We were fortunate to spend our week with a private test build of Diablo IV. With over ten hours of gameplay under our belt, we sat down with members of the design team to discuss their highly anticipated game. After sharing my high praise and enthusiasm for the title, I asked Lead Class Designer Adam Jackson and Producer Ash Sweetring about new features, Diablo IV’s live service model and what to expect from the ongoing development roadmap. You can read what the team had to say in our full interview below.
For members of our audience who may be unfamiliar with Diablo, in your opinion, what is it that makes the franchise so compelling?
Ash Sweetring: My personality, it’s not quite the personality you’d associate with something like Diablo, right? That kind of draws me closer to it. That dark essence just makes it so alluring. Then the way we are able to tell stories contributes to the want for people to know what’s going on. It’s almost like a secret that everybody wants to be a part of. That’s one of the biggest pull factors for me. Diablo just does such an incredible job with storytelling and really jumping into the lore. It’s fascinating. There’s always more and more than you can find and pick up on and that personally interests me and catches my eye.
Adam Jackson: I’d say there are two things that make the Diablo franchise and Diablo games, in particular, very compelling. The first one, like Ash mentioned, is this really rich history and story. It’s just a world that you can get lost in, especially in Diablo IV. This is the first time we’re introducing Sanctuary to players in a way that they can just go around and explore and find things and talk to people and get to know the world and story. We have such a deep and long history with this franchise, and if you just want to get lost in another world, this is a really cool way to do that.
Second, I’d say that Diablo is really separate from everything else in the deep systems and gameplay mechanics that you have. If you want to have a fantasy like, ‘I’m a Barbarian‘ or ‘ I’m a Sorcerer in this dark world, and I just want to go and do cool things‘, as that class, you can do that. Not only can you do that, but the way our gameplay and combat systems and everything work, you can do that for a really long time, and you can do it over and over again, exploring different fantasies and ways to play. The mix of that with the storytelling elements is why, I think, this franchise has lasted for so long and is so compelling for so many people.
What have you learned from other installments, including Diablo Immortal, that has helped shape D4?
AJ: So much. There are so many lessons that we’ve learned along the way. If you think way back to when we made the original Diablo games and the way they’re consumed and designed has changed significantly over the years. Back then, a lot more people just wanted to play by themselves, and that was the only way they played. There was a lot less information available, whereas now, you know, the internet just finds things out because there are so many people that are excited about different things that come out. Not just within the Diablo franchise, but I would say Blizzard as a whole in the gaming industry has changed in so many interesting ways. We’ve grown and had to design things with far more of a fine-toothed comb because players just consume this stuff so fervently.
There are just so many lessons we took from our other titles. Like in Diablo II, I think we really learned about class fantasy and how important that is. People want to make a character and feel like, ‘I want this to be me, I want to have that experience and be a part of that story‘. Then Diablo III and even Diablo Immortal taught us a lot about combat and how to make moment-to-moment gameplay decisions. We learned the importance of that and how to make that feel really good for the player.
I think Diablo IV marries the best of both worlds here, we’ve got this really dark fantasy, really good world-building and class fantasy. We’ve also got the combat and the scariness of the monsters in the world. We took a lot of the best of all of our previous titles and put them into this one.
There are a few little changes to gameplay that I’m really enjoying, things like the evade ability and no longer having to Tetris inventory items. Can you tell us about any other tweaks to gameplay that you particularly like?
AJ: Evade is the big one. We’ve talked about that a lot lately. The ability to have that snappy movement in combat is something the class team is really proud of. There are a lot of quality-of-life things that are unique to our game, like when you open your map, you can put a little pin down, and it’ll tell you where to go without having a complete overlay so that you’re not really seeing your character most of the time. The town portal can now be used all the time, that’s a recent change we made to our game that is a little bit more convenient so that you have to worry less about inventory management.
AS: There’s the emote section, that’s something new that we’re adding to the game. Then traversals, where a player can actually hang or leap or slide between different platforms. That has been really fun to play with. In general, I totally echo Adam, and because we have so many quality-of-life improvements, it’s kind of hard to list them all. I think what is important there is that they’re noticeable when you’re playing. It’s one thing to have a quality-of-life action taken on a game, and you don’t really feel or emphasize it at all, really. The Diablo team took a lot of liberties in making sure that those quality-of-life experiences are actually noticed by the player inside of Diablo IV.
