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An In-Depth Look At Diablo 4 With Activision Blizzard’s Joe Piepiora & Ash Sweetring

Last week, we had the incredible opportunity to sit down and chat with two key minds behind one of the most highly anticipated games of the decade: Diablo IV. associate director Joe Piepiora and dungeon producer Ash Sweetring.

We delved into the depths of Sanctuary, discussing everything from the game’s dark and gritty atmosphere to the spine-chilling dungeons that await us. So grab your gear, sharpen your blades, and get ready to hear some exciting insights straight from the masters of the Diablo universe!


It’s clear that Diablo 4 is meant to be making callbacks to Diablo 2 with its tone, references, and even story-boss additions. What was the thought process in going back to the well without fear of retreading?

Joe: For creating Diablo 4, we really wanted to stick with the return to darkness and the remaining two with the grunge tones that we were holding throughout Diablo 2 and forward, it was really important for us to create experiences for players to be immersed in whatever feelings and the storytelling that we were really telling.

As we’re throughout Diablo 4, there are going to be times that we are provoking you to feel sadness or happiness all throughout the storyline. And those reasons are intentional, and there’s a reason that we want you to be feeling that throughout playing Diablo 4, we think. The overall tones of immersion that you get from Diablo 3, with it being dark and compelling, are definitely conveyed inside Diablo 4.

 

Is Diablo 4 a good entry point for those with zero exposure to the franchise, both from a story and gameplay perspective?

Joe: Yes, absolutely.

That’s something that we took as a major pillar in crafting Diablo 4 as we move forward. Just using myself as an example; I entered into the Diablo series at Diablo III, and we wanted to take my personal experience and along with everybody else’s some who have been playing since the first Diablo game. We really wanted to ensure that the game was overall pleasurable and you’re finding enjoyment at any stage of your progress in the Diablo series. There’s going to be a little piece of something that if you love lower heavy stuff, you’ll be able to enjoy our campaign and story as we go along. And if you’re somebody like me who enjoys exploring and really understanding your mechanics before you go fight those nasty monsters and stuff, then you’ll have the opportunity to do that as well. 

 

Is the new evade mechanic implemented in Diablo 4 to help ease players coming from different genres or players who might not be accustomed to more old-school action RPG titles?

Joe: So the reason that we added the Evade Mechanic in Diablo 4 was an emphasis on action combat. So when we start thinking about Diablo 4, we want to take the best parts of the previous entries into the Diablo series. So for Diablo 1, we felt that the claustrophobia and the atmosphere of the tunnels beneath the church were great. With Diablo 2, we would love the build-making and item-chase gameplay.

And in Diablo 3, we love the action combat. Now, when we thought about what made combat feel impactful, part of it was making sure that monsters had personalities and things they would do as part of a fight. We wanted to make sure the players had some baseline tools available to them to help them dodge out of the way of enemy attacks and move into and out of conflict as needed. This is part of us trying to include more mastery in the sense of growth for the player as they’re progressing to these combat situations.

So that’s where the evade mechanic really came into play, felt that it was an awesome tool to give to all players to help them navigate these fights. 

The addition of the Dodge mechanic also allowed us more on the design side, something we like to call design space. And these are just more things that players can do those designers can interact with. So, for example, in Diablo IV, so we have our simple evade mechanic. So this is every player they’re playing on mouse and keyboard, for example, press the spacebar and kind of dodge the direction, right? They can do it every few seconds. They’re allowed to do this. But now we get the option to have, like, boots that players can get. And boots have an innate power on them. Once you get to a certain level, that will change the way that your evade mechanic works.

So now it’s like instead of having one charge of evade where then you use it once and then you have a cooldown where you’re waiting before you’re allowed to evade again. This pair of boots gives you two charges before you have to wait. We have another pair of boots that like every time you make an attack. Reduces the cooldown remaining on your evade for your boots. So it kind of changes the way that you sort of dance in and out of combat based upon these boots. So these are the sorts of things we got to play with as part of the mechanics once we added evade as a permanent option for all classes.

 

Players won’t receive their mount quest until they’re fairly deep into the story. What led to the decision of putting that feature so late into the game?

Joe: We think that the player’s goal is to make sure that players feel that they have an opportunity to sort of explore the world of Sanctuary as they play. And in situations where we’ve tried bringing the mount on a little bit earlier, a little bit later, we found players getting very, very focused on reaching a specific point in the world the moment we give them the mount such that they would get onto their horse and they would sort of travel directly to a destination without spending time exploring.

