A lot changes in 11 years. Since the launch of Diablo 3, new releases across the industry have got bigger and bumpier while strides have been made towards greater accessibility and inclusivity - all things that Blizzard has had to contend with.
Alongside the adaptation of an effective live-service model, one of the biggest ways Diablo general manager Rod Fergusson thinks D4 can modernise itself and break new ground is “elevating the craft of the storytelling within an ARPG”.
“We want to have one of the best action-RPG stories,” he tells us.
For Fergusson, Diablo 4’s secret sauce to delivering an immersive story is the technological advancements that allow the character you’ve crafted to appear front and centre in cinematic cutscenes.
“When you watch Diablo 2 or even Diablo 3, we have these beautiful pre-rendered cinematics, but they tend not to involve your character because we don't know what your character classes are or what you look like – and so, we can't put you in the scene. In Diablo 4, because we use real-time cinematics for the most part, we can put your character in. And now the story is about you. And it feels more personal and immersive because you see your character confronting the fallen angel Inarius as opposed to just a pre-rendered word.”
The devil is in the details
The prospect of seeing your character star in a Diablo 4 cinematic is only part of the puzzle when it comes to allowing players to immerse themselves fully in the game. Having that character better reflect who you are meant improving what Diablo has offered previously through its character creator.
“In the previous games, you were defined by your class,” Fergusson recalls. “So if you look at Diablo 2 as an example, when you picked your class, you chose your race and gender, and that'll just happen for you. Then when you go to Diablo 3, you can select your gender, but you're going to be a mountain area barbarian with white hair. That's just who you are – you're playing a character from the lore instead of your character."
“So in Diablo 4, we wanted to open up that personalisation and customisation so you could say, ‘I want to have this sort of ethnicity’, or ‘I want to have this sort of look, body paint, hair colour, or piercings and facial structure’.”
Alongside the fact that characters are separated by body type rather than gender, the stockier appearance of Diablo 4's druid caught plenty of buzz from the community during a recent beta. While the majority welcomed the inclusive build, some resisted the change. Regardless, Fergusson says the appearance of each class isn't changing any time soon.
“We wanted to have a diverse range of body types,” he says. “But, because of the way that armour works within the game, we wanted people to have a silhouette. So you can say, ‘I know that's a druid because of their shape.’
“We've had people say they want a skinny druid or a dad bod necromancer, and I hear you. But that breaks not only some of the stuff we're doing from an armour perspective but the silhouette – If I see that dad bod running at me, do I know if it's a druid or necro while playing PvP in the Fields of Hatred?”
Stay awhile and listen
Fergusson also believes the timing of Diablo 4’s story keeps it accessible to newer players less familiar with the series while providing a sense of continuity for older fans.
Set 50 years after the events of Diablo 3, Blizzard reckons that’s enough time to jump into D4 without knowing what happened prior, though it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of seeing a familiar face. You’ll meet Lorath from Diablo 3 and other prominent characters from the wider series, but Blizzard will now have the chance to explain who they all are organically while telling the kind of good vs evil story within a gothic setting the series is known for.
“That was a goal from the beginning; we wanted to expand the audience,” Fergusson says. “As a 26-year-old franchise, our community is ageing with us, and we want to be able to bring in new players who haven't experienced it. We don't want them to be scared by the number four, thinking, ‘I've missed the first three games’ or ‘I've missed 26 years of lore, how would I ever get back?’ You know, ‘How would I ever get into this game?’
Another area Blizzard has sought to improve upon in Diablo is accessibility. As the developer explains in a blog, part of modernising Diablo 2 into Resurrected meant catching the classic game up with over 21 years of advancements in the field. Looking back at his time at Microsoft running workshops on inclusive design, though, Fergusson says the job is never done.
Open the gates
“It's not a destination,” Fergusson says. “It’s a bit cliche to say, but it's that notion that you’re always trying to make a game more accessible. You never say, ‘All the accessibility features are in, we're done’ – you never get to that point.
“Because we focused on accessibility in making Diablo 2 into Diablo 2: Resurrected, that was a great place to start and say ‘okay, we can't go that's a bar or floor. We need to build on top of that.’ One of the great things about Diablo 4 being a live service is that when we launch, it's just the beginning; we're building a foundation that we will support for years to come. Seasons and expansions, but also quality-of-life and accessibility features. So this is the start of our journey on accessibility. And as we get more and more player feedback, we'll continue to improve as we go.”
Fergusson also tells me that part of Blizzard’s approach to inclusive design means reaching out to players with disabilities, as you “really need to have subject matter experts”. Following the various betas it’s allowed the team to address issues that have held people who want to play the game back.
“It's a combination of both talking to the people and hearing their feedback, but also learning from others [in the industry],” he says. “It's a small industry, and we all learn from each other about what works and what doesn't.
“I think what's great is that everybody is trying to one-up each other in the best way because we're all making our games more accessible to more players because gaming is for everyone, and everyone should be able to play. And the more we can do to make that happen, the better we are as an industry”.
Here are the Diablo 4 Early Access release dates and times if you want to know when the gates fly open.