It’s a great time to be a Diablo fan. Diablo II’s recent resurrection gave the classic title a fresh coat of paint, Diablo IV’s development continues to roll along, and now, as of June 2, Diablo Immortal has arrived Android, iOS, and PC – the series’ first original release in years.
I caught up with Blizzard’s Rod Fergusson, Diablo Franchise General Manager, and Joe Grubb, Principal Game Designer on Diablo Immortal just before the game’s launch to discuss how the series has been reinvigorated, and what Blizzard are hoping to achieve with Immortal.
“There’s a consistent through-line to what makes a Diablo game a Diablo game,” Rod Fergusson explains. “But, I definitely believe there’s room for these games to exist together as unique and different experiences. Immortal not only brings that authentic Diablo experience, building on the past and having that homage to what came before with the six iconic classes, but it has all these innovations on top. The Cycle of Strife endgame PVP, Helliquary Raids, social systems, things that have been added by becoming an MMO that really separate it and make it stand apart.”
Even so, at its core, the team have set out to create an “authentic Diablo experience,” says Jeff Grubb, adapted for mobile and with an MMO backbone. With its traditional hack-and-slash setup and isometric perspective, Diablo Immortal very much looks the part, and also has a story to tell, through a linear structure that takes players through an array of diverse locations, growing in power as they slay the countless demons of Hell to find loot and legendary gear.
“You can go in, and you can play through an amazing story where you get off the boat and head into town and the cutscenes kick in,” Rod Fergusson says. “You can do that by yourself and have that great experience. Entering Westmarch for the first time, it’s cool to see other players running around, but you can choose to play solo, you can play with a party of four, or you can choose to play as part of a Warband of eight. It’s really your choice. You can play PVE, which is something that’s more traditionally Diablo, but then there’s this really big end-game PVP stuff, so there’s that too.”
“And when you put the two of those together, rich social systems emerge that may not have made sense in previous iterations of Diablo,” Jeff Grubb adds. “But these become core to the experience of Diablo Immortal. The Helliquary eight player raids, some of the biggest demons in the game that you can face, you need to team up with seven other other people to take on. The Cycle of Strife, which is this server-wide conflict between two factions, the Immortals and Shadows, players can take part in that with their clan. And clans are these massive hundred-player social structures you can join into.”
Diablo Immortal – Launch Screenshots
With the new Warband system, MMO-like co-op extends to creating eight player groups with friends. But in a nod to traditional Diablo, you can share loot with said friends, from set item pieces they might need to other shiny goods.
“[Gearing up a friend] to take on those big Helliquary bosses to earn extra rewards, yeah, it’s all interlinked and all about what it means to be a Diablo MMO on mobile,” Grubb says. “The part that’s exciting to me about these systems is that we knew that this was going to be a live game and a game that we’re going to be servicing for years to come. So all of them were imagined and built from the ground up with expansion in mind. We’re very excited for the launch, finishing the story of Skarn, the Realm of Damnation, that climax. But it really is just the beginning. The Helliquary is set up to allow us to drop new Raid Bosses, the Cycle of Strife was designed to be a cycle, and it’s all set up for us to tune and change and modify well into the future.”
According to Rod Fergusson, all of these social features, the expanded end-game modes, and the move to mobile, will “unlock [Diablo] as a franchise”. What does that mean exactly? Well, the team see Immortal as the next significant step in the series. After all, it’s been ten years since Diablo III’s launch, and people are still heavily invested in it. Each new season sees millions of players return, according to Fergusson, and the recent Season 25 saw them spend over 150 million hours in Sanctuary.
“People are still really active in Diablo III,” Fergusson continues. “So it feels really good that with Diablo Immortal, we’re able to bring this new experience. When you think about the 3 billion gamers out in the world and what they use to play on, a lot of people rely just on mobile. That’s their gaming platform. And when you think about free-to-play, it removes that friction of being able to go into it and try something out. Immortal is going to do a lot to expand the franchise, and sort of re-energise it and bring back its cultural relevance.”
“Immortal is going to do a lot to expand the franchise, and sort of re-energise it and bring back its cultural relevance.” – Rod Fergusson
Moving Away From Mobile-Only
Diablo Immortal was announced at BlizzCon in 2018, where it received a somewhat lukewarm reception. Which is putting it mildly. Timing though, accounts for quite a lot. That first “Diablo for phones” reveal arrived long before the impressive Diablo IV cinematic debut, and before we got a glimpse at the visually impressive Diablo II reimagining. Immortal has been in development for well over four years now; which is extremely rare in the mobile space.
“That speaks to the notion of Blizzard polish,” Fergusson says of the long development time. “This was the first mobile-first game from Blizzard, and we really want it to represent what Blizzard could do on mobile. There’s been a lot of work just on that side of it, and it has been an interesting journey. Joe and I are relatively new, I’ve been here for a couple years, Joe’s been here for a year or so. We weren’t there for the 2018 reveal, but it’s been interesting to see that as people have gotten their hands on the game, that question of why are you making this has become, when are you shipping this game?”
Outside of that initial reception, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Diablo Immortal over the past couple of years has been the gradual shift away from mobile-only to something for everyone. From the addition of controller support, through to the recent revelation that the game was also coming to PC (via Battle.net) on day one, it’s clear that the team has been listening to what Diablo fans have been asking for. That said, the initial focus on mobile platforms and touch controls were important to establish what will work for players carrying the game around in their pockets.
