Diablo III's game director talks about the colors and rainbows of the game's art direction.
It started with a rainbow.
When the first promotional images from Diablo III emerged almost three years ago, the gathering of pretty colors in the in-game sky triggered a chorus of discontent from Diablo fans. There was a rainbow in the game. According to the fans, there should not have been a rainbow in the game. This was Diablo – the grittiest of RPGS! How dare Blizzard point the Diablo art gun in the direction of a unicorn palette and fire it straight into a rainbow!
As the internet collectively stomped its feet at what they saw, the team behind Diablo III were off to print joke t-shirts with the Diablo name wedged between two unicorn bottoms. The mythical buns were connected via a cartoonish rainbow that rested on smiling clouds and a cherubic sun. It wasn't that the development team didn't care what the fans wanted – far from it – they were simply confident with the art direction they'd taken.
"There's a reason there was a rainbow in there," Jay Wilson, the game director of Diablo III, told Polygon.
"We were poking a bit of fun because we knew there would be some reaction to the look of the game. We knew the look of the game would be a bit of a surprise to people, but we also felt confident because we'd gone through the process of how we got that look."
"There's a reason there was a rainbow in there," says Jay Wilson.
It was a process that saw a lot of art get thrown out before they arrived at a look that captured the spirit of Diablo while also making the world exciting to explore. The Diablo team began with a photorealistic game saturated in grays, browns, and all the grayish and brownish shades in between, because this was how they remembered Diablo. It looked tough, rough, and gritty – it also looked drab and boring, and the team wasn't excited by the game world.
"I remember saying ‘Could we get a little more color?' and the artist said ‘There is color, see this pixel here? This pixel's green', and I couldn't see it," Wilson says.
"I wish I could say there was a lightning bolt moment, but it was more this unsettling feeling where we weren't satisfied. We knew it wasn't there, we knew we hadn't hit it."
The team went back through their concept art and focused on a room they had created early on – the first room that players will walk into. While this was only a concept piece, they decided to go ahead and make that room; it was colorful, the team found it interesting and much more exciting. It was a world they wanted to explore. It was a world with a rainbow.
"We've got like one rainbow," Wilson says. "It's the original rainbow. It's still there – we left it in."
"If you look back on Diablo II, there's actually a lot of garish coloring there, usually monsters from the background, and that doesn't work when you get into more naturalized lighting and 3D modeling, so we found we had to explore a much greater palette.
"Also, people just kinda forgot – even people in our own team – how colorful the two Diablos were."
Wilson says that the reaction from fans to the colors in the initial promotional images was not a surprise for two reasons. The first is that most players remember their first experiences with Diablo, such as the first act in Diablo II which Wilson describes as one of the drabber acts in the game. When people think back on Diablo, they remember the feelings of a darker, more somber game, even though Diablo II was actually criticized for being too colorful on its release.
The second reason is the trend towards what Wilson calls "hyperrealism".
"Hyperrealism is where people would point at a game and go ‘That's realistic', and you look at it and it's super-detailed, all photorealistic textures, and all gray-brown," he says.
"They would say that's real, and then I would look around and go, there's a lot of color in the real world! That's not very realistic at all. But that was what people thought was super real, and that's why I call it hyperrealism because it really seemed to excite people."
For a while the Diablo team were aspiring towards this kind of realism – they were using photorealistic texturing and intentionally moving away from the art style of other Blizzard titles. They were chasing the gray-brown, gritty realism that seemed to excite everybody, but they soon realized that a drab Diablo world excited nobody.
"Part of the realization of our process was that we actually need to embrace the stylized look because that's how Blizzard operates; that's when it's best," he says.
"One of the things we can do as a company that most companies can't do is make something that is incredibly stylistic. We can make a game that looks like a painting and that's one of the goals we have – to do more stylized art.
"Stylized, high-quality art does not age very much, it lasts a long time. Technology, photorealism – those things date very quickly, so it's one of the reasons Warcraft has had such a long life, it's one of the reasons why Starcraft has had such a long life, and it's one of the things we wanted to bring to the Diablo series."
Less than a month from release, the world of Diablo III looks colorful, mythical, and Wilson hopes that when people play it, they'll remember it as the game they love, but better. As for the rainbows?
"We've got like one rainbow," Wilson says.
"It's the original rainbow. It's still there – we left it in."