Diablo IV had its unveiling on November 1 during BlizzCon 2019‘s opening ceremonies in Anaheim, California. Blizzard is positioning the action role-playing game as a return to the franchise’s darker roots. This follows complaints from some fans that 2012’s Diablo III lost a bit of the series’ grit.
At BlizzCon, I interviewed Diablo IV lead systems designer David Kim and lead lighting artist Sean Murphy. I asked them what makes Diablo IV different from its predecessor, along with some questions about plans for expansions and everyone’s favorite tech, ray tracing.
GamesBeat: Diablo IV is touting itself as a dark game, but obviously you have some limits on how violent you can get. How do you find that balance?
Sean Murphy: We tried not to. We use dark, whether it’s literal or dark as in, hey, if you got to the Domhain tunnels and there are flayed bodies and blood all through the tunnel — we don’t like to do that every square inch. We use that for effect. We use that for narrative. Because if you do something like that all over the place, it robs it of its power. That’s sort of been our temperature gauge for how we’re playing things out like that, if that makes sense.
GamesBeat: Let’s say I’m somebody who liked Diablo II more than Diablo III. What am I going to see in Diablo IV that’s going to make me happy?
Murphy: First off — lots of things. From an aesthetic standpoint, the aesthetics would hopefully please folks that are fans of that darker, Gothic, a little bit more real, grittier type of setting.
Kim: On the systems side, there’s much more added customization options, player choice options, like the skill point system. That allows you to rank up your favorite skills, and as you rank up the skills, you unlock new components to that skill. The talent tree system, for example, even if we’re both going the same build, depending on the choice you have made, you’ll be playing a bit different, more in line with how you want to play the game.
Item affixes, same thing. We’ll have lots of the same item affixes that existed in previous Diablo games. We’ll try to improve on that even further. Luis has talked about the plus to skill ranks as an item affix, plus to talent ranks as another type of item affix, and so on. Legendary items are returning, of course. We’re trying to make this change where legendary items are the endgame that you’re playing with, not the sets. This means I can have that full customization on every item slot in the endgame. That hugely increased sense of customization and choice I have available to me, I think, is one of the biggest draws.
GamesBeat: Can you walk me through how the talent tree system works?
Kim: Everyone’s talent tree is very different. The Druid has the two separate trees. What’s not shown in the demo that we’re playing with internally is you can cross over into any specific nodes, so that you can gain access to different parts of the tree more easily than any other class. How it works, you start from the top, and as you put points in, new tiers will unlock.
As you put points into this node, you see a bar going down. As it fills up the next tier, the next tier lights up and you can put points into the next tier as well. That’s how the tree goes down. If you reach the end, then there are the strongest talents that you can only pick one of. When you pick one of these, you’ll have some extra talent points to spend on the separate side, or on this side too. What I mean is, I picked one of my choices. I have maybe 10 points left over to use in the other tree. I have no access to anything down here. Except if you’re the Druid, I can cross over and get something powerful on this side as well.
We’re trying to make sure that every class has a unique talent tree. If you check out the sorceress, there’s one tree that leads into three different trees. It looks very different. That’s what we’re trying to do.
GamesBeat: How do you get those talent points? Is it just one per level?
Kim: Starting from a specific level, once the system unlocks, you’ll get one per level, and then at max level you have that fixed set of points to play around with.
GamesBeat: Can you explain the skills system?
Kim: Skill points are very different compared to the talent tree. You have your skills and you start with one. As you level up, you’ll be earning one or more skill points to spend, and currently the max rank on a skill is 15. You can choose to use your skill points that you have earned to unlock brand new skills, or to rank up existing skills. If you’re putting points into, say, the Barbarian shout skill you see in the demo, at the beginning it’s pretty simple and maybe short duration that affects all your party members, but as you put in more ranks, it gets more powerful.
Maybe the radius goes up a bit. Maybe you start unlocking new types of things, like you go unstoppable, so you’re immune to CCs once you use it. That’s how that works. What’s interesting about this one is the skill point system is a permanent choice. You can’t redo them. Whereas the talent tree, you can redo those points any time you want.
