In the days before Diablo 4's launch, the leadership team at Blizzard was already all too excited to discuss the endgame and imminent live-service future for their ARPG, which dives into the GaaS model for the first time.
Currently in their pre-season phase, Blizzard has mostly been hesitant to discuss what's next with the fires of Hell still burning so fresh, but with teams already hard at work on seasonal content and full expansions, we sat down to talk to Rod Fergusson, the general manager of Diablo, and Zaven Haroutunian, associate game director for Diablo, about their vision for Diablo's endless grind.
IGN: Diablo 3 sort of straddled the fence between being a live-service: It had seasons, but no regular content drops, which it sounds like Diablo 4 will have. Will that include substantial story content?
Zaven Haroutunian, Associate Game Director: When we shipped Diablo 3, we didn't really have a live-service plan in place. We just thought "we can patch the game as a support thing and [develop] Reapers of Souls." That's when seasons started and even then it took a while to really turn into what we have today, which is super awesome. With Diablo 4, we're planning for that level of support, and more, out the gate. So we're already talking about season one. We're already talking about live-service. We're building the game with these things in mind from the get-go.
Rod Fergusson, General Manager: As we look at supporting Diablo 4 as a live-service, we definitely want story to be a part of that. The way that you'll see that play out in seasons is more questline based — it'll have a narrative questline.
Diablo 3 was really about adding mechanics and balance and making certain things overpowered for fun and all those sorts of things, where Diablo 4 will have a richer context around the season and also have a narrative theme that you're working toward and that all the things will relate to: the cosmetics relate to it, the mechanics will relate to it. There will be a narrative questline that won't extend the campaign, but will be a story that is taking place inside the open world. Because that's the nice thing about the world is that there's lots of stories you can still tell without having it be the Lilith/Inarius story.
But as we look to the future of expansions, those are the opportunities where we can continue to extend the game from a story perspective, from a mechanics perspective, from a world perspective.
That did seem to be the setup, right? Nyrelle is leaving the area of Sanctuary we're at, so maybe there are new regions and and stories we're going to see, and obviously Mephisto is going to be very mean to us in the future.
Fergusson: (smiling, looking away) Those are all great speculations.
IGN: The thing that seems to make or break live-service games is their content pipeline and their ability to deliver quickly after launch. Does Blizzard have separate teams dedicated to season stuff that have been working on that already?
Fergusson: Yeah, one of the things you have to do as part of a live-service, is you kind of have to get ahead of the curve of delivering content. To set expectations: If there's something really, really bad, then we would fix it immediately. But if there's something that's not terrible, but it's something we need to work on, then that might not show up immediately in the next season, because that season is actually much further along [in development] than you think. And so that thing that we wanted to fix at launch may show up in season two because season one is almost already in the can.
We're going to be super responsive, but you need to understand that we have leapfrogging teams that are already building the content, and season one is pretty much already done as we go to launch this game. We have to think about that for season two and future expansions.
The big thing for me, having done this for 24 years, is really that transition from pushing really hard to get the game out and then going on vacation for six weeks or whatever. Here you have to build a team that's big enough to have enough capacity so that you can build all these things, and sustainably so. The moment you launch, we have to come in the next day and continue to support the players, and hear the feedback, and work on season one, or work on season two, and what have you.
So you can't do that really hard push, then vacation. You have to be like, "I need a big enough team that I can have multiple lanes of development," and that's why we often think of them as swim lanes. We have the main game, we have season one, we have season two, we have this expansion — all these things are all being developed in parallel.
And so that's when we talk with players. If it's not like breaking or something, and we just think it's a quality of life thing, it may not show up in the next thing because the next thing may already be in the can.
When will stuff like the cosmetic shop and battle passes be in the game?
Fergusson: It's split. The time between launch and the first season we're calling "pre-season," and so there will be a shop available during pre-season with a limited inventory in the shop. Upon launching season one there'll be a battle pass, and a fuller shop that's more tied to the seasonal theme, and a bunch of other things.
One of the cool things about our shop is it actually has a recommendation engine that has an intelligence behind it. So it'll look at what you're playing. If you're always playing librarian, then it's going to go, "Oh, hey, did you know there's a new barbarian thing in the shop you might be going to be aware of?" or, "Hey, I noticed that when you're in the shop, you always look at the things covered in blood. So here's a new thing that's covered in blood."
Part of that pre-season is going to be warming that recommendation engine and testing that technology as we get ready to launch season one.
It seems like Paragon Points stop at level 100 instead of going on almost infinitely like in Diablo 3. What's the reason behind that?
