It's been a little over three years since Diablo Immortal was first announced at the 2018 Blizzcon opening ceremonies. Since then, it has gone through many changes, and Immortal is finally launching this week on June 2nd. In anticipation of the launch, I participated in an interview with the Principle Game Designer, Joe Grubb, and the GM of the Diablo Franchise, Rod Fergusson. We covered a lot of ground in the interview; here are some of the more essential bits we covered.
Cycle of Strife
For anyone who didn't participate in the beta and hasn't heard about the Cycle of Strife system before, it is a large-scale endgame PvP system. Grubb explained that initially, they thought this system would be something the core audience would enjoy, but most players wouldn't participate. They found that the majority of players in beta at endgame opted into the Cycle of Strife and actively participated, which is excellent not just because it was popular but also because the team was able to gather a considerable amount of information regarding the cycle and improve on it. Grubb continued to explain two significant changes to the system due to what was seen during beta.
He explained originally, players "had to opt into becoming a Shadow, join a dark house, a completely separate structure from clans, and then participate in the cycle and try to overthrow the Immortals. Eventually, when they were overthrown all the dark houses were disbanded and we tore them all down, and then players had to reform again. That was a painful social experience for players, they would grow attached to their dark house, and they started to form clans as if they were dark houses… one big change that we looked at from beta was to blend the Cycle of Strife and the clans system. So now in the worldwide launch there is no more concept of dark houses, you will turn your entire clan into a dark clan." This sounds like an all-around great change and will probably go a long way towards improving the Cycle of Strife's general health over the long term.
The second major change revolves around how players are picked to participate at the end of the week. During the beta, only the top 10 shadow dark houses could fight the Immortals, while everyone else just continued doing their shadow dark tasks and waited around to see how everything turned out. This, unfortunately, had the effect of alienating the majority of players from the competition. Grub explained that Shadow Wars will be part of Immortal at launch, and "now during the week a sort of tournament-style bracket Shadows will be competing amongst themselves to actually elevate who their top 10 are, and so that competition will happen from the very beginning." This is a huge change but could potentially make the entire system more enjoyable over the long term as well.
Adding PC Play
One of the most prominent spots of contention regarding Immortal was that it was planned as a mobile-only game. When discussing adding a PC version, Grubb reiterated that Immortal is still a mobile-first game. The vast majority of their time and effort has been put into ensuring the mobile experience is completely solid and fun. This is also why the PC version is launching in beta instead of having a full launch alongside Immortal.
Fergusson further explained that "part of what's important for Diablo and the Immortal franchise is to reach as many players as possible. And so that was part of it, when you look at the three billion gamers out there, and how many rely on mobile as their only platform to play on and bringing the game to where everyone plays." Which is a very fair assessment from a business perspective. As much as some segments of the gaming community tend to look down on mobile games, it is one of the fastest-growing markets overall, so it makes sense to want to get in on that. He also said that this line of thinking was why they decided to go with a free-to-play model because it removes another barrier to getting more players in the game.
Another thing that Fergusson mentioned was the average play session during the beta was 45 minutes, multiple times a day. This data of seeing how much time players were playing Immortal in single sessions was a significant driver of the conversation around maybe they should work on providing a PC version as well. As he put it, "if you are going to sit there for an hour and play the game, having the option to sit at your desk or sit at a PC would be a great way to do that… And then we looked at what are all the other benefits… the fact that you have a bigger screen and remappable controls makes it much more accessible for some players as well. So there were really a lot of reasons to do it."
Although the ability to change your class won't be in Immortal at launch, I wanted to touch on it because it is a fascinating option to have. When it comes to MMOs, I am terrible at alts because I dislike having to repeat things I've already done before just to see what another class is like. Regarding changing classes, I was concerned about it seemed like an obvious point where they could make it a paid service. However, Grub was swift to point out it would be free, but there would be a cooldown associated with it. They haven't decided what the cooldown will be exactly, but they also don't want players to constantly switch classes every time they want to do a different content type.
Less on the worries regarding the monetization side and more on the logistics of how the class change will work, I was concerned about how it'll directly affect our characters. For instance, the body types of a monk and a barbarian are vastly different, and I imagined the monk suddenly getting super bulky when class change is used. Grub clarified that the first time you switch to a class, the character customization would open, and you'll be able to change everything about how your character looks as if you were making a new character. Of course, you'll maintain your progression on that character (including legendary gems). Additionally, any paragon points will be refunded, so you have the opportunity to spend those differently on your new class.
Grubb also mentioned an aspect of this system I hadn't even considered, "the neat part about that too is that is all then remembered, because as I mentioned part of the goal of this is the permanence of I want to be the monk but we remember who you were as the barbarian. So then when you, go 'I tried out the monk but it's just not what I thought it would be I really want to go back to the barbarian' your items and how you built yourself as is still there. So, you'll just go back to how you were before." This is a HUGE deal. I know I definitely would be really hesitant to try a new class if I knew switching back would be a real pain. This bit of information is what has made me very eager to try this feature when it is available.
The Future of Immortal
One of my biggest disappointments with Diablo 3 was when I reached the end of the story; it just ended. There was no following up with my companions or anything to do after finishing the main storyline, which as a Diablo game, isn't unusual. However, as someone with a long history in not just MMOs but also RPGs where there's always a ton to do after finishing the main story, it was disappointing. With Immortal being positioned as an MMO, having a lot of engaging endgame content at launch is critical. I was delighted to hear Fergusson mention endgame content specifically as something they have put a lot of time and attention into. Grubb explained it in this way:
"We’re really excited to bring launch finally, and send players to the realm of Damnation and finally get to confront Skarn there; but launch is really just the beginning. It’s exciting to have built these systems for Immortal, as we have mentioned, the Helliquary, the Cycle of Strife, the main storyline itself, all of them are very much structured in a way for expansion in mind and into the future. There’s a lot of learnings for Immortal for even a year from now, two years, five years, you know into the future for us to build on. The Helliquary system, for beta, was our first step at testing if we could drop a new Helliquary boss for players to challenge. We saw pretty good success with that and we’ll continue that into the future. The Battlepass turning over month over month into new seasons. I mentioned the main storyline, we’ll be adding new zones, new dungeons, to carry that forward. Skarn’s at the beginning of the story for Immortal, and all of this content is setup for a roadmap that is free into the future.”
Having been through so many game launches where is seems like future content hasn’t been thought about with much specificity at all, it’s really refreshing to hear they already have plans for what’s next. Hopefully, with a smooth launch and fun game to start with Immortal will hit the ground running and keep going from there.
That’s just about everything we covered. Diablo: Immortal will be launching on June 2nd. To find the specific time for your timezone, please click here.