One of the surprise appearances at Xbox and Bethesda’s games showcase was Diablo 4. The latest entry in Blizzard’s beloved action role-playing series makes its appearance in the days following the launch of Diablo Immortal, which has been praised for playing well, but criticized for its business model. Love it or hate it, Blizzard is intent on trying to push the Diablo franchise in new directions. Diablo 4, however, looks to be a bit more of a conservative step forward than its mobile cousin.
That’s not to say it’s retreading old ground–quite the opposite, in fact. As you’ll no doubt have seen in the section dedicated to the game in the press conference, Diablo 4 is aiming to be the best of what came before, while making some intelligent changes and new additions that Blizzard hopes will provide an experience that feels both familiar and fresh, all held together in a dark and gruesome wrapper.
We spoke to Diablo 4 director Joe Shely and general manager of the Diablo franchise Rod Fergusson about the current state of Diablo, what their ambitions are for Diablo 4, and how the game has been designed to achieve them.
It’s a big time for Diablo. You’ve got the launch of Immortal and now you’ve shown off a bit of Diablo 4. Rod, as the overseer of the Diablo franchise can you give us a temperature check on the franchise? Where is it at and where do you think it needs to be?
Rod Fergusson: I think it’s never been a better time to be a Diablo fan and Diablo player. We have Diablo 3 still out there–it’s been out for 10 years now, but even in its most recent season, Season 26, we have 150 million hours of play. In fact, we just crossed over 65 million players that played Diablo 3. In September, we had Diablo 2: Resurrected come back, and over five and a half million players that came back to play D2:R, a 21-year-old hardcore PC game that now has been remastered and available on console as well.
Immortal just launched, which is our big free-to-play mobile experience. It gets to reach a lot more players; reaching those 3 billion gamers who maybe only play on mobile. And so having that free-to-play on mobile going where they are and no barrier to entry means that hopefully a lot of more people are going to get to experience Diablo. Of course, we’re going to have Diablo 4 coming really soon, and it’s the cherry on top of that sundae. We’re excited to have that feeling of the return to darkness that Diablo 4 represents.
And Joe, for you [as director of Diablo 4], there has been a buildup of momentum and now you’re the next step in the one-two punch of Diablo coming back. What’s it been like to know that’s your role and is it a lot of pressure; how are you dealing with that?
Joe Shely: Well, it’s been really exciting working on the game and getting to share. I am always thinking, “Okay, don’t talk about the Necromancer. It’s not time to talk about the Necromancer yet.” So I’m really excited to be able to talk about the Necromancer. But it’s a really exciting time for Diablo. The world of Diablo 4 is this vast, big shared open world. You’re creating your character and going directly into the world. You’re not creating individual games. You’re living in this space and you’re traveling across it to access dungeons. It’s Diablo the way that’s meant to be played.
Speaking of the Necromancer, obviously a character that now has some legacy to it, but also I imagine that a lot of fans are going to be expecting to see something brand new, as opposed to a returning character. What was the decision making process for bringing back the Necromancer instead of going, “Here’s something that no one’s ever seen before?”
Shely: Well, in a lot of ways, Diablo 4 is a love letter to our fans. We’ve really focused on this theme of returning to darkness. And we know that when we make a Diablo game, fans have a lot of expectations from D2: R, Diablo 3, and previous Diablo experiences that they’ve enjoyed. So we know that we have a lot of things that really just need to be there. And when we’re looking at the classes themselves, we wanted to make sure that the kinds of experiences that players remembered fondly from previous Diablo games were available, but also bring them into the most modern versions of themselves.
And Diablo 4 is really all about choice. You can make so many more choices than ever before with your classes. They’re more expansive than ever. And even with the Necromancer, for example, you’ve got things like full character customization, and you’ve also got our unique class feature, the Book of the Dead, which allows you to customize and have a lot of choice in how your minions are deployed on the battlefield, which minions you have, and how they behave. And even if you want to have minions at all.
