[Blizzard designer Leonard Boyarsky talks to Gamasutra about the process of expanding the Diablo universe significantly with the third installment of the series, talking about what has both worked and what has not.]
Tackling mammoth expectations while building a world for a highly-anticipated sequel would be daunting for most game designers. Thankfully, Leonard Boyarsky isn’t just any designer. With nearly 20 years in the industry, Boyarsky’s career encompasses several PC cult classics, including art direction for Fallout and Fallout 2 at Interplay, as well as Arcanum and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines during his helm as CEO and co-founder of Troika Games.
After Troika’s demise, Boyarsky joined Blizzard in 2006, where he’s been hard at work as Diablo III‘s game world designer. He has integrated his years of know-how into crafting a game that evokes the feel of its predecessors while driving a more plot-focused experience.
In this interview, Boyarsky details the experience of working on a title with lofty expectations, infusing Diablo III with more back story, and scrapped iterations of the game on its long journey from concept to product.
What’s challenging about going from wholesale crafting an aesthetic — as you did in Fallout — to working within a certain set of expectations?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well, it’s really just interesting to come in and work with an established franchise, but a lot of the process is the same: trying to find interesting ways to explore the story, to develop the universe.
I think the most interesting thing about the Diablo universe is just that there’s so much richness to it that hadn’t been really explored.
So, I think that’s the way I approached it, looking at what we could do with this universe that really hasn’t been exploited. [VP of creative development] Chris Metzen was really on board with that because he really had a lot of ideas and a lot of things that he wanted to see in the series that hadn’t been brought to the forefront. So, it’s been a very creative process. It’s been very challenging but enriching at the same time.
Can you provide some examples of elements within the Diablo lore in which there were gaps for you to expand upon?
LB: Well, I think they had a lot of ideas — like Chris was talking about [during the Diablo III presentation preceding this interview], the battle between Heaven and Hell, and all that stuff — where they kind of touched on some of that stuff, but they didn’t really explore it.
A perfect example is like Deckard Cain, you know. He identified your items, and he threw out a bit of lore for you in the first two games, but you know, we’ve give him this extra depth that we feel like he should’ve been able to see… if he had taken the Horadric teaching a little more seriously earlier on, he could have avoided what happened during Diablo. Kind of giving him a little more depth as a character, we feel.
And it’s a different time in terms of game-making. You know, we want the characters to be deeper. We want them to have more realistic motivations, I guess you’d say, have reasons for what they’re doing, and feel like they have a background and history to them.
In your long career of working on different franchises from Fallout to working with Vampire: The Masquerade, you’ve definitely dealt with very passionate, vocal fans. Would you say that’s given you thicker skin for coming into Diablo III?
LB: [laughs] Yes. You would definitely have to have thick skin, because there’s always going to be people who don’t like what you’ve done or are objecting to your latest decisions. So, you get used to it after a while. Try not to take it too [personally]…
It’s a double-edged sword because it’s very helpful to hear what people have to say, how people see things and what people want to see from a franchise, whether it’s one that you created or whether it’s one that you’re carrying on.
It’s not to say that we always have to blindly follow what the fans want, but it’s nice to know what the fans are looking for, if that makes sense. [It’s important to know] what people are expecting, what people are looking for, the questions that they feel that they need to have answers to. Because if you don’t deliver on at least some of those things, then you’ve kind of failed.