Diablo Immortal Strives To Be A "True" Diablo Experience, Even As It Breaks New Ground
Ahead of the game's launch, senior game designer Scott Burgess explains why it took so long for Blizzard to announce a PC version, microtransactions, and how it's keeping Diablo Immortal's gameplay true to the franchise's roots.
When Diablo Immortal was announced at BlizzCon 2018 as a free-to-play, mobile-only entry in Blizzard's storied ARPG franchise, it was met with a tepid response from fans. One player in attendance went so far to ask if the game was an out of season April Fool's joke on Blizzard's part.
Flash forward to now, after Blizzard recently announced Diablo Immortal would also be coming to PC (in what is being labeled a beta) with full cross-play and cross-progression with mobile, and the fan reaction has changed. Many players are now cautiously optimistic about the franchise's foray into mobile and free-to-play.
That's good news, because while Diablo Immortal might not look it at first glance, it's shaping up to be a major game-changer for the franchise going forward, sporting MMO-like social features, an emphasis on PvP, and a live-service, "living game" strategy never before seen in the history of Diablo.
For the Diablo franchise's most dedicated fans, it was the news the game would also come to PC that helped reset the stage following the disaster that was Diablo Immortal's official announcement. Back then, it was immediately clear Diablo fans wanted the option to play Diablo Immortal on PC, but it took Blizzard time--over three years--to make that wish a reality.
According to senior game designer Scott Burgess, who recently spoke with GameSpot, Blizzard knew following the game's announcement that fans wanted to be able to play Diablo Immortal on PC. Combined with the realization that dedicated PC players would simply use mobile emulators to access the game on PC regardless, Blizzard began the process of creating the PC version to ensure players would have an official PC experience. As for why it took so long to officially announce Diablo Immortal for PC, Burgess said it came down to polish.
"Part of the reason we waited so long was we wanted to make sure the polish of the game was at a point where we were happy with it and happy to release it simultaneously with the mobile launch," Burgess said. "We feel like it's at a really good point."
Diablo Immortal will feature numerous MMO-like elements, such as multiplayer hub towns, eight-player raids, PvP battlegrounds, and the ambitious Cycle of Strife system. Those are all firsts for the franchise, and some of those features--like various PvP modes and a multiplayer hub town--were ideas that originated during Diablo III's development.
While Diablo Immortal is breaking new ground both as the franchise's first mobile and free-to-play entry and as a more social-focused, live-service MMO, it was important that the game feel like a true Diablo experience. The game may feature MMO elements, but don't expect to find the "holy trinity" of MMO class design anywhere among Diablo Immortal's character classes, which includes the Barbarian, Monk, Crusader, Demon Hunter, Necromancer, and Wizard at launch.
"These classes are true Diablo classes," Burgess said. "They are very similar to previous Diablo games. We're not relying on the holy trinity of healer, tank, and damage. All these classes can deal damage and have a great time. We do have a few Paragon trees that have group bonuses that make you more lethal when in a group with other classes, but ultimately the goal was to just make classes that feel great, and we did a lot of testing and balancing to make sure they were all on equal footing."
Diablo is known for its huge numbers of enemies, impressive skills, and piles of loot, and having all of that happen on the smaller screen of a mobile device, rather than a large PC monitor, proved to be the main challenge for the game's art design, according to lead artist Hunter Schulz.
"That's where a lot of the art style fell into place," Schulz said. "Obviously some of it is a stylistic decision, but a lot of that style comes through a practical way of making sure it's readable. Using bolder shapes, making sure the silhouettes are readable, so you can not only enjoy the designs of the characters and zones but also so you can understand what you're doing. When you're playing the game, if you can't see your character or the spells you're putting down, then we've failed. You need to be able to understand and appreciate the designs we've made."
As with any free-to-play experience, there have been concerns over how Blizzard is monetizing the game. There will be a paid battle pass and premium cosmetics, which are par-for-the-course for a free-to-play live-service game and almost expected at this point. However, players are more worried about items that can be purchased with real money called Legendary Crests. These items, which based on the Diablo Immortal beta gave players who purchased them a much easier and better chance of obtaining the game's most rare and powerful gems compared to free-to-play players, have caused some to raise the dreaded "pay to win" alarm. Burgess didn't address that point specifically but said the goal is to ensure the game is fun for everyone, regardless if a player is spending money or not.
"Going back, I played the beta without spending a dollar," Burgess said. "There were a few of us on the team that did that because we wanted to see what the experience was like. And I will say that I was in a top Dark House in the Shadows, I kept up with World Paragon, I was competitive in PvP, I would often get the MVP ranking. So we're doing things to make sure the game is fun for everyone. Anytime we have a purchase, we want to make sure it's a good value. That's kind of the goal we have on that side."
All of Diablo Immortal's actual gameplay content is free, and that will extend to new classes, zones, and dungeons which will be added post-launch. For players who don't want to spend a dime, there's a free battle pass that offers plenty of rewards in the form of items, currencies, and upgrade materials. Additionally, there were plenty of ideas that didn't make it into Diablo Immortal at launch, Burgess said, which could come to the game for free in future patches.
"We're going to continue to release content on a regular cadence," Burgess said. "Our goal is every few months we're going to release either a new dungeon or zone, and with that comes brand-new story content players can play through." According to Burgess, the main campaign at launch takes around 20 hours to complete.
Whether Diablo Immortal can stick the landing of walking the line between a true Diablo experience and a free-to-play MMO remains to be seen, but Burgess thinks players will be surprised at both the scale of Diablo Immortal and its place in the franchise.
"It's a game that feels like a true Diablo game," Burgess said. "It's dark, gritty. It's going to make all the Diablo fans that loved getting scared doing dungeon crawls, they're going to love it. But it's also a very approachable game for players who've never tried a Diablo game before."
Diablo Immortal launches for iOS, Android, and PC on June 2. It's available for pre-load on PC now.
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