Diablo: Immortal won’t stand in Diablo IV’s shadow

Diablo: Immortal didn’t have a big presence at this year’s BlizzCon. Instead, Blizzard Entertainment focused on announcing new titles, such as Diablo IV. Last year, the reveal of Diablo: Immortal for mobile angered many of the franchise’s fans, a lot of which are hardcore PC gamers.

Blizzard had enough controversy on its plate before this BlizzCon with the Blitzchung situation, so it wasn’t too surprising to see Diablo: Immortal go unmentioned during the opening ceremonies. But the mobile action role-playing game was playable on the show floor. And you know what? It’s not bad. Diablo: Immortal is fun and doing some interesting experiments with the franchise’s formula.

At BlizzCon, I interviewed Diablo: Immortal lead game designer Wyatt Cheng and lead game producer Caleb Arseneaux. I asked them about Diablo: Immortal’s relationship with Diablo IV and all the ways its standing out from other entries in the series.

Not the only Diablo in town

GamesBeat: Is it a relief that Diablo IV is announced?

Wyatt Cheng: I’m super-excited for the team. We’ve known about Diablo IV for years. I’m super-proud of everything that they’ve done. From walking around the floor and talking to people who played the demo, they’re super-excited. I think that it does provide context, that there are two awesome Diablo games in the works. I think that’s always been the plan, and that’s now well-understood by everyone, which is awesome.

GamesBeat: Was there a reason for Immortal not being a part of the opening ceremonies this year?

Caleb Arseneaux: I think it was just a matter of focus and avoiding confusion. We wanted Diablo IV to have its own [time], to have everyone be able to focus on that awesome reveal. We’re launching this huge thing. We wanted to give that team some space to be able to really tell their story. It was just about avoiding that confusing message of having a bunch of Diablo up there from a couple different games.

Cheng: We did discuss — while we know there are people who want to hear more about Diablo: Immortal, we didn’t want to cause this confusion. We prepped a gameplay development update video and a blog post that we released immediately after the opening ceremonies. That way it’s really clear what is Immortal and what is Diablo IV.

GamesBeat: With two Diablo games in development, how are those teams interacting with each other? 

Cheng: I can speak on the design side. I’m friends with all of the people on that team. We’re actually in the same building. The Diablo IV team is straight down the hall. We bump into each other in the break room all the time. There’s definitely this shared understanding that we’re working on the same universe. But we also make the best decisions that we can for our game. My responsibility is to make sure that Diablo: Immortal is as fun as it can be. Sometimes that involves doing something that’s actually very similar to what Diablo IV is doing, and sometimes it involves doing something different. We don’t go out of our way to be the same or different. We just make the best decisions we can for our game. I’ll bounce ideas off of them, if I’m working on a problem, and they’ll give me their feedback. Then we’ll make decisions for our game.

Arseneaux: We’re in the same building. We see each other a lot. We actually encourage and give each other advice, not just on the leadership level, but just our staff. Both teams are always mingling together, sharing ideas. I think that results in a lot of richness that comes from that combined environment.

Diablo: Immortal devs Caleb Arseneau (left) and

Above: Diablo: Immortal devs Caleb Arseneaux (left) and Wyatt Cheng.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: One of the cool things I noticed when I was playing the demo is the way there’s these spell combos. I did a fire spell, and then the wind one, and they interactred.

Cheng: Firestorm, yeah.

GamesBeat: How did you develop that system?

Cheng: It’s about making every skill feel really cool. It’s not a grand overarching method by which everything interacts. It’s more like, hey, how do we make scorch really cool? How do we make the wizard really cool? Can we create these interactions? There was this idea that maybe the arcane winds and the fire could have this interaction and we could try to incorporate that into all these different places. But that particular interaction was very much a bottom-up, here are some opportunities to do something cool, let’s do it.

GamesBeat: Is that only working with my spells? If I was playing with another Wizard, would that same interaction still work?

