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Diablo II: Resurrected is nearing its September 23 release date. For some gamers, it may be hard to muster much excitement. Yes, the original Diablo II, which debuted on PC back in 2000, is one of the best action-RPGs of all time. But Blizzard has found itself encircled by controversy this year, facing accusations of harassment from former and current employees, massive leadership changes,  a lawsuit from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and, more recently, a complaint from Activision Blizzard King workers with support from the Communications Workers of America to the National Labor Relations.

Those issues are of the utmost importance. Now, under the shadow of this trauma, Blizzard is getting ready to release a big game, and I imagine the usual excitement that comes with finishing a big project like this may feel muted for a lot of its development team. And that’s not the only shadow Diablo II: Resurrected finds itself under. This is Blizzard’s first remake project since 2020’s disastrous Warcraft III: Reforged, which launched with bugs and missing promised features, all while making it harder to play the original (and superior version) of the game.

Again, that’s a much lesser concern than the wellbeing and health of Blizzard’s staff. And this now includes Vicarious Visions, a developer that parent company Activision merged with Blizzard earlier this year. Vicarious Visions already has a pedigree of making excellent remakes with its work on the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. It made sense to have them help out with Diablo II’s reboot.

I suppose this (now probably obnoxiously lengthy) intro is an attempt to justify why I think I should still cover Blizzard’s games. I don’t want to punish the developers — most of them are not guilty of the crimes of their vile, disgraced, or incompetent superiors — by refusing to outright speak of the projects that they’re working on. But I also want to address what’s been happening at Activision Blizzard and continue to report on it in hopes that the culture there can improve. We’ve heard from some Activision Blizzard employees that boycotts, while good intentioned, can do more harm than good, at least when it comes to rank-and-file employees. I don’t think that pretending Blizzard doesn’t exist anymore will help anything.

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So, below is an interview I did earlier this week, just nine days out from Resurrected’s launch, with two of the key people behind Activision Blizzard, principal designer Rob Gallerani and lead graphics engineer Kevin Todisco. Both of them actually come from Vicarious Visions, so they have not been on the Blizzard side for long. I did still ask them about the mood at the studio and what it’s like working on the company’s first major game since the California lawsuit came to light. I also asked them about the general development of the remake.

First one out

GamesBeat: A lot is happening at Activision Blizzard in the news, and Diablo II: Resurrected is the first game coming out since it started. You were in the last leg of development during this. Was it difficult pushing through the last bit of work with everything going on?

Rob Gallerani: It’s a super-important question. We’re not living under a rock. We were lucky to be working on something that we were all so passionate about. We kind of focused on that. We wanted to make sure we supported our coworkers. Yes, it’s about games, but it’s also about our people and our coworkers. A lot of us, we focused on putting something out there that we could be proud of. Just as much as it’s our game, it’s the community’s game. This is people’s nostalgia, people’s childhood we’re talking about. That helped. Not that it wasn’t stressful. We’re dealing with people’s nostalgia, and they’ll let us know if we get it wrong.

GamesBeat: How has morale been at the studio?

Gallerani: Our cinematic trailer, that was amazing. Yes, we had seen it in takes, but when you really see it out there, that helped a ton. And then you think, “Oh, yeah, wait, nine days? This is gonna be a real thing.” My daughter likes to call it “nervous-cited.” We’re equal parts anxious and really excited to let the world finally see what we’ve been working on.

Kevin Todisco: Being this close to the release, you can feel the excitement bubbling. It’s reaching a crescendo in everything as we get that much closer to it.

Lessons

GamesBeat: What did you learn from player feedback from the tests, the alphas and betas?

Gallerani: The beta was great because we had the closed beta transitioning into the open beta. We kept doing support all the way through. The number of players just skyrocketed when it went open. Over the course of that week we added more servers. We got to see more of the social aspect.

From the alpha we learned a lot about how it compared to people’s nostalgia, how it hit their memories. But it was all single-player. A lot of the feedback we got was things like, “Tune this icon.” “Tweak how this spell effect works.” “This one monster should look this way.” Then, as we shifted to a multiplayer experience, we got a lot more insight into the infrastructure and how our servers held up. You couldn’t test it any other way. You can’t just pretend to have 2 million people play the game. You have to put it through those paces to do it. On the other side, there were the social aspects, things like how the lobby worked, how chat worked, how forming a party worked. Those were all good insights.

One big thing we changed: We had something that identified when someone joined your trade channel. That worked fine when we tested it, but we didn’t think about what would happen when you had a million-plus people joining or leaving your trade channel. You probably don’t care so much about that.