So we wanted to give a portion of the game experience while going through the campaign where they are on foot, they have more of an opportunity to engage with more parts of the world. Now, we do have lots of fast travel opportunities as players reach waypoints. They now have the ability to teleport from place to place. They can easily teleport back to major cities when they have things they need to do.

This is really about when they’re kind of progressing deeper into the world and unlocking more of these waypoints as they explore. Now, that said, the moment the player unlocks a mount for the first time, which they’ll do during the campaign, once they unlock the mount for the first time, every other character on their account and every future character they make will have immediate access to that mount in perpetuity.

So this moment in time is only during really like the first few days, maybe, or even hours, potentially, based on how you choose to go about some things, your experience with Diablo 4, and at that point forward, with every new level one character you make, you’ll have access to the mount right away. 

Can you discuss the decision to implement MMORPG elements like World Events and a Battle Pass system in Diablo 4?

Joe: On the gameplay side, we discussed the decision to implement MMORPG elements and a bow pass in the game the first time. So when we thought about Diablo 4 earlier on, we wanted to make an online role-playing game. We did not set out to make a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. And while that may seem like a subtle distinction between those two categorizations of games, MMORPG typically place the player in a position where they are in support of a larger set of goals, working with alongside other players, right? Where your performance and your belonging are really tied to the presence of other people. So you are playing a character that is more powerful when you are paired with other characters because they have something they do that’s specific. Right.

So that’s like the Holy Trinity, the DPS class and the Tank class and the Healer class. In Diablo 4, every class is a DPS class. Every class is an attacker. Right. For us, it’s really more about, like, are you a character that does a lot of single-target damage? Is your damage more about area of effect (AoE)? Is it like, how much survivability do you have? We think of our classes a little bit more in some of those ideas and a little less in terms of what we don’t really quantify or categorize them based on what they do for other characters. Right. There’s some interaction, like barbarians have shouts they can use to benefit nearby allies.

And there are other mechanics, like vulnerable, like when you hid an enemy and you make them vulnerable. That enemy is vulnerable. For all their players in the area. There are things you can do to help other players, but that’s not how we define the characters. The fantasies come first.

So, we liked the online role-playing game aspects of the experience in Diablo 4, in that we like the idea as you’re wandering through the world, you’d come across other online players. You might see other online players in some of the major cities, but generally speaking, talking about again what I but at Diablo I, we had this touchstone of like but like this sense of like dread and atmosphere, this sense of isolation when you’re like, beneath the church and you’re kind of walking through the catacombs. We thought we wanted to maintain that where possible, so players are encouraged to kind of come together to form a piece of content, like a world event, like when you had to go to fight to defeat Ashava in the Server Slam.

We like the idea of a whole bunch of players arriving to do a thing together, like alongside other players, but not really working together in a coordinated fashion. And then at the end of that, kind of splitting off to go in their own directions and perform, pursue their own goals and aims. We think that that’s the right level of interaction between players. There’s nothing preventing players from joining groups at parties and going and doing things together. We encourage that, but it’s not required. As part of the gameplay experience, we want to hold true to our ARPG roots as a Diablo game, even as an online RPG version of that game.

As it relates to the Battle Pass, we feel that this is a good addition to our live service. We have really, really exciting cosmetics for players to earn over the course of their playtime in each of the seasons. We then get some kind of seasonally themed items associated with the things we’re putting in that season for the mechanics and storyline that might be taking place during that period of time and want to make sure that players can finish it. So it’s a very reasonable amount of time to complete the Battle Pass over the course of, again, a three-month season on which they’ll be active. So that’s some of the things that led to these decisions. We think there are some really exciting and cool rewards at a very reasonable price for players as they progress to the Battle Pass next. So, yeah, you also added Dodge Mechanic. I mentioned I spoke on this a little bit earlier. We think there are some really exciting and cool rewards at a very reasonable price for players as they progress through the Battle Pass.

 

For the story and the presentation, what made you push for darker and more realistic visuals ala Diablo 2 back in the 2000s?

Joe: So our director, John Mueller, when he was sitting down to begin thinking about the style for Diablo IV, set some pretty early pillars. And one of the things that he wanted to approach this from the direction of was the idea of the that he called we called the Old Masters pillar. And in this way, John was trying to evoke the imagery of, like, Gothic medieval paintings and, like, Renaissance portraits and landscapes when thinking about the stylings of the world of Sanctuary. And in this way, John was trying to evoke the imagery of, like, Gothic medieval paintings and, like, Renaissance Renaissance portraits and landscapes when thinking about the stylings of the world of Sanctuary.

