Amidst the likes of Diablo 2 Resurrected and Diablo 4, Diablo Immortal feels a bit like the proverbial redheaded stepchild at Blizzard in that the studio didn’t really showcase it during the opening BlizzConline ceremony, likely to avoid a repeat of the negative reaction that happened in the aftermath of the now-infamous BlizzCon 2018.
However, the recent Technical Alpha test showed that Diablo Immortal is nothing to be scoffed at. It feels great to play, as good as a rendition of the franchise could possibly be on mobile devices, and it could find an exceedingly large audience there. That’s why we were eager to participate in the roundtable press Q&A where, alongside colleagues from other publications, we got to ask plenty of questions to Lead Designer Wyatt Cheng and Combat Designer Julian Love about the feedback from the Technical Alpha and many other aspects of Diablo Immortal.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Besides the touchpad controls, are we going to see gamepad compatibility in Diablo Immortal now or in the future?
Wyatt: We got a lot of feedback from the Technical Alpha. There were a lot of people who asked about controller support, so we’ve definitely heard that request. It is something that we’re investigating. I would love to be able to give a more definitive answer. But honestly, we are looking at the tradeoffs between just delivering that best-in-class mobile experience and also just looking at other constraints that we have. It’s something that we’d like to be able to support, but I can’t promise anything today.
How is the state of the game at the moment and what are the next steps after the technical Alpha just concluded in the first week of January?
Wyatt: Our Technical Alpha was focused on a few key things, server stability was actually pretty high up on the list. We were able to just verify that we could have thousands playing the game and that we were able to involve that many. We also wanted to check out our early game systems as well as our mid-game systems. Then we had to validate that people were able to learn, for example, Julian mentioned the controls. Things like making sure people are able to learn the controls, people understand how to move around, people understand the questing system. We’re able to look at a lot of survey data and listen to a lot of feedback that we got from that. So that was sort of our first Technical Alpha. Looking forward, we have more phases of development. The level cap in Technical Alpha was set to 45. As I mentioned, we were just looking at our mid-game systems. So in a future test, we would look to raise that level cap (the final level cap for the shipping version of the game is 60). As part of that, we’ll have some additional questing zones, so more of the story will be added. Then we also want to start being able to test some of our elder game systems as none of that was present in Technical Alpha. Oh, and how could I forget? Two classes were not part of the Technical Alpha, the Necromancer and the Crusader. You can look forward to having both of those classes introduced during a future testing phase.
During the design process of the game, what challenges did you face when trying to adapt the gameplay experience that Diablo is known for?
Julian: I think that you might expect that the challenges would somehow be different because it’s on a mobile device. And there certainly are screen space challenges because the screen is typically smaller and your thumbs are on the screen. One challenge is just making sure that the controls feel right and that we aren’t getting the player into a situation where their hands are covering important pieces of information. But I think the other big surprise is to realize how much it just isn’t that much different in a lot of ways. I think we expect that there’s going to be huge challenges when sometimes they just don’t show up. Sometimes it surprises even us that right away, the game starts to feel exactly like we expected a Diablo game to feel. That’s something that we got a lot of feedback on from the technical Alpha, how surprised people were that Immortal feels exactly like a Diablo game in almost every respect. It was very easy for them to just melt right into the game and have a good time in the way that they expected.
Was there a special feature or something specific about the game that you would have actually really loved to include, but it wasn’t possible because it was a mobile game or something that you were saying ‘Oh, I wish I could do this, but we could only do this on PC’? Was there some sort of limitation of features?
Julian: No, the opposite. That may sound like ‘No way!’ but I’ve got my own personal investment in this. I’ve been working on Diablo for 18 years now and I have had some ideas for monster affixes, I’ve wanted this feature for a decade and it never made sense with the indirect control scheme on PC. But now we can make sure that everyone’s got the same control scheme because they’re all on mobile and that’s a huge opportunity to start playing with things like the way the player moves around and the player inputs as a challenge for the player. So, we’ve got some new affixes on monsters in the game, the ones I want to highlight are those that freeze the ground. When the ground is frozen, you lose traction; that means that you slip and slide all over the place. When you combine that with another ability that the monster has, which is the wind will blow in a random direction, you’ve got this whole new problem for players, which is the ground is slippery, and there’s a wind blowing against me this way. If I move with the wind, I go faster, but now I’m slipping all over the place. And if I’m trying to fight the wind, now I don’t have traction on the ground as well. That is all playing out against all of the other movement requirements that are happening in a normal Diablo game. This is a whole new kind of gameplay and problems for the player to solve. It’s one example among many where we looked at mobile not as any kind of limitation, but really opportunities to advance Diablo gameplay.