Fergusson: Yeah. You can sacrifice them right? To make yourself more powerful as your shadow magic. That’s what I love about the new Necromancer; [it’s] really around that idea of choice. I’m a big Necro player and I always have this like, “Oh, I’ve got skeletons, oh I’ve got mages, oh I’ve got a golem.” But my ability to control what I have and when I use them was a little bit more limited in the previous versions. Sure. You could choose to use a sword to make an Iron Golem, and that kind of thing, but the book of the dead is this new feature that–all of the classes in Diablo 4 have [a] feature that’s unique to just that class–and the Necromancer has the Book of the Dead where you decide, “Oh, I can have skeleton warriors. What skeleton warriors do I want? Do I want aggressive? Defensive? Do I want ones that create corpses for me to use, as raw materials?” and then, “Oh, you can have mages. Okay, what mages do I want to use? And oh, I can have golem, what golem do I want to use?” And so you can mix and match your warriors, your mages and your gollum to really create and customize the army that you have with you. And you never really had that experience before. And that’s what really is one of the things that makes the Necro really unique and interesting.
Can you elaborate on player choice a bit? You talked about customization, but speaking more broadly, that seems to be one of the core design principles for Diablo 4. What’s the butterfly effect of that?
Shely: It is. Yeah. And it really manifests in all different aspects of the game. So when you’re creating your character, you have an unprecedented amount of player choice. You can almost think of your class selection as a job rather than a vocation, rather than a character identity defining characteristic. We still have very strong classes, and the Necromancer is a great example of that, but you can be anyone you want, anyone you can imagine can be a Necromancer. And then that idea of player choice permeates the open-world of the game as well. You’re able to travel anywhere in the world, make decisions about what you want to do, whether you want to pursue the campaign, which is a 35-hour experience that is just brimming with story and characters that are really human and you can really connect with on an emotional level. We’ve worked really hard on the campaign in Diablo 4 and we’re really proud of how it’s developing.
Fergusson: One of the things that in the previous Diablo games [is] that you worked with iconics and so there was this like, “Oh, you’re this Barbarian that’s known from the history or the lore of the game.” And now with the player customization you create your Barbarian. You can choose what they look like, what gender, hair, makeup–all the stuff that you want to do to really truly make it your Barbarian. And so you can create your own backstory, and then from that you’re in and choosing your skills, and you can choose very different skills that really make it your own. Sort of like Diablo 3, which is great, but it tied a lot of what you did to your gear. And so if you wanted to change your abilities, you just changed what you had equipped. That’s not the case in D4. Obviously gear is still very important to your build, but it’s really your skill selection that defines you, and then you take those choices into the game.
The story is non-linear so you can choose how to play out the story. You’re in a shared open world, you can choose to go exploring instead of doing the story if you want to. You can go anywhere you want within Sanctuary and go do dungeons or go do other things and take on a world boss or go do local events, so you have choice there.
And then you have PvE versus PvP. So do you want to go and take on the story campaign content or do you want to go and fight other players? And it’s [in] one of our PvP areas. And then who do you want to play with is a choice, right? You can play solo. It’s a great game solo, but you can party up. You can be in a clan. So everything along the way is really about what you decide you want to do. And so that’s why we talk about D4 [being] about choice, because pretty much every step along the process there’s some things that you have agency over and you can decide how you want to play the game.
Can you talk a bit about the construction and design of the dungeons, because there are over a hundred so the natural question becomes: Is it over a hundred of the same looking dungeon reconfigured, or is it over a hundred handcrafted dungeons that have meaningful reasons to be there?
Shely: So one of the things that’s really exciting about Diablo 4 is that, because we have this shared open world that exists as a template, the dungeons are actually in places in the world that you’re going to explore, and [that gives] dungeons a real sense of place. So when you go into a particular dungeon, you’re going to see the tileset that’s associated with that dungeon, that type of art. And we have a wide variety of art for these. You’re also going to see the monsters that live in it.
