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How Diablo 4 Season 1's New Malignant Villains Are Changing The Game

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Speaking with the lead dungeon designer and game director on Diablo 4, we got insight on how the Season of the Malignant rethinks dungeon design, grinding, and gear upgrades.

Diablo 4 brought modern sensibilities to the long-running action-RPG series, and it resulted in a refined gameplay experience with a surprisingly gripping story. But there was clearly more that could be done with the foundation it laid. One of those modernisms is Blizzard's approach to seasonal content--and at a time where it seems like every other game has battle passes and seasons of updates, there's an understandable hesitancy to buy in. Diablo isn't an exception, either, especially since Diablo 3 followed a similar pattern. However, like an MMORPG, Blizzard has an opportunity to expand on and improve Diablo 4 at a more iterative pace. Its first shot will be the upcoming Season 1--known as Season of the Malignant--which brings on a new wave of enemies, dungeons, gear, and story content.

Ahead of its July 20 launch date, we spoke with lead dungeon designer Michelle Piña and game director Joe Shely about how this first season is changing things up from a gameplay perspective. It seems that the focus is going to be on a tighter gameplay loop with regards to rewards and dungeon-crawling, but this all starts after finishing the main story, when a new plague spreads and morphs some existing monsters into what are called the Malignant.

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In Diablo 4, Elite-level enemies are tough foes found throughout the world, but in this seasonal update, they have a chance of appearing as Malignant monsters. They're described as supercharged versions with new attack patterns and properties, and they can pop up in public events, normal dungeons, or Nightmare dungeons but will mostly be encountered in a new set of dungeons called Malignant Tunnels.

Malignant Tunnels will pop up across the world during the season, and while they effectively act like instanced dungeons seen in other parts of the game, this is where Piña took some of the lessons learned from the base game. They're intended to change the pace of gameplay, focusing on mob-killing and earning loot that you actually want. This also comes with a focus on a brisker cadence in dungeon-crawling by having smaller, more concentrated spaces.

"When we were getting feedback from betas and everything else, the 'kill-the-monsters' objective, some people didn't like it and I totally understand why. You had a lot of backtracking to do," Piña said. As a response to fulfill the need for that tighter pace, she said, "I wanted to give players a space where we have just a couple of objectives in a smaller layout where they can go wild. I know players really want to get those [rewards] and I definitely don't want to be in the way of that."

Malignant Tunnels are dark and infested dungeons full of mobs and new rewards.
Malignant Tunnels are dark and infested dungeons full of mobs and new rewards.

Those objectives also seem to be closely tied to giving players more agency in the gameplay loop and the rewards they get. When you defeat a Malignant monster, it drops a Malignant Heart and you have the chance to seize it as a reward--these are called Caged Hearts, of which there are four types. A new set of seasonal gear (rings and jewelry, specifically) will feature sockets specifically for Caged Hearts. These will give players buffs and new properties aside from normal stat boosts seen in the multicolored gems. While we only got a sneak peek at what kinds of powers Caged Hearts provide, Shely likened Caged Hearts to what gems could be if they also contained Legendary Aspects, leading to some wildly powerful builds.

However, engaging with a Malignant Heart means fighting an even tougher version of that monster. Shely described them as "a step above Elite, for sure," and it presents a sort of "escalation opportunity" because of its risk-reward scenario.

Part of making the new loot-grind loop work is putting more control in the players' hands for what rewards they get instead of purely relying on RNG. At the end of a Malignant Tunnel will be a Malignant Outgrowth, which you activate with a crafted item called an Invoker--and this leads to a big boss battle. The type of Caged Heart rewarded at the end of that fight depends on what kind of Invoker you use, so you determine which of the four Caged Heart types you get. Shely said it's as an extension of what the base game did in terms of telling players which dungeons give rewards for each specific class.

Tying all of this together is a story about the aftermath of the main campaign; I wouldn't consider a spoiler to say that there's much more evil around Sanctuary than main villain Lilith. A new ally named Cormond is at the center of it all, an ex-priest from a small town who isn't exactly powerful but wants to do what's right and needs your help. We'll have a separate feature where we spoke with the narrative designers of Diablo 4 and how Season of the Malignant's story aims to continue the base game's more human stories. So while we'll be hunting Malignant monsters for the loot grind and mob-killing satisfaction, there will be a distinct questline to tie the new gameplay and narrative elements together.

Season of the Malignant features a separate questline with a new character at the center of it all.
Season of the Malignant features a separate questline with a new character at the center of it all.

From what Piña told us, she worked closely with the narrative team when pitching the idea of Malignant Tunnels to determine what they should look like. "I was able to work with them to make these cramped, stark spaces that look gross and feel awful while sticking to the [main] gameplay loop." And she also said she collaborated with the quest-design team to make specific dungeons that fit the quests they created: "I kind of let the quest designer drive in the sense that I'm there to support them."

As for bringing Diablo into the modern gaming world with seasonal content, Piña said it's an opportunity for the team to try new systems and mechanics and see what works while exploring new stories within Sanctuary. Shely added, "The cool thing about a live service game like Diablo 4 with a content release schedule, like four seasons a year then expansions, there are so many opportunities to have cool ideas." He emphasized that it gives them room for experimentation, saying, "The next question is: where should this cool idea go? Rather than: can we do this cool idea or not?"

When the Season of Malignant goes live, players will need to create seasonal characters specifically for the seasonal content. It'll be an opportunity to build up other classes at a faster pace as well, and you'll be able to bring them into the Eternal Realm and use them even after the season is over. Blizzard has stated that the Season Journey and battle pass provide new objectives that let players level up quicker with XP boosts earned from the battle pass' free track. We'll see how all these new elements come together as we start tearing through Malignant monsters when Diablo 4's Season of the Malignant launches on July 20.

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Michael Higham

Senior Editor and Host at GameSpot. Filipino-American. Ask me about Yakuza, FFXIV, Persona, or Nier. If it's RPGs, I have it covered. Apparently I'm the tech expert here, too? Salamat sa 'yong suporta!

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