By Gus Mastrapa
Lead technical artist Julian Love is a nine-year Blizzard veteran. He’s been working on Diablo III almost as long as fans have been waiting for the game. We spoke to Love about the long-gestating project, Blizzard’s approach to making games and the role of the technical artist in development.
Gus Mastrapa: What has your role been in the development of Diablo III?
Julian Love: I lead the technical art team, which wears many hats and has a kind of broad effect across the entire game. We collaborate with pretty much every department, sometimes in a support role. For instance, we support the background artists in terms of being able to develop the backgrounds, and the character artists and the animators. We also work very collaboratively with the design team and programming departments in order to create the skills and skill system.
G.M.: Can you describe the job of the technical artist?
J.L.: We’re a collection of artists that also have a better grasp on the technical side. We’re not afraid of programming or programmers. We understand how the engines work and can guide the programmers in terms of helping them understand what the artists need.
So in that sense, it’s a bridging role between art and programming. But in our team, it’s also a bridging role between art and design. We can see both sides of things -- the programming side and the art side. And sometimes that’s the view that you need to find out how to actually get where you want to go.
G.M.: Is usability frequently part of the discussion? Does game design come into the equation for you?
J.L.: Sure. Combat is what we work on, and most of the effects in the game. Most of the role of effects in all games is to spell out the mechanics of the gameplay. That’s the first rule.
We’re not just there to make cool explosions and zombie barf. We do that. But the area that the zombie barf paints when it hits the ground is significant. It’s not just any zombie barf. Sure, I get to pick what kind of chunks I want to go in there. But, you know, it’s got to show, “This is what’s going to happen and it is in this big of an area.” And we have to serve the design first in order for it to feel right and be successful. So that isn’t going to happen unless we’re really big fans of game design. And that we’re really tied in and connected with that department to a high degree.
G.M.: It must be tricky to make sense of all the stuff happening onscreen when you have multiple players and monsters all casting spells. Do you have a chart that says what kind of spell gets what kind of color?
J.L.: It’s actually a little more driven by concept. And the concept, in turn, does tend to allow us to have the kind of separation you’re talking about.
So when we sit down and design a class, we do talk at a really high level about what kind of themes we want to evoke with that class. And inevitably, there are certain color schemes that come out of that. And so we do end up with a little bit of a mental chart of colors that we would rather not have associated with a certain class. It’s kind of tough when you’re making runes -- like a 150-some-odd skills per class -- to avoid every color. But we do tend to exercise a certain amount of avoidance.
G.M.: So the Witch Doctor is going to tend toward green or yellow.
J.L.: But because of his themes more so than anything else. He’s going to be throwing bugs and frogs and stuff like that at you. So that does kind of indicate a certain color thematic -- like acid cloud and those kinds of things. He’s got this big voodoo vibe, and so fire, poison and those kinds of things really feel like they belong strongly to him.
And when it came to something like the wizard, we are looking at it from a different angle -- this sort of cosmic magic theme. We wanted to make arcane feel ancient and powerful, so we kind of pick cosmic themes. And that led us to a lot of yellow and purple combinations. And blue lightning-type combinations. That allows us to get some separation both in terms of color and shape.
G.M.: Is there a kind of flow between the teams where lessons are shared? How does that information exchange work?
J.L.: We look at games outside of Blizzard and lift things and we riff off of that stuff. It’s all good content. And we look at games inside Blizzard: World of Warcraft lifted a lot of stuff from Diablo in its design. And then they went and changed it and learned a bunch of lessons about it. And we look at that: “OK, what did you learn?” We borrow a little bit from that. There definitely is a lot of cross-team collaboration and discussion that goes on. And a lot of lessons learned that we can take advantage of.
G.M.: I’m curious how that information flows through the company. Is there a meeting?
J.L.: There are those kinds of meetings. Within one discipline, the technical art leads and the technical artists meet on a regular basis to talk about what each of the teams are doing.
But I’ll tell you the way that it happens more often than that. We’re all huge fans of our own games. We all play the crap out of our own games. I play WoW. We all play it. And we all check out the cool stuff that they did. And we all get excited: “Oh, wow, they made this better. This feels cool. And I like how they treated the art in this area.” We get excited about it, and that stuff comes over to our team and vice versa.
We also have newsletters that go out once a month or once a week where we highlight what each of the teams are working on so we can kind of stay on top of new developments and even trade little secrets about technology or approaches.
Gus Mastrapa is a freelance writer from Apple Valley, Calif., with nearly 10 years of experience in the games industry. His work has appeared in Wired, Edge, Variety and countless online publications. He is a frequent contributor to Digital Innovation Gazette.