BY JOHN GAUDIOSI
PC gamers have been waiting over a decade for the latest adventure in Blizzard Entertainment’s bestselling dark fantasy action role-playing game (RPG) franchise, Diablo®. Now that Diablo III is coming out, some of the masterminds behind this epic new tale set in the world of Sanctuary are unveiling their development secrets and revealing how the latest Intel® technology played a role in bringing one of the big games of 2012 to life.
Jason Regier, lead programmer for Diablo III, said that Blizzard Entertainment is a gameplay-first company, so the development team’s goal at the outset was to improve the experience across all fronts. To achieve this, Regier said the studio put a lot of tech effort into improving its tools for fast iterations, which Blizzard believes leads to the creation of a better game. This means that designers and artists can quickly and easily see the results of their changes and design tweaks as they progress through the development process.
A Smart Partnership
According to Josh Doss, developer in the products division at Intel, the team at Blizzard used the Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers (Intel® GPA) as an intuitive way to analyze the performance characteristics of their game. The Intel GPA tools enabled developers to make experimental changes to the graphics layer to understand the performance impact without making changes to source code. The immediate benefits they achieved helped streamline the game’s graphics pipeline with little ramp-up time.
“Intel has done a good job of growing the feature set in ways that we need,” said Jay Patel, senior software engineer at Blizzard, “and they’ve been responsive to our requested changes. Even if the tools are not perfect on day one, I think we have confidence that they will get better with time so it’s worth our time to learn to use them.”
Doss received feedback that the Diablo III team was regularly using Intel’s tool for graphics performance analysis as well as for frame debugging. “From our understanding, this tool was helpful in performance tuning for Intel® HD Graphics, which is found in millions of mainstream PCs,” added Doss.
A lot has changed on the technology side since Diablo II launched in 2000, and with Diablo III, one of the tasks for Blizzard was to take its revered 2D game and bring it into the third dimension. Patel said the team experimented and iterated to find an art style that worked well in 3D, and the result is a look that is like walking into a painting. Each environment feels handcrafted.
“With the help of Intel’s integrated tools, our artists could focus on making beautiful art that’s superior to what they can do in 2D, while getting all the benefits of 3D,” said Regier. “We were able to eliminate the struggle of trying to shoehorn what they used to have into technology that couldn’t handle it.”
A Different Adventure Every Time
PC gamers who have the latest Intel® processor based PCs can explore the visually striking world of Sanctuary, with its expansive environments and stunning vistas. Players can enjoy something different every time they log in, thanks to environments that use procedural generation to vary the experience.
“It’s very challenging to make a game where the experience is partially random,” said Regier. “Randomness can actually result in generic, boring gameplay, so on the tools side, designers needed enough flexibility to make sure the gameplay remains interesting and fun for everybody, regardless of skill level. That was a challenging goal, but we worked on our internal tools so designers could simulate the different possibilities that can occur on different generated levels; they had the power to control the parameters and ensure they were creating engaging experiences.”
Character classes, each with their own back-stories, add another dimension to the game and complement the random levels. “We designed each character class to be iconic and unique,” said Patel. “For example, the wizard has an array of shiny special effects to sell that feeling of powerful magic spells.”
The team also focused on ensuring characters could physically interact with the game’s environments in cool and meaningful ways. They used rag dolls and built a custom physics engine that enables players to have unique and powerful experiences with each of the game’s classes. Patel said it was important for the barbarian character—the first class they designed—to be able to knock monsters across the screen with brute strength. These types of visceral displays of power contribute to the atmosphere of the game and serve as a great way to differentiate the classes.
The Creative Process
Blizzard employees are passionate PC gamers. Making sure each employee is passionate about the next project plays an important role in the development process, and Regier said the company often decides what games to make by asking the development teams what they want to work on next. In the past, teams have started game projects, reached a certain point, and then abandoned the project because the game was not fun. One of the driving forces is that each game must be something team members would be excited about playing once it’s completed.
For Diablo III, the team started by building the technology that served as the base for the game’s random environments. Then they took a single character, the barbarian, and focused on having him playable and able to run around in these environments. Patel said that once these pieces were in place and the barbarian could wander around the environments, beat down monsters, and get their loot, the team had a foundation to build upon. Tools were created that allowed the designers and artists to flesh out the world of Sanctuary.
It’s been great collaborating with Intel because we have the opportunity to get this hardware into our test labs and in front of QA so that they can spot problems early. We can work with Intel to figure out what those problems are and get them fixed before the game ships to players.”
— JAY PATEL, SENIOR SOFTWARE ENGINEER, BLIZZARD
“Our powerful internal tools were constantly evolving to allow our content creators to work efficiently and create things in a rough-sketch form within the game,” said Patel. “It’s a big deal for them to be able to iterate, even if it’s just getting a sketch of an idea playing in the game quickly. This isn’t something the end user sees, but they see the result of the polish from that technology.”
Collaboration Unleashes Ingenuity
Regier underscored the fact that making Diablo III was a collaborative effort. Essentially, the game started as a blank canvas, and designers and artists discussed what they’d like to see in the new game. Character classes were created through these types of sessions, in which everyone on the development team was able to provide input on what they’d like to see in a fun, playable character class.
“The demon-hunter character emerged because we wanted a ranged class, and we began to think about and discuss different avenues that a ranged class could take,” explained Regier. “We talked about the kind of feelings we wanted to evoke with these characters, and then the technical teams worked with artists to determine what kind of effects and shaders were needed to accomplish that goal.”
