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Diablo Down Under: A Q&A With The Lead Character Designer of Reaper of Souls
The long-awaited first expansion pack for Diablo 3 is mere days away now and excitement for Reaper of Souls is reaching an all time high. To celebrate the occasion, the Australian branch of Blizzard recently held a Reaper of Souls launch event and Leviathyn was lucky enough to snag an invite and attend the event.
While the biggest announcement of the night was definitely the launch of the Australian Diablo 3 servers, it wasn’t the only surprise of the night with attendees of the event not only able to get their hands on the new expansion but also receiving a free copy of the collector’s edition of Reaper of Souls. That said, the centerpiece of the night was definitely the presentation and Q&A with the lead character designer of the game, Paul Warzecha.
Warzecha opened with a talk and demonstration that gave us an awesome look into the internal process of character design that brings gamers not just the heroes of sanctuary but also the many villains and monsters that inhabit it. He then went on to answer a number of questions from the audience as well as the Australian Diablo 3 community at large.
The first question that came up asked Warzecha a bit about his role as Lead Character Designer and what his favorite contribution since joining the Diablo 3 team in 2008 had been. Warzecha confessed that while “It’s hard to say a specific character but I will say that because I do lead the team I don’t necessarily have as much time to work on all but the really small things – so it’ll be things like the piranhas for the Witch Doctor that I work on.”
He went on to reveal that he considers the iconic Witch Doctor frogs of Diablo 3 to be his “opus” and that indicated that while the turnaround from being asked by Julien Lefebvre (Senior Environment Artist on Diablo 3) to put together some frogs and them finding their way into the game was “super-fast” it was also very rewarding. He finished up by saying “I have done some cool stuff – things like the leaper angels from Pandemonium Fortress. I had a lot of fun creating those characters and that was something that I created from scratch based on concept art by Sojin Hwang (Concept Artist on Diablo 3).”
The next question that came up concerned the expansion’s new playable character class, the Crusader. Warzecha was asked about his experiences working on the character and how Blizzard approached trying to find a character that followed up on the legacy of Diablo 2’s Paladin whilst also creating a character that didn’t feel like the team was retreading old territory. Warzecha said that “It’s interesting because obviously the Crusader has a lot of shared skills with the Paladin. and there’s definitely some of that same flavor, but it’s funny because we didn’t really look at the Paladin that much – there were more nods to it.”
He pointed to the Blessed Hammer ability as an example of this and went on to elaborate by saying “with the crusader we kept coming back to this knight in battle-scarred armor, this siege tank, this living war machine, so a lot of the design really got behind that thought. It came down to the heavy metal armor, it came down to the tabard, it came down to the sigils – there was a little bit of a religious overtone combined with a militant overtone and I think that was where it really came together.”
Following this, Warzecha was asked to elaborate on the concept of the ‘Monster Strike Team’ (something he talked about during his presentation). He explained that “The strike team was a group of folks – we took someone from every discipline and we would get together several times a week and we would look at the monsters that were coming together.” He argued the value in this unique approach to the game’s design and went on to say that “because you had someone from every discipline you could have someone from sound pipe come in and suggest ‘rather than a visual tell you could have an audio cue here’ – everybody could contribute on that level and it was really helpful because you got the best of everybody’s stuff. It was like going to the grocery store and letting everyone pick what they like.”
Blizzard has always been a company that takes a very multi-pronged approach when it comes to building hype for its games and the Westmarch Bestiary on the Reaper of Souls website is a good example of this. In the lead up to the game, Blizzard have been pulling the curtains back on some of the cool new monsters that players will face in the game and the next question asked Warzecha about where in the design process the lore and descriptions for these creatures fell. Warzecha’s answer was very upfront: “the descriptions as you see them definitely came after,” and went on to say that pieces of those description are sometimes used to pitch the monster in the first place. He elaborated on this by explaining that “because there might be things that come out of the story that don’t necessarily drive gameplay and we’re always about gameplay first.”