But when the dungeon rolls, it is randomly generated within those parameters. The monsters will be differently configured, you’re going to see different champions, you’re going to see different affixes and you’re going to see a different layout for that dungeon. On top of that, each dungeon has a dungeon objective, so when you go in, you might have an objective to slay a boss, but you might have an objective to track down three fallen idols and disable them. And so the completion objective for the dungeon is unique to each dungeon as well.
Fergusson: It’s what dungeons are known for in Diablo is that idea of [them] being procedurally generated where each time you go into it is a slightly different experience. And one of the things I really like when we play is that you go in and you don’t know the objective. There’s not some magical person at the door telling you the reason. How you complete this is that you have to go in and discover the objective, which is really fun. And the dungeons actually play really well into our endgame. Not only do you have the dungeons that you’re doing when you’re playing through the campaign regularly for, say, new gear or a particular thing, but at the end, all of a sudden you have Nightmare dungeons.
Shely: So because the dungeons exist in the world, they’re real places. As you’re doing the endgame activities where even more choice becomes available from the whispers, the Nightmare dungeon to the expanded Paragon system that we’ve revealed a little sneak peek of in the video there. You can upgrade the dungeons with these sigils to make them Nightmare dungeons, and they become more dangerous. The additional affixes are applied to them that make the monsters more dangerous or can even give you advantages.
You’ll get a wide variety of sigils with all kinds of different affixes on them. So there’s, once again, player choice in which sigils you want to do. And if you get a sigil that is for a dungeon that you don’t think is well suited to your class, you just skip that one–do a different one.
Ferguson: Nightmare dungeons are our take on Rifts, and so if you’ve played Diablo 3 there would be a thing in town and you just go to it and opens a portal and off you go and you’re standing in town going to it over and over. And now we have these Nightmare dungeons, which is like running a Rift in a way, but it has a sense of place. And so Joe has sigils, I have sigils and we’re like, “Okay, where do we want to go? We have to go somewhere now,” and, “Okay, let’s mount up, get on our horses and we’re going to ride west.” And because that dungeon has a particular type of loot that we want to have or type of gear that we want to get. And so I love that feeling of place and not just grabbing a portal in town every time.
So one of the interesting things that I saw is the stronghold system. How does that impact the sense of place? Because it seems like you liberate areas almost, so how does that feed into the narrative that you’re telling?
Shely: So the strongholds are a key part of the open world. We really wanted the player to be able to meaningfully make changes to the world and for actions to have an effect on what’s happening in the world of Sanctuary. So when you encounter these strongholds, there are a variety of them in the different areas. And there’ll be some that have been overrun with monsters. By clearing them out, you’ll be able to restore them to a relatively safe place for Sanctuary. Non-player characters will show up and you can unlock side quests, additional dungeons can be revealed as the consequence, and the strongholds will stay transformed as a result of your actions on that character throughout.
Fergusson: It’s interesting. When you’re playing, strongholds are, in RPG terms, instances where essentially it’s private. And so when you get to a stronghold, when you go to liberate a stronghold, it’s a private moment. So you go in with your party and you go and do that fight. But as soon as you win that fight, then that area flips into a social space. So now it becomes, as Joe was just saying, it could be a town, it could be a dungeon, it could be a new waypoint to teleport to–but now the other players can be in there as well. And so that idea of going through and finding all these private strongholds that you flip into social spaces that provide you benefit to help navigate the world–new gear and loop through a dungeon, those sorts of things–[is] a fun way to change the world as you’re playing.
Shely: Local events are dynamic things that are occurring in the world over time. And so, as you’re running through the world, maybe you’re going to do a quest or maybe you’re going to find a dungeon, you might run across a local event. There are lots of different events that can occur and they exist for a period of time, so you might run through the same area and one time there’s an event there and another time there’s not, and what event you might see might be different as well. When you’re doing the event, you can encounter other players who are doing the event at the same time, because it is a shared world there.
