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Expansions? We don’t need no stinking expansions!

Blizzard is releasing the Necromancer as a new class for its action role-playing game Diablo III later this year on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. New characters used to come in large content drops via expansions, but the Necromancer will be paid downloadable content. But it could still bring players back to Diablo III, which has sold over 30 million copies since launching in 2012.

The Necromancer was previously a character in Diablo II famous for controlling his own army of undead minions and doing fun things with corpses like making them explode. But I got to play with a build of the Diablo III Necromancer at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month in San Francisco that focused more on blood magic than undead manipulation. I was able to shoot out a Blood Nova from my body, doing a large amount of damage to enemies around me while sacrificing my own health. But I was able to restore my life with other abilities, including one that would siphon health from corpses and another that gave me some life from my giant minion, a Blood Golem.

I also got to play as the female version of the Necromancer. In Diablo II, the Necromancer was only male, but Diablo III provides male and female options for each class.

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I had a chance to chat with Diablo III’s production director John Lagrave and lead visual effect artist Julian Love at GDC. We talked about how Blizzard designed the new Necromancer, how it’s different from the one in Diablo II, and how they’re making the pet-based class feel fun to play.

Reap them!

Above: Reap them!

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: The Necromancer is downloadable content, instead of coming as part of an expansion. Will there be any more story content coming out for Diablo III?

John Lagrave: We’re integrating the Necromancer into the storyline for Diablo III. It’s a full experience. When you fire up a brand new Necromancer, you can start off story mode and we’ve written that story in for you. As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to follow the storyline for Reaper. We’re adding in the cinematic aspect as well. Just as we did for each of the other classes, you’ll have that as well for the Necromancer.

GamesBeat: Was there much of an internal contest over who that new character would be?

Julian Love: There was no content. [Laughs] Literally no contest. There wasn’t even, hey — the way it came about, we occasionally do what we call game jams, setting aside a few days to let people on the team just chase a dream. If you can get somewhere in a couple days and it bubbles up, then maybe that’s something we should be doing.

Somebody had the dream of, hey, maybe we can do the Necromancer, and in a couple of days threw together — by kit-bashing parts, throwing some things together, they came up with something and it got everybody excited. Not that we weren’t already excited about the notion of doing Necromancer as a team, but there’s something about getting it in the game and getting it over that hump, seeing the promise of it, that just lit it on fire.

Lagrave: It’s that catalyst. It was a strong enough vision that we were like, oh, yeah, that resonated with me. I want that. That sells it. That works. It was a great game jam.

So much blood.

Above: So much blood.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Are there any worries about the character being too similar to the Witch Doctor?

Love: That’s a concern right out the gate, but we can also see a lot of promise in terms of taking it in a different direction, pretty clearly. If you think back to the original Necromancer, he had a different resource mechanic with corpses on the ground. That was one of the things in that game jam example that stood out to us. Hey, this was really cool. If we really jump on that, we could take it in a different direction. And then what followed right on that was, hey, what if we could command the pets? We constantly got requests about getting a class where you could command the pets. Is there a way we could get that feel out of a class? Okay, well, we quickly had a solution for that.

Next thing you know we’re doing blood. That’s a big thing now. When you add all that stuff up together, you get a class that has a different kind of diversity, different kinds of play styles represented. Commanding those pets around the battlefield. Choosing whether you want to exchange blood. Getting up close and personal. It’s fair to say that the build you played today, there’s nothing like that on the witch doctor kit. What emerges is — even though he’s a pet class, it’s a whole range of play styles, some of which are very divergent from what the witch doctor does.

Lagrave: To touch on that, there’s a space where the Witch is, and then you have the visual, thematic different aspect to it. It looks different. What we showed off with the blood, that’s strikingly different from what you see with the Witch Doctor. It doesn’t feel the same. When you play that, look at that, experience that, it’s way different.

That's a really long scythe.

Above: That’s a really long scythe.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: The Necromancer was first in Diablo II. With their addition to Diablo III, are you trying to do something new or nostalgic?

Lagrave: A little of both. I think Julian will probably touch on the newer stuff. But when we thought about how cool the class was, and we thought about this anniversary time to celebrate Diablo, what was — let’s look at the fond things and remember those aspects of what Necromancer was to us, and let’s re-imagine those. Let’s move those forward and make that engaging. But then there’s the notion of, well, what more do we want to add to the class? How do we improve on it?