GamesBeat: That’s a big consequence.
Kim: It’s mostly to make the choices you make a bit more meaningful. When you’re leveling up, especially, you won’t have too many skill points to play around with. You do have to be very careful with what you put in, where you put your skill points. But at the same time, in the end endgame, if you really want to invest in your character, you’ll be able to max out all the skills eventually.
GamesBeat: I’m excited to see the Druid return. Why are you bringing this class back?
Murphy: The Druid actually — obviously the Druid is a favorite. Everyone loves a Druid. But we actually had a concept piece that got done a while back by somebody in house that gave him a bit of a different look, perhaps, to how he looked in D2.
Once that piece went up, it was like, okay, we’re going, we gotta do this. What with the new engine and all that, it was a good opportunity for — at least from an art standpoint, with the Druid, for the character team to go all in. On the front end he’s got the fur, the dogs, it looks super cool.
GamesBeat: So far the revealed classes have all also been in Diablo II. Is that a coincidence?
Kim: We just picked what classes would be great for Diablo IV.
Murphy: We have reverence for all the Diablos. We’re just trying to grab the best bits across the board, because we want to make the best experience in Diablo possible.
GamesBeat: Diablo IV has in-game cinematics for the first time. How hard is it to implement that into a top-down RPG?
Murphy: It was an undertaking. It’s actually the first time we’ve seen, in Diablo — usually we do matte paintings and whatnot. The fact that you actually see that vista shot, that’s the world. That’s the real place. It’s obviously seamless. The whole thing happens in real time.
The whole point that we’re trying to build in Sanctuary is we’re treating it like a character. It made sense to say, hey, we want to show this place that we’re building for folks to spend some time in. When you see it, you can go to it. Yes, it was definitely — I mean, there’s a new pipeline for it and whatnot, of course. But it was worth it.
GamesBeat: Does that make it more challenging to design all these different assets? Now all of the pieces of equipment need to look good enough for closeups.
Murphy: Those are all considerations. When you look at Diablo III, there’s a lot of 2.5D stuff with the trees and whatnot. That all has to not happen anymore, because now we have this game where we’re building it completely in the round. We have terrain elevation. All of the assets are built like standard 3D game assets. It allows us to do things like that with the camera that we’ve never been able to do before. It’s almost empowering in a way, you know?
GamesBeat: What’s the approach to loot for Diablo IV? Is it about getting a ton of different loot and maybe a lot of it’s bad, or is it smaller, more meaningful drops?
Kim: We have a major change coming from Diablo III in loot, which is you can get more powerful versions of the same items, even in the endgame. The reason for this is we wanted to make sure that we have that feeling of challenge. If you’re killing more powerful monsters, we can give you more powerful loot, that kind of thing. I would say that’s the biggest change.
Because of that, it has effects. For example, we won’t be dropping legendaries in crazy amounts as we saw in the past. They’re more powerful versions, so we can keep the same ratios that we had. Maybe we have two numbers. One for how often they drop during level-up, and then one for how often they drop in the endgame. I would say that’s the biggest change to the loot game in Diablo IV. We’re excited to see how that plays out. But we won’t be able to see that for a long while.
GamesBeat: Speaking of the endgame, Diablo III had Adventure Mode and Rifts. Will Diablo IV have a similar endgame?
Kim: For the Rift part, we have the Key Dungeon. It’s similar, but it’s different enough in other ways. Similar because it’s that endless challenge you can go into. Different because now you have to find a key to the specific dungeon, and on the key, it says the difficulty. It says the dungeon affixes that change up the gameplay, things like that. I have to go to the dungeon, use the key, and start that run. In that sense, the endgame will be pretty similar.
But what we want to really amp up is having more challenges, more things to do in the world as part of the endgame replayable loot. We’re hoping to make sure that the endgame is very — it’s a very diverse set of both challenges, like difficulties, and what you’re doing. That’s our plan for the endgame.