Fergusson: They’re indicated on your map and so as you’re riding along, you’ll see, “Oh, there’s an event, a shared event happening over there.” And so you can steer off into it and bring your party with you. And then because it’s on the map, others will see it too, so you can go and do it together and it’s a great opportunity because then it has that optional feeling to it of, “Hey, we worked well together. Do you want to party up? Hey, let’s just accomplish this one goal. We’re all going to get our gear from it and then move on.” But it’s that feeling that there’s things always happening in the world.
You’re not always just be bee-lining a golden path towards something because as you’re going, they’ll be like, “Oh, I see a dungeon on the map. Oh, I see a shared event coming up. Oh wow. A world boss is about to appear. Let’s all go do that, because I want to get the gear from that.” Or even the small stuff, “Oh, there’s a treasure golem that’s now going to drag me halfway across the world because I try to chase them down to get hopefully a legendary item from it.” So there’s lots of things to interact with in the world.
And I guess it really helps that you’re leveraging cross-play across both PC and console. What’s it been like to see Diablo from this incredibly niche PC game to now a game that anyone can play on console?
Fergusson: For me, it’s just pride around accessibility and just having more people play. The fact that we look at, for example, bringing Diablo 2: Resurrected to console, being able to have controller support on mobile for Immortal, being able to bring Immortal to PC. So people can play on big screens with mouse and keyboard and controller. It’s just about giving the opportunity for as many people to play as possible and not being in that niche category. And so that to me is just pride that we can have that greater reach.
Touching on PvP, is there a specific structure or a way that you’re implementing that? Is it a formalized process or is it as you’re running around and suddenly you’re marked and now everyone’s after you?
Shely: Yeah. So the way I would describe it is that certain areas of the world have been corrupted by these Fields of Hatred, and when a player enters one of these areas, they can be attacked by other players.
Shely: You can mark yourselves, if you want to engage other players who are not hostile, but at any time when you’re inside one of these areas, you can be attacked by other hostile players. And there are other monsters in the area as well. And when you’re in one of these areas, there’s an additional currency that you can get, these shards of hatred. But in order to trade in these shards of hatred for exclusive rewards related to PvP, cosmetic armor sets, and other really cool stuff, you need to convert them out in the field, in the area where you might be attacked. And if you’re attacked and slain while carrying them you’ll drop them. And the victor can steal them from you. It’s a very dynamic area, but it’s entirely optional too. We let you know when you’re entering the area. Yeah. So if you don’t want to engage with PVP, you’re not missing out.
Fergusson Yeah. And then it’s also one of the things I love about that is that when you’re collecting these charges of hatred, if you’re having success as a PvP player and you continue to take on other players and win, you get to this point where then you get marked as, “Oh, we know there’s this high value PvP player out there.” And it’s almost a call for people to come and get and attack you. And this is a bounty on your head because whoever collects those shards can go and turn them in for big rewards. And so that idea is that if you’re really strong, more people are going to know about you and be able to hunt you down.
So you spoke a bit about the endgame and the others that you showed off and you mentioned how it’s the beginning of a different type of game for Diablo 4. Can you talk about what that means? Obviously people are familiar with endgames, but it felt like you were trying to do more with it than just play this game endlessly.
Fergusson: Yeah. Not necessarily everybody understands the idea of an endgame. I think they’re familiar with new game plus, almost start over being stronger, but that idea of endgame is really about what happens when the story is over. Is there still a game there to play? And that’s something that we’re really proud about with Diablo 4. D3, when it was released 10 years ago, didn’t have an endgame. When you finish the story, you were done there. There wasn’t a reason to keep playing and get more powerful and go have new experiences where with D4, we’ve actually put a lot of effort into having an end game at launch.
