“The idea was to have a twist where the trailer started as action, moves to horror, and then there's almost like a third act that goes into something more divine,” Luis Barriga, Game Director on Diablo IV
tells me. We’re discussing the cinematic reveal that for all intents and purposes served as the big Diablo IV announcement. The newest entry in long-running action-RPG franchise was not only in development, but thanks to this stunning short film, returning in style.
of the rise of antagonist Lilith, through a truly horrific summoning, left the thousands in attendance at BlizzCon
and the many more watching at home, speechless. “When we were looking at the early animatics that was always the moment,” John Mueller, Diablo IV’s Art Director adds. “The last shot was the most important shot. Because it's not just a summoning, it's a summoning of the Queen of Sanctuary.”
Blizzard’s cinematic sensibilities though, were never really in question. For fans of the series, there was still some hesitation relating to the direction a potential Diablo IV might take. How would it play? Would it be a radical departure, an extension of Diablo III
, a return to the Gothic medieval roots of Diablo II
, or something else.
“The last shot was the most important shot. Because it's not just a summoning, it's a summoning of the Queen of Sanctuary.”
“It started with that very natural conversation about what we both thought this game might look like,” John recalls. “Luis, his vision was that Diablo was three things; darkness, world, and legacy. That was where Diablo started.”
For the team at Blizzard it was a mix of both a need to tap into Diablo’s inherent darkness and history that led to new art being created to, as the project leads put it, “feel the tone out”. One of these pieces presented the creation of Sanctuary, as seen through the lens of renaissance or almost medieval art. Depicted in the image was the angel Inarius and the demon Lilith, and when viewed in this light it was a chance to experience Diablo in way that hadn’t been seen before.
“Once we saw the art we were inspired, [Lilith] was a character that we could build a story around,” Luis says. “What we love about Sanctuary is that we've already planted these seeds. There’s a rich backstory found in novels and lore books, so we decided to look closer at the creation myth. We felt that we’ve fought Diablo before, and Diablo always comes back – so, it was a case of, what other bullets do we have on the table just lying around."
“Diablo IV is like the first chapter of a book,” John adds. “We want to tell a big story and we want to tell it, hopefully, for a very long time. Treating this like the first chapter of a book and Lilith as a key character in this story
, it feels great knowing that there are still all these other characters that could come back in the future. Or, new characters that we haven’t seen before.”
“It also changes up the formula,” Luis explains, noting that the villain that doubles as the title for the game and franchise – has not suddenly been relegated to the history books. “In [Diablo III expansion] Reaper of Souls
if you go up against Diablo, after playing to max level - it’s a battle that’s almost like a like a minor speed bump. Malthael became the real boss. So, it’s also, what if we don't bring him back right away? And instead, take the time to explore some of these other characters first.”
“We want to tell a big story and we want to tell it, hopefully, for a very long time. Treating this like the first chapter of a book and Lilith as a key character in this story, it feels great knowing that there are still all these other characters that could come back in the future.”
Darkness, world, and legacy. Where the ‘world’ portion of this summary could also refer to the new open-world Sanctuary as seen in Diablo IV. The same isometric perspective that we’ve now come to associate as Diablo-like, but in a structure that foregoes linear Acts and disconnected levels and overworlds for one big, seamless, Sanctuary to explore.
“There’s going to be five contiguous regions in the world and you can actually go from the North, the Northern most point of Scosglen, which is the area seen in the demo, all the way down through the Dry Steppes and into the deserts of Kejhistan,” John confirms. “And you'll never see a loading screen. It's completely seamless. That's the level of detail we've added into creating the world.”
“Moving away from linear Acts was indeed something that we started doing in Reaper of Souls with Adventure Mode,” Luis responds, when asked if the open-world Sanctuary of Diablo IV could be viewed as an extension of Adventure Mode. “It's funny you mention Adventure Mode 2.0 for this, because I've called it that in front of the team. I've avoided using that term publicly because it feels very techie. The way that it evolved came from what we saw in Reaper of Souls, and how transformative it was. You went from a game that you would play through Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, and so on and then move onto the next difficulty. With Adventure Mode, once you completed the story the world opens up and we let you jump around.”
