Following our experience with a limited build of Diablo 4 – read about it here! – we had the opportunity to sit in with Rod Fergusson, General Manager for Diablo, and Joe Shely, Game Director. We touch base on various points regarding the game progression, its systems, and the tiniest peek into what the future might hold.
Interview has been edited for clarity.
INTO THE DEPTHS OF HELL WE GO
The Diablo franchises’ later story Acts tend to be shorter with the first two being larger with regards to content and exploration. Will Diablo 4 be similar, or is there a change to the content this time?
JOE SHELY: At launch, players will be able to choose from Acts 1, 2 or 3, and beat them in any order, which is the cool thing about our non-linear campaign. Even within those Acts, you can have a couple of different objectives where you can choose how to complete them, and what order you do them in.
To clarify a little, the storylines will converge. There’s an additional “Act”, so to speak; it’s just that we haven’t really put a name to all those parts.
ROD FERGUSSON: Well, you probably shouldn’t spoil it right? Since you’re basically talking about the epilogue.
JOE SHELY: Yeah, basically, there’s just a lot more game after that.
Speaking of the non-linear storyline, one of the more difficult things is how to manage the player experience. How do you go about that in a way that doesn’t break the story for the player?
ROD FERGUSSON: There’s a difference in a non-linear story, to a story where any event can happen at any time. We have these paths that diverge where you can make choices, but they have a convergence point. The story has a specific beginning, middle and end, but in between, there’s a whole bunch of different things you can do to get to that converging point. We have a story we want to tell, it’s just how you decide to tackle them.
Since you mentioned convergence for the story, do you have to complete all of the Acts?
JOE SHELY: Yes.
ROD FERGUSSON: To be clear, you only need to complete the campaign on one character. You can do the campaign across any number of characters, but you can choose to opt out once the first character has completed it. That’s true for following seasons.
You’ve mentioned how in-game events can potentially permanently change things in the world, so how would this work for people at different points of progression?
JOE SHELY: The state of the world depends on the party leader.
If I’ve done a quest and join up with a person who hasn’t, if the other person is the party leader, then I will be seeing their progress and doing their quests with them.
About the Evade action; it’s appeared in console Diablo 3, so what made you decide to include it in Diablo 4?
JOE SHELY: As you’ve mentioned, Evade appeared in Diablo 3 console. Diablo 4‘s action combat is based on Diablo 3, but we wanted to add more depth to it with more options for moving around in a fight. At times in Diablo 3, it felt like you had to have a movement skill in your hotbar.
In Diablo 4, this is addressed in two ways: access to a mount to explore the world, and the Evade skill for tactical movement in combat. You can get upgrades for Evade to modify it to better suit your playstyle, and you find it in your Boots.
With the talent tree now being pretty huge while also being streamlined, you have added Aspects that you can earn in dungeons… how do you think those would change the game?
JOE SHELY: The Aspects are tied pretty closely to the renown system. We have all these dungeons that are different from each other, and we wanted to add a specific reward for these dungeons. You can find an effect that improves your Barbarian, or decide to come back later if you happen to be playing a Sorcerer. All those Aspects are collected in the Codex of Power for players who just want to collect them.
Once you’ve gotten an Aspect in your Codex, you can go to the Occultist in town and imprint them onto an item to replace a Legendary affix or upgrade a Rare into a Legendary by attaching that affix. That said, not every Legendary affix is available through the Codex system. What’s cool is that you can extract a Legendary affix to attach to another item. Say you have two helms with affixes you want: you can just pull one out and attach it to another item to have both of them.
Also, the Codex affixes roll lower than Legendary items. An item could have a 5 to 10% modifier, so a Codex will have it at 5%, while you can still look for a more powerful version of the same affix.
ROD FERGUSSON: The Codex allows me to have some comfort in my build. If an affix is critical to my build, I can get the Codex of Power version for a baseline version, so I don’t need to have my build swing so wildly based on my gear. When I have the resources, I can always apply the affix when I need it.
Diablo 3 and Diablo 4‘s talent trees are very different. What’s the reason about going back to something more old school for Diablo 4?
JOE SHELY: We wanted choice to feel different. When you have a system that has no cost involved in changing builds, you lose that sense of investment. It becomes like work where you have to change your talents for a build, or to do a specific content.
We also know that when you’re first experiencing the game as you’re levelling up, it’s a big three with lots of choices and you want to be able to try out different things. It’s inexpensive to respec, costing only gold, so at low levels, you have a lot of freedom to experiment, gradually becoming more expensive as you progress. You can also respec point by point to move things around, or just do a more expensive full respec.
ROD FERGUSSON: I think it’s also easier to understand when you think of Diablo 2 and its cascading skills. A new player can see that this is their basic skill, earner, spender, ultimate… there’s that sense of progression and connectivity as you progress through the skill tree whereas in Diablo 3, it was kinda flat, where some skills can only go into certain slots.