Haroutunian: We do cap at 100. It's actually really important for us to not have infinite power progression. We just really want those points that you get to be really meaningful choices every time you get them. You can attach boards, but eventually you'll run out of points.
It's also worth pointing out that Paragon points, if you're just looking at the numbers, it's not just gained from leveling. You also get it from other systems. Altars of Lilith will also grant you some Paragon Points and so will Renown.
Are there going to be things that add Paragon Points down the road so you can go even further?
Haroutunian: Never say never. For theoretical future seasons — we'll see what we need to do and we'll we'll go from there.
IGN: What do you expect players to do once they get to level 100? What's the late endgame about?
Haroutunian: I think most players will probably finish the campaign around level 45. Both of the Capstone Dungeons are these challenging things that people people can try to aspire to and finish. And we also have the level 100 boss that unlocks at the very, very end.
All the other systems unlock slowly over time. You start with Whispers, then Nightmare [Dungeons], then Helltide. Past that, we start getting into live-service territory where we plan to continue to add more systems and features down the line.
And the Nightmare Dungeons go beyond level 100. They go to level 150, I believe. So your character caps out at 100, but Nightmare Dungeons can go way further.
Fergusson: it's worth mentioning, much like the the Altars of Lilith, where increases stick with you [on future characters] — the same is true for the campaign. Once you've completed the campaign once on your account, when the season shows up, you can just skip campaign and show up at Kyovashad at Level 1 and off you go. You can do the endgame and play in that world without having to do the campaign, similar to Diablo 3's Adventure Mode.
You have to play the campaign once to participate in seasonal content, but once you've done it, you can skip it on all the rest of your characters even into future seasons.
IGN: What's up with the 20-sidequest limit?
Haroutunian: So you can actually carry more than 20. What we do is we set aside some room for quests that are pushed onto your character. Just as an example: the rogue, once you hit a certain point, you get a priority quest. Those have no limit, so that's kind of unbound and we make special room for that.
Beyond that, it's just a technical limitation. Everything has a limit, so it's 20.
IGN: Why do vendors charge so much for their wares? Am I expected to spend tens of thousands of gold on blues?
Haroutunian: So if you go to a vendor who's selling you swords or something like that, you know exactly what you're going to get, so you can just make that decision. Whether you want or not, there's there's no risk, there's no chance.
It's not always best in class, but you know what you're going to get and you know what you're going to be charged for it.
Fergusson: The nice thing is, obviously, gold is shared across your characters. So you get to a point where, "Oh, I have a level one character, but I've got level 60 gold so I can go buy whatever I need to to tune myself up."
What about respecing characters? What's the reason for that being so expensive in the endgame?
Fergusson: The intention is not for it to be prohibitively expensive, but we want it to add friction. Because we look back at Diablo 3 with Sets as an example, is this notion of "change my class, change my clothes," and we really wanted to lean a little bit more into the Diablo 2 progression, which was this set of permanence that you're building towards something. And it matters that I'm making certain choices about it, but we want it to be really cheap early on so you can be like, "Oh, we went down the wrong path" or "I want to try this thing."
It's another reason why skills are on gear as well. So you can be like, "Oh, I got Whirlwind on an ax. I can try Whirlwind and see if I like it or not without having to put points into it." And what we found is, generally speaking, that when you get to level 80, you're probably carrying around a decent amount of gold that the ability to go like "erase my whole tree" will cost you some, but it won't be like "I can never get this money back again. I don't know how I will ever regain my wealth." It's meant to be a moment of friction of, "Do I really want to do this?" We didn't want it to be that it didn't matter.
Just one of the things about a live-service game too: launching the game is the beginning. We're starting from here. This is not where we're ending. So the store prices with a vendor can be changed for the server side update, the cost to respec your tree can be changed with the server side update. We're going to be listening and paying attention to what's happening with the economy and with the world. As you know, we continue to evolve and so that stuff will get tweaked and refined and optimized as we go.
IGN: What about if I like my build and you nerf it? Is the idea that I should be wealthy enough to be able to make that change and adapt to the new meta?
Fergusson: If that's on us, then maybe there are things we would do to help the players as well. We're goingto be doing it in a player-friendly way. It's just part of being a live-service.
Also, with seasons you're starting a new fresh seasonal character so the idea of like, "Oh, I'm so into this I can never start over" — when you start you're season two character you're going to be starting fresh.
Diablo 4 was recently launched to critical acclaim. IGN's review called it "a stunning sequel with near perfect endgame and progression design that makes it absolutely excruciating to put down." At the time of this writing, the ARPG is available through "early access" players who buy premium versions of the game, with a general release planned on June 6, in just a few short days.
Travis Northup is a writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @TieGuyTravis and read his games coverage here.