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Deadset gets his hands on Diablo: Immortal and an interview with the devs!
With a world of mixed feelings surrounding the new Diablo announcement, our Diablo 3 guide writer, Deadset, got the chance to sit down with Wyatt Cheng and Joe Hsu for an interview, as well as spend time testing Diablo: Immortal. Check out what the developers had to say, as well as Deadset's thoughts on the announcement.
This past Blizzcon marks several ‘firsts’ for me. The first time I cross half the globe, from windy Eastern Europe to the unrelenting Californian sun. The first time I attend Blizzcon, a convention I have dreamed of since I was a child. And somehow, regrettably, the first time ever that I am scared to address the community, that I struggle to find answers and solace for the road ahead. Rest assured, I am no less disheartened and apprehensive than any of you by the news that the solitary confirmed Diablo project in sight is, indeed, a mobile game.
I will not mince words: the timing, framing and setup for the Diablo: Immortal announcement was poor. There’s little more to add to this conversation that hasn’t already been said, memed about or depressed over, and from this point on I will simply try to address the new game itself.
I was able to test the demo with extended, uninterrupted access. I had the chance to talk with developers both on and off the show floor, in interviews and community conversations. I pride myself in always delivering honest, factual and impartial information, colored only by my perception of good game design and love for Sanctuary. The things we all share in the hardcore Diablo community.
So let’s talk.
Impressions of the Game
I hung out and spoke a lot with Rhykker during the convention and I will echo his overall sentiment in many regards - including the fact that Diablo: Immortal is quite possibly the best handling mobile game I have ever played (high bar, I know), with the most tactile and satisfying combat in its genre and medium. This is not surprising for a Blizzard title, and Diablo 3 has been widely regarded as having the best feeling combat among its competitors, but it’s still important to stress that the level of polish and excellence of control over the character that is signature for the company is not lost in the translation to mobile.
There is also a surprising amount of manual skill - both for an aRPG and a mobile game - that you can apply to your play, with multi-skill interactions and positioning interplay that is rare for the medium and indeed, the preceding titles in the series. There were demonstrations of the Wizard using the Ice Crystal to refract Ray of Frost onto multiple enemies, the Crusader’s Falling Sword turned into a two-step active ability that can be used to either engage or reposition, or the Monk’s Kick, the heir to Dashing Strike, that can be bounced off walls for multiple successive hits. While that is an undeniable positive and an evolution of Diablo 3’s handling, it was also pretty evident that developers are still getting the hang of mobile aiming, as some skills felt better than others (i.e. the Wizard’s Meteor has a rather tight targeting reticle that swept too quickly over the battlefield to reliably get a good hit in).
The game is touted as a full-fledged Diablo MMO, with all the open world, constant live updates and content patches that will entail. Its pure multiplayer structure will require an internet connection and will not allow for immediate drop in-and-outs, though that wasn’t immediately obvious in the demo where you spend the ‘learning’ half of it solo. You will encounter up to 6 players in the questing environment, and up to 4 players in the instanced dungeons - and even though the latter can be soloed, they will remain tuned for a full party (and thus more challenging). There was a reassuring sense of difficulty to the demo, and even trash monsters inflicted a significant amount of damage that required attention and quick work with the health potion. The potion is handled in a Diablo 3-esque fashion - based on a 15-second cooldown, but with a heal over time as opposed to D3’s instant effect. Death was handled in a Softcore manner, with a very generous 5 second timer until respawn - though that might be adjusted in the final version of the game, as there was mention of up to 30 second penalty timer to encourage better play. As far as I could tell, Hardcore was off the table due to the relative instability of internet connections on mobile (see more on that in the interview below).
The outrage over the UI structure being very similar to other Netease titles like ‘Crusader of Light’ and ‘Endless of God’ is understandable, but kinda overstated - most mobile MMOs and action RPGs use very similar controllers and interface (see Lineage, Darkness Rises, Alliance x Empire).
A large portion of the (demonstrated) game however is built with adapted Diablo 3 assets - an issue that is disappointingly danced around, and is very obvious if you have spent any significant time in Diablo 3 (however tastefully rearranged and retouched, you will recognize numerous structures, tilesets and monsters). References to future bosses like a “giant spider” (no doubt Queen Aranae’s cousin) or a “clone of Zoltun Kulle” (come on…) don’t help much to inspire the ‘new title’ feel. It’s all topped off with the inclusion of the exact cast of characters from Diablo 3 (albeit strangely missing the Witch Doctor), even though Immortal is supposedly situated closer to Diablo 2 lore-wise. Despite the above, I don’t really doubt technical and artistic skill is necessary for the assets’ translation to a mobile device, and it makes for an unbelievably polished, if disturbingly familiar graphical experience. In terms of artistic feel, you will like the game if you were satisfied with Diablo 3 visuals, and there is a pleasant darker tinge to everything - if not a complete reversion to a more grounded and gothic journey.
