With Diablo IV almost here and plenty of betas and stress tests behind us, we recently had the chance to catch up with two key members of the Blizzard Entertainment team, to chat about the anticipated RPG. As part of a trip to London, we caught up with associate game director Joseph Piepiora and art director John Mueller to discuss developing Diablo IV, cooperative play, post-launch support, and if the team is actually ready for a smooth launch.
Gamereactor: How have you designed Diablo IV to be approachable to new players in the series?
Piepiora: One of the things we tried to do early on was ensure that we have really clear player fantasies when players are looking at the variety of classes, and then even if you have never played a Diablo game before, our prologue experience is designed to teach you the basics of the game in a way that is clear and easy to understand. A lot of the fun and exciting experiences in Diablo come down to the way you can customise your character and how you choose to pursue a character build, and we do that primarily through the skill tree. The skill tree is meant to unveil the depth of class creation in a slow and meaningfully paced way so that we don't overload a new player with too much information early on. By the time that they have reached a point where they can make more complicated decisions, they should have the context to understand why they would choose one thing over the other. Early on, if you want to play a Sorcerer, do you want to be a fire Sorcerer or a cold Sorcerer, and then you can make a number of other choices to support that as you progress through your time. It's very important to us whether it's your fourth or fifth Diablo game, or if it's your first.
How have you designed the multiplayer so that it doesn't affect the core way you tell the story?
Piepiora: When the player is progressing through the world, particularly while they are on the campaign, they are going to be in what we consider to be private instances of the story content as they play. We want to make sure that as you are progressing through the story of the Wanderer and the events of Lilith and Inarius that you are going to be able to not feel disrupted or interrupted in any way by other players nearby, as you're progressing through those moments.
It's more that when you are in the continuous overworld of Diablo IV that you will occasionally come across other players as you are kind of roaming through the experience. But when you are having a deep, quiet story moment, we want to make sure the sanctity of that moment is maintained.
Mueller: We have a lot of those, and the fact that we put your character into the in-game cinematics for the first time was a big technical and artistic achievement, of not only having a character customisation for the first time, but then also it's your character and it's your story. It's part of our player choice and how you can play Diablo the way you want to play it, and that really feels like the best way to introduce new players.
How have you designed the game to suit controller players, and people who are going to be playing on console, perhaps even through local multiplayer?
Mueller: Yeah, we're sometimes on a couch, right? Diablo is one of the few games that you can play with your friend on a couch or with your kid. I think one of the coolest stories I heard was someone who was playing with their son, and their son was the Barbarian and they were playing the Rogue and supporting their son and they were just letting them smash all the things and they would blow everything up with rain of arrows or something.
Piepiora: Couch co-op is a huge commitment to the player base and the team is very excited about it. I remember playing Diablo I on PlayStation 1 in couch co-op mode back in the day.
But, to answer the rest of your question, from really early on, we wanted to make sure we were making a really fun, cross platform game. From the early days, whenever we were working on a new user interface or anything else, we were always trying to do things in parallel where we're playing with a controller, we're playing with a mouse and keyboard, we need to make sure that everything we play passes the sniff test from both sides. We've done an excellent job, but it takes a lot of iteration to get to this point, where you can take a game like Diablo that has a lot of direct mouse controls as part of the format, and have it mapped well onto a controller.
Can people drop in and drop out whenever they so please in the couch co-op?
Piepiora: Yes, you can. It's easy enough when you are playing the game, if you, or your friend, spouse, or your brother, or whoever it is are playing on the couch, you can just pick up a controller and drop in. If you don't already have a character in the account, you can just go ahead and make it.
Were there any limitations that came about due to Diablo IV accommodating to PS4 and Xbox One consoles?
Mueller: Well, I think one of the great things about Diablo IV is that it runs really well on pretty much everything. We really have built a game for everybody, but that was a tremendous amount of work and effort, and very purposeful on our behalf.
Are you ready for launch at this point?
Piepiora: I think we've learned a great deal going through our previous two betas and then the server slam event that just took place not too long ago. Every time we've done one of these, we've got a ton of really important data that has helped us harden our matchmaking and make sure the login queues are a lot cleaner the next time. Like a lot of little issues that you can't replicate by having automated accounts or bots basically running around in our server infrastructure internally, which we've had millions of bots running around on private versions of the game, like walking up to each other, entering into groups with each other, killing a monster, picking up a thing, basically just trying a number of different events. You get so much better data when you have players actually connecting to servers, under load, checking out different systems and trying things out. It's been extremely gratifying.
We've done everything we can to make sure we've got a nice smooth launch ahead of us for Diablo IV, we'll see how things go.
Mueller: All those betas, they weren't marketing. They were us really testing the game, and they're a ton of work for us to make them happen, and we would do hotfixes or make little adjustments if we saw something that wasn't matching what we thought our internal testing would believe to be true, and I think it's really proven to be useful for us to have a clean launch.
How are the seasons going to differ from the larger story beats that you will add in the future?
Piepiora: Once the game has gone live we are kind of in our post-launch environment. We're committing ourselves to this quarterly seasons cadence, and with every season we release for players, it's going to have a new theme, a really big idea that the season is exploring through gameplay and the story, we're going to be adding a new seasonal questline, these are standalone quests that are occurring during the season and telling a story about the season and things happening during it. We aren't using this as an opportunity to extend the storyline of the campaign or the eternal conflict between Inarius and Lilith and where the Wanderer fits in and the player fits in. We want to tell self-contained stories that allow us to approach really big ideas and do really exciting stuff quarter-to-quarter. Every three months we're going to add a new season with new storylines, new gameplay mechanics, new things to explore during this season. We're really excited about continuing to create more fun Diablo content for players to consume as they are levelling up new characters.
Mueller: The open world is kind of like a great palette for the stories we want to tell outside of the eternal conflict and that aren't in an expansion. We have that huge and continuous open world to tell all of those stories that are really cool and dark and macabre, but they're not in the same lane with angels and demons.
"We've done everything we can to make sure we've got a nice smooth launch ahead of us for Diablo IV, we'll see how things go."
What are you most excited for players to experience for themselves when Diablo IV arrives?
Piepiora: One thing that I am really excited for players to dig into when they get a chance to play themselves is how every character has a different mechanic associated with it - for example the Sorcerer has the enchantment system, Druids get spirit boons, and Barbarians have weapon mastery - and to be able to experiment with how distinct and asymmetrical those mechanics feel from class-to-class. If you really like playing your Sorcerers because you really love the enchantment system and all the skills and things, and then going and checking out the Necromancer and the book of the dead, they're very distinct systems and mechanics that make the character feel different as well. So, I'm excited to see the players dig into that.
Mueller: For me, I think a lot of people have played the betas, so I'm really excited to see people push beyond the beta and to all the different regions and the story. One of the things that was maybe a little unexpected was how much we leaned into the story, because we put your character into the story for the first time and we bring the camera in really close and we have a lot of intimate moments with the character, and I think the initial story that is there is a taste of that and I, having played it, I'm excited to see other players experience that.
Piepiora: There are several moments where it's like "I can't wait to see players get to this part".
Thanks to Piepiora, Mueller, and Blizzard for chatting with us. You can play Diablo IV on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox consoles on June 6, 2023.