kind of environments that can be created.

You know, not long ago I would have dismissed something like this. Why? Well, it’s certainly not applicable to the mechanics that make a game tick. It’s easy to think that this discussion of environment art lies outside the established boundaries of game design. I couldn’t have been more naive. Wilson mentions several times the playability problems the team had when the environment was drab enough that players lost track of their character. Much like how I imagine some designers would scoff at the idea of story influencing a game’s design, I would have ignored the importance of an art style that complemented and worked off of the game mechanics.

The blurry boundary that game design draws around itself is a bit unsettling for someone who likes to define their work, stick it into a comfy niche and tinker about. But the frightening reality is that design exists everywhere in game development, and the specific field of game design touches on all of them. It’s not necessary per se, but ensuring every element of a game is complementary and congruous is not only possible but a requirement if you want to make a great game. It’s those little things that you can’t quite place that are the results: animations that seem to suit the mechanics or that add depth rather than being purely aesthetic, the sound of a gunshot that enhances the feeling of firing a weapon and makes you want to do it again.

It makes sense then that Blizzard has been so successful; they are experts at finding those little things that work across disciplines, and they fill their games to the brim with them. To them, polishing a game doesn’t just mean spending more time to ensure quality (not crashing), it means adding more depth and connecting the visuals and sounds with the actions on-screen.

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