Oh, and blood is jarringly absent.
The game was demonstrated on a Galaxy S9 and to give credit where it’s due, it blows my mind that such visuals are available on a mobile device. There were no lags, frame drops or technical issues that I can point out, though again - the 6-player open world was not active for the demonstration. Sadly there was no way for me to minimize the app or test it unplugged, so I could not tell the effect it had on the battery after extended 45 mins. - 1 hour of uninterrupted playtime.
To finalize my impressions from the game and the numerous talks I’ve had with developers, I would quickly like to clear up some misconceptions that I see floating around as best I could:
Lack of a resource system (mana or otherwise): This is still in the experimentation stage. Think of resource as a variable that enables the use of a skill, similarly to cooldowns and charges. Unlike say MOBA games, mana in aRPGs is usually a mechanic that the player works to overcome rather than play around. Currently charges replace mana as means of non-timer use of a skill that doesn’t clutter up the limited UI space.
Team size and Blizzard to Netease ratio: This is a twofold misconception. First, there’s the concern that Blizzard have simply dumped the IP onto a Chinese company with very little involvement on their part. From talks with developers I get the sense this is not true at all, and the team size on the Blizzard side is at least comparable to the one from Netease. There’s also concern that Diablo developers working on the mobile title are taking up resources from the unannounced PC game, which I was told is not true. In fact, during various conversations devs have expressed genuine surprise at the growth rate of Blizzard as a company - which raises entirely new concerns, but team size for PC should not be affected by the mobile title.
Claims of racism due to the elimination of the Witch Doctor: The Monk in Immortal is clearly dark skinned (both in cinematics and ingame), so that one is out, I believe. I will not make any claims to Chinese audiences' cultural preferences one way or the other. To be honest I simply think Witch Doctors never quite grabbed people as much as Necromancers, and it became even more obvious when the latter were added to the game. Two poison-heavy, curses-spreading, summon-reliant characters are a bit much for a single game, no matter how much they tried to spin the difference in D3.
If you have any additional concerns or questions about the gameplay of Immortal specifically, I can try to answer - please don’t hesitate to list them below.
Onto the interview!
Interview on Diablo: Immortal
I conducted this interview with Wyatt Cheng (lead designer) and Joe Hsu (senior producer) from the Diablo: Immortal team on the second day of BlizzCon, a few hours before the World Q&A panel. It reflects both the Future of Diablo panel information, as well as my own thoughts from playing the demo.
Interview with Wyatt Cheng and Joe Hsu
+ Show- Hide I think what surprised me the most is the announcement of a second ‘portable’ Diablo title, so close to the announcement and release of the Diablo 3 adaptation for Nintendo Switch. What inspired that?
Wyatt Cheng: The projects are being worked on by multiple teams, and so the Diablo 3 on Switch was started, and then we partnered with Iron Galaxy, and they worked on the Switch. One of the great things about having multiple projects in the pipe is that we can provide the Diablo community with more content. The timing wasn’t something that we strategically planned, honestly we’re just trying to bring everything to the community as quickly as we could - it’s just how long the development of these individual projects took.
Joe Hsu: We think about it as the same type of platform - we just want to bring more Diablo to the fans.
Wyatt Cheng: And of course, Diablo 3 on Switch is very substantially similar to the console and PC experience, whereas Diablo: Immortal is a brand new game.
Speaking from experience, the Switch version does indeed translate the Diablo 3 experience faithfully. What about the mobile experience though, how much Diablo is in there - skill trees, item choices, etc.?
Wyatt Cheng: Unfortunately, not all of our systems are worked out yet. I think a big one players have been wondering about is the itemization system, since the items are a key part of the Diablo experience. We’re still working on that. Couple of things that are very important to us, 1) we want to ensure there is some depth for our core gamers to have something to sink their teeth into that isn’t over-simplified; and 2) we are going to have legendary powers. We really liked the way that the legendary powers changed the way that you play Diablo 3, and we’ll be looking to bring that to Diablo: Immortal as well.
As for other systems, I think back to both Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 with regards to skills and endgame progression, what happens after you hit max level. We’re still working out the details on that, and we’ll be taking inspiration from all three entries in the series, but we may evolve some of those systems as well.
Just to make sure - considering the trimmed down skill system (12-ish) and (for the moment) the very bare-bones itemization that just bumps up defenses, health or damage, is it still reasonable to expect theorycrafting and a level of complexity to the game?
