Atomic gets to grips with the Monk thanks to Lead World Designer Leonard Boyarsky and art director Christian Lichtner.
Tell us about the Monk, how did you decide to include this type of class in Diablo III?
CL: I'll talk about skills first because that's kind of how we came at it. We really were looking for another class that would be melee, we already had the Barb and that obviously is melee but the Barb is a little more of a tank in that regard, it has a fury skill system which is awesome. But we were looking for something that was a little more fast-paced and a little more like a martial artist. The Monk really filled that role for us. It also had a combo system, so it's awesome from that point of view; we were a bit inspired by fighting games and martial arts movies. And it's a really fun class because it's so different from the Barb, you know if you want to have melee, you have the best of both worlds here.
And yet he still has access to magic through the rune system.
CL: Yes, he's a holy warrior so in a lot of ways he'll be using powers that are cleansing, fighting demons. He's really coming at it from the view of ridding the world of demonic forces.
How does he fit into the lore of the Diablo world?
LB: He comes from a place called Ivgorod, you know when we started looking at a story about a monk we didn't want to just have what would be considered the standard monk. At Blizzard we love to put a little twist on things and do things a little bit differently. So we thought it would be interesting to take some kind of 13th century ... well not factual, but some kind of Eastern European 13th century monk and combine it with the more Eastern style; not only in terms of the look but also in terms of the philosophical. So he has the Eastern philosophy integrated into him, the movement has a lot to do with life and the gods mixed in with a very theocratic, organised religious belief system.
But he's very devout, he's fighting the good fight; he's a holy warrior. He's very straight-ahead in what he does, there's no grey area for him and it's not that he's inflexible - he does what he thinks is right. If he has to meditate on that for two days he'll do it because he's got to do the right thing - his fighting is his way of worshiping. That's how we approached him, which gives him a very different feel. The Barbarian has a good mythology; we gave the Witch Doctor a very rich mythology. In the game they have a very different experience as different characters, but also, possibly come into conflict with each other because of their different belief systems.
Sounds like you wouldn't want to cross him
LB: Yeah, he's respected but if you were attacked he's probably the one you'd want to see coming down the road. If you're being attacked by demons it'd be like "Great, here comes the monk!"
Were there any specific challenges bringing this class into the game?
Not specifically with this class, but I would say that all our classes go through a lot of iteration. I think most people would be surprised at how much we iterate on it; I would say we come close to a hundred iterations of designs that we come up with, then we tweak this or that.
LB: We do a lot of stuff on paper before we even commit to anything.
CL: Concepting, we look at it from camera view, then we-
LB: You look at somebody like the monk and you say 'Okay, that's different' and I think the Wizard is too, but I think the Wizard is much more standard. We went through just as much from an artistic standpoint; we went through a lot of iterations just on what the look of the Wizard should look like, because we were trying to get a very distinct personality, something different.
Our artists were very confused at first 'A European monk? What do you mean by that? What are you looking for?' And with the Wizard we wanted it to have this feel of the rebel, a younger kid who's had all this power his or her life and has maybe grabbed bits here and there from the thrift shops of the day and maybe has a rock n roll lifestyle as a Wizard. 'Show me what that looks like!' And the artists do their best and they churn through stuff and you pick out pieces from all these different things. That's what we do for all of our classes.
CL: It's really such a team effort from our point of view and everything comes together. The art team obviously generates ideas, but design and even programming get to say 'This works, this doesn't work'. The whole thing is a team effort it really is.
How long does that process take, to get a character you're happy with?
LB: Really happy with is a tough thing to judge because what happens is you have to look at the characters not only in their own gameplay but in comparison to the other characters and so we learn things as we go. We don't have any characters in the game right now that we could say is a finished class - but we have refined the skill systems several times.
Having said that I think the Monk came together fairly quickly in terms of class, which is surprising because when we started we thought we would do this new fighting combo system. We're adapting fighting game mechanics to what is conceivably a single button game, which was going to be a big challenge. And it was a challenge but it also came together very quickly, that aspect of it.
CL: People really like playing him, and we've gotten really great feedback. It quickly became one of their favourite classes.
How difficult was it to get those fighting game style combo chains working?
LB: Very! And that's were multiple iterations come in again. Even though it's difficult to do this stuff I think the fact that Blizzard is so focused on the gameplay and iteration and has very distinct company values about that stuff makes it very easy for us to make those difficult decisions because we don't have to just say something is okay and move on. If this isn't a fantastic gameplay experience we keep hitting it.
CL: Also, we get people on a team who are really very multi-dimensional - we get designers who are really talented artists; artists who have really good design senses; programmers that know a lot about gameplay. There are very few people on the team who are just one-dimensional in the terms of what they do. So this cultivates a culture where there's a lot of interaction, there's a lot of cooperation and a lot of feedback.
How does fan feedback affect that process? There were some very critical views expressed when early Diablo III screenshots appeared.
CL: Oh, it's huge. I think Blizzard definitely has an art style and it's been honed through the history of the Blizzard games that have been released. And the philosophy that we think works best for making a game really fun. Visual feedback is so integral to the gameplay experience, so if you can read characters really well or if the UI works really nicely, this all has an impact and that's very art related obviously so that's part of it.
As far as listening to people goes, yes, definitely. If anything Blizzard listens to their community. This 'con in a lot of ways is exactly that. We get the players playing and we get the feedback from the stations, we sift through that, we listen to forums. We do a lot of listening, so the art style has had a progression but so far the feedback has been really positive. I think the concern early on was; is this still going to have that dark and moody feel? Not as far as the colour palette, but is the subject matter going to be dark?
LB: It's so hard when you just see a clip here and a screen shot there to really understand what the tone is, and how all of it fits together. And a lot of fans had the same reaction when the first screen shots of DII came out showing the deserts. You know 'cause Diablo I was all at night and this one little town and all of a sudden there's bright desert. So we know what the intent of the series is, in terms of mood and in terms of tone and we're really happy with that. We think it's coming along great.
CL: We are big fans of the series, obviously and we don't want to do anything that would stand in its way. So, we're very mindful of that, we want to make sure that the game has a very dark, moody, visceral feel to it. And I think that's exactly what we're doing.