Yeah, I was in a dungeon last night and came to the end of a path like – okay, can’t go that way, which way do I go? Then realised I could climb up the wall that was blocking me.
AS: They have been really fun to design. It’s incredible how many teams have a say in those types of mechanics right up front. Behind the scenes, so many different teams are involved with small actions like that, and it’s really great to see them all come together with such a great result.
It makes exploring feel really seamless and action-packed because you’re always in motion. I’m really enjoying the test. Can you tell us anything about public testing?
AJ: At this time we haven’t really announced anything about dates or public testing. We’re going to be coming out next year, but no announcements yet for public testing.
We’ve heard a lot about the new shared world experience. For players that aren’t as keen or maybe feel more immersed in a solo adventure, will there be options to dilute how many other players you see in the world?
AS: I am that exact player you’re referring to. I’m very shy, and I’m awkward, and the moment you show me ‘hey, here’s the mic button’ I kind of panic. I don’t want anything to do with that. This and PvP, which is something we’re introducing later, is a mechanic that is so important to the game, but we wanted to make sure that we included the liberties of making sure that every single type of playstyle and player is acceptable in the game. We’re considering people like me who would rather just get lost in some side content for hours, enjoy some dungeons, and look at the horrifying monsters that I don’t want to hang around for too long.
There’s also that hardcore sense of satisfaction you’ll get as a seasoned Diablo player because you’re not gonna be missing out on any of that content. We’ve dedicated more time to make sure that we satisfy the needs of both of those different players and everyone in between. I think that’s something really special about Diablo IV because it’s really unique, and you can feel it.
Will there be an offline mode, or does the shared world require a persistent internet connection?
AS: An internet connection is absolutely necessary for Diablo IV. We won’t be supporting any offline at this time.
You mentioned Diablo IV’s “return to darkness” during the brief. Can you tell us a bit more about that and any inspiration or source material that has inspired you, personally or your team?
AJ: Really, I think a lot of our source material comes from our older games. As a team, we knew that we really liked that tone, especially in Diablo. You’re out there, you’re alone, and you can’t even run. You’re walking around these tiny caves and dungeons, and the world is closed in and scary and dark. We wanted to really go back to that gothic horror sense of the world. Diablo II had a decent amount of it too, but we’ve gone a little bit lighter over time. This was kind of us resetting and being like no, we wanna go back there. That was really cool, we thought it was really awesome.
The fantasy, the visuals, the art, the gameplay, there’s a lot more to it than just – oh, it’s a dark game. There are a lot of ways that you can make that happen, and some of the more exciting ways that maybe you wouldn’t think of are the way we translated that into combat. The evade button came from wanting monsters to be scarier and more threatening, and if everyone has an evade button, that means we can do that. A lot of people think oh, an evade button makes me more powerful, but we don’t see it that way. The way we see it; evade means that we get to make players more scared of the stuff that we could do to them because we know they have this ability.
There’s a lot that went into it, but I really think the biggest thing was just us wanting to go back to our roots a little bit and explore the world of Sanctuary. This being an open-world game means we can go to that dark theme way more than in our other titles, where you couldn’t really explore the world in this way. We thought, if we’re going to let people see Sanctuary, we want to really show Sanctuary the way it was meant to be seen.
AS: One of the cool things about working with a team as talented as we have is that they’re able to have an idea in their head and equally pool reference material and scour the internet for all sorts of things and also just able to brain game these ideas that are just horrific and terrifying, and then we’re able to bring those to life and fit them in a way that is so compelling in our story and fit our needs in general. It’s so incredible to be able to work with people like that and to actually see the gears in their heads turning as they’re going through from concept to interaction and everything in between.
Really, Diablo IV isn’t for the weak of heart and it’s going to be a game that we will say you probably shouldn’t play with your children. It’s going to have a lot of different horrors and gothic aspects to it. It’s a shocking story, really. I think that is a good way to describe it. It’s very shocking but in the most tasteful way possible. It pulls you in and keeps you wanting more and more. We’ve harnessed that energy, we understand it, and we want to give more of that to the players.