It was at this point Warzecha took a moment to briefly talk about the Book of Tyrael – a tie-in book for the game that featured detailed lore and art that fans will sure to love. He expressed his high opinion of the book and said that “it’s phenomenal and Doug Alexander and Matt Burns put it together with just a ton of phenomenal talent from around the world – it just came together so well. I mean, I love the Book of Cain but the Book of Tyrael took it to another level.”
Next up, Warzecha was asked about the challenges that the team faced with Reaper of Souls given that the expansion firmly sets an angel as the antagonist for the story whereas Diablo as a series has always been about slaying demons. He responded by saying that “we wanted it to be clear in their kits. So they’re fierce like Malthael’s minions, they got this ethereal treatment, they share some of the design language with Malthael’s crew and like I mentioned earlier we definitely struggled earlier with what an angel is and what does that visually mean – and ultimately, I think we kinda got on the same page and it is what it is.”
Warzecha was also asked what his favorite monster design that didn’t make the cut was and he responded by taking the time to tell us the tale of what he called ‘The Bogodile.’ He began by explaining that “this is probably my favorite thing that did make it in, then didn’t make it in and then ultimately ended up being a skill”. Regarding the monster’s origins he said that “we were looking at some of the monsters and were thinking ‘We need something like the sand-shark’ and the tricky thing with the sand-shark is that he’s so long in our game when he pivots he looks a little…funky in some of his animations, and the thing is that as we built the story and out he was going to go in the bog and it was a crocodile type character and we called it The Bogodile. We put it in and were like – this is stupid.”
“We have this spot called our monster wall and we have a section on it called limbo for characters that just didn’t cut it – characters that went far enough that there’s a model but they’re just not in the game.” According to Warzecha, the Bogodile lived in limbo for some time until he was approached by Julien Lefebvre to put together some piranha skills for the Witch Doctor. Warzecha says that when Julien asked him to create a massive piranha for the game he responded with the suggestion that they use The Bogodile instead. “So we retooled his skills and now you have a Bogodile that jumps out of the water and swallows enemies whole.”
As mentioned before, Reaper of Souls is a significant departure for the Diablo series when it comes to players facing off against both angels and demons and the next question asked Warzecha about how tricky it was to balance the essence of the Diablo series alongside that innovation. Warzecha responded by saying “It’s interesting because when you look at Reaper I feel like we’ve been pretty successful and it’s come back to that darker vibe. I know for me when I came to Blizzard I was just a fan of Diablo myself.”
He went on to say that “knowing and having that history and hitting back on that was really important to us [in order] to get that dark vibe – that concept of angels and demons.” He elaborated by saying that “there’s a lot of lore that I geek out on but as far as keeping homed in on what that vibe was it was a case of setting those big pillars. Those big things like when you can say ‘Haunted Apocalypse’ and everyone’s got a similar idea in their heads and even if they miss it they’re gonna come close and it organically becomes what it becomes. Again, as long as people are feeling really good about where it’s headed, I think we all have a good sense of what Diablo should be.”
The next question brought the discussion back around to the Crusader and whether or not there were any other contenders when it came to the new class that the expansion was set to add. According to Warzecha, the Crusader was a class that the team was playing with the idea of since long before the release of Diablo 3. Warzecha explained that “it’s been in the back of our minds for so long so there weren’t any super-hot contenders.” He wrapped up his response by stating that “the niche that needed to be filled for Reaper of Souls was definitely the Crusader.”
Given the strong response that the audience had towards Warzecha’s earlier story about The Bogodile, a follow-up was inevitable and the next question asked Warzecha whether there were any other absurd or hilarious monster designs that didn’t make it into the final game. He responded by first describing a creature that Victor Lee (the Game’s Lead Concept Artist) had put together as “the body of a dude with a growth that comes out of it and it’s so big and massive that you can’t really tell what the front end of it is. It walks along and it’s just dragging this body behind it and it’s just really messed up. The thing was sculpted beautifully, painted beautifully, but it’s just so weird we were like ‘I don’t even know where this goes in the game.’”
