INTERVIEW: Creating Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

Paul Warzecha has the sort of job that artistic kids dream about. He is, officially, a Lead Character Artist at Blizzard, working on Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. To put it another way, he creates monsters for a living. Happily, he loves every minute of it.

I get to take some of those grounded, real-world elements, with influences from history, and bring that forward in a fantastic world – I get to amp it up and take it to the next level.

You get that dark, Gothic vibe when you run through Westmarch, but I get to push things over the top a little bit, and just make them that much more cool.

Of course, Warzecha is one part of a team that specialises in taking relatively sensible elements and blending them into one fantastic outcome, and he’s quick to point out that – generally – creating a new character class, monster or boss really is a group effort.

Warzecha explains:

Usually once we’ve got stuff down that we like, we’ll get together with our monster strike team. We’ve got somebody in from every different discipline, we’ll have a designer and we’ll have somebody from story in there who can kinda help shape that from that aspect. We’ll hit back and forth on [the character idea] until we’re all pretty happy with stuff.

But! The process can vary – considerably – depending on just which monsters are on the proverbial drawing board that day. Inspiration can strike from anywhere, says Warzecha. Sometimes, that lightning will spark something in the writing department, leading the lore nerds to draft out a description of a monster that fits the story perfectly. Other times, it will land squarely at the artists’ table, prompting creative drawings and sculptures that then need to be woven back into the history of Sanctuary. Still other times (like with the new character class, the Crusader, introduced in Reaper of Souls) it’s a matter of an obvious niche appearing in the game, even if that niche is purely cosmetic. “There was nobody of that silhouette in Westmarch,” we’re told, matter-of-factly.

[Sometimes] you come up with something that’s just So Cool that we’re just like “Y’know what? We’ve got to build this”. Then, we’ll sit with story – “Hey, this is what we were thinking, is there a way to work this into lore?”, because #1: It’s just cool; and #2: Maybe it works for gameplay in a way that it fills a void that needed to be filled.

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It’s not just a matter of creating terrific monsters and animating the undead, however. Warzecha says the offices were full of nearly biological conversations when discussing Malthael, the brand new boss for Reaper of Souls.

A lot of characters in Reaper of Souls are really based around supporting the story, so you’ve got Malthael that comes down, and what are the creatures that he’s going to bring with him? He’s going to bring fallen angels, and he’s going to bring corrupted beings where souls have taken over bodies. What does that look like, when an angel falls and becomes something uniquely terrible?

While this might sound like it’s treading a path awfully close to an organised religion or two, Warzecha is quick to point out that the team at Blizzard is happy to distance itself from “real, practised religion”. That’s not to say the studio doesn’t draw inspiration from any number of mythologies that exist in the world as we know it, but the finished product is quite well removed from all of them.

“That’s why Sanctuary is Sanctuary,” he says – the developers, writers, artists and designers aren’t limited by any real-world doctrines and can instead enjoy a free rein over the world. A virtual free rein, that is – Warzecha explains that sometimes, something that might sound really great and look really cool just doesn’t work in the game… but sometimes, it really can be a case of style over substance, where the story takes second place.

Something we talk a lot about at work is the concept of gameplay first. It’s just one of the core components of every Blizzard game and the thing is that every one of these characters that we make – every character, every environment that you make – the whole point of it is to make sure that it supports gameplay. Sometimes, even the lore will take a backseat to “Y’know what? We don’t want to sit around and listen to a lot of exposition, can we tell the story in a way that is just easier?”

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It’s a careful balance, trying to make sure that the monsters (and characters) fit into the world of Sanctuary. They have to look amazing, fit into the storyline and be fun to play. Which one of those three points is more important? Warzecha doesn’t seem to know. Gameplay might come first, but whether the story or the look comes second seems to be a little up in the air.

Warzecha’s favourite character is Urzael, the first mini-boss in Reaper of Souls:

He was a character who is a lieutenant of Malthael, he’s just this big, brutish fallen angel. He was a cool character because there was a lot of talk about what it meant to be an angel, what is it when you are a corrupt angel… He was a character that came together so cool-ly and Victor Lee, our lead concept Artist, came up with such awesome images of this character that everybody, right out of the gate, looked at the thing and said “that is super-cool”.

Reaper of Souls, the first expansion set for Diablo III is available right now for PC/Mac – and remember, Blizzard has finally launched Australian servers for the game, in a move that has delighted local gamers.

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