Love: The gameplay pacing is a bit different in Diablo III. Some of the basic, core combat mechanics are different in Diablo III. There’s a certain amount of migration that needs to happen. Some of the things that were okay in Diablo II didn’t seem to be okay in Diablo III. If I can give a real specific example, clicking on a single corpse to explode it never quite felt right in Diablo III. That’s what got us to that point where, well, why not just blow up all 10 at once and make it an area thing? Those are examples of small migrations.

Classes are just bigger in Diablo III than they were in Diablo II. There’s way more content associated with a class. Not just on the story side, but even on the skills and the itemization side. There’s just a lot more content. That’s an opportunity to grow the class and take it in some different directions, or explore some things that were hinted at. I think the blood theme is hinted at in Diablo II, with the blood golem, but it seemed like a really awesome opportunity to go farther with it.

Lagrave: Your point about pacing is important. While Diablo II was much faster-paced than Diablo I, Diablo III is an even further step. You’re slaughtering a lot of monsters at a faster clip. If we had kept that same pace in Diablo II and said, oh, it’ll be this direct homage, people would end up being frustrated. It wouldn’t be as satisfying. It doesn’t feel like Diablo III. It’s a faster-paced game and we need to keep that in mind when we’re dealing with the necro.

The female Necromancer.

Above: The female Necromancer.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: In Diablo II, Necromancer was just male. In Diablo III, you have a choice. How did you design the female Necromancer?

Lagrave: They took one of the notions — “rock star of the dead” is one way to phrase it. It’s that goth look. They definitely based it on those ideas. We looked at visual markers that were iconic for that. I know that for the male, they were looking at basically Iggy Pop and saying, what’s this gaunt-looking dude that could represent that look? When you look at her, she’s striking, striking features. She’s a trim individual. They definitely went to that look.

GamesBeat: Diablo III is interesting because it’s in this era where Blizzard games are switching over to the games-as-a-service model. It’s not just releasing the product, releasing the expansion, and then moving on to the next thing. Was Diablo a harder game to adapt to that model?

Lagrave: Julian’s been at the company forever. I’ve been at the company forever. The legacy of Blizzard is you support your games. They patched Diablo II, I don’t know, how many years into that game?

Love: Right up to the point where Diablo III was beginning to get started? When I got to Blizzard North, my first thing was, I’m gonna get started on a new thing! And they said, well, we’re still working on Patch 112. You’re the new guy. Could you play the uber-bosses? I played them and I said, hey, the way you’re testing them isn’t quite right, could you download my barbarian with dual-wielding lightsabers? I completely decimated uber-Diablo in 30 seconds and sent the whole thing back to the drawing board. So that’s like, okay, that’s kind of how it is? The idea of supporting the games is just a bedrock requirement. It’s what we do.

Lagrave: We love the games. We really do. I play a lot of Diablo. All of our games get that treatment. We literally just got a bunch of our games running on Win 10, because we want to make sure that you’re able to play them. We do that with all the other games as well. They’re getting patched, because we’re not satisfied with it, or there’s an issue with stability, or there’s some improvement that we want to drive through.

It’s maybe more of a thing for the industry, which is great. It’s great to see that other games are going to get that support. Not to toot our own horn too much. But we do that. That’s what Blizzard is known for. We’ll keep patching the games as long as you’re interested in playing them.

GamesBeat: Is it tough for developers to be on on the same game for so long?

Lagrave: Well, imagine you have to work in a tool that’s 10 years old to do something. There’s a level of, oh gosh, I’ve gotta open that up and do this. Okay, I will, because of course the tools improve with new games, and so sometimes you have to go back to older things that were built very long ago to try to get something to work.

Love: But then you’re also a master of it at the same time. On one hand, it’s like, oh, if we had a new engine we could do X. But there’s a certain amount of cleverness that you can employ just because you know every little nook and cranny of what that engine can do and how you can take advantage of it. You’re a master of it at that point.

You actually see some of that coming through in the Necromancer. Sometimes you get there just by throwing down the gauntlet, right? When we first said, yeah, that’s right, we’re doing it, the thing that came to my mind was that we needed to scale those 100 skeletons. How are we going to do that? We know that we can’t literally put 100 things like that on screen, on top of what’s already going on. But how do we get the feeling, how do we get there? It turns out there was a way. There was a way that fit right in with the engine. Those kinds of challenges are sort of at the heart of all game-making. You always work with those kinds of limitations.