The other creature that he discussed was one created by Christian Lichtner (The Game’s Art Director). Warzecha captured the simple yet horrifying nature of the beast by saying “essentially it’s a giant head that has arms growing out of its eyeballs and it just kinda claws itself across the ground. It attacks you by swinging its arms at you and it’s just the most insane thing.”
The penultimate question of the Q&A asked Warzecha about the regions of the Sanctuary that players will get to explore with Reaper of Souls and whether there were any other locations for the expansion that ended up being cut from the game. Warzecha explained that while the city of Westmarch is definitely a central part of the expansion, Reaper of Souls does offer quite a breadth of environments for players to experience. He outlined their journey as one that “takes you from Westmarch, through the Bloodmarsh, under the Bloodmarsh through the Tomb of Rakkis. You come back out, work your way through the Battlefields of Eternity and then work your way into Pandemonium Fortress.”
He briefly touched on the Battlefield of Eternity describing it as “this forgotten battlefield where angels and demons have been fighting back and forth for years and all the carnage that had occurred there is kind of decaying and losing itself in this surreal space. It’s probably the most alien of space we’ve seen in the Diablo universe.” He continued about the expansion’s final area saying “Pandemonium Fortress is this fortress that has been battled back and forth over the millennium between angels and demons. So you’ve got cases where the angels built something and the demons corrupted it and the demons did things to this place that the angels tried to build on top of. You have this back and forth and again this kind of surreal space, but it was a cool build-up to where you finally meet Malthael.”
The last question of the night’s Q&A tackled the question of when it comes to character designs, who comes first – the character design team or Blizzard’s world-renowned cinematic department. Warzecha said that “It’s really back and forth with certain things” and that “when we build stuff in game we have to push proportions to make everything readable from gamecam, so I took that stuff and definitely took some liberties with the stuff that he had done. The winged demons that kinda fly in and fight you in Act III were another one that started with cinematics. Now in the case of Malthael, they definitely need a lot of modelling time because they’re putting in such a level of detail but that had to fit in with what we wanted to do with our in-game work so there was a lot more hurling back and forth.” He wrapped up the Q&A by saying that “usually it leans on the side of cinematics but it always serves the gameplay.”
Following the Q&A itself, I caught up with Warzecha to ask an exclusive question of my own about the Reaper of Souls and how it plays into the series’ visual identity:
One of my favorite things about Diablo is that the series has this great gothic aesthetic with a lot of scope to it. Diablo is a series that expands and looks at the ideas and themes of the gothic in different settings like Act II’s deserts and the colder climates of Act III. What does Act V bring to the table in regards to this visual and thematic identity? Are there any new directions or ideas that Reaper of Souls explores?
Warzecha’s response was a good one that gives me high hopes for Reaper of Souls. “We definitely went back to looking at medieval architecture and all the Westmarch stuff has that flavor. That same feel where you can practically smell it as you’re walking through these alleys. I made a trip to Europe actually well over a year ago and just took pictures of everything. We went down the alleys and took pictures and stuff and brought a lot of that sort stuff into Act V to try and capture that. We took a look at a lot of, not the pre-renaissance stuff, but more 1200s and 1300s - what does the stained glass look like – and we bring some of our own sensibilities that are more dynamic into it but it’s still that vibe.”
It was an incredible night and a big thanks goes out to the whole Sydney Blizzard team for hosting the event. A special thanks also has to go out to Paul Warzecha for coming all the way down to Australia to attend and give the audience a great insight into Blizzard’s internal design process. The term ‘Mini-Blizzcon’ was thrown around a few times over the course of the night and there’s definitely much to be said of the enthusiast atmosphere and Blizzard fanfare that permeated the event.
The announcement of Australian servers and free collector’s editions that they gave out were just icing on the cake compared to the experience of getting to hang out and talk with the people behind such an impressive developer. Blizzard’s Sydney team threw a hell of an event and I hope I’ll be lucky enough to be invited to their next one. In the meantime however, I’ll just have to hack and slash my way through the horrors of Westmarch in Reaper of Souls and feeding my Hearthstone-addiction.