Wyatt Cheng: Yes. Definitely. That’s what I was kind of alluding to earlier, saying that we still want there to be meaty systems in place. The itemization that we have now is mostly a placeholder, there to get the game to a playable state. Sort of ‘getting to the 20% mark’ - or as they call it in the Silicon Valley, MVP (minimum viable product). We wanted to work on killing monsters and making the combat feel fun first, but part of that is knowing that an item dropped to the ground and in our heads we imagine that this item feeds into a bigger game. Right now the itemization that you see in the demo is honestly exactly like it was really early in development, and currently we have a lot of designs on paper to what we want the itemization to be. And it’s pretty different from what is available in the demo today.
And skill customization is still part of the idea? Considering we had 5 fixed skills in the demo, and just 12 promised by the presentation.
Wyatt Cheng: There is definitely going to be about 12 or more skills per class, and then you choose 5 of them for your current build. When we look at the way Diablo 3 (post-RoS) legendary items change the way certain skills worked, we feel like that was very similar in functionality to the way skill runes (introduced with vanilla D3) altered the way your skills function. It’s almost the same thing sometimes, like “Rend stacks twice” could easily be a legendary item or a rune power, because there was no clear definition of what was supposed to be one or the other. And while it’s still okay for us to have many systems and functions in the game, we want to ensure legendary items take the stage for changing how your skills work. Then, we’ll look at the supporting systems and what else they can do.
Joe Hsu: And besides supporting systems, we make sure that the feel of the game is very much Diablo - how it looks, how the action plays out. And then our lead artist Richie Marella spends a lot of time to make sure that the tone and the overall style fit within the Diablo universe.
We did mention that legendaries are meant to change the way you play, but how about the way you look? It was mentioned during the presentation, but when you equipped anything in the demo, it didn’t change the visuals of the character.
Wyatt Cheng: Items will change the way your character looks, they just don’t in the demo. During the panel we showed some concept art for the gear progression, and we only have concept art to show right now because we don’t have all the art assets in place.
Bringing it back to gameplay, how will Diablo: Immortal handle difficulties? We had the old school Normal to Nightmare to Hell progression in Diablo 2, and then in Diablo 3 we could adjust difficulty on the fly. Are we due for another change?
Wyatt Cheng: I have to preface this by saying this is all work in progress, so this could change between now and release. But the way we’re currently thinking about the game, is because it is a shared online world, the difficulties - if we have too many - will fragment players away from each other, while we want players to run into each other within their server community. So we’re looking at a single difficulty for the level-up experience, and then possibly when you reach max level - and we haven’t decided on a max level yet either, but when you do reach the end - you then have an Adventure Mode-like system, where the whole game becomes max level for you as well. Difficulties past that, well - again, this is all in flux - we may be looking to leverage our instanced dungeons for that, as well as a few other endgame systems which are yet to be designed as well.
Are we looking at a mode split of Hardcore / Softcore and Seasonal / Non-Seasonal like in Diablo 3?
Wyatt Cheng: I love hardcore, but for Diablo: Immortal - again, this is current thinking - we are not prepared to have it. We think mobile phones are totally ready for a top tier action RPG experience, but we’re not sure the mobile platform will be right for a hardcore experience. Blizzard has a strict policy that if your hardcore character dies, even if it’s due to the loss of internet connection, he stays dead. This is of course done to prevent cheating. That said, it is nice to be able to play with something at stake - and something that we did in RoS was to introduce the extra augmentation roll to the gem when you don’t die in a Greater Rift run, so this way you have an incentive to try avoiding death. We could look at systems that ratchet up what the stakes are, so that you care about not dying, without having to go all the way to hardcore.
On the topic of Seasons, we’re still figuring this out, but we’re thinking that over the long term, there are multiple ways to keep the game fresh. One is Seasons, for sure, but another is to grow the universe with live content updates. The latter is how we’re currently thinking about it; from the beginning, we’re planning to be able to expand the game with content updates over time. You can see World of Warcraft follows that model, and it’s just a different way of approaching that problem. And we have other ideas as well! These are just two.
We’ve talked about dungeons a little bit, and I want to expand on that. The demo had a very ‘fixed’ approach to its layout, monsters and composition. Is that temporary, or a conscious move from the randomized dungeons toward a more balanced, almost raid-like endgame activities?
Wyatt Cheng: The demo is definitely very fixed. For the live game, the outdoor world will be fixed because we’re crafting a shared world that we want to feel like a familiar place. The monster spawns, chests, shrines and events will be random though, so there will be variance in the world even when the geometry is static. For the instanced dungeons, we’re still exploring our options. It’s kind of a trade-off, like you said we could create that ‘raid environment’ but even there we’re looking to have random events, randomly placed monsters. We are trying both fixed and random layouts right now internally, and we’ll see what we end up with.