Todisco: It’s definitely invaluable to test at scale, understanding what happens when you have a bunch of people playing the game at the same time, and being able to get a large-scale presence to understand stability and make stability and performance improvements as we head into release.

GamesBeat: Can you give me an idea of the makeup of the team? What percentage of it is Vicarious Visions, and what percentage comes from the original Blizzard?

Gallerani: Well, we’re all Blizzard employees now. [Laughs] The team is pretty big. Folks have come and gone in between. It’s hard to draw the line, because we also have [different teams]. We have the QA team. We have the localization team. Our game is coming out in all these different languages, including new languages that weren’t in the original game. It’s hard to come up with numbers as to how that all breaks down.

But when it comes to the responsibility, who makes calls, this is a special project. We weren’t creating a new game. We weren’t inventing what the new fun was. We were going off the original game. We’re targeting the most authentic experience you remember. That’s why the ability to toggle the graphics back and forth is super-important. The ability to confidently say, the original code is running underneath this, the original balance. That drove all our decisions whenever we would reach a point where we asked, “What should we do here?” We’d look back at that. That’s how our team was driven as a guiding force.

GamesBeat: Warcraft III: Reforged was Blizzard’s last remake, and that came under a lot of criticism. Did you feel like Resurrected needs to answer for that?

Gallerani: With Resurrected we had to get it right. It’s so important to a lot of people. We had to get it right in a way that also let people play how they wanted to play. For example, we added auto-gold pickup. Auto-gold pickup is something that, at least from the alpha and beta, is unanimously loved. But we let people turn it off. Same thing goes for the entire game. If you like the original Diablo II with your mods, that’s still there. It’s not going anywhere. All of that is still safe for you. We’re putting ourselves out there and hoping we did it justice, that people want it, but that’s an approach we felt was right just because it’s such an important game for people.

Todisco: From the very beginning of the project, from its undertaking, it was of paramount importance for us to keep the original experience intact. In remastering there’s also the original game that exists separately. From the beginning, the reason why we made the decision to use the same original Diablo II engine was because we wanted to make sure that core gameplay loop, the core mechanics, the feel of the game all remained exactly the same. We would work around that by layering a new 3D layer on top of that, so as to keep that experience intact.

Never thought that a place called The Den of Evil could be so comforting.

Above: The Den of Evil is the first major dungeon in Diablo II.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: You talked about the cutscenes a bit and that cinematic trailer. That was one of the criticisms of Reforged, not having the redone cutscenes. You went all out for that on Resurrected. Was that something you had to push for, or something that everyone was on board with doing early on?

Gallerani: That was something that became more and more obvious as we brought the game forward. The cutscenes are iconic. They’re a testament to the era that they were made in. But when we started going into Lut Gholein and adding sand blowing off dunes, and you’ve got real time lighting and dripping sewers and everything is in 4K, and then you would switch back to the older cutscenes, it broke the immersion. The more we worked on bringing everything in the game up, the more it was obvious that this was the right thing to do with the cinematics.

When we did it, though, like everything else, it’s the same audio track. It’s the same scene, shot for shot. Which was also fun. There was this archaeology of learning how things worked. One example is in the very beginning, when Tyrael goes to visit Marius in his cell, the gate opens. It just opens as if he has some power. In the original storyboards, there was supposed to be a warden standing there who opened the gate for him. But for whatever reasons of cost, they ended up cutting that character, but still kept the gate. So we kept the gate. There were all of these little things. You’d switch over and see that’s how it really was. It allowed us to really geek out on the cutscenes.

Todisco: Very much in the same spirit of that 1-to-1 relationship, shot-for-shot, the cinematics mirror that careful relationship we have between the new HD graphics and the original sprite graphics.

GamesBeat: It’s impressive that you’re able to look at the original storyboards. Was there a lot of original documentation you went through?

Todisco: Folks did a lot of archaeology, trolling through file servers, looking for anything we could dig up to find assets. Rob could probably give even more detailed stories on it. I do know there are some things, like original textures for some of the Act II tombs, that were pulled forward into the new game. Tyrael’s wings, for example, are the original model from the old game that they used to render out Tyrael.

Gallerani: It was all across the board. While we had the code, we had some models of these things, we had marketing docs that were written for some magazine 20 years ago, we had a different render of a different stall from the market in this one town — it was all across the board, these different assets you would discover and piece together. In some cases we just used the exact same concept art they had. Other times we found the same art that they referenced from museums. Some armor in the game, the picture that they found on the internet was the same picture we found on the internet.

To change or not to change

GamesBeat: You both talked about how important it is to stay true to the original game. Were there any bigger changes you were tempted to make and had to talk yourselves out of?