[WCCFTECH] Diablo Immortal is described as a massively multiplayer online action RPG on the website, so I’m wondering if players can expect more MMO-like activities in the endgame, like more challenging dungeons or even raids?
Wyatt: Yes, absolutely, Diablo Immortal is a full-fledged MMOARPG on mobile. I think that one of the things that really defines an MMO game is the social component and that’s an area that we really want to lean into heavily. We want you to be able to log in and meet your friends, to engage in activities. Right now, during the technical Alpha, there were four-person dungeons where you could go in as a party, but we definitely would like to have activities in the future that include more than four people at a time. Another part is being part of a guild and really feeling like your membership and participation in a guild matters and it’s not just a chat panel. And then another thing that is really interesting about an MMO is this idea that the world is there and it exists outside of you. That is almost like a mental switch that flips when you’re playing an MMO: ‘If I’m not playing, is the world still there without me?’ And I think that for a lot of traditional games, I’ll use Diablo 3 as an example, I don’t have the sense that the game world continues to exist and thrive and prosper without me even being logged in. Whereas in Diablo Immortal, much like, say World of Warcraft, there’s this notion that when you’re logged in the world kind of marches forward without you. Not in a bad way, but just that it’s a persistent place that exists. That is how Diablo Immortal should feel as well.
[WCCFTECH] Can you tell us anything about your plans for PvP in the game?
Yeah, we do have plans for PvP. We are not announcing any of those plans today. During the tech Alpha, there is a glimpse of PvP in that in one of the zones, the zone was called Bilefen. Once every three hours, there was an event where players could gather and fight over a chest. There was an arena where anyone who showed up could just fight each other, and the last person standing got to loot the chest. I think that was a kind of a great preview of things to come. But our PvP plans are definitely more ambitious than that – stay tuned.
What are the differences in the experience between playing on a top-spec phone like one of the new iPhone 12 and a bottom end phone in terms of compatibility, like an iPhone 6 and the analogs in the Android world?
Wyatt: Diablo Immortal is a triple-A game. That does pose some constraints on the lower end of what we’re able to support. And, of course, if I could wave a magic wand and make it run on every device, I would, but in order to maintain the graphical fidelity that the game has and the performance, we will have a minimum requirement. In technical alpha, we had fairly high minimum requirements. And I don’t remember off the top of my head what they were, I believe it might have been around iPhone 10 generation.
We are looking to lower those requirements and support as many devices as we can. The game by default runs at 30 frames per second. But there is an option if your phone is capable of doing it to toggle on a 60 frames per second option. And if you have a phone that’s capable of it, then by all means go for it. And the game looks great and plays great at that speed. I guess the short answer is we do hope to provide support for as many devices as we can, but we are bumping against some performance limits. I won’t actually know until we get close to the ship date, what we’ll be able to do when we see the game getting close with all the optimizations that the engineering team is able to make.
Will there be cross-play and cross-progression between Android and iOS?
Wyatt: Yes, absolutely. Cross-play between the two is supported. It is not supported during the Technical Alpha, as that has to do with some of the technology and security measures we take to make sure that we have a secure distribution. I think upcoming Alpha phases are likely to use similar tech, so cross-play does not work during some of our testing periods. However, for launch, you will absolutely be able to cross between multiple accounts, you’ll have a few options there. If you’re on the same ecosystem, say Android or Apple, then there will be an attempt by the game to save your account information into the cloud. Or you can connect your Battle.net account and use that to authenticate. And if you move from Android to iOS, you can connect your Battle.net account and carry all of your progress forward.
You talked about the tone being brighter than Diablo 4. Does that mean it’s literally bright like Diablo 3 in tone? Or does that mean it’s literally brighter on the screen so that it can be seen and sort of interacted with better on mobile?
Julian: Tone-wise, it’s set between the events of Diablo 2 and Diablo 3. In terms of just literal brightness, it does benefit the game to not be so dark, obviously, because you’ve got players playing in a lot of different ambient light conditions. And then you can have really big struggles in terms of allowing them to see everything and, and it’s the kind of problem where a gamma knob slider doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, you really need a certain amount of ambient contrast in order to make sure that all of the visceral action remains present and people can distinguish what’s going on. I mean, it’s a very fast-paced game. We have to make sure that the players definitely are able to get the information that they need at the time that they need it. There’s a specific intent to kind of push that a little bit in terms of maintaining the readability of the game.