So rather than thinking deeply about the way, like, Lut Gholein looked in previous versions of the game or the way that Diablo I looked when the player arrives, we kind of start from a position of like we know. That we have this history in the series, but we have a new vision for this dark, hauntingly, beautiful world of sanctuary that we’re looking to create together. And this is the framework that we’re trying to build it around. So that was really the driving ideas for the visuals, for the storytelling. The focus was really on trying to make sure that we were telling a story that was emotionally resonant with players today.

We wanted to tell a dark, grounded story, and part of that is embracing what Sanctuary is. Sanctuary is the world of Diablo, the world in which Diablo 4 takes place. And Sanctuary is this place that’s caught literally not figuratively, but literally, between the high heavens and the angels that dwell there. And then the burning hells and the demons that all writhe within. And humanity is sort of like, again, caught in the middle and is formed by the actions of two characters Lilith, the daughter of hatred and mother of Sanctuary, and Inarius, the father of Sanctuary and an angel of the high heavens. And these two people broke away from the eternal conflicts between angels and demons, and they sort of escape to Sanctuary.

And now in Diablo 4, what we really wanted to do was tell this story that allows us to explore the motivations of characters like Lilith, who is a demon but is also the mother of Sanctuary and the daughter of Hatred. Right? And she says she’s here to protect Sanctuary. And do we trust her? We see what she’s capable of, and we see what she does. We have Anarius, the father of Sanctuary. He has a vision for the world of Sanctuary. He is an angel. Do we trust him? But where does Inarius fall in this conversation? Because we also trusted Malthael who is an angel from Diablo 3 who ended up becoming the angel of Death.

So it allows us to kind of tell the story between these characters. And this is really great because we get to for players who are newer to the franchise and who maybe have not played a Diablo game in the past, we have this beat between the events of Diablo III, Reaper of Souls, and the beginning of Diablo 4.

This is a 50-year gap where we get to sort of start a little bit fresh. Everything that happened in the previous Diablo games is very important, and players who’ve played those games are going to get a lot of information that they’re going to be able to carry forward. But in Diablo 4, players you might not have ever played before. We’re now really introducing Lilith and Inarius for the first time to bring them to the forefront of a Diablo title and make them major characters. And we’re also taking your character and putting them front and centre on the story, which kind of links to the next question.

 

Could you also talk more about the new in-engine cutscenes – another first for the franchise?

Joe: So we knew that Diablo 4 at the baseline, we really wanted to make sure was a game fundamentally about choice, where player choices are reflected in the way they build their characters. Diablo 4 was also our chance to really bring up character customization and really say, if you want to have a character who has this kind of eye makeup, like, dripping down the cheeks and you want to have a certain kind of beard or if you want to have certain kind of braids in your hair. We want to make sure that all of those choices can be reflected in your character. And they really feel like that’s your projection into the experience, the way that player is expressing themselves as part of the game.

And then we want to take that character and put them in the centre of the story. I think many of you have hopefully had an opportunity to play the review build that people have a chance to play. But that moment early on in Act 1 where your player meets Inarius and has that kind of awkward kneeling moment where you approach the father of Sanctuary. Being able to see your character in that scene, I think makes that much more impactful, much more personal to the player. So it was a big lift for us. We love Blizzard pre-rendered cutscenes, Blizzard major cutscenes, and we still have a few of them, obviously, in the game, but having the player’s character really be in the centre of all of these moments and cinematics during the story, we think is extremely exciting, so we think it’s great

 

One thing Diablo 3 showed us was how hard it was to balance loot drops. How does the team find a balance between making sure your main character gets enough gear and encouraging people to make alt characters in Diablo 4?

Joe: So when we’re thinking about balancing loot drops for players between playing single characters and playing alts, this is where Seasons really helps us quite a bit. So we know with every new quarterly season in Diablo 4 players are asked to start fresh. Now players will still have access to characters they’ve played before, they’ll be in the Eternal Realm. We want to make sure that as we are progressing through the experience of Diablo 4, we are balancing the gameplay and the loot hunt gameplay around the idea that the players are playing during a seasonal period, which is of course a three-month period. We want to make sure that’s a really fun experience for them during that period of time. Loot your offsets accordingly to make sure that feels good. As opposed to saying that you’re going to play this character, it’s designed to play every character in perpetuity forever. There are thousands of hours of gameplay in loot hunt potentially for players to engage with in Diablo 4.