“But the bones were still linear.” Luis confirms, noting that Diablo IV is an evolution rather than direct by-the-books sequel. “The worlds weren't connected, or as seamless as they would've been otherwise. With Diablo IV, we looked at what our favourite open worlds game were doing, across all genres. Not just RPGs. We basically pulled from our favourites to figure out what might work in Diablo. And even when something did, it might have felt different to what you would expect to find in a Diablo. So then, how do we remix it? How do we change it? How do we make it Diablo? We have a team that's very passionate about drawing inspiration from all over.”
This sentiment is one we’ve seen throughout Blizzard’s development history, with games that took existing genres, structures, or playstyles to then create something where inspiration was a stepping-stone towards something new and exciting. World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Hearthstone.
“With Diablo IV, we looked at what our favourite open worlds game were doing, across all genres. Not just RPGs. ”
Take the concept of the Diablo dungeon, something that has been a core part of the experience since the very first game. And by extension, the action-RPG genre. From delving into a crypt to venturing through a mysterious portal, a Rift, to then find yourself in a completely randomised location – a dungeon can take many forms. In Diablo IV, which will feature hundreds of dungeons scattered across its vast connected Sanctuary, their place in the overall design then needs to go through an understanding how a dungeon might work in an open-world Diablo. The answer ultimately being, mostly how you would expect a dungeon to behave. But, with the added caveat of creating a sense of place and cohesion from one to the next.
“Randomised dungeons have been at the core of Diablo since the beginning,” Luis tells me. “What we're doing different is that unlike Rifts where you go through a portal and it could be anything - dungeons in Diablo IV will have a sense of place in the world. Let's say that a dungeon is in an abandoned church and there's undead inside. If you go back in later, there's still going to be undead, but it's not going to be the same exact mobs in the same exact same locations. It's going to be very randomised.”
“What that lets us do is really create a sense of place where I know that particular abandoned church has skeletons,” Luis continues. “And maybe that one over there has bandits, and the one with the undead inside is a lot harder. So, if you have a quest that tasks you with recovering artefacts from churches maybe head into the dungeon with bandits. We think this approach is powerful for this type of game. We want to create a sense of place and over time you’ll understand the characters, the world, and the locations you visit.”
“Once we have a kernel of an idea at Blizzard, it's really just this collaborative thing that happens,” John says, as the conversation shifts towards characters and classes. “Ideas come from all over the team too. Take the Druid for example, where we have seamless shape-shifting, which was a very complicated technical task. But that all came from a conversation we had where someone asked the simple question, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if you could seamlessly safe-shift?’ To be able to go from Druid form to werewolf to werebear and it was fast and completely up to the player. When the team came back after executing the idea, it turned out to be just as cool as we hoped. When something like that happens, it feels really good.”
“There’s certainly a tonne of examples of that,” Luis adds. “Like the Barbarian multi weapon ability. We kept looking at Diablo concept pieces and classic Barbarian paintings where they’re armed to the teeth with multiple weapons. So, it was like, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to make the Barbarian just like that?’ He's the master of weapons. There are people who might feel like the Druid is encroaching into Barbarian territory by making them more, you know, full body. But there's no doubt who's going to be the toe-to-toe fighter. With dual axes and even more weapons in store, we also wanted to make sure that the Barbarian retained that space.”
“We want to create a sense of place and over time you’ll understand the characters, the world, and the locations you visit.”
“Again, it is very much a collaborative process,” John concludes. “When we work with David Kim who's an incredible system designer and whenever we are bouncing ideas back and forth, it's very much like the concept team and design team working as one. He's like the Doctor of Design and he will have very specific things he’s looking for, but still leave room for art. He might simply say that it’s fire, so come up with the coolest fire thing you can. A lot of times art can influence the design, but also compliment that design.”
Thanks to Blizzard for taking the time to make this interview possible. Stay tuned for the next part of our Diablo IV discussion where we delve deeper into items, classes, trading, and PvP.