“…as people have gotten their hands on the game, that question of why are you making this has become, when are you shipping this game?” – Rod Fergusson
“I come from a traditional console background,” says Fergusson, “and when you’re making AAA console games, you don’t think about session length, you just want players to binge it. Play through it all, and play through it on a weekend kind of thing. When you’re thinking about bringing something to mobile, you have to think about more than player types. Do I want to play socially? Do I want to play competitively? Do I want to play cooperatively? There’s also this notion of what’s your interaction style, do you play for three minutes, 10 minutes, do you have half an hour, all-day.”
In playing Diablo Immortal you can quickly get a sense of this as you take on bounties, go through dungeons, or tackle an Elder Rift. In terms of duration it almost always feels like Diablo distilled. Conscious design decisions made specific to the platform in which Diablo Immortal was intended to be played. Short bursts are the order of the day.
“What we saw in the beta, which was really surprising, was that the average session length was 45 minutes, and that people were playing multiple times a day,” Rod Fergusson explains. “People were playing upwards of an hour and a half, or more, every day, during the beta. That really helped inform our decision to bring the game to PC. We were already hearing that fans wanted to play it that way, and content creators wanted to be able to stream through PC too.”
“If Immortal is reaching a lot of players, because it’s on mobile and free, maybe we can reach even more by being on PC,” Fergusson says. “One of the key elements of that decision was definitely that play time, people hunkering down and playing for a long time. PC might be a more comfortable way to do that. People might use emulators, so we wanted them to have that native experience.”
With controller support in mobile games becoming more common by the day, the team’s initial hesitation to add controller support was in part due to the way touch controls altered how Diablo played. “One of the joys of playing on mobile is that it’s a direct input game,” Fergusson says. “You’re directly controlling your character, it’s not indirect where you’re clicking. You’re running this way, casting that way, and you’re directly in control.”
“When we brought it to PC, we knew he had to honour the classic control scheme that people know best, which is indirect mouse-click and keyboard,” Fergusson says. “But, we really do love the feeling of direct control. So, how do we bring that over? We provide that in two ways, one is through WASD controls that you can use to control your character, which feels like the mobile version. Secondly, we also support controllers on PCs. The time we spent developing the game was making sure we got mobile right, and when we felt comfortable that we had gotten mobile right we felt that we could broaden its reach by coming to PC.”
“Adding controller support was also a response to player feedback,” Jeff Grubb adds. “Same with PC accessibility, because the goal here is to broaden the audience of Immortal, and the Diablo franchise. Coming to PC is bringing it to players who wouldn’t have played it otherwise, same goes for controller support.”
For the team at Blizzard, getting the game up and running on PC was relatively easy as the development itself took place on PC. Testing the game on PC has been a part of the process for some time. That said, the decision to release a native PC version of Diablo: Immortal on day one without the usual player-led alphas meant it launched in Open Beta form. And with that we’re already seeing some teething issues, but on the plus side it is the full game with cross-play and cross-progression with Android and iOS – albeit with the same UI and interface as the mobile version. For Rod Fergusson, Jeff Grubb, and the greater Immortal team, they’re playing close attention to player feedback, with plans in-place to adapt and update the PC client in the coming weeks and months.
Okay, so what about a console release? Truth be told, Diablo Immortal sounds like the perfect Nintendo Switch game. “Supporting controllers and supporting consoles are two completely different things,” Fergusson explains. “Never say never, but we have nothing to talk about today.”
Diablo Immortal – Launch Screenshots
Free-to-Play and Free Into the Future
There’s one facet of Diablo Immortal we haven’t touched on yet – its free-to-play business model. How does this impact the design and most importantly, can players pay-to-win – i.e. buy power outright? “There’s a few philosophies that go into that,” Grubb responds. “First and foremost, all gameplay systems in Diablo Immortal are free and will be in the future. From the main quest line, side quests, the Helliquary where you can fight the toughest bosses. You can compete in the Cycle of Strife for free. Beyond that, our philosophy for optional end-game purchases is always as a bonus. They will never circumvent core gameplay. The best way to gain power is to play.”
“You have to know how to play your Necromancer,” Grubb adds. “You have to level up, you have to go and slay demons, find epic loot, equip it, grow in Paragon level. That’s where true power comes from, the optional purchases are a bonus on top of that. The core gameplay is Diablo, and that’s serviced by a very hard line we have which is that gear and XP can not be purchased. If you want to get stronger in Diablo Immortal, play the game.”
“The core gameplay is Diablo, and that’s serviced by a very hard line we have which is that gear and XP can not be purchased. If you want to get stronger in Diablo Immortal, play the game.” – Joe Grubb
Of course, bonuses can have a big effect when it comes to the more competitive PVP side, and since the beta Blizzard has made several changes to end-game rewards and what’s earned through play and what’s available for purchase. Now that the game has launched, the discourse around monetisation has been a little heated and there’s been a lot of debate about what money actually gets you when it comes to gameplay. The process of ranking up legendary gems, for instance, which can imbue builds with powerful bonuses, seem intrinsically linked to spending real world money. The game gives players a lot for free – as IGN’s Diablo Immortal review-in-progress (which was based on pre-release access with microtransactions disabled) details – but the outlook seems murkier for those that want to be competitive later on. What’s appropriate for a game like this? That’s something that will no doubt be discussed extensively over the coming months.
Regardless, Blizzard has big plans for Immortal. “After we launch the game we’ll have new zones, we’ll have new dungeons, we’ll have new classes, we’ll have new Helliquary bosses, and all that stuff will be free just like the game itself,” Fergusson says. “The game is going to be supported for years to come.”