esurgence as of late. From the popularity of Torchlight on Xbox Live Arcade, to all those little Diablo clones popping up in the iPhone’s App store, dungeon-crawling fans have had ample opportunity to loot, level and lay the smack-down on oversized rats. Higher profile titles, like fresh takes on classic formulas (Dungeon Siege III) and brand-new heirs to the hacking-and-slashing throne (Lord of the Rings: War in the North) will soon see the genre taking center stage in a generation that’s been more interested in pulling triggers than swinging swords.
Of course, the undisputed granddaddy of the genre, Diablo, is also set to make its return--maybe even by the end of the year. We recently caught up with one of the keepers of Diablo III‘s kingdom, Lead Content Designer Kevin Martens, to discuss what players can expect from their next trip to the dark fantasy world of Sanctuary. While Martens was expectedly cryptic about the title’s release date and rumored console port (even under the threat of our Berserker Sword, he refused to give up the goods), he did provide plenty of insight on the state of the genre, its place in today’s frag-obsessed market and, yes, even some details on the game itself.
AtomicGamer: So why do you think we haven’t seen many triple-A action RPGs this generation?
Kevin Martens: Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on. Firstly, the action and RPG genres are bleeding together a lot more than they used to. You have games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that’s a good example of a great RPG that also has good action systems. Furthermore, a lot of action games are adding RPG elements as well, likeBioShock. One of my favorite RPG games of the previous generation was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That had really compelling RPG stuff, but was marketed and sold and seen as an action game. So that one element of it is that the two genres are sharing a lot more things together. RPGs are inherently compelling in their level-up systems and character customization ability, etc., so that stuff is coming into action play. Now, if we’re going to talk specifically about action-RPG, the genre mold of Diablo, I think it’s really a game that’s randomized like that, it has a bunch of different classes. Those games are just really hard to make. Diablo II was a king of that genre, and it’s still for sale everywhere over 10 years later.
AG: Yes, even after all these years people keep coming back to it. What do you think the appeal of the genre is?
KM: I think one of the best things is the low barrier of entry for games like these. By having that action front end, in the case of Diablo, you just start clicking on things. It’s not that complex. You have a couple of simple powers and a potion and so on. It’s not that hard to understand how to play them. Many more people are willing to try them when they have sort of an action feel to them. I think that some people are scared to try certain RPGs because they come across as really complex or confusing.
I think that’s why action tends to be an easier genre than RPG, so by merging the action gameplay and then taking all the elements of RPG, like map customization, randomness, etc., we have found this thing is still enduring. That’s why something like Diablo II, with all the polish put on it, when you add all that up, that’s why it’s played 11 years later.
AG: Do you feel this decade-old formula is enough to appease today’s gamers? What does the Diablo franchise need to do to appeal to this generation, aside from offering what the series has already done so well?
KM: In that sense, we’re really going to make a lot of improvements to a lot of different systems. The main thing is that, as you said, there’s not a lot of games in this type of genre, this type of action-RPG genre. If we deliver a really compelling re-playable game like this and we do it with a newer engine, but we keep the system specs low, and we couple it with something like our new Battle.net experience, which makes it widely accessible and very easy to play with your friends, you know, that strong co-op multiplayer element, it’s hard to see how people aren’t going to love this game.
AG: Can you talk about some of the more defining features Diablo III is bringing to the series?
KM: The first thing of all the new stuff that we can talk about is that of the five classes we have, four are brand new to the universe. They have a lot of new play styles involved with that. Furthermore, when you have all these classes, there’s a lot of diversity, not just which powers you choose or which type of wizard you’re going to be, but whether you’re going to go with disintegration, fire, etc. But even within those, we have this system called “runes”, where you can take these powers and do just crazy stuff with them. You can take a witchdoctor power called “Plague of Toads“, and turn you into a giant toad. It literally swallows the enemy and spits out the gold inside of them and so on. So the customization is extraordinarily huge. It’s astonishingly re-playable. We have a lot more areas of the world that no one has seen before, so we’re changing the universe. The quest system itself is way better; the quest and the stories are much deeper and probably more re-playable than Diablo II as well. So that’s some of the new things that we’ve done. Additionally, I think that the co-op multiplayer is better than ever; Battle.net is going to become the new standard for multiplayer systems online.
AG: A lot of gamers will be introduced to Diablo for the first time with Diablo III. Is Blizzard looking to expand its audience and introduce Diablo to new players, or are you satisfied just to please the hardcore guys who have been with you since the beginning?
KM: I think there’s elements of both. We try to keep the barrier to entry really low from every angle. We try to keep the system specs as low as possible. You don’t have to buy a new computer to play the game. We want all people to be able to play it. So, first, it’s successful that lots of people can play it. After that, we make the barrier to entry when you start playing it very low. All Blizzard games have a very good system of rounding up the complexity. When you first start playing, everything is very simple. The playability and all the options…they can gain from the systems as much as they want
AG: What would you say really separates Diablo III from other upcoming games in the genre?