Wyatt: I’ll add, from a session length standpoint, I think that the way that people interact with their mobile devices is different than the way that they would interact with a game if it was on console or PC. The idea of logging into a PC or console game for one minute seems a little bit foreign, whereas I think it’s very reasonable to want to engage with a game for one minute. In the case of Diablo Immortal, we ascribe to this idea that we want to be flexible. So if somebody wants to log in for one minute and do something in that one minute, then we want to try and provide activities that are one minute, three minutes, five minutes in length, through these shorter play sessions. But if someone decides that they want to sit down and play for 2, 3, 4 hours for an extended play session, we want the game to show up and support that as well. We’re really designing a lot of our gameplay experiences, our core loop, our different systems, to be very flexible to those different session life desires that people would have.
Blizzard is currently developing Diablo Immortal, Diablo 2 Resurrected, and Diablo 4, which are all big projects for the franchise. I would like to know if any of the other games is influencing any specific thing about Diablo Immortal.
Julian: Yeah, we have friends and colleagues that work on Diablo 4. Some of us actually worked on it, I worked on Diablo 4 for the first two years of its development and we did a lot of pioneering around the field of combat for Diablo 4, so Immortal is gonna benefit directly from a lot of the things that I was working on, they’re just coming straight over into the Immortal experience. That’s one way that Diablo 4 is gonna affect Immortal, though Immortal has its own plans for future content, and supporting that game for a long period of time. We have to coordinate as teams to make sure that we’re sort of building one whole cohesive universe together. They get to hear about our plans, the things that we’re doing, and they get to react to that. I would say that this is really par for the course for how all games at Blizzard get developed in that we aren’t entirely isolated. We are really one big studio that communicates regularly across games and is regularly looking at each other’s work and lifting great ideas that could make one game better from another team.
I was very surprised in a positive way about the amount of campaign story content, the amount of NPCs dialogue options, etc. Can you tell me how long it takes to beat the main campaign for Diablo Immortal before the endgame content starts?
Wyatt: A short answer is that we’re looking for the campaign to be roughly on par with Diablo 3’s campaign. I think you can also extrapolate a bit that the technical Alpha included the main quest line for five zones, there are three zones remaining. That will take you from 45 to 60. They’re roughly equal in length for each zone, so if you’ve played everything in the technical Alpha, you can look forward to three more zones of content.
Can you discuss the thorny subject of microtransactions?
Wyatt: Diablo Immortal is going to be free to play. That means that all of the story content is going to be free. And the six classes that Julian mentioned, all of those are going to be free. One of the great things about that is it means millions of players are going to get a chance to experience a triple-A top-quality authentic Diablo experience from Blizzard completely for free. I’m very excited about that.
We do have optional in-game purchases that players can make. We have a couple of really important priorities when we think about how we approach free-to-play. One of the most important is gameplay comes first, so an in-game purchase should never be used to circumvent gameplay. The best way to progress and advance your character should always be by actually playing the game. What we want to do is structure our purchases, so that it feels like a bonus, and you feel good about it. I feel like as long as we’re making sure that the free-to-play experience is great and that if I do choose to spend money, I felt like I was getting a bonus. As long as spending money doesn’t bypass gameplay, then we’re in pretty good shape.
[WCCFTECH] Some mobile games have also been released on the Nintendo Switch because of the console’s handheld capabilities. Is this something you’re evaluating for Diablo Immortal?
Wyatt: It’s not on the roadmap right now. I don’t want to say…You know, ‘Never say never’, right? But it’s not currently planned.
I’m curious about the distribution of additional new content for Diablo Immortal. Will it be published as big expansions with a lot of missions, zones, and enemies, like World of Warcraft or Diablo 3, or is it going to be more akin to mobile games with smaller updates?
Wyatt: It’s going to be a more frequent stream of smaller updates. That’s the general plan. We don’t have any specifics to announce in terms of like timelines or the exact amounts of things. We just know we have really big long-term plans for a lot of content. We would like to get that into players’ hands in shorter timeframes, rather than having them wait something like six months or even a year to get their hands on larger bites.
Julian: We’ve got plans to keep on going in the future. We talked about content, ideas, and things that we want to bring. I think sometimes people think about new zones and new items, that’s pretty common. But we also have plans to keep expanding the class count into the future.
Wyatt: New classes, new zones, new storylines, new dungeons, new items will all come for free, by the way.
Thank you for your time.
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