I sat down at BlizzCon for a chat about Diablo IV with lead game designer Jesse McCree (not to be confused with the gun-toting man with the same name in Overwatch) and sound supervisor Kris Giampa. There was no video for this one, so you will have to read everything that I lovingly typed out from a voice recording.
How does going in a darker direction change the design practice and process?
Jesse: One of our design pillars is a return to darkness and to us, that means a whole bunch of different things. It affects the look of the game and in some cases we want the game to be physically darker. It also has a lot to do with the vibe and the tone of things and it changes what we are okay with in terms of what abilities can do, what the monsters look like and if affects the look of the game quite a bit.
Kris: Soundwise it gives us more opportunity to go dark with things. The tone of the music or even the magical sound effects. We don’t want things that are bright and happy in the sound effects, we want things to be dark tones and atonal sounds for even celebratory things. We get to play around a lot more in that area and experiment. We want it to feel as gratifying as possible.
How do you balance that against sound effects from previous games, like spells and that legendary item drop sound?
Kris: We like to update them for every title, however there are very iconic sounds that have been around since Diablo I like the flippy sound when loot comes popping out and you know it as a player: if you have played Diablo before and just close your eyes and listen to the game, you know you are getting sweet loot. When it comes to sound effects we like to reference the old ones, we don’t take them one for one. Even if something is iconic we will design around that. In the case of the Diablo demo, we haven’t done very much of that. The legendary sound is a brand new huge sound and we want it to be super gratifying when you grab it. You will notice when you get a legendary.
How do you handle going to these dark places? Is it a strain on you?
Kris: Audio-wise I am super happy to dive into it. I love horror films, dark video games, ghost hunting shows, so for me, it is no problem.
Jesse: *laughs* For me it is no problem. Halloween was yesterday and that is my favourite time of year. Everyone is wearing costumes, carving pumpkins with evil faces. I love scary movies and grew up reading horror and I’m super into it. I’m into a lot of pop culture and watch stuff with my kids which hopefully balances it out, cause you don’t want to spend too much time there.
What is the weirdest / most interesting thing you have used to record a sound?
Kris: We use a lot of produce for gory sounds and have done some behind the scenes videos of that. One of the most interesting instruments I have used is a waterphone. It is a large vase looking thing made out of brass and you fill it with water and depending on where you hit it or rub it with a bow it makes a very eerie, scary sound and you will hear that sound a lot in horror movies and ghost hunting shows. I like to take that, record it and process it for different layers and certain dark scales.
Jesse: The audio guys are the most entertaining on the team. They were throwing bananas around the other day and they were recording that.
Will we ever know what sound the bananas were used for?
Kris: Maybe, maybe one day in some behind the scenes stuff. Our job is very fun, we get to go into and very quiet and dark studio and make the most disgusting things for you to hear in a video game but also making it gratifying to hear those things.
Are you recording location noise from anywhere for Diablo IV?
Kris: We have been going out into fields and forests for sounds that we can mix. We want the ambient noises in Diablo IV to evolve and change over time. It might be a subtle thing that people don’t really pick up on but the ambience will be slightly different every time you play. Ambience will change based on gameplay and what is happening.
Sound and level design are much more subtle than say graphics, which people can immediately look at and go: oh, those are great graphics, how does that affect you?
Kris: We know that the way we tie sound to what happens in the game has to be super tight and on point. If there is any delay it doesn’t feel spectacular. We work together closely to make sure the experience is tied together for impactful gameplay?
What goes into sound design when thinking of a lot of players or enemies on screen at the same time?
Kris: It comes down to implementation. We have certain rulesets that decide on sounds. Say you fight demo world boss, Ishava, when she comes on screen, we do a little trick where we turn down all the friendly heroes. You are playing and you have all these friendly heroes that are there also trying to take her down and our trick turns down the other heroes so you still sound as badass as you would. They get turned down slightly and that helps with your focus because there is so much going on on your screen that it is kind of hard to identify those sounds if we didn’t lower them. If we didn’t it was just a mush of sounds. In that situation, we something on the world boss that just turns everyone else down and we can turn her up and play with her sounds. Her changes are more obvious than everybody else. Otherwise everyone has these kickass sounds and they are all full fidelity.
Do you reach a point that you have just heard a sound too many times?
Kris: Oh yeah, oh yeah, for sure. If it is annoying then that means we need to do more work. For the scosglen ambience, what I like to do is just have the game running in the background while I work and just let it sit there, running through sounds and weather and playing through its ambience and if it annoys me, then I need to go back and tweak something to make it less annoying. When it is not annoying me, that means I think I’m doing my job correctly.
How does adding traversal mechanics change level and fight design?
Jesse: Because Diablo IV is an isometric game, traversal has let us do some layout stuff we haven’t been able to do before. It also frees your character, letting them interact with the environment more. It makes things feel a little more real. We are choosing to put them in specific locations and we are probably going to use more than what we have in the demo. We have a climb but we want to experiment to find others that feel good. But we want to be grounded so you don’t feel you are doing too crazy of a thing but as a person, you should be able to do this stuff. We’re looking everywhere we can to find something different and interesting because we are bringing so many things forward from Diablo 1, 2 and 3 and we are looking for our new bit. Moving through and exploring the world should feel a lot more like an adventure. When you are climbing around it gives you just a touch of that.
Do you have favourite parts of previous games or lessons you learnt that help with Diablo IV?
Jesse: The tone of Diablo I was really a thing, the way that the characters played and worked and the towns trees of Diablo 2 and the combat of Diablo 3. We are looking for those good bits and bringing them forward.
Kris: Each Diablo has its own soundscape and for this one we are trying to make it the most enjoyable audible experience you can get and making sure it is not too obnoxious over time. Looking back at 1, 2 and 3 there are a lot of lessons that we can adapt. Especially with the technology we have these days, we can do a lot more with bending the mix.
Jesse: And it isn’t just our technology. People, in general, have better headphones and speakers than they had in the past. Even just simple earbuds sound really good so the game can sound good even on headphones.