KM: I think, primarily, the randomness. So the fact that we have random dungeons, random monsters, random loops, pretty much random everything. Every time you go around a corner in a dungeon, you don’t know if you’re going to see a brand new quest that you’ve never seen before. You might see the same monster, but with totally new powers. You might see a totally different monster. That aspect of it is one of the things that Diablo is most well-known for, and I think that we do that better than anyone. I think that’s the feather in our cap, that and Battle.net. A lot of RPGs, unfortunately, don’t even have co-op at all; as a huge co-op player myself, it’s always disappointing when they don’t, but it’s really hard to do. We built this game from the ground up with co-op in mind. That is just as important as any other element of the game because that’s one that has to be seamless. You can be playing along in your single-player game, and at any time, your friends can join and they can drop out. All of that should be really easy for both them and you to be able to handle. A game should very elegantly handle the addition of new players and level of difficulty.
AG: In terms of the engine the game is built on and what it can do as far as visuals and special effects, are players going to see a real boost over Diablo II?
KM: Yes. You know, when we first started making the game, we tried a lot of different experiments with changing the camera angle and everything from first person to different zoom-ins and so on. We ended up keeping this old school Diablo II-style isometric camera because we found out very quickly that this was so integral to the way the game felt and played, and we wanted to keep that. So I think we’ve got a really neat and retro-cool thing going on here that we can push the video cards and everything and have a lot of fancy features with the higher-end cards, but it’s part of our policy to lower system specs as much as possible. When you have everything at the lowest setting, and you mix that with these hand-painted textures that we have, it looks like a painting that’s come to life. I think that’s a great way to avoid looking old. It looks retro-cool instead of old school.
AG: Speaking of the camera angle, other updated action RPGs, specifically the upcomingDungeon Siege III, are offering two options, an isometric and an over-the-shoulder view. Did you guys ever consider doing something similar?
KM: We tried, but honestly, everyone will find that the game plays differently with different camera angles. If you want to experience something as highly polished as we want to put out there, you’ve got to pick one or the other to do a fabulous job with it because everything is tweaked to that angle. The challenge for us was picking the right one. In Diablo II, the isometric view was definitely the right choice. We are making sure that every move and ability and every strategic, tactical decision you make works perfectly with that camera. A second camera angle makes everything play differently.
AG: Is there anything specifically from Diablo II that the team felt needed improvement and wanted to tweak for Diablo III?
KM: The questing and story. I think we’ve added way more quests, more variety of quests. We’ve randomized the quests, and have these sort of quests that are self contained. For example, if you enter a dungeon in Diablo III, there might be somebody standing at the entrance, like a treasure hunter, saying, “Hey, I heard stories about the Idol of Rygnar is hidden somewhere in this dungeon. Help me find it and you can share in the reward.” Then you go through the dungeon and protect this guy. Then you’ll find the idol and you’ll get the reward. People will turn on you…you’re never quite sure what is going to happen. We’re adding all those random elements all over the world. There is way more quest content overall than Diablo II, period. Also, I think we wanted to do a much better job on the storytelling aspects, not just the cinematics, which are fantastic, but also in the storytelling itself, like more twists and turns, more interesting quests, more variety of experiences. That’s what we spent a lot of time on, and making the co-op nature of it better as well.
AG: What do you guys think of all the popular “Diablo clones”, such as the Dungeon Hunter and Underworlds series, finding success on the iPhone?
KM: A lot of us play iPhone games. The most common time iPhone games are played here at Blizzard is when you’re waiting in a meeting for someone more important than you to arrive…everybody on the team is pulling out their iPhones and playing some game, whether it be Angry Birds or something hardcore like Dungeon Hunter or Hero of Sparta. I think some of those games that have evolved from Diablo are very flattering.
AG: Do you see a Diablo spin-off coming to the iPhone or iPad? I mean, it’s a popular platform right now, and guys like id are putting stuff on there. Would you ever consider this?
KM: Yes, that would be cool, but I think we have a big enough challenge just gettingDiablo III out right now. We are exploring options of moving a Diablo-style game onto consoles. We’re looking for console people right now to see if that’s feasible, but we just want to make the best Diablo PC game right now.
AG: What are the chances we’ll actually see Diablo III on consoles in the near future?
KM: We’re definitely looking into it. We’re seriously considering it. I would say that the whole system specs thing is one of the cool things about Blizzard. You’re always hearing in interviews with us about the death of the PC gaming. We’re always like, “What death?” I think one part of that secret…you know, quality and polish and all of that as well…but part of that is keeping the system specs low. Everybody had a PC, even if they just use it for nothing but e-mail and web surfing. Almost everyone has one, so we do have a pretty giant install base. That said, gaming systems like Xbox and PS3 and so on… Diablo is one of the more natural hits for a Blizzard title to go on those, so I think that’s why we are looking at it pretty seriously.
AG: Okay, I have to ask: Are you still shooting for a 2011 release for Diablo III on PC?
KM: Yes, we haven’t announced a date yet, and the standard answer always applies, which is “It’s ready when it’s ready.”
Thanks to Blizzard’s Kevin Martens for stealing some precious development time from one of 2011’s--but probably 2012’s--most anticipated titles to sit down and talk with us.