Gallerani: When we looked at a lot of this original documentation, there were a lot of other ideas that had been tried before. One of the original ideas, and I think it’s come up in past interviews, is this concept of a player city. When we first started, we thought that might be cool. But we realized that just because it could have been made, and even if there were other intentions, that’s not what the public saw. That’s not what their childhood was. We decided to get the game right first before we started trying to change it.

This notion of, oh, you should rebalance the game, you should fix these things, that kind of went away. We’re not trying to fix the game. We’re not trying to build Diablo III. That game’s already been made, it turns out. Diablo IV is taking it to other places, and so is Diablo: Immortal. This is a piece of history that we’re bringing into the modern era. We’re allowing a new generation to experience it. When you look at it like that, what you can change and what you shouldn’t change when you first come out is a little bit easier to make a call on.

Todisco: I’ll have a reverse example, I suppose, or a backward example. It’s not that we intended to change something like the lighting, for example. But early on in development, we had a situation where we were creating this brand-new physically based rendering for the project. You get to a point where that all works, and you look at it. We used what we called the squint test, making sure everything matched what was in your mind’s eye or matched what was in the sprite-based game. And it doesn’t pass, because that item on the ground over there is too dark. I can’t see it. Or this character doesn’t stand out from the environment enough.

We reached a crossroads where we could say, “It’s real. It’s real lighting. It matches the intention in terms of visceral realness. But it’s not quite the same readability. It’s not the same experience. Do we want to move forward with something like that?” And the answer is that we have to pass that squint test. We started layering more technology on top of that that allowed us to make the items stand out more, flatten the grass they’re sitting on so you can see them, make the characters pop by giving them some extra lighting on top of what’s already there.

Gallerani: I remember we had the harem level below the palace in Act II. There are pillows all over the place. In the original game it was just a flat image of pillows. When a sword would fall, a very long sword would just lie in whatever spot, because it’s a picture of a sword sitting on a picture of pillows. When we have a 3D sword that you drop in a pile of 3D pillows, either we have to have physics kick in and tilt the sword a different way, which we can’t do because where you click is the same, and so we have to have the sword lie the same way it laid in the original game, but now the sword would be cutting through the pillows or underneath the pile of pillows. And so we always render things on the ground as if they were on top, which is totally not how the real world works. We built it to be like the real world and then had to break it so it matched a 2D game that was trying to pretend to be 3D.

Todisco: There’s another interesting trick I could mention with the auras. An aura in a typical game, it sits at the character’s feet. In Diablo II: Resurrected, it looks like that aura is right at the character’s foot level, but it’s actually not. The problem we ran into is that the aura would start to clip with things that were also by the character’s feet, like grass or rocks or chests, things like that. We put a trick in. We actually moved the aura toward the camera, but we draw it in an order so it looks like it’s underneath the character. It still looks like it’s at foot level, but it’s not.

Seeing this guy makes me feel like 13-year-old again.

Above: The Barbarian in Diablo II: Resurrected.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: Diablo has already been on console and had controller support with Diablo III. Was that harder to make work with Diablo II?

Gallerani: We had a lot of things we had to keep in mind when we brought in controller play. First off, we knew that a lot of people who were accustomed to playing Diablo III with a controller would come over to play Diablo II the same way. They already have some expectations. But we also have cross-progression, and so there were certain changes that were made between Diablo III console and Diablo III PC to account for that. We didn’t make any changes, not only because we couldn’t make them due to the cross-progression, but because it went against keeping the game as true to the original as possible. That’s we went forward with, deciding you actually have to play inventory Tetris. You have to pick up things. We had to write a lot of code to make moving the cursor with your thumb feel playable in that space.

The way you move your character is totally different, though. Diablo II is a game that came from an era of pencil-and-paper games, with people on grids. Under the hood, Diablo II is characters on a grid. When you use a thumb stick to run around, it doesn’t feel good to click to grid squares. You wouldn’t notice it with a keyboard-and-mouse, because you would just click somewhere and it would walk you to that grid square. But when you use a thumb stick, you can walk wherever you want. Trying to stop on a certain spot felt really bad, because you would just snap to that point on the grid. We added tech to allow you to stop in between squares, to walk very slowly or very fast depending on your stick deflection.

But Diablo II also has a stamina mode where you’re running or walking, and we had to have that work within it. It definitely added a whole other dimension. We didn’t change as much as we could have, but we did change a lot more than we wanted to. People also asked if we would add a dodge move, because Diablo III had a dodge move. You really don’t need a dodge move, though. The fact that you actually feel more mobile with a thumb stick, you can make those moves anyway. But it is a slightly different experience. It’s easier to target a very specific spot.

