With just a day to go before Blizzard ships Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, Chris Donelson, the lead exterior environment artist on the expansion pack, had a little time in his busy schedule to talk with Tom's Hardware about the upcoming add-on. Donelson jumped into the games industry back in 1998 and joined Blizzard in 2006.
Tom's Hardware: Are you a big fan of the fantasy genre? If so, what are some of your favorite movies and books? Does any of that influence show up in Reaper of Souls?
Chris Donelson: I've been a sci-fi/fantasy geek since childhood and love reading in my spare time. Some favorites in no particular order—Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos, Tolkien of course, George R. R. Martin, Neal Stephenson, Frank Herbert, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Gene Wolfe, etc. I'm really digging Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series. Can't wait till the next one comes out.
I think all of your interests and passions influence you in one way or another when doing something creative. For example, many of us love Game of Thrones, and I'm sure that was a part of our subconscious and inspired us as we thought about some of the designs for Westmarch.
TH: What are some of the tools used to create the artwork in Reaper of Souls? What's your favorite medium?
CD: Our core set of tools is Maya, Photoshop, and our in-game editor. Depending on the artist and their workflow, we also use Zbrush, TopoGun, Substance, and 3DCoat.
My favorite medium is the game itself. Quickly getting new ideas into the engine, where you can run around and see how the player will experience, is critical. That way, you can see what works and what doesn't and start to dig into what's going to make any given idea come to life.
TH: What was the inspiration behind Malthael's design? The Cruisader's design? How long did it take for you to say "That's perfect!"
CD: For Maltheal, the Angel of Death, we wanted something that the player would immediately recognize as Death, yet we did not want the traditional image of the hooded figure with the long-handled scythe. The design challenge here was to identify what key elements define the traditional image of Death and use that as the foundation for Maltheal. We decided to infuse Death with a bit of vanity, so the hood and robe are richly decorated.
Since Maltheal does not have an actual face, we have also included a somewhat abstract skull/mask motif on the chest and shoulder pieces to provide a solid visual focal point. Finally, we decided dual-wielding crescent sickles would be a fresh take on the usual scythe, Death's main tool for harvesting souls. We also felt a lean and mean silhouette would be more suitable for this villain—somehow Death as a muscly entity did not quite work for us.
As for the Crusader, the feeling we were trying to invoke was that of indestructibility—he should look and feel like a tank all the time. In fact the original inspiration came from the image of a WWI tank slowly rolling across a misty battlefield, over trenches, barbed wire, and enemies, taking heavy artillery hits but continuing to move forward, battle flags waving in the wind. We did not want a "knight in clean, shiny, pretty armor" feel to the Crusader; our guy is a battle-proven, scarred, experienced warrior who has seen all the cruelties of war.
We went through countless iterations for the Crusader, but not so much for Maltheal. Everybody loved Maltheal's design from the beginning, so not many tweaks were needed to improve it. The Crusader was a different story. We experimented endlessly with different combinations of armor, weight, age, hairstyle, face, and signature weapon. There was a time when we thought a whip might work, but it felt too weak for the hero. So we instead chose a heavy, bone-crushing battle flail to be his weapon of choice. The Crusader design ultimately took months and many iterations to finalize.
TH: Do you have any suggestions to budding artists trying to get into the gaming business?
CD: I'd first ask, "Why games?" Do you play and are you passionate about games? If not, I wouldn't recommend it. Being a game artist requires knowing more than how to make something look good. You have to think about how your art needs to support the game itself, and that starts with a solid understanding of the game.
If you are a gamer, I'd recommend you tailor your portfolio to the studio(s) you want to work at. Study their games and try to emulate their art style in your work. When I am looking at a portfolio, the candidate who has taken the time to understand what we are trying to do and can demonstrate that understanding will get priority.
Try to find opportunities to do group projects with peers. Individual talent is important, but we don't make games on our own. Being able to work well with a group and rely on the strengths of your teammates is vital and takes practice to get good at.
TH: What's a typical day like working on Reaper of Souls?
CD: The environment team all sits in one open pit area. We start the day with a morning meeting to talk over what everyone is working on. If an individual artist needs feedback, we load up their area in the game and the group critiques it. There's a lot of talent and support here, so you always get good ideas and advice. After the meeting, everyone works on their tasks for the day. We tend to work on game areas in small strike teams of artists, designers, and programmers, so these teams get together frequently to play their area and discuss changes needed. Small, flexible teams with a lot of autonomy tend to make higher quality work.
Throughout production we have regular playtests where everyone stops working and plays the current state of the game. If there's a particular feature that needs feedback we focus on that and then get together in small groups to discuss what worked and what didn't and come up with ideas to make improvements.
We also have a lot of team events to just get together and review our milestones. Many people on the team are awesome cooks and/or brew their own beer, so there's usually something tasty at these meetings.
TH: What kind of machine are you using to develop Reaper of Souls? What are the specs, if possible? Also, what peripherals? Is there a specific brand you like to use?
CD: Intel i7-3770K, 16 GB memory, GeForce GTX 770, SSD drive. A lot of artists have Cintiq displays as their secondary monitor, but I just go old school and use the Intuos tablet.
Thanks goes out to Blizzard and Chris Donelson for taking the time to answer these questions!