Iteration remained a key component throughout the development process, according to Patel. The team constantly tried different things to discover what worked best within the game—and what didn’t work at all. For example, Diablo III had depth-of-field for a test run, but it just didn’t accomplish the graphical goal that the team was going for. Patel said that different development teams talk regularly and exchange ideas and technology through brainstorming sessions, which allow elements in World of Warcraft™ to be influenced by Diablo II and Diablo III to be influenced by StarCraft® II.
As technology has advanced, the Diablo III team has been able to push the capabilities of the game, including its shader technology.
“When we started this project, we looked at then-current high-end hardware, knowing that this hardware would be standard in the future,” said Regier. “We looked at the machines used by our World of Warcraft players and evolved the technology to keep pace with what is out there.”
The developers do behind-the-scenes automated testing, which is supplemented with hands-on play testing by people inside and outside the company who tell the team whether the game experience feels right. The frame rate might be fine in some scenarios, but it might not create the best experience in the world. Blizzard’s QA team did a lot of spot-checking throughout the development process to ensure they could deliver a polished, high-quality experience to as many gamers as possible.
If we see people play in a way that we didn’t originally intend, we’ll go back and revisit that area.”
— JAY PATEL, SENIOR SOFTWARE ENGINEER, BLIZZARD
No Game is Shipped Before Its Time
Intel worked closely with Blizzard to provide prerelease hardware so the teams could get a leg up on the future of high-end and low-end PCs. Patel said developers always want to get their hands on new hardware as early as possible.
“It’s been great collaborating with Intel because we had the opportunity to get this hardware into our test labs and in front of QA so that they could spot problems early. We can work with Intel to figure out what those problems are and get them fixed before the game ships to players,” said Patel. “Intel did a good job of providing us with prerelease hardware in a usable state, which allowed us to start debugging the game so we could get a feel for what the performance would be like.”
Blizzard, which never ships a game until it’s ready, took the time to ensure Diablo III would meet everyone’s expectations. With gamers already waiting over a decade for the sequel, the lengthy beta-testing process gave the team a chance to test the game on hardware in the real world and get feedback from actual players. Patel said that in addition to the forum posts and beta feedback, last year’s BlizzCon 2011 allowed them to get input from the company’s most passionate players through surveys that enabled the team to make further adjustments to the gameplay experience.
“If we see people play in a way that we didn’t originally intend, we’ll go back and revisit that area,” said Patel. “For example, if there was confusion in one area of the game, we may add a new system to make up for that confusion. A lot of the fine-tuning came from these player experiences.”
The end result of the extensive testing is a game that will immerse players in Sanctuary like never before, updated to take advantage of the latest Intel® hardware on the market.
Both Patel and Regier continue to visit the world of Sanctuary even now after development and testing has completed. After all, they crafted a game that they want to play. And given Blizzard’s stellar track record, which includes recent hits like World of Warcraft: Cataclysm™ and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty™, plenty of other gamers around the world will want to play along with them.
About the Author
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for the past 19 years for media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNET, Wired magazine, and CBS.com. He has focused on the convergence of entertainment and video games for various publications, including The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, and Yahoo! Games. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of Gamerlive.tv and is a freelance game writer for RH+M3; GamePro, Rosebud, and Geek magazines; Forbes.com, IGN.com, and Gamespot.com.
An Always-Connected Experience
Diablo® III is the first game in the franchise’s history that provides an always connected online experience. Players of Diablo II invested time building up characters in the offline game only to find they had to start from scratch in the online game—an issue the Blizzard team wanted to correct.
“With Diablo II we had two separate ecosystems for players—the online and the offline play—and it was really important for us to keep the online environment secured to prevent people from cheating,” said Jason Regier, lead programmer for Diablo III. “But to keep that online environment secure in Diablo II, we had to prevent players from transferring offline characters to the online experience.”
For Diablo III, the solution was to blur the lines between the single-player experience and the multi-player experience. It’s now easy for players to play the game alone or jump in when they see friends online playing. Players are always connected to Battle.net— and all of the benefits it provides.
The development team also improved the mechanics of picking up loot. In Diablo II, whenever someone killed a monster, a free for- all would ensue to seek out the loot that the creature left behind. In Diablo III, loot is generated separately for each player, and they can pick it up and keep it or trade it with their friends at their leisure.
“We examined the little things—top to bottom—to give everybody a better, more complete online experience,” said Regier. “I’m really happy with what we’ve got in there now.”
Rounding out the online features, Blizzard introduced an auction-house system, which now makes the trading of in-game virtual goods easier. In addition to being able to trade items with other players virtually, gamers have the option to sell virtual goods to other players for real-world cash, giving players another way to build up characters and collect items.
Designed for the Full Spectrum of PCs
These days, there’s a full range of PC gamers out there. Some play at home on high-end gaming rigs, while others are traveling and game on laptops while on the road or at school. Blizzard Entertainment worked with Intel to ensure that Diablo® III provides the same rich gameplay experience to players regardless of their entry point into the world of Sanctuary.
“Hardware is so much better now than it was a few years ago; it allows effects that weren’t possible before—and it allows them everywhere,” said Jay Patel, senior software engineer at Blizzard. “One of the important things for us was to ensure the game scales in terms of higher resolution. For frame rate, we want a game on a laptop to look similar to the same game on a desktop, but appropriately scaled.”
Jason Regier, lead programmer for Diablo III, said that there’s not a huge discrepancy between the low end and the high end in Blizzard products and that’s intentional. “Our programmers work with the art team to make sure everybody gets an awesome experience,” said Regier. “We focus on what the majority of people have for hardware and we build around that.”
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