When designing dungeons, how do you keep them fresh?
AS: That’s a great question. We’re constantly looking in comparison to what we’ve already done, what we’ve experienced before and opportunities that the player hasn’t had yet or hasn’t been introduced to. In particular, tile sets. Tile sets describe what we use in order to build each of the dungeons. It gives them character, it gives them style, and it really art-ifies the scene. We have put so much time into ensuring that the assets and the tile sets that we’re putting together for the immersive experience inside the dungeon is different each time you go in. Each time you enter the dungeon, it’s going to be a random experience, it’s going to be different every time you enter, so it’s going to really immerse you.
One of the things the team has found especially helpful is having an idea in mind and then bringing it to the table for the rest of the artists to consider. That way, we’re all kind of piecemealing off of each other’s ideas for a much larger concept that we’re able to bring together in such a beautiful way. One of my favourite tile sets, in general, is a crypt scene. It’s really grungy and dirty, and you actually feel grungy and dirty when you’re inside it. I think that hits the nail on the head; if you’re able to depict the way you want a player to feel with something visual like that, I think that’s a really good sign.
Roughly how many unique dungeons are in Diablo IV?
AS: That, I’m going to hold in for ourselves here, but we have publically released that there will be at least 120. I won’t go into any further detail than that.
Earlier, you emphasised players being able to play Diablo IV the way they want to play and feel like they have control and autonomy over who their character is. How has that idea influenced the design of classes and class builds?
AJ: Significantly. I could for hours on this, and I have with my team many times. From the ground up, this is probably the most important thing we think about when designing classes. We have certain pillars on our team of the way we think and the questions we constantly ask ourselves whenever we’re like ‘hey, I wanna do this’. We ask, what about all of these things that we care about? We’re constantly challenging ourselves in that way. To give you an idea of a couple of things that we think about and why this core theme comes up in so many different ways is that one of our pillars is that we want to deliver the fantasy of our classes.
When you pick a class, say a barbarian, there are a lot of fantasies that we could attach like I’m strong, I’m physically powerful, I can get mad and do things. They’re basic concepts, but then we add our own fantasies on top of that. Out of the fantasies that you would expect to play when you log into the game, we created ideas like the Berserking Barbarian where you’re really mad, and you want to keep that buff up all the time or the master of weapons where you’re swapping between different weapons and really tactical and just this beast that’s mowing through enemies. We’re thinking of the way that we expect players to want to play, and then we make sure that we’re delivering that via gameplay and the different builds that you can create within those fantasies. Checking boxes that we know players are going to want.
The Sorcerer is a little different, you have a lightning skill, a fire skill and an ice skill. Right away, you’re thinking about casting using all of these elements and ‘what fantasies we would want to deliver?‘. Then we hook up different gameplay mechanics and ways to build. The tricky part is making sure that within a single fantasy, there are multiple ways to play. I don’t want my fire Sorcerer to look exactly the same as yours. That’s a whole other challenge to overcome. We put destinations for players, with these fantasies, with the ways they want to play, and then we create multiple roads to get there. You’ll notice that in the skill tree, every single skill in the game has two exclusive choices so that you can customise that skill for you. Individually, that’s already neat, but when you can do it across six skills on your action bar, that’s a lot of different ways that you could potentially build your fire Sorcerer, for example.
On top of that, we have legendary items that further enhance and change the customisation. We have over a hundred legendary powers in the game that can change the way you play. The combination of these different things means that even though you and I might be playing the same general fantasy, what we care about, how we play, how we engage in combat, and the stats we prioritise could be completely different. That’s where we really want to sell this idea that Diablo IV really is your very own character, and you can make it the way you want. There are a whole lot of ways to make it successful and make it feel interesting.
What goes into ensuring the classes and their builds are balanced to avoid the formation of a meta?