We do targeting for you with a controller because there is no cursor. That works for targeting monsters and things like that, because we can see what you’re pointing at and what responds. But when it comes to things like the sorceress’s teleport or the necromancer’s golem creation, you just click anywhere in the world. So how do we do that? We tried things like, well, maybe you hold the button and you can bring up a cursor. That just slowed the pace of the game down, especially if you’re trying to play on Nightmare or Hell. In that case, when you’re using the controller, we just pick a default spot and that’s where you teleport. That just worked better, especially for people who use speedrunning and teleport everywhere. It’s just a different way to experience it, but it worked best for controllers in this game.

Platforms

GamesBeat: With all these different versions coming out, and because we’ve seen some other games with multiplatform releases where the Switch version is maybe struggling, how is the Switch version of Diablo II running right now? How is the performance?

Gallerani: I think it’s running like butter. I like playing it in the undocked portable mode. But yeah, with all of our consoles, we built them for that experience. We didn’t want it to feel like we just ported a PC game to the console. We wanted it to be what was right for that console. We’ve taken a lot of things into consideration with the Switch, especially if you play it in portable mode. Everything is a lot tinier. Just the overall attention to things like, how big is the font? How are things laid out on the screen? Those are all things that had to cater to that device to play up its strengths.

Todisco: Same goes for a lot of the 3D visuals. It’s tailoring the experience for that smaller screen, the handheld screen that can be swapped out for a larger screen if you dock the console. With every platform we make sure that we tailor the technology to give the best experience on that particular platform. The Switch version is very good. I think people are going to enjoy it, being able to take it on the go for the first time.

GamesBeat: At the other end of the spectrum here, what can people look forward to from the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions?

Todisco: It’s all about pretty graphics. We want them to look the best they possibly can, to represent those platforms, and also perform likewise. I think people are going to be happy with the next-gen versions of the game giving them the best visual experience we can possibly give them.

The future

GamesBeat: What is the post-launch support going to look like for Resurrected?

Gallerani: Right when we come out, we won’t have [a ranked] ladder. The reason we’re doing that is because we’re also going to be watching the game to continually support it as it comes out. With ladder, obviously it’s a race to hit level 99. The moment the clock turns over and everyone jumps in, we want that to be as smooth an experience as possible. Right now we can definitely commit to supporting the game, improving that experience for everyone, and hitting the start of our first — well, I don’t even know what season we’re on in real ladder, but we’ll probably call it the first season of ladder in Resurrected.

From there we’ll see what the community wants. We don’t really make a boxed product anymore, where we give it to you and we’re done with it. It’s a live game, a live service. We’ll continue to have that relationship between us and the community as they start playing it.

GamesBeat: Is new content on the table, like an Act VI? Is that a possibility?

Gallerani: I will never deny it. It’s not on the table right now. But it’s not off the table either. Like I said, we’re focused on getting that authentic, nostalgic experience right. Even smaller things, like retuning how the blizzard works, or maybe making a build that’s not a Hammerdin, new runewords, new items, those are all really exciting things, but we want to make sure we stick the landing first. As long as the community says, “Yeah, you did good,” then we can have the next discussion.

GamesBeat: Where is a lot of this team going now? Are they staying behind for support on Resurrected, or are they moving elsewhere? Is there a secret Diablo 1 remake that they’re all jumping to?

Gallerani: So many secrets! We can’t really speak to exactly where we’re going. Right now I’m pretty busy making sure this game gets out on time. I commend your confidence that everything is perfect and we can start rolling everyone off right now, but for now we need to stay on Resurrected, at least for nine more days, maybe 10.

Todisco: For those nine days we tend to tunnel vision a bit on making sure we have the smoothest release possible. Then we’ll start to consider what comes after that.

GamesBeat: With everything that’s been happening at the company and you having the first release after that, do you feel any extra pressure, or do you try not to think of it through that lens?

Todisco: I’ll say that leading up to any game release, there’s a certain amount of pressure and stress involved. Just shipping a game is hard. It’s really dominated by just that. We’re about to ship a game.

Gallerani: This is people’s childhood, right? This is people’s nostalgia. We’ve actually gotten great feedback throughout the alpha and beta about even the littlest of little things. Oh, that sound doesn’t sound quite right. That lightning effect isn’t thick enough. The color of that one effect on that one monster in that one level — they’ll let us know. Knowing that we have the weight of people’s nostalgia, their childhood, why they even got into this franchise, that’s the biggest thing driving us to do this as best we can.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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