Cheng: It’s not clear which way it would be at ship. I lean toward just being your own interactions, to avoid an incentive to try to stack one class. But we’ll have to see. We still have legendary items as well, and the legendary items are really going to have a lot of impact. There’s the skills, and then the way skills interact, but then the legendaries are going to make your interactions with your character even more complex and involved. And so that might end up mattering more. We might be able to allow it to work with party members as well. We’ll see.

GamesBeat: I noticed what you’re talking about, because I got an item that turned my fireball into more of a frozen orb. It reminded me of a spell from Warcraft. Diablo IV has a similar system, with items changing spells. Does this help make loot more fun?

Cheng: For Diablo: Immortal, when we looked at our item system — when we looked at skill runes in Diablo III, where as you leveled up you’d unlock five different skill runes that would change how a skill work, that was an area where we felt like, you know what, those should really be legendary items. Rather than just giving you these options as you level up, we should reward you for killing monsters by giving you an item drop where you can make equipping decisions to modify the skills. We do feel like that’s a method that makes a lot of sense.

Loot and levels

GamesBeat: I noticed that the game wasn’t dropping a ton of loot, but what I did find was pretty high quality stuff. Is that the goal?

Cheng: That’s something that is in active development. If you saw the game nine months ago, it would be different than four months ago, internally. We’ve tried a lot more loot. We had a point in time where the internal builds were giving a lot of items. We’ve had an internal build a couple months ago where we had almost no items at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure where we’ll land, ultimately. I am pretty happy with where we are now. It is kind of what you’re saying, where, hey, there’s a certain rate of loot that could feel right. I don’t think mobile devices handle tons of inventory manipulation super well. That’s something we’re cognizant of. We want to make sure that you’re able to make interesting gearing decisions, but we don’t want you doing that every minute and a half, going through five items and comparing the tooltips. We want you to be able to still have that customization aspect without the user interface overhead.

GamesBeat: What is progression like? Is there anything beyond leveling up and learning new spells? Does something else happening as you climb levels?

Cheng: We have a bunch of different systems. Nothing we’re talking about today. But we are looking at how to make sure there is a sense of progression, not only as you’re leveling up and playing the story, but also at max level, making sure that there’s endgame content. We’re also looking to things other than just levels. I don’t think I can talk about any of them today, but we are trying to bring in some of the story and narrative and sense of the world, finding ways for you to feel like you’re progressing through methods other than just making a number bigger.

Above: Diablo: Immortal playable at BlizzCon 2019.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: Another thing that surprised me is how much story content there was. Why is that such an important part of Diablo: Immortal?

Arseneaux: Story is a huge part of the franchise, of the whole universe. Because we’re set between Diablo II and Diablo III, we felt like it was important to tell the story, the connective tissue between those two games. Not just put down the flag of where the game is set and never talk about that again. We want players to engage with the story of how the Worldstone was shattered and you’re recovering these shards from the world and all the problems that having that power out there in the wrong hands has led to. We think that’s an interesting story. We’re invested in telling it.

GamesBeat: Is it fun to get to play with characters like Xul the Necromancer, to bring him back and kind of flesh him out a bit?

Cheng: Necromancer pun!

Arseneaux: Obviously our team is passionate about all the characters that Blizzard has made. Any opportunity to bring in someone in an authentic way, we’ll take advantage of that. That’s a good example.

GamesBeat: Can you talk me through the process of selecting the classes that are in Diablo: Immortal?

Cheng: In a lot of ways we want to make sure that there are classes that represent different play styles. We want to make sure that there are some melee characters. That’s where the Barbarian fits in, and the crusader definitely fits in. We want to feel like some characters definitely look more in the good side, and some are more on the darker side, and so you have the monk and the Necro. Obviously melee and ranged, so we have the demon hunter and the Wizard. A lot of the process just looks like a lot of diversity of play styles. Some people like being melee. Some people like being ranged. Some people like being tanky. Some people like to be a little more glass cannon. Some people like the damage to come from their character. Some people like their damage to come from pets or the environment. A lot of the class selection process comes from that.