We want to make sure that each of those seasons feels really, really strong on their own. And as you’re progressing through and you’re playing in any given season, that is also going to be providing you with some unlocks. They’re going to benefit all the characters as you go. So, you know, skill points that you unlock from having completed Zone Renown for stat points you’ve acquired on character playthroughs in the past; there are all kinds of things you’d be unlocking for all of your characters at the same time.

This is going to make it a little bit easier for you to go start up that alternate character and people start rolling through. Plus you’ll have all the gold and the resources your main character has already acquired. So we still don’t mind the idea of you playing Alts and then we want to benefit you that way. But there is, you know, a primary focus on ensuring that like the one character that you play each season, at least one character you play each season, feels like a really good, strong experience on its own for the loot chase. 

 

While having a Jeweler is a nice idea and a great way to get gems upgraded, it’s not fun to run back to your stash & run back to him/her. Has there been any talk of putting a stash in the Jeweler shop, or letting that NPC have access to your stash to minimize the tedium the system offers?

Ash: Quality of life improvements have been a large part of what we’re trying to remember. Makes the game fun and enjoyable to a wide range of people. We keep mentioning how we want to elaborate on player choice and we want people to be able to play the game as they will and how they would like. And we’re trying to take those different types of perspective in with that kind of honing of returning to our roots and stuff, understanding that we ourselves are players first before game developers. And so really taking that perspective and approach has guided us through dungeon-making in any environment in general. 

Joe: We’re going to be looking at this feedback as we kind of go through the experience. There is a balance between what is too much running back and forth to manage certain inventories like what is okay and what is acceptable. But right now, when you use the jeweler at the moment, it will actually pull in all of your gems from the bank already. So if you’ve got things that are sitting in your stash, you get like, you know, a whole tab full of gems and stash, you can use all of those from your from the jeweler crafter. We’re trying to upgrade gems, but then you would still need to go back to interact with things you already have in your stash already. But new things you make would end up in your inventory.

So long story short, we are a live game. We’ll be looking to make adjustments as we go. And we will be looking for opportunities to improve that experience overall as time goes on. 

 

Designing dungeons and cellars are two different propositions, why was there a need for the latter to exist in Diablo 4?

Ash: We felt having these quick burst encounters with cellars was an awesome way to expand Sanctuary even further and provide more activities for players to engage with as they explore the world. Sanctuary is a massive place and we wanted to have cool things for players to discover when they go off the beaten path. We are always considering if areas out in the wild are currently serving a fun purpose for players or not, and cellars are a great way for us to add more to the environment that will help enhance the player experience in that area. Like standard dungeons, cellars also help support the story of Diablo IV in several ways that you’ll see as you progress through your campaign journey!

 

From threads and discussions online, there are a number of players who find the public access events too difficult. Is the same true for the main game?

Ash: I think that balance is something that’s always going to be a topic of conversation with the developers. And it’s something that until we see how the players react to it, we’re ready for whatever comes our way. We’re ready to receive that feedback and we’re ready to act based off of what that feedback is trying to tell us. 

Joe: Ash is right. We’re not just looking at feedback from players. We also have the data on how things are actually performing as well. So if we’re thinking about the reactions to the Server Slam against Ashava, that was a very particular point in time. Players were five levels below Ashava’s level. We expect that to be a very challenging encounter, and it certainly was. So as players are able to level up to the base game, we expect that they’re going to have an easier time in these sorts of events as they progress through. But we will make adjustments as we see they are needed. 

 

There are also others who praise and enjoy the difficulty. Would the experience be different depending on perhaps a player’s exposure to the franchise or skill level?

Joe: The answer is yes and no. I think that there are some new mechanics and things in Diablo IV that are fresh for the series that players have not played in the past. But if this is your first action RPG or your first action game, potentially, for example, then I think they might be pretty difficult to jump into the veteran difficulty mode. But that’s also why the Adventurer Mode exists. While the player is leveling up, they’re going to have access to a lot of items and ways to build their characters.

They’re going to make it a lot easier for them over time to kind of understand the context of how to build their character and to dive into these kinds of challenges is at a time that is appropriate for them. It’s not always advised to go fight a world boss five levels below the lowest level they normally are attacked. So that can definitely be a fun challenge. 