JOE SHELY: I also love the flexibility of the skill tree. It may not be the optimal way to play the game with only 2 skills on my bar, but I can do that.
How have the Rune Words evolved for Diablo 4?
JOE SHELY: Players who engage with Runes have a certain expectation in the world of Diablo. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback and discussed a lot about the design, and the ones in the Blizzcon build was taking them in a different direction. We want to make sure we get them right, so they won’t be appearing at launch.
TRAIPSING AROUND SANCTUARY
One of the things of the Diablo series is the certain randomness of maps, but D4 seems to be more ‘fixed’. Are there still the ‘random’ dungeons?
JOE SHELY: The way I like to think about it is like going to a venue for a concert, where there could be any number of concerts happening in the same place. We built a world that feels like a real place with real locations in it, so you can go experience a dungeon and later come back to it as a Nightmare Dungeon with additional modifiers and changes. You always know where the dungeon is, so if you get a Nightmare Dungeon key for it, it’s at that spot in the world.
Similarly for the overworld, we have end-game features like Helltide that modifies the area itself, changing the monsters and behaviour of the area.
ROD FERGUSSON: Think about the Greater Rift in Diablo 3. There’s one portal but once you get in it, it can be any number of things. Now, you have like over 140 portals in the world with various changes as to what that dungeon can have. In that sense, it’s got dynamic elements to each of the dungeons once you enter them.
Loot drops was much of a complaint in Diablo 3. Is there a fixed drop rate for legendaries in Diablo 4?
JOE SHELY: We’ve been talking about how important Legendary affixes and how important they are as a component of your build, skill tree, and the Paragon level later on. We know that gear power comes from build-defining affixes, so Legendary items need to be dropping pretty frequently to get you access to the builds you’re excited about.
If you have to wait forever to get Legendaries, then you’re going to have trouble to complete your build. We make them drop pretty frequently but not like they’re just falling from the sky, I would say. We’ve also made Rares important to the itemization with how you can upgrade them into Legendaries.
ROD FERGUSSON: It’s also worth noting that the Legendary drop rate is somewhat tied to your progression. You’re not going to get many if you’re playing at sub-20 level, but you could get something from your Obols, or by applying an Aspect to a Rare to upgrade it to a Legendary.
We want the Magic (Blue) and Rare items to feel meaningful as you progress. It’s not just about the power you’re looking for; those are used as raw materials and you have to salvage those to get the materials you need to modify them.
Is it possible to finish the game without ever encountering other players?
JOE SHELY: Everyone is in this shared world, Sanctuary, together. You’re going to see people around in a town or social areas, because our towns are optimized to be these social places. Similarly, if you see a world boss, the game is going to put other players in the same instance to fight together for a cool experience.
When it comes to a campaign area, you’re only going to see other people if you’ve explicitly invited them to your party. If you’re alone, you’ll be alone in those instances.
ROD FERGUSSON: They’re like private instances, where a story dungeon is an instance where only you can exist there, much like Strongholds. Now, when you convert a Stronghold, it becomes a public / social place. You will see other people but will not be forced into a party to adventure together. The idea that you can play the game and never see another person is highly unlikely. If it’s about people coming in and interfering with your story, that won’t happen.
The instances sound a lot like how Diablo Immortal does it. Has Diablo 4 taken a lot of inspiration from Immortal?
ROD FERGUSSON: No, they’re very separate teams and games. I think Immortal takes a lot of its inspiration from Diablo 3.
We were just talking about this recently; one thing that really clicked for us was how Immortal is designed to reach a playerbase who’d never played Diablo before. We really focused on the onboarding, from the moment you stepped off the boat and introducing all the elements to you step by step.
We thought we should look at the onboarding for Diablo 4. Part of the promise of Diablo 4 is about player choice, freedom, play how you want, like coming out of that cave and you can go wherever you want. Then, we realized that it may be paralyzing to new players, so we went back to make sure people get a really good entry into the world, encountering the right things at the right time.
It was something that was already there, but it was reinforced when looking at the success of Immortal at bringing new players in.
You’re limited to 4 party members, but the older games have allowed for larger group sizes. Is there any reason why you’re sticking with 4?
JOE SHELY: Well, we think the combat works really well with 4 players, considering all of them on the screen at once in an action game where there’s lots of skills and abilities flying around. There’s also 2-player couch co-op where you share the screen with another person.
In towns or world boss fights, those have a higher player count outside of your party of 4. We even zoom the camera out a little to see all the action that’s going on, besides the world bosses being huge.
You mentioned there’d be lots of people fighting the world bosses; how will drops be allocated? Can you just poke it once?
JOE SHELY: Your loot is individual. We have some rules around that: we certainly want players to fight the world boss and participate, not have one person fight it while others stand around. The world bosses are not designed around needing every single player to be completely optimal with their combat. It’s like a fun experience for lots of people to head in to fight it.