That said, we are looking to add more classes in the future. We have six classes planned for launch, but one thing we say a lot about Diablo: Immortal is this is planned to be run for many years, and updated regularly with content updates. We have already started just having initial conversations internally about what classes we might like to add post-release. I don’t want to talk too much about the future, but I think there’s value in knowing that we think about the future. But from the player’s point of view I think we’ll stay focused on day one when we get close to launch.

GamesBeat: I know you don’t have monetization plans laid out, but has that been big area of focus, trying to figure that out and get that right?

Cheng: First, you’re totally right that our first focus is making sure the game is fun. We want to make the gameplay as awesome, that it feels like an authentic Diablo experience, and I feel like the demo shows that. But people do ask about the monetization. I know that it’s top of mind for a lot of players. Hey, the game looks great, but what’s the monetization going to be? We don’t know yet. It’s something that we think about, and there’s lots of discussion around it, because we know it’s important to players. We know that — I’ve heard a lot of speculation about what it might be. We even heard speculation that we already somehow know, but we’re just not willing to talk about it. But it’s a hard problem, because we have a very broad audience. We have existing Diablo players who are interested in playing all things Diablo. We also want to bring new players and share with them the joy of playing Diablo. We want to take the time to get it right. We want to take time and figure out what makes sense for the game and work through all the little details to make sure that we get such an important question correct.

GamesBeat: Can you talk about being accessible to all players? Does that include not going quite as dark as maybe Diablo can go?

Arseneaux: Diablo: Immortal is still very action-packed. It is still very violent. It’s set in that same sort of dark, Gothic universe. I think that for our style, there’s a consideration for mobile readability. If you look at some of our elite packs and things like that, they’re easier to spot. We’ve tailored it specifically for mobile, so it’s easier to control and read.

Cheng: I hear from a lot of players that — even today, on the show floor, they said, when’s it coming out? I have a three-hour commute. I want to play this. What comes to my mind is, okay, well, we want to make sure that it works, that you’re able to enjoy it during your commute. This is one of the ways you can enjoy it. If you’re sitting next to the window and the sun’s glaring in, you can still see on your screen where the enemies are. That’s one of the considerations we have. How can we make this the best game experience for people in the way they’re going to play it?

Developing feedback

GamesBeat: Something that I really enjoyed was the UI. That felt really good. Obviously you’re still working on it, but is the UI pretty locked down?

Cheng: We’re still working on it. [Laughs] That’s the short answer. This is not the first version, but it will not be the last. I’m glad that you liked it. There’s a lot of things that I like too. I like the way the mini-map is coming along. I think the mini-map could be better. I like the way the quest tracker is coming along and the guidance arrow, telling you where to go next. I think it could be better. I like the way the inventory management works, but again, I think it could be better. So yes, lots of progress has been made over the last year, but we’re still grinding at the problem. I shouldn’t say the problem. It’s good the way it is. But I guess we just — any time there’s an opportunity for improvement, we’ll take it.

Arseneaux: That iteration, specifically, on the UI for a mobile title, it’s super important. We don’t want there to be any frustration or confusion about how things work. It should be almost self-evident, what everything is, from the first glance. It is good that you liked it, and we want to make sure that every person who picks it up knows immediately what to do.

Above: The skull of Diablo.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: A lot of people have been playing the game at the show. Have you had a chance to peer over shoulders, talk to people, and get a sense of what the response is like?

Cheng: Caleb and I spent about two hours signing posters yesterday. It was just nonstop, people saying they love the game, it’s super fun, it feels like Diablo, can’t wait to play. The reception has been really positive.

Arseneaux: We have it running at 60 fps on the show floor this year. We’ve focused a lot on that, making sure that the experience is optimized and that people can really engage and feel that smooth gameplay. We’ve heard a lot of comments on that. We have it available on both iPad and iPhone on the show floor. People have really taken to the iPad, because you can see how beautiful everything is. You can see all the elements really well. Especially on a really dark show floor environment, where there’s not a spotlight on the screen. But yeah, we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback specifically about some of the skills. We made a change to the whirlwind for barbarian. People have talked about that a lot.

