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Talking Diablo Immortal with Blizzard
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 06:27pm 12/11/18 | Comments
At BlizzCon 2018 we sat down with the team behind the upcoming mobile game Diablo Immortal to talk about bringing the franchise to an even smaller screen.

It’s no secret that the surprise announcement of Diablo Immortal at BlizzCon didn’t go as planned. Mainly because of the platform – mobile. Also, there’s the fact that many have been waiting a few years now to catch a glimpse of the still-in-development-but-not-yet-announced Diablo 4. With Blizzard titles traditionally appearing on PC first, the idea of bringing a full Diablo title to iOS and Android devices raised a few questions. And concerns. Is it going to be a cut-down Diablo experience? A side project not of the same stature or import as a proper numbered entry? Did this mean that Diablo was no longer a PC or console franchise? The answer to these questions, of course, is no.

“We wanted to bring this game, and the Diablo universe to a completely new audience and to make the community grow,” Matthew Berger, senior content designer on Blizzard's Diablo Immortal team explains. “And so that was our goal from the beginning, but for this to be meaningful it had to be a real Diablo experience.” Matthew Berger has been with the Diablo III team since it launched in 2012, where in addition to designing new content played a key role in bringing the game to consoles. Diablo Immortal, by all accounts is being treated with the same focus on quality and attention to detail found across Blizzard’s entire library. In other words, regardless of your opinion of the mobile platform – this is a real Diablo game.

“There comes a time when we're like, hey, we get excited about new ideas so let's try something different,” Matthew adds. “And in the same way where we were excited about bringing Diablo to console, to a new generation of players who might not have been familiar with Diablo - Diablo Immortal was a similar decision.” During the announcement, one of the first reactions that we had was wondering how well touch controls could mimic that of a mouse and keyboard or traditional controller when playing Diablo. A thought shared by many. The comparison isn’t like-for-like, so naturally this led to several design challenges in envisioning Diablo Immortal - as well as opportunities.

“There are challenges and on the other side there are opportunities that we didn't know were there initially,” Matthew tells me. “The challenges, some of them everyone would have thought of. Like making sure the controls work and feel responsive, like you’re controlling a true Diablo game and not an experience that doesn't live up to that heritage. As expected, that was one of the places we started and that was very important.” In execution touch controls for an experience like Diablo Immortal works, it may feel strange or even sub-optimal coming from PC or even the Nintendo Switch – but being tailored for a touch screen it has a great feel.

Even though your fingers kind of obscure the corners of the on-screen real-estate. “We were always going to have items and other Diablo elements, but with a smaller screen we knew we were going to have to do things with the UI to make sure that it is was accessible. And readable. Which presents a different set of challenges,” Matthew continues. “On the other hand, the fact that this is a touch-screen device, opens up opportunities that just didn't exist before. To find out that you can move your character and aim a skill at the same time. If I was playing Diablo III on PC, and as a Wizard I went to cast Blizzard I would move the mouse cursor, cast Blizzard, and that's it. I'm not doing anything else while I'm doing that. Here, I'm moving, continue to move, aim while I'm moving – release, and it happens.”

No doubt, the Diablo structure of general flow is here. Action, killing monsters, slaying demons, using skills, collecting loot. Growing more powerful. “I think once you play it, you can see what it is,” Matthew explains, in an attempt alleviate concerns over the flow and feel of Diablo Immortal compared to other entries. “You’ll know where you are. Back in Sanctuary, next to skeletons and other monsters. Killing them so they can give you loot so you can go kill the Butcher.”

Loot plays an important role in Diablo Immortal and items of varying colour return, with a design philosophy born from the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo III. If it’s a legendary item, then it should make you feel powerful. “They made you do new things [in Diablo III], and we really liked that. That's something that we want to bring back to Diablo Immortal. Where it should be fun, and it has to be more than just numbers. Ideally, it has you doing something new and something you couldn't do before. That's the goal. There's a lot of things that our team has done in the past that gets translated across, but it does bring unique challenges and unique opportunities and we're going to have to face those as development continues.”