Shely: I think what you said is really important. We know that it’s fun to build your character and discover all these powerful builds. And we also think it’s really important to have content to test yourself against. So we’ve really tried to expand the variety of activities. And as Rod said, the game, when you finish the campaign, you might be level 45 or something. Your character level goes up to a hundred through Paragon points. And you get access to whispers, you get access to Nightmare dungeons, other endgame activities that we’re still working on. We really wanted you to have a wide variety of things to do. And of course, you’ve got world tiers that are allowing you to step up the keep, make sure that the difficulty of the world stays on pace with the power of your character level. And to unlock those, you actually need to prove to complete a dungeon to access that more difficult content. So it goes back to the idea of making a build, making it powerful, and then testing yourself against some challenge
Fergusson: So a Paragon system, if you play D3 the Paragon system was just basically sliders and on a couple of different aspects of your character. In D4, Paragon is an actual board. Think of it as a checkerboard. It’s much more granular than that, but for simplicity’s sake, say a checkerboard, and you have to navigate your way by unlocking squares as you move across the board. Each of those squares could be plus five strength or a different ability or something that enhances your skills. And so you’re able to click these different boards together and make your own path through. That’s one of the things we really like about Diablo 4. Even if Joe and I both were creating a Barbarian, and even if we both wanted to be Whirlwind Barbarians as an example, we could still have completely different builds.
And that’s what really makes Diablo 4 unique–we’re not ending up at the same place. There are a lot of games that when you’re done, everybody’s the same, and that’s not the case in D4. And so I think people are going to love the new Paragon system. That idea is so much richer than we’ve ever had before as a Paragon system and when you see what it can do to your character, you really want to find that optimal path across the board. And then when you go to connect the next board, you can actually rotate it to pick the path you want to go through. It’s a really cool system.
Traditionally in endgames usually what happens is people that get there eventually are funneled into a specific build for a meta. How viable are the variety of different builds? Is it a case where anyone can figure out a good way to really succeed in the endgame or eventually are you going to need to optimize, and basically everyone’s going to have a very similar character?
Shely: Well, I would say that as players get to understand a game, they naturally find particularly powerful effects, but our system design team is working really hard to make a wide variety of builds viable, including at endgame, so that the idea of player choice will continue. And you were mentioning the Paragon board–you can sock it into the board and you can upgrade those by completing Nightmare dungeons. So there’s really a lot of diversity available within the builds themselves. And because Diablo 4 is a live service we will be continuing to balance the game so that we can make sure that there are always a variety of builds that are viable and you’re not focused into only one.
Fegusson: And as a new player you can see that things are categorized in certain ways that help you understand, like, “Oh, this could be leaning me towards something.” So the Necromancer, for a great example, there’s a category of blood magic, or there’s a category of bone magic, or there’s a category of shadow magic and your summoner skills. And so you might go, “Oh, I’m going to make a blood Necro or a bone Necro or a shadow Necro or a minionless Necromancer, or a full minion version. And so there’s some suggestions because you can just easily categorize some stuff, but the way they synergize together and the way that you can pick different skills [adds variety].
And then one legendary piece of gear, one shield drops that you weren’t expecting, and it enhances some particular skill, completely changes how you want to play the game and what your build will be. And so the fact that Joe and I might have different gear means we have different Necros, the fact that we have different Paragon choices [means] we have different Necros so it doesn’t all end up where everybody’s the same for sure. That’s why we talk about choice as the big keyword for Diablo 4.
You mentioned Diablo 4 being a live-service game and what live-service games mean now is quite different from what it used to be when D3 was coming out. A lot of the expectations for a live-service game now is that, once you’ve completed a campaign, there are additional stories that are coming along. Is that something that you plan to do?
Fergusson: There’s a lot that we’re looking at doing for post-launch. We have a lot of plans when you think about that in terms of seasons, but not the way that seasons are for Diablo 3. There’s a twist on that. And we do want to continue to expand that world and tell new stories and continue to tell stories that are happening within Sanctuary. So I think people are going to be really excited about what kinds of content and features and things they’ll be able to do post-launch because that’s one of the things we really learned a lot.