Cheng: One of the things for Diablo: Immortal that we started going down is not having mana. Not having mana has really led to a few other interesting opportunities in design. One is, a lot of the abilities use charges. Hammer and Multishot, rather than being strictly cooldown-based, every couple seconds you get a charge. You can hold up to two or three charges depending on the skill. We feel like that works really well without needing to have a mana system to track. And for Whirlwind, Whirlwind gets its own power meter around the outside of the skill button. As you hold down the whirlwind button, it drains, and you can Whirlwind. Then, when you let go, it starts charging up again.

GamesBeat: Ray of Frost had a similar thing.

Cheng: Yeah, exactly. Ray of Frost is exactly the same way. If you say, I want to ray of frost for five seconds, you can do that, but now you’ll have to build up the whole thing. But if you just want to finish off this monster that’s getting away, you Ray of Frost for one and a half seconds, it drains, you let go, and it’s going to be ready again much sooner. We feel like that works really well. It replaces the need for mana, which is nice. It frees up a bit of the UI space. It lets you focus on the skills and how you want to use them, not tracking the UI element in the corner of your screen.

GamesBeat: What’s the structure of the game going to be like? Is it that classic four acts with single hub areas like in past Diablo games?

Arseneaux: We have eight pretty massive outdoor zones where you’re going to experience the main quest story and a bunch of other activities that we’ll be talking about pretty soon. There’s going to be a lot to do in each of those zones as you level up, as you gain more sweet loot, as we like to say. And then I believe last year we did talk about how Westmarch would be our main city, which is going to be a hub for players to be able to go into and experience a lot of the social systems that the game has to offer.

Cheng: I think about Orgrimmar or Stormwind in WoW and how cool it is to be in these capital cities and see other people running around doing their business. If I’m hanging out in Westmarch, do I get to see some sweet person run by in a nice suit of armor as they’re heading toward the blacksmith or something? We want to make sure we have that social experience.

GamesBeat: In Diablo III and Diablo IV, you’re using the basic attack button to build up a resource that you can spend on other skills. I found that in Immortal, I wasn’t using that basic attack as much since you don’t have mana. I was using skills over and over. Is that a design thing that you think you’re happy with, that people are focusing on skills, using that basic attack less, or do you want to make that attack more important?

Cheng: I am so glad that you asked! [Laughs] We had this exact discussion internally, about eight or nine months ago. Hey, what are we going to do about basic attack? I do like where basic attack is, because it lets your skills be a little more strategic as far as when you use them, but your basic attack is meaty in its ability to do damage. I think that one of the things that Diablo III could have done better is your generator abilities sometimes felt like the only reason you were doing it was to later use the abilities that you really cared about. We adjusted the balance there so that your basic attack is capable of killing enemies. That’s good. But we also said, well, let’s also introduce ultimates into the game, and that’s playable on the show floor. It’s not tutorialized super well, so that’s one thing I learned from watching people play today. You’re like, hey, what did you think of your ultimate, and some people say, it was awesome, and others say, what? Okay, mental note, make sure we improve the UI for ultimates.

Let me explain quickly how it works. As you use your basic attack ability, there’s actually a power meter that builds up around your ultimate bar. It’s kind of like building your ultimate on Winston, if you play Overwatch. As you hit people with your attack, you build up an ultimate meter, and then when it’s full you get a new button, and the button appears near where the item pickup button would be. When you click that button, your character hulks out and becomes super powerful for about 12 seconds. Much like Winston, if you’re playing the barbarian, all of a sudden you pull out this massive axe and start making giant swings that knock back enemies and do tons of damage. All of the classes have their own unique ultimate. Actually every class has two ultimates, because it depends on which ability you pick as your basic attack. Depending on which basic attack you have – every class has two – it corresponds to one of two ultimates. You’re choosing both an ultimate and a basic attack that are paired up. It really adds this cadence to your gameplay that feels really good.

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