 

As a live-service title, how is the team balancing players’ journey in the endgame while also involving a commitment to rolling new characters for Seasonal content as well as future expansion content?

Joe: Well, it sort of goes back to my prior comment in that we’re trying to balance the progression of the character over the course of the idea of this three-month period versus another game that might be expecting you to play a character forever. There’s they have different considerations to take into account when they’re giving you a legendary drop or whenever you should get certain other progression systems or how often you should fight certain kinds of bosses. A Diablo game like Diablo IV allows us to really focus on making sure that the ARPG portions of it really sing at all times when you’re playing, as opposed to having things feel watered down over a longer prolonged period, because we’re expecting you to play for a longer period of time.

So that’s kind of like our expectation of how the end game should feel at launch, especially, since there are hundreds of hours of gameplay available for players to engage with as part of their character-building. But we do want to, with every new season, provide new mechanics and features new story content for players to consume. New seasonal quest lines. Not really an extension of the Diablo 4 main quest storyline, but new seasonal quest lines about the season mechanic and themes for players to dive into and really explore and have fun leveling up a new character within. 

 

With Diablo 3 putting the Nephalem in the spotlight, was the decision to have Inarius and Lilith be the central figures in Diablo 4 related to that, given their ties to them?

Joe: Really, the focus was more on telling an interesting story about the world of Sanctuary through the lens of these titular major characters. Inarius and Lilith are the literal mother and father of Sanctuary with their own strange history and sort of history together. And the players, the humans of Sanctuary really are just kind of caught in the middle. Their conflict that we get to kind of explore as part of Diablo 4.

That’s really more of the focus there. Obviously, the Nephilim are a very real component, particularly relevant in Diablo 3. But that’s not really why Inarius is alone through here, necessarily. 

 

How is Loot Rate drop determined in Tier 3 and Tier 4?

Joe: So Loot Rate drop rises slowly as the player gains in level and fights higher level monsters. High-level monsters (elites, bosses) have more loot that they’ll drop.

Rate drop is one aspect of loot in general. The other is the sorts of things that can drop. So once players have gained access to World Tier Three, once they get to Nightmare World Tier, they’ll begin to see sacred items which have a very vast range of power they can appear at. So it could be that when you get into World Tier Three and you kill your first pack of Elites, you might get a ring that drops, but that ring that you got at level 50 might be good until you’re Level 70 because you have that much power associated with it.

Or it could be good for Level 52, so that every time a secret item appears for you, it has a very wide range of power they can have associated with it. You’ll also begin to find unique items to begin to drop which are much more powerful than legendary items but can only appear in a particular item slot. So things like Shako/Harlequin’s Crest could appear for you as a helmet. It’s like really powerful, powerful items that are extremely rare to find.

And you’ll find even more of these sorts of things as you get into World Tier Four, where now ancestral items begin to drop and our full allotment of unique items begins to appear by fighting various kinds of creatures. So there’s lots to look forward to in the Loot game, once players are starting to get higher and higher level.

 

Diablo 3 had virtually limitless progression upward, but some have said that became boring or frustrating. Did that feedback lead to Diablo 4 having a more defined ending?

Joe: Yeah, different games have different ends. For Diablo 4, we did want to focus on having capped progression, so there is no sense of infinite power for the player to obtain through prolonged play. Now, that’s because we want all the decisions that players make while their level pulling their character up to have a lot of weight, such that the build that you have crafted for yourself by the time you’ve reached Level 100 is one that you have really optimized every item that you get. You’re looking for just the right affixes on the item, all the other bonuses on the item. Those have the right affixes rolled really, really well.

You want to upgrade all of your items. You’re really looking to be the sum of the choices that you make versus saying that because you invested 300 more hours in your character and did more work in the Paragon board, in the Paragon system, you’re much more powerful as a result of that. We really want to say, like, look, you did the work. You got to level 100. You’ve got to this point. Some of the highest pinnacle challenges that we have in the game require not just being level 100. You need to have an extremely good build. You need to understand your character very, very well. You need to have great items with great roles in order to be successful in those situations. And you need to know the encounter as well. So really, it’s about making sure that all of those things matter a great deal. That’s really more of the focus for Diablo, for that sense of cap progression. 

I’m speaking specifically about power progression from the player side. Like items don’t you don’t get higher and higher and more powerful items by virtue of going and doing higher and higher level content after a while. But if you’re looking for more and more challenges, the Nightmare Dungeon System creatures will go will continue to scale up all the way up to much, much higher beyond 100. They go all the way up to 150 at launch. So you could try to push yourself.