AJ: Yeah, that’s a great question – that’s the eternal problem for game designers, right? I would say expecting perfect balance all the time is a fallacy. It doesn’t really happen in any game. Our players, the way they consume content, they’re just too smart nowadays. Even if something is 0.001% better, a lot of players are still gonna flock to it. So we’re not making our goal that everything is exactly the same because it’s just too big of a game. When it comes to balance, so we have three different core things that we care about. The first is within a class we have certain ways that we present that class to players and those should be relatively equal to each other in power, as close as we can get. We do care about that because we want builds to be competitive with each other. It won’t be perfect but it’ll be close enough that we think they will be competitive.
Then we zoom out, and then between different classes, we want them to also be competitive. So the Sorcerer should be competitive with the Barbarian as a whole package. The minimum bar that we expect to hit and where we would consider it a failure if it didn’t is that every single class should be able to complete the main campaign, and they should be able to complete all of our end-game content up to the most difficult in the game. A player should be able to do that with the power level that every class and every main spec within a class has. If we’ve hit that bar, we think we’re good enough.
Now, when you get to the super top end of players, like the 0.001% of people that are super into min-maxing, we’re not expecting them to go with that. This is okay because we plan to support this game for a long time, we plan to be patching the game and fixing things when something inevitably becomes too powerful. We are going to go in, and we are willing to make changes and adjustments so that gameplay stays fresh.
Can you explain how Diablo IV’s open world differs from previous Diablo titles?
AJ: It’s a totally different experience. All of our older Diablo games had very set areas, maps and places that you could go. The dungeons that you could explore, sure, they were individually randomised inside, but you only had so many areas, and you didn’t really have the ability that we have in Diablo IV to really get to know the townspeople and interact with them and just go wherever you want. In an open-world setting, we’re able to tell the story of Sanctuary in a way we never could before. Before, it was very much on rails. You go through Act I, Act II, Act II – there’s this pre-set thing that happens.
We still have the main campaign where that is true, but there is so much more stuff in the world to do. There are so many people to talk to, more events and progression features and little things that you can find in the world that can make your character more powerful. We were never really able to do that successfully in the past, I think, to the extent that we can now. It’s a large game changer, the way we’re able to present the world of Sanctuary to players.
Diablo IV also adds extended character customisation to the franchise for the first time. Should we expect to see more character customisation options on launch or down the track?
AJ: We’ve gone through a lot of painstaking work to make sure that character customisation is as robust as possible. I can’t really give anything away, but the list of things that we would like to do is very long, and we’re always adding more stuff. It’s one of the nice things about having this game as a live service. There are so many ideas that everyone on the team has like – ‘wouldn’t this be cool?’ and we’re definitely putting a ton of those into the launch version of the game, but we’ve already got a backlog of stuff that we want to do that we already know is going to be cooler, so we’re leaving space.
The players kind of control the content of the game a little bit too, right? We don’t just build a game by ourselves. Diablo IV isn’t Blizzard’s first rodeo when it coms to building a live service game. the team has a ton of experience making games and making them with the community over a long period of time. We’ve done it with World of Warcraft, we’ve done it here and in Overwatch and Hearthstone. You name it. We’ve done this before. A lot of what we decide to prioritise will be based on player feedback. If they really want some type of feature, we can decide we’re going to do that first before all of the other things that we care about because we know that the players really want that and we’re willing to do that.
AS: I think that’s a part of growth. We want to continue iterating and making Diablo IV the best product possible. There are always going to be opportunities for us to look back and ask, ‘how can we improve this? What can we do better? What are people asking for? What are our needs and what are our wants at this time?‘ It’s a constantly moving flux of things that we want to do. We’re always looking into what we can do and what we can improve.
That’s all very encouraging, I am, as I’m sure you are, excited for other people to experience this game now.
AS: We’re really excited, and it’s fun to hear the enthusiasm of everybody else. The devs are beyond excited, and we’re so eager to just get this into your hands and share the fun that we’re all going to have. We’re very excited.
AJ: We’ve been hiding in this black box in the back quarter of the room working on all of this, and we’re finally ready to release it to the world.
Diablo IV will officially launch on June 6, 2023, on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC via Microsoft Windows. You can read our detailed preview of the title here and qualify for access to the Early Open Beta by pre-ordering the game right here.