Those dungeons won’t run themselves though. Who will you be grouping up with in Diablo: Immortal? How much of the cooperative multiplayer vs. shared world MMO are we talking here?
Joe Hsu: It is a mobile MMO. In public zones you might run into players that you know, or ones you don’t, but you can definitely make friends with them. Multiplayer is very much in the heart of Diablo: Immortal and we plan to bring all of Battle.net’s features into the game, so you can play with your friends, or talk to them when they’re not ingame. We plan to fully support the social aspect of the game.
Speaking of “friendly” activity, will I be able to battle players in some way? Is PvP part of Diablo: Immortal?
Wyatt Cheng: You’re not alone, a lot of players in the Diablo community are passionate about PvP and we’ve heard that for sure. We want the outdoor areas to be places where your interactions with players will be friendly and social, so when you see somebody out there you’re happy to see him. However we’re thinking about ways to introduce conflict between players. It’s really too early to say, a lot of experimentation to be done still. What I can say is that there’s many ways that people can have a confrontation without it needing to be a totally fair, MMR-based esport. That’s the extreme. I don’t think we wanna be that.
Speaking of portability and the Switch version, a great feature of that is the suspend function that allows you to pause and resume anywhere. Is anything like that in store for Diablo: Immortal?
Joe Hsu: We’re planning on different features that will accommodate the lengths of different play sessions. So if you have just 2 minutes, maybe you organize your stash or do a short quest; if you have 15, you call up your friends to do a dungeon and so on. It is a MMO though, so players will have to be aware of the time they can commit.
Wyatt Cheng: I hate to draw too many comparisons to World of Warcraft, but we do look to all Blizzard games for inspiration. And in that game you can quit anytime, but you tend to hearth back to town and exit there. Similarly, in Diablo: Immortal you could quit at any point, but you might die to some monster attacking you. But if you town portal - we’re also thinking of picking the Westmarch waypoint from a map rather than using a portal, but that’s a technicality - that is a safe place to log off. But if you’re in the middle of an instanced dungeon with your friends, you should try to finish it - there will be no resuming from where you left off.
Taking other very popular mobile games into account, I can’t not ask about your feelings on emulation? Will it be accounted for, actively pursued, or anything in between? And let’s not forget emulation will ease streaming the game quite a bit.
Wyatt Cheng: I don’t think we’re gonna go out of our way to hunt down and ban people using an emulator, but I’m also a little apprehensive - and the reason I hesitate is because I don’t know if the game experience will be the best. Even if I map movement to keyboard keys, and then use my mouse to click and drag the abilities, I don’t know if that’s a more fun way to play. Comparing our control scheme for thumb movements to dragging the mouse, it seems like an uncomfortable way to play. While we wouldn’t stop it, I don’t know if people would like it that way - but that’s up to the individual player.
On the streaming side, I would like to explore ways for people to stream natively on their phone, because we definitely want to be able to embrace the streamer community. That’s an aspirational statement though, not a promise - just my feelings as a designer, ignoring engineering limitations.
We talked a fair bit about mechanics, but story-wise the game is set to fill an important gap in Diablo history - the space between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3. Does a mobile device lend itself to storytelling of such scale and importance?
Wyatt Cheng: It’s challenging for sure, but it’s not a new challenge. If you think about it, truthfully, even with Diablo on PC is a difficult game to tell a story, because people are skipping through most of it in clicking frenzy. We’re trying to employ a lot of these different techniques where you can maybe watch a short, nice cutscene the first time you enter a zone, and then you move on.
Sometimes I think telling a story is both the questline but also the setting, and letting aspects of the world tell the story. So when you enter the Shassar Sea, and as you’re wandering through, all of sudden there’s demonic corruption spreading in the desert, which ties into your main questline to cleanse it. This way you start absorbing the story almost through osmosis. We’ll have story there for the people who want it, but we’re also cognizant that for many people the main goal is to get loot, so they can just focus on that, too.
Is it possible for you to talk about the payment system of Diablo: Immortal?
Joe Hsu: Right now we’re really focused on gameplay. At Blizzard our core value is gameplay first, so we want to figure that out and make sure the game is awesome, and then we’ll worry about everything else later. We’re not ready to talk about it this time.
And of course, the most important question - will there be a cow level?
Wyatt Cheng: We’ll see, still too early to say. (laughs) And of course, it goes without saying, we’d be keeping that a secret.