That’s extraordinarily insanely challenging, try to do that kind of work, but you can continue to try to claw your way forward, getting through that kind of content that goes beyond even the extremely difficult level 100 pinnacle challenge we have in place. You still have the Nightmare Dungeon climbing and try to make it beyond that.

 

What were the key learnings (beyond sheer numbers) that the team took back from player feedback via the beta and Server Slam period? And how fast can that be incorporated into the release?

Ash: We received a lot of feedback after our open betas for Dungeons and Diablo IV, and a lot of that we were able to take and kind of internally digest and deliver back as far as what expectations can be. There are several systems that we affected and changed to make it a more enjoyable experience for the player, and less repetitive. A lot of those types of mechanics we fully addressed. There are also higher-level items that we’re able to address with the open beta feedback and moving into the server slam type stuff. The players really received the opportunity to see a lot of that feedback.

The fonts, for example. That’s another accessibility one that we were able to achieve is we received some feedback based on the font being a little less immersive than players would have enjoyed, and we were able to incorporate new font in that’s a little more immersive in the entire world. That’s a really rare and special time for us, really listening to the player base and understanding fully what they’re looking for in hopes to help them achieve the greatest game that we’re able to deliver. 

Joe: I think the important thing here is that these were not marketing betas. This is not like an advertisement in the form of a download where people could just demo the game and see what it plays like. The point here is to ensure that we got a lot of really good information on how players are going to play the game. And by way of example, I’d say that for over a year before we actually ran our first preorder beta, we had over a million bots running on our internal hardware, putting on hats, taking off hats, joining parties, leaving parties, going into a dungeon, dying, resurrecting themselves. Like doing everything you could imagine that players might do in an effort to get a really good sense of what kind of stress our servers were going to be under and what sort of things we had to account for.

And we found lots and lots of stuff from those internal tests. And when we went into our first beta weekend for anyone who got a chance to play, we had a fairly long queue on the first day. We made a number of hotfixes over the course. We got that queue time down, we made a number of changes to make sure that things were bit smoother for players playing that first weekend and we made even more changes leading into the second beta weekend that happened the following week and those were really, really critical. We learned a lot during that period. The second weekend was much cleaner than the first in terms of how easy it was to get to the experience.

 

Diablo 4’s skill tree is much more expansive than previous Diablo games. How does the team find a balance between catering to new players who have this game as their first, and also veteran fans of the franchise?

Joe: This is actually a really interesting question and that is typically as a game designer, when you’re saying we’re trying to find a way for more players to play your game right. What can we do to make it easier for new players to play? 

One of the first things you typically look at is like, well, what can we do to reduce the complexity and the depth of the experience so that players have an easier time playing? But the trick here is that a Diablo game is kind of about the depth and complexity of the experience. ARPGs are in general, more are deeper games, I think, than some others. And I’m generalizing, I’m not picking a fight with other genres of game. It doesn’t matter if the ARPGs are de facto the best games there are. So it’s a very simple experience initially, where players, when they start playing the game at level one, they’re going to log into the game and they’ll have one attack. They’re allowed to do one thing. 

When they start playing the game, there’s one button they can press: their left mouse button or I think it’s on the controller. They will roll to the experience and that’s all they can do.

When they reach level two, they get to make one choice and that choice is very simple. Like if you’re playing a sorceress, it’s like, do you want to be a fire sorceress or a cold sorceress or a lightning sorceress? And players make that one very simple choice. And then for the rest of their leveling-up experience, from one to 50, it’s about trying to slowly unveil that depth of choice as they’re progressing through the skill tree. The skill tree itself is relatively straightforward in many ways. Many of the choices we provide to players are kind of themed after certain options, they have a lot of context baked into them. But the goal is that by the time the players get to the end, they have a pretty good understanding of how the mechanics of their class work, how to make a build, the sorts of things they’re looking for. If I’m a lightning spec, sorceress I know I’m looking for critical strike because I have lots of things that happen when I perform a critical strike on enemies. So we try to keep things relatively straightforward, make sure the players have the context to understand and kind of engage with these kinds of features. Then we reach level 50 and the players get to access the paragon board for the first time. And here’s where we say, all right, look, we taught you how to play your class.