Familiar, and new at the same time. With the recent release of Diablo III on the Nintendo Switch the idea of a portable on-the-go Diablo is no longer a question of whether the series could work on a smaller screen. In fact, in terms of UI and on-screen communication being built from the ground up for mobile, means that Diablo Immortal’s UI at times feels more intuitive than Diablo III on the Switch.

For lead artist on the Diablo Immortal development team, Richie Marella, working with the smaller screen also calls on all the same skills developed over the course of multiple existing Diablo projects. “Ironically, the challenges are not too different from what we've been doing already on the PC,” Richie explains. “Except we turn it up a little bit. Art is there to support the gameplay, and you don't want to interfere with that. All the things that we've been doing, like making sure that this texture is not too busy, or this thing is not too cluttered. It's all the same stuff we've been doing across the different Diablo franchises. But we have to turn it up just a little bit because it's a smaller display.”

Diablo Immortal, as a full Diablo experience, will feature a cinematic story that will expand on the existing lore and universe. In terms of timeline it takes place between the events of Diablo II and Diablo III after the destruction of the Worldstone by the archangel Tyrael. Fans of either game will see sights both new and familiar, in addition to the return of six playable classes from Diablo III reimagined for Immortal – including series favourites Barbarian, Demon Hunter, and Necromancer. In terms of look Immortal feels like it borrows from the entire Diablo franchise. “The general direction we took with the art,” Richie adds. “Was that we want it to feel like the best from the whole series.”

Which is a direct reference to that Diablo look that is quite different from any other Blizzard property. “I would say it's handcrafted,” Richie says, taking a moment to reflect on the overall Diablo art style in comparison to something like Warcraft or even StarCraft. “It's a little bit darker. It's a little bit grittier. There're are more realistic proportions. We're proud of being so far apart from anything else [at Blizzard] and we want to make sure it stays that way. It's a harsh world just to be alive in, Sanctuary is not an easy place to survive. It scars you physically and emotionally, and our character designs represent that. The Barbarian, he's been through a lot and you can tell. One of the artists on our team would always say, ‘If this is a pumpkin the rotten pumpkin next to it, that’s the Diablo pumpkin’.”

“It's the same for the design,” Matthew adds. “We look at all the games that existed in the history of Diablo and look at the systems that were there and we find the ones that we think, make sense for Diablo Immortal. And then there's all this stuff that we add that's brand new.” Which in the case of Diablo Immortal is a presentation and setup that is more MMO than the traditional Diablo – five Act structure. A shared world with instanced dungeons that groups of up to six players can meet up and work together to slay demons and progress the story. Matchmaking, grouping up, playing solo, visiting a town hub, the action might look and feel the same but there’s a more modern feel to online ambition of Diablo Immortal. “We're always trying to push the development of the Diablo universe. We're always trying to make the game be the best it can possibly be. One of the great things about Diablo Immortal, is that with these advances it will improve Diablo as a whole. Whatever comes after it, will be better because of Diablo Immortal.”

As a mobile title built from the ground-up the team at Blizzard is not working alone, with the developer partnering with Chinese studio NetEase to create Diablo Immortal. A company that Blizzard has worked with for over a decade and has years of experience working in the mobile market. The division of labour on the Diablo Immortal project isn’t broken down into department, but instead seen as a single team each with both Blizzard and NetEase featuring their own designers and artists. “It's been like that has been like that since the beginning,” Matthew confirms. “It's been co-development since the start. Think of it as one team, there's another lead artist and lead designer on the NetEase side, for example.” And despite speculation to the contrary Blizzard is quick to point out that Diablo Immortal has been built from the ground-up, with all new assets, art direction, design, and everything else that goes into the creation of a new game. With Blizzard, of course, being in control of the direction.

Blizzard also has big plans for Diablo Immortal and will continue to support it long after release with new content updates. “We have a tradition of supporting our games and adding more after they've come out and we just want it to be very upfront about it,” Matthew adds. “We're going to add more things and in fact we're already planning on adding more classes, more zones, more stories, more monsters.” Even though it has yet to reveal plans on how it will release of monetize the game, Blizzard reassures us that at launch players will be able to hop in and enjoy a full Diablo experience without interruption. “We're really focused on making it an awesome game first,” Matthew concludes. “And then figure out the rest of that stuff later.”

Diablo Immortal is currently in development for iOS and Android.