I think a lesson from Diablo 3 is that we’ve had great success with the seasons. We’re still [getting] millions of players [to] come back and play for hundreds of millions of hours, but we know that they want more. And that’s what I really feel great about. So much Diablo is coming now, is that we’re actually able to help satiate some of the fan desires and what they’re really to get at Diablo 4 is not only a great launch, but a very rich post-launch.
You mentioned lessons from Diablo 3. Is there anything else you took away from that experience? Diablo’s been on one hell of a journey, from the start where it was slightly controversial, then you got to a place where it was a really cool game, especially with the releases on console. But the sentiment around it was like it’s that classic thing where the first impression you make is the one that lasts.
Fergusson: Well, I think it’s funny. There’s sometimes perception is reality, but when we talk about Diablo 4 being the culmination of the franchise, because it wants to respect the past. And so when you look at what goes into Diablo 4, I like to use the formula that it feels it’s the dark tone of Diablo 1, it’s the progression of Diablo 2, it’s the visceral combat of Diablo 3. And then it has its own unique innovations in Diablo 4 with the shared open world and all the things we talked about with player choice. I think one of the things I talked about in comparison to Diablo 2 is different is that idea about what’s intrinsic to your character [and] what’s intrinsic to your equipment. And so you’re not just changing your clothes to change your build.
But I also think as part of it is some people felt like Diablo 3 might have been a little brighter than say the previous two entries. And that actually in some ways, made it more accessible, because over 65 million people have played it. So people go, “Oh, it doesn’t feel D1 or D2. And 65 million people played it–this is a good game, it’s fun to play.” But that’s why when we talk about “return to darkness,” I think it’s that notion of we’re honoring the past about what do you want to see represented as a cult classic feel to it, and in allowing ourselves to go a little darker. I think people are going to be a little bit surprised going to D4. When they see some of those cutscenes kick in you’re like, “Oh, they meant it when they said return to darkness.”
Shely: That’s true. It is. It’s definitely a return to darkness. And I think there are lots of ways that we’ve looked at lessons learned from previous games too. You know, Paragon is capped. One of the great innovations we made with legendary items, and again speaking to that idea of having multiple builds available, is that you can take legendary power off an item and move it to another item. So it really opens up the ability to customize your gear.
Fergusson: That has transformed the game. This is true. We don’t talk about that enough. In previous games, you would pick up a shield that had this thing that would make, like, “Can summon two more skeleton mages. And you’re like, “Oh, I have to keep this… My build needs those two extra mages.” And eventually your level would outpace it, and I don’t want to give up the shield. I’m going to carry this shield even though it’s weak, because I want this ability. And now in Diablo 4, you can actually extract that off the shield, get a new legendary that’s at your level and put that onto it. And so that idea of being able to hold onto your build and be able to truly customize your character by taking legendary powers, extracting them from one thing and imbuing them into another, that fundamentally changes the build system.
Fergusson: You can actually make rares into legendary. That’s true. Even the gear that’s dropping for you [gives you] some control about how you use those powers. You can put them in your stash. I can collect 30 different legendary powers, put them on my stash, and wait for that right moment so that when all my build is clicking to put it on my equipment and make my perfect Necro.
Fergusson. Yeah. But we’re going to hit it. One of the great things about what we’re doing is the way that we play test the game. One of the things I came to learn the name of when I came to Blizzard a couple years ago is this notion of soup tasting. And it’s a way of playing the game and getting it played the whole thing all the way through with all the systems firing. They call it soup tasting because it’s like, “Oh, does it need a little more salt, a little more stock? Is it just tasting just right? Is the recipe correct?” And we’ve been doing multiple internal alphas. We’re inviting the whole company to come play it.
We’re getting all this great feedback. And so you can feel it because you’re playing the whole game from prologue to epilogue through the endgame. We’ve been doing this for multiple tests. And so it’s palpable. And that’s why I say, really the energy and the momentum on the team is because you can see the finish line. You can see the game and you’re playing the game and you know what it feels like. And you know it’s good. And so now we just have to finish it.
Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot, he has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.