That was your level 1 to level 50 experience. That’s what the skill tree was for, is teaching you how to play your class and giving you some idea of how to make a build. Here in the Paragon Board there are a wealth of options available to you. There are many, many ways for you to build that character from this point, right? And even inside the Paragon Board we start you in a very small section and then have you kind of progress through it before you get to make your first really big choice of which paragon board you want to select for your first one. And then we show you that you can rotate them so you can decide how you actually want to start to engage with your paragon board in addition to just which paragon board do you want? So that’s the way that we sort of thought about things. Blizzard is generally in the past for many of our games, has been very good about this in that we try to take a genre and bring new players to it that might not have ever played it before.

Real-time strategy games are a great example, right? Real-time strategy games where we bring you into the experience, say, hey, check out this campaign where we kind of teach you how to play this game like StarCraft II or something. And then as you get deeper into the experience now, you get a sense of mastery. You understand how your units work, you understand how to play. You feel more confident about taking that next step, maybe playing it against another human player, right? It’s about trying to let players grow on their own mastery curve over time and become hardcore players on their own because they understand things enough that they can do so.

Because we taught them as they played. That’s really the focus here, is to make sure that players have enough confidence, they have enough context for why they make decisions about how they play Diablo 4. They don’t get so scared the moment they open the skill tree for the first time, and they say “oh, I can’t figure any of this out. It’s way too much”. And we want them to be able to engage with it and kind of roll through it more on their own accord. 

 

In a setting with so many free skill points characters can start with (Altars of Lilith, Map Progression), was it particularly challenging to separate Hardcore characters away from that?

Joe: We talked about this quite a bit and ultimately landed on allowing a lot of these effects to carry over, between normal mode characters and hardcore mode characters, because of the extra cost of asking, we kind of went back to where does it end when the players gain the ability to mount up, for example, from completing the campaign? And that’s an account bound unlock from that point forward for all of their characters. Does that mean they need to finish the campaign on a hardcore character in order to unlock the mount on the hardcore server?

We didn’t feel like that was a really significant benefit for the hardcore player overall. And the same was true for many of these other collectable items and things that you could go and gather for your account. So we didn’t want to say like, because you chose to play hardcore one season, everything that you did there is not going to affect your normal character. And the same thing is true of the normal mode.

The idea of you going off and collecting all the Altars of Lilith and a normal character, and then the next time you want to play hardcore, you actually have to go collect all of those altars again on every single hardcore character felt like more of a time sink and not necessarily a fun experience for those players. So in the end, we opt to make sure that there were a lot of things that were account level that would be applied to both the normal mode characters and the hardcore mode characters at once.

 

There’s a wide assortment of dungeons throughout Diablo 4, how did you decide what Codex of Power and what dungeon bosses that would appear there?

Ash: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there are a lot of different things that go into the decision of that. We’re evaluating long-term goals and short-term goals from the player and what can most be beneficial in those specific scenarios and even thinking of like edge cases as far as dungeon sides go where we’re trying to consider what’s going to provide a particular experience that we’re aiming for the player to be having during that time. And we’re also trying to make it more rewarding when you have the opportunity to go back and do nightmare dungeons and stuff. We really want your first experience inside of a dungeon to feel rewarding and your very last experience inside of the dungeon. Those are a few different factors, at least on the dungeon side. 

Joe: We have over 110 dungeons in Diablo IV for players to go and engage with. And our dungeons design team that Ash works with is basically kind of designing the content for each of those dungeons. And when they sit down to set about working on any individual dungeon space, they are going to call out the sorts of needs they have inside there. So we don’t want every dungeon to feel like it’s exactly the same as any other dungeon. Obviously, we want things to have character and personality and that’s where you’ll find that sometimes you’re going to have bosses and some don’t. They have different kinds of objectives from place to place. This is really the dungeon design team’s responsibility, sort of like figuring these sorts of things out. Now, in terms of where or why certain Critics of Power entries appear in various dungeons, we sort of, from the system side, looked at things across the entirety of the game, and we said, we want to ensure that every Class and every build within every Class has some codex entries that can be found through the Codex of Power system.

However, the Codex of Power system does not account for all the legendary powers in the game. There are many, many more legendary powers that can’t be found as part of the Codex of Power system. But these are deterministic ways for players to acquire some of the baseline powers they might need for their bill to become available to them. Even if these powers are at a lower level of power level, they generally are at the Codex of Power. So we went and picked a variety of these and had them show up in various regions of the game.