GamesBeat: Diablo IV has a bit of an MMO feel. You can see other characters running around. Was that hard to make work for the game?
Murphy: We’re going for a feeling when you’re running around. You’ll see a couple of people trickle by every once in a while. You’ll perhaps see a few more people when you’re in town. But we don’t want that to get too crazy. Diablo is a dark world. Very bad things are happening. But when you get to something like Ashava, the world boss, you’ll see more people are allowed to be there for that type of event, because obviously that would be probably impossible without a few groups of people.
But it’s also just about being a connected experience. It’s just nice to be able to party up and group with folks and whatnot when you’re in town and then go off and adventure together. But when you get into the deep, dark dungeons, it’s just going to be you and your party. You’re not going to run into anybody when you’re down in the tunnels.
GamesBeat: Diablo IV is coming to PC and consoles. Are there any plans for crossplay?
Murphy: We have nothing to announce with crossplay, but that is a topic that we are interested in.
GamesBeat: Diablo III would often throw a ton of monsters at you. It feels like the monster density in Diablo IV is less extreme.
Kim: We want to create a varied play experience as much as possible, and monsters are part of that. We want situations where you’re killing hordes of monsters, but we also want situations where you have to think about, when is that overhead attack coming from the [enemy]? It really depends on the monster family, I would say. The monster families in the demo that you played against probably are more toward what you experienced. That’s why you saw that. But we definitely want to have that dominating everything type of feel as well.
GamesBeat: Does this game take place after Diablo III?
Murphy: This is after Diablo III at some point.
Kim: Decades past.
GamesBeat: Are you trying to tie loose ends from Diablo III’s story? Or are you hoping to start more fresh?
Kim: Story spoilers are one of the things we want to avoid the most. It kind of ruins the fun of the first playthrough. I think story is the one thing we can’t really go too much into.
Murphy: But I do think, if you look at — if you see the world panel, where they show the amount of space we’re trying to build, there’s a lot of land to tell a lot of story.
Kim: Anything can happen.
GamesBeat: How do unidentified items work in Diablo IV? Do you still need to identify them?
Kim: We’re discussing that. We have talked about a few different options. For example, what if you identify items once, and once you’ve identified it, it drops as that item? But we don’t have a strong leaning one way or the other yet. We’ll figure that out at some point in the future.
GamesBeat: The town portal is a button again, like it was Diablo III. Was there ever a thought of bringing scrolls back, or is that just a nuisance you’re happy to be done with?
Kim: That’s another active discussion going on internally. We’ll see what happens.
GamesBeat: How long has this version of Diablo IV been in development?
Murphy: We’ve been working on it for a few years.
GamesBeat: How much new tech is there with the lighting in the game?
Murphy: It’s a brand new engine, brand new renderer, brand new lighting tech. We have dynamic time of day that happens when you’re in the overworld. We even have dynamic time of day in the random exterior dungeons we’re making.
We have dynamic weather systems. When it starts to rain, things get wet. Ripples start to happen after it’s been raining for a while. Water accumulates. Your hero gets wet. All these things happen, and that affects lighting. It’s PVR, so this is the first time we’ve had that in Diablo. It’s a completely new lighting pipeline. It’s actually been really cool to build it.
GamesBeat: I noticed all the demo PCs have RTX cards. Is ray-tracing an option for you?
Murphy: We have nothing to announce at this time. But we’ve spent a lot of time modernizing the engine, so it’s pretty good.
GamesBeat: What’s it like to finally come out and say, we’re working on Diablo IV, here it is, here’s what it looks like?
Murphy: It felt really good when you said, hey, you can introduce yourselves, and I was able to say, Diablo IV.
Kim: Instead of “unannounced project.”
Murphy: It feels awesome. We’ve been waiting to talk about this. The time is right. We just wanted to talk to people about this. It’s all we want to do now.
Kim: I love seeing people’s reactions, both positive and negative. It’s great for me.
GamesBeat: What is post-release content going to look like? Will you make expansions?
Kim: We’ll do the base game plus expansions.