Lagrave: Yeah. We have incredibly talented engineers, sitting there and humoring us and solving the problems of trying to do things like, hey, we need to have corpses on the ground such that the player knows about them, the server knows about them, they can be exploded, and it doesn’t kill the game or the server. And there might be four Necromancers doing that at any given time. Solve that for us, please? And they do! They’re fantastic and godlike in their ability. It’s awesome.

Kill them all. They're just demons.

Above: Kill them all. They’re just demons.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: How do you make a pet class like the Necromancer feel active?

Love: If you look at the way we did it, one, we have skills that give you a different kind of axis of what the active button means. In most case, what we’re doing is just saying, if you’ve chosen a skill, the act of summoning is taken care of. That frees that button that’s already there to be used for another purpose, which we think generally speaking is more interesting – ordering that pet to do something. In the case of command skeletons, the skill we showed at BlizzCon, you can get them all to focus fire on a single target and take that target down very rapidly. In the case of Blood Golem, what you’re seeing is, oh, wow, I’m low on health, or there’s a bunch of monsters that need to die really rapidly. It can be one or both. You can order him to that spot.

Then we have some more surprises in store for what the button on those summonables can do in each case that would suit different builds. Today’s one, you have a close-up blood-themed play style where you’re losing health, so having lots of health recovery is what you want. Then you have the option to do that with the golem skill. Whereas another build that’s maybe more bone-oriented and doesn’t have blood loss as a theme, you might want to use that in a different way.

Lagrave: It’s a good point. The console handles very well. We started off as BlizzCon, and I wish we could have it here today, but — the console feels good. Because we’ve done very smart things like not individually targeting each corpse — at BlizzCon, you showed off the Army of the Dead. It’s a directional blast. It’s very friendly to a limited set of buttons. Of course Diablo itself is pretty friendly toward that control space as well. So you’re not frustrated. It actually plays really well on console. Like Julian said, the directional stuff for the Command on the Undead — it’s not challenging. It’s understandable and easy to do.

GamesBeat: Going back to the Necromancer, this nostalgia for it — a year or so ago, it showed up in Heroes of the Storm. Did that happen completely independently of this?

Lagrave: Those conversations, they have a bit of a runway to get that kind of stuff done. We’ve been talking about — they have ideas about who they want to bring in. They start working on all that stuff independently of us, because we’re a different team. So that was an independent thought. It just sort of rekindled a notion that’s always been kicking around – yeah, what about the Necromancer? But yeah, that was independent.

Blood hurts.

Above: Blood hurts.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: I play a Blood Death Knight in World of Warcraft, so I had a very different idea of what a blood character would be. I thought it was interesting that this one was much more about literally attacking with blood while the Warcraft concept was more about just siphoning life from enemies.

Lagrave: Yeah, it’s a different fantasy with the Death Knight, being out there with your weapon and beating the crud out of something and getting that blood as a resource. Whereas what Julian and his crew have done is basically put it in your face and blown it out. It’s awesome.

Love: The class has to fit in with the viscerality of Diablo’s gameplay scheme. Specifically Diablo III. All three versions have had a certain visceralness to the way the action works, but definitely there was a concerted effort to crank that up for Diablo III. And so that was another thing where we really had to translate the Necromancer into that game, differentiating from other games. He has to match what else is going on, because the other classes are so visceral. Naturally, blood everywhere.

GamesBeat: Before Diablo III, expansions for the series always added two characters. With Diablo III, you release one new character at a time. Is it a problem to see so many people playing the same class when they’re released?

Lagrave: It’s not a problem. Of course there is that interest, right? When we released the Crusader, there was certainly a massive interest in the Crusader. But to be quite honest, I was playing other classes and I didn’t jump on to the Crusader until — I don’t know which season. Four or something? I took a while to get to the crusader. I won’t be surprised if people say, oh, I really want to do this monk build this season or what-have-you, and then get to the Cecro later. Of course we want them to. You’re going to see some Necros, definitely.

Love: We’re fully preparing for four Necromancers on screen simultaneously as what will happen on day one. We will be fine.

Lagrave: It’ll be awesome, is what it will be. What I want to see is the four Necros doing the Army of the Dead. Just obliterate some stuff. That’ll happen. For sure it’ll happen.

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