So that while particularly while the players playing through the campaign for the first time and they’re levelling up the character. They kind of have touch points where they can see in every zone that there are certain powers they might want to be going to try to find and go maybe to go track down inside dungeons explicitly to get a particular power for their build. But even after they’ve got all of those, there are still many more powers they will need to collect, really, to unlock the fullness of their build. Begin to see hints of that as you’re levelling up. And you have access to these things.

 

Which class was the toughest to design? Conversely, which class was the easiest to design during Diablo 4’s design process?

Joe: So this is an interesting one. I think that every class has had things about them that were really particular that require a little bit of work. So neither tough nor easy.

The Barbarian, for example; the way that the Arsenal system works. So with the Arsenal system, players are allowed to assign certain weapons to certain skills. So you could look at your hammer of the Ancient attack and obviously, it’s always going to use a blunt weapon, right? But you could choose to use your one-hand maces if you happen to have one-hand maces or you could use your big two-handed mace, and it’s up to the player to choose which one they want to use. The game will default to one selection or the other, but they can choose and make sure that that feels good in concert with other parts of the Barbarian class. Those players want to occasionally engage with this mechanic without feeling they need to do this all the time, and it’s okay for the game to just pick sometimes. That was a bit interesting to figure out how to make that work and to balance the idea that the Barbarian has four weapons they carry around all the time, whereas the Sorceress might only have one. There are just differences between the classes.

I think that’s another part of this we embraced asymmetry a lack of symmetry between some of the classes. We want them to feel differently.

Overpowered was the way that we talked about it internally, right? So that when you want to play a Barbarian in one season or during your first playthrough, and you want to play a sorcerer in your second playthrough, feel like, well, I mean, I don’t have my weapon mastery anymore and my technique slot, but now I have Enchantments. And Enchantments feel like really, really strong in their own right, have their own other gameplays.

They open up for you. Feels different, right? So I think that was one of the most challenging parts, is actually trying to make sure that all these differently powerful mechanics kind of worked together and that they were really fun in their own right. I guess the only other thing I call out in terms of what was a tough class to design is making sure that for the Druid, like the shape-shifting mechanics and the Spellcast mechanics of the Druid, because the Druid is an extremely hybridized class, it can do all kinds of stuff right. Making sure these things felt like they felt unified in terms of the fantasy and the theme, but also that they were all equally interesting to experiment with and play with, because honestly, changing into a bear and smashing things is really, really cool. Shooting tornadoes is also awesome. And making sure that all these things kind of hold up was really, really important in terms of what is like an easy class to design in. I think that the Sorceress was really resonant. We figured it out right away.

The Sorcerer class is a Diablo 2 callback, obviously, and we know that she is extremely elemental-focused. So once we said, look, it’s about fire, it’s about ice, it’s about lightning. A lot of things folded together pretty quickly from that point. We’re able to really get the class online pretty quickly. The kit worked, so we understood it fairly easily. 

 

The class selection for Diablo 4 is a solid one. Were there any new classes that were brainstormed that didn’t make the cut? Or will there be new classes post-launch?

Joe: The question I think I hear is, what is the cool stuff we didn’t get in Diablo 4? That’s kind of like the core of it, right? Like, what’s the cool stuff that sounded really, really neat that we didn’t we’re not going to get in Diablo 4? And the reality is, you got all the coolest stuff in Diablo 4. The stuff that you didn’t get is stuff that we didn’t think was good enough, that we didn’t think was good.

Another way to think about this: there’s a lot of room around that campfire, right? We have five classes at launch: Barbarian, Sorceress, Druid. Rogue and Necromancer. Great fantasies, great characters. I think everyone would agree, right?

But there’s room for more. As a live service game, the launch is just the beginning. We have our seasons coming on a quarterly basis. With big content infusions and then we have our paid expansions, which we’re not talking about too much today we’re about to launch the base game, right? 

 

Since Diablo 4 is receiving story update DLC, is there a chance we could visit past areas from Diablo 2 and Diablo 3?

Ash: I think there’s always that possibility, right? We’re really approaching the live service portion of this game with not closing off anything in general. Anything is always possible and we’re looking at whatever’s going to deliver the most enjoyable experience moving forward. There are definitely going to be scenarios where the players in an experience, they think, wow, this is really like, Hawezar and I can really feel like I’m in Hawezar here and there are going to be chances where the player feels like they’re in a totally new environment or a totally new biome. We want to be sure that we’re including both of those experiences.

 

Diablo 4 will be out for PC and consoles on 6th June, but you can get early access on 2nd June if you buy the game early. 

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