Will there be Player-versus-Player (PVP) gear like those in World of Warcraft that you can earn, or is PVP just for fun?
JOE SHELY: We’ll talk more about PVP in the future, but we built Diablo specifically to ensure we could have interesting PVP engagements. The rewards are cool looks that you can acquire. When thinking about Diablo 4 as a live service and its launch being the start of our support to it, we think that PVP will play a part in the future.
ROD FERGUSSON: The things you get from PVP, that is unique to PVP, will be cosmetic. So, you don’t have to engage in PVP for the best gear, it’s more about wanting to look badass.
Can you turn off PVP?
JOE SHELY: While there’s no PVP in the build you’re playing, that’s not actually because we turned it off. PVP takes place in specifically designated as such before that you can get attacked.
There were latency problems with the online service, with high ping. How will the team be addressing this?
JOE SHELY: We’re working to make sure our servers around the world are well equipped to ensure the quality of play will be the best it can be. We’re planning on test plans next year to test our server capacity.
TENETS OF DEMON-HUNTING
In Diablo 3, hardcore players play through a season, get rewards, then do it all over again. What’s the end-game for Diablo 4?
ROD FERGUSSON: We’ll have lots of time to talk about the end-game systems like Helltide, Nightmare Dungeons, Tree of Whispers, PVP, because this is the first mainline Diablo game that’s going to ship with an end-game already in it.
Once you’ve finished the campaign, you’re likely going to be in your mid-40s, then it opens up the end-game of doing bounties and all that. Just having the end-game is something I think people will be playing a lot, and that’s not going into the seasons we won’t talk too much right now. It’s inspired by Diablo 3, but making it more robust that people want to play the entire Season with new things in it. We kinda say that finishing the campaign is where your adventure really begins.
We’ve had the end-game beta to get feedback that we’ve never done before. We’re learning a lot and building on top of that so we’re very aware that the campaign really is just the start.
What have you learnt from your previous Diablo experiences that you’re bringing into Diablo 4?
ROD FERGUSSON: One of the things the team was really focused on was coming back, after 11 years since Diablo 3, in a way that is new and innovative, but also familiar and slightly nostalgic.
Diablo 4 I kinda see it like an equation: the tone and themes of Diablo 1, that darkness aspect. The permanence of progression of Diablo 2. The visceral, exciting combat of Diablo 3. Finally, the innovations of Diablo 4 in the overworld, player choice, freedom, that comes together to be a homage to the past with lots of new and interesting features.
I liked the Diablo 3 scaling with all the big numbers. Will we be seeing that in Diablo 4 end-game?
JOE SHELY: That’s an interesting point. You see all these big numbers and that’s great, but when it gets to something like 2 billion, it becomes hard to conceptualized.
We’ve modified how the floating combat text – the numbers appearing over your head – displays, so a critical hit in Diablo 3 would be displayed in giant font no matter how big the number was. In Diablo 4, the size of the number gets bigger as the actual number gets bigger to really emphasize the feeling of an attack that did a lot of damage.
You can certainly expect numbers to get bigger as you get to level 100, but we’ve also balanced it for PVP. You’re not going to one-shot another player by just throwing a fireball. We want to have interesting item interactions and build changes that don’t solely rely on having big numbers, not that we don’t love big numbers, of course.
ROD FERGUSSON: Like, you don’t want to have a sense of inflation, right? We’ve got years and years of this game to balance, add on to, and all those things. We want things to be understandable and comparable and not that you’re trying to hit a giant meatsack of health points.
What is the “X-factor” of Diablo 4?
ROD FERGUSSON: The story. It sets a new bar for a Diablo game in terms of storytelling, and we want to talk more about that closer to launch. We’ve used everything from environmental storytelling, pre-rendered and in-game cutscenes, simple and complex conversations… I also love how the classes feel to play, with the permanence of the skill trees, and you get the specialties that really enrich the style of play. There’s the cosmetics, the co-op… it really is the culmination of the Diablo series that makes it worth playing.
Will there be a cow level?
JOE SHELY: We haven’t ever commented on cow levels officially in Diablo games. What I will say is that one of the things we’re doing with Diablo 4 is establishing the dark tone of the game, especially at launch, that we really treat the world with respect and give the story the space to breathe as our focus.
ROD FERGUSSON: We wouldn’t want to milk that feature either.
How long have you planned Diablo 4‘s live service for?
ROD FERGUSSON: We have plans going quite far in continuing the story, the seasons and the long run, but how far? That’s going to be up to how engaged the players will be.
Much thanks once again to Rod Fergusson and Joe Shely for answering our questions! There’s still time yet before Diablo 4 might at last open its doors to all demon hunters at large, and the team surely aren’t going to reveal all their cards at this juncture.
Do check out our gameplay preview here to see what some of the early game feels like!