When Diablo Immortal was initially announced in November 2018, it didn't get the greatest reception. Fans weren't happy that Blizzard was turning to the mobile market, and had fears of microtransactions and pay-to-win features bogging down the game.
Since then, Blizzard has done a lot to quell any fears that players might have, and Diablo Immortal has gone from the black sheep to bell of the ball, with two successful closed alphas and a ton of love, both critically and from fans.
As the game continues its second alpha test period, we got the chance to sit down with Senior Combat Designer Julian Love and Senior Narrative Designer Justin Dye of Blizzard, We spoke about Diablo Immortal's design, narrative, and how the team was excited to return to some of the biggest moments in Diablo's history for a game that may already be one of the best Android games out there.
Bridging the gap
One of the first thing players may notice when they get the chance to jump into Diablo Immortal is that it takes place right in between Diablo 2 and 3. This wasn't by accident; Blizzard wanted to look back in the timeline and figure out how things came to be.
"Honestly, there's this very interesting period between Diablo 2 and 3 that just doesn't have enough detail at the moment," Dye said. "It was a huge opportunity, right? There's so much ground to tell story there."
Story isn't the only thing that features callbacks to the world of Diablo. Many of the dungeons found within Diablo Immortal are crammed with lore and locations from past games. When asked whether or not it was tough to strike a balance between bringing in new content and utilizing their vast backlog of lore, Dye noted that there wasn't a metric for these kinds of design choices, but there was never a struggle in coming up with decisions.
It's entirely new for Diablo immortal, but it brings on themes and and world building from the past and lets you kind of be there in a new way.
"Usually someone will pitch the idea, we'll kick it around, see how it feels," said Dye. "But in general, I don't think that there's ever been too much of an honest struggle in that kind of thing, because in truth, we sort of just follow the passions and see where they go. So in general, if anything, I feel like getting those has been easy."
"The game right now takes place in only about 10 areas," Dye continued. "Many of them are not even from Diablo 2, and a whole bunch of them are new places we've never been to before. So in general, it's a fun challenge."
Making classes work
The decision to include things from Diablo's past doesn't just extend to its narrative. Diablo Immortal features many classes from past Diablo games, fitted with entirely different movesets to help things flow better in a mobile game.
According to Love, shifting movesets for classes was an opportunity for Blizzard to once again merge the new with the classic. "We want to bring back favorite classes that are very familiar, that people love, and so that that's sort of what informs the lineup," Love said. "And then there are some challenges that you always face when you bring a game to a different platfor. Those usually show up in the size of the screen, how far away you are from it, and then, of course, the controls and the inputs are different."
Some examples of that can be found in the Crusader's Falling Sword skill, which is now a two-step skill that lets you place your AOE damage. "We always kind of want to do stuff like that with a PC version of Diablo, but it just never felt right with that input scheme because of all the pressure that it puts on your mouse hand to constantly dance around the screen," Love said. "But here, with this control set, it felt really natural because you're just moving your thumbs around."
"There are some challenges that you always face when you bring a game to a different platform."
Speaking of the Crusader, the classic Diablo character made its way into Immortal in the latest closed alpha session, and gave players the chance to experience some new mechanics. Love explained that deciding to bring back any class always stems from the excitement the team at Blizzard has, as well as how fans may receive it.
"The first thing you want to test is, what's the team's excitement for it? And then we also look out in the world and see well, what was the temperature of the audience for it? What did they love? What do we think that they would like based on what they're doing today and the response that they had? Then, that goes to inform the decision."
New systems are being watched
Aside from the Crusader class, one of the other major additions to the most recent alpha was the Helliquary. This system allows players to track down elite demon enemies and take them down in groups. Once you defeat a demon, you'll be rewarded with gear that can permanently buff your character and change the way you play.
Because the mode is so new, Blizzard isn't sure if they'll implement any limits onto how much the Helliquary can be ranked up, but they're excited at what it can bring to the game.
"This is another [way to] collect and make decisions around what you think are the buffs that play better to your playstyle or your characters kit choices," said Love.
"Of course, as those kit choices change, you may go back and rethink some of this. So there's a lot of tension between the Helliquary buffs and your other overall kit. Then, of course, this can get tweaked again by your goals with what you're doing with respect to Challenge Rifts. So there's a lot of opportunity for depth and strategy in that system." Dye also explained that Blizzard will be watching the system carefully as players get acquainted with it, and that they'll always be looking at things and trying to figure out how to make it better based on feedback from players.
Adapting to a mobile world
One of the biggest challenges that Diablo Immortal faces as it grows is how to adapt a game like Diablo — known for some of its co-op abilities — to mobile devices. When asked if co-op gameplay is something the team is focusing on, Love mentioned that they were, but that there's two sides.
"I think that if I'm going to paint two different sides to the equation, one is its value as a thing that players on their own are working towards," Love explained. "And that's very akin to goals that players used to assign themselves in games like Diablo 2 where there wasn't really an endgame system, and so they would make things up for themselves — like 99 became the very first big goal that was obvious."
Love went on to say that the other aspect of the design is making sure that players don't ever feel as if there's only ever one outcome for any given situation. "But the other side of it is an opportunity to group up, right? To share that moment with other people and to take that big monster down, that's a really valuable thing too. The negative that can come out of that, though, is if the answer is always group up, and nobody finds value in doing it as a single-player experience, then that that might be a reason for us to question how that works, and the way that that players are going about it.
"We are still looking at systems throughout the entire game with a focus on how much time does something take"
Another huge focus on Diablo Immortal is in making sure that players don't feel like moments take too long. "We are still looking at systems throughout the entire game, with a focus on how much time does something take. How are the players who are playing alpha now engaging with those things?" Love said. "For instance, are they doing things to subvert the time length that something takes because that's the problem for them, is that this takes too long? And that's an opportunity for us to make make adjustments to get it into the zone."
Love went on to say that he knows players will always try to circumvent things regardless of what's implemented so the team is trying to find the best balance in how players play and how things are designed. "No matter how you design it, if there's a way for them to change it, they will always do that to their advantage. So we have to design with those two ideals in mind."
PvP on a small screen
One of the last things we talked about regarding Diablo Immortal is the recently announced PvP system, known in-game as the Cycle of Strife. Asked if the team faced any challenges implementing such a large system into the game, Love spoke about how bringing a system like that into Diablo Immortal was a big design challenge, but that the team was steering things to a healthier gameplay experience. Dye chimed in to discuss the thematics of the Cycle of Strife, and how Blizzard hopes to make the mode give players the feeling that they're really part of a group.
"There's an almost endless number of dark houses that can be formed. You can build your own right now, and get your friends together and be the next Immortals, right?" Dye said. "That's the spirit of the system. So the Shadows have that renegade, get a group together, change the world kind of feeling. Meanwhile, the Immortals, while they are often separated to do things, the goal is to make them feel unified. You have 500 people, but they're at the same time together."
A classic series reimagined
Diablo Immortal may not have been announced to much fanfare, but Blizzard developers have put in the work to prove that they are more than serious about making this game something that will effortlessly slot into the world of Diablo. With a heavy focus on lore, gameplay that doesn't fall into the trap that many mobile games do, and a committment to keep the fans involved, the studio looks to have a potential hit on their hands whenever Diablo Immortal releases to the masses.
In the meantime, you can still try out Diablo Immortal if you happen to live in Australia and are on an Android device. The game is currently going through its second round of alpha testing, so if you want to dive back into the world of Sanctuary, sign up and see if you're one of the lucky players to be invited.