[Diablo II]Inside Diablo Immortal – Blizzard takes its dark fantasy franchise mobile

07-08 13:34

  Diablo’s beginnings, and that of the action-RPG genre, go all the way back to 1997 and the release of the very first game. A dark and gothic dungeon-crawler that pushed aside the meticulous thinking that went into each action and distilled the role-playing experience into a fast-moving game. Here, player choice factored into the moment-to-moment gameplay and gear you chose, readying a more dynamic on-the-fly jaunt.Simplification at its finest, and from there watching a monster drop some gold and maybe a bit of loot created one of the most enduring genres in all of gaming. From Destiny to God of War to small indie affairs, the games of today owe a lot to Diablo.

  We present you with a very clear fantasy and that ends up telegraphing a certain playstyle, where you’ll get very much what you expect…Julian Love, Diablo Immortal senior combat designerOf course, Diablo is more than the quintessential isometric action-RPG. That game where loot and a heady mix of adventuring as a superhero demon slayer go hand-in-hand. There’s the story, the tone and a cast of memorable characters… and demons. Even so, all of it can be traced back to that simplicity.“Diablo is all about visceral combat,” Julian Love, Diablo Immortal’s senior combat designer tells us. “It’s about relatable, highly digestible heroes that have clear playstyles. We don’t have heroes in the game that are called weird things or represent something you’ve never seen. We present you with a very clear fantasy and that ends up telegraphing a certain playstyle, where you’ll get very much what you expect. All of that is delivered with hard-hitting moment-to-moment combat, where the controls feel tight. You’re not figuring out how to play the game as much as you are simply playing the game.”Diablo’s pick-up-and-play action has always been a hallmark of its popularity, but traditionally speaking, Diablo has been a PC-only franchise. That is, an experience designed to be played with the keyboard and mouse. After making its debut on PC, Diablo III was subsequently ported over to consoles, a transition that was met with trepidation and concern ahead of its debut. But, all of that quickly dissipated once players picked up a controller and began swinging their Barb’s two-handed sword.Now, this is important to remember because Diablo Immortal has been designed from the ground-up to be played on smartphones and tablets. Mobile devices that feature neither mice, controllers, or any sort of tactile input device.RelatedRead Story

  That Immortal hasn't done away with any of the presentation pillars that makes the Diablo series its own is a testament to its developmentSomeone, somewhere wrote “portable Diablo” and the fates made it done? Blizzard

  The team resurrected an idea that had been kicking around for several years — charging-up attacks…“It does start with controls, and controls are a challenge when you don’t have tactile feedback,” Love explains. The question most have when they try and think about mobile Diablo is that of wondering how it all might play. “Very often a challenge has hidden opportunities, and if you take advantage of those opportunities you can achieve something more than simply bringing Diablo into the mobile space and making that work.”In developing Diablo Immortal with its partners at NetEase, Blizzard took the approach of overcoming this challenge to present a seemingly fundamental shift for the franchise. And in looking at touch controls and how aiming abilities might play a central role, the team resurrected (heh) an idea that had been kicking around for several years — charging-up attacks.“We tried that on PC, but it never felt quite right,” Love reveals. “But, in a game where you are aiming more often [with touch controls] the charge-up attack feels right because you’re spending the time aiming, so you’re getting something in exchange for that time. It was looking at the challenge of mobile controls, and realising ‘Oh, now we can do that thing that we worked on before but didn’t quite fit in’.”Charging up attacks isn’t merely something used in a static or additive fashion. Abilities and items and Legendary Item bonuses will play into it too. For Diablo, the loot game goes hand-in-hand with combat. As introduced in the latest Alpha play-test for Diablo Immortal, the Crusader takes the popular Diablo III class and re-imagines their skills, movement and abilities from this position of opportunity. Falling Sword, an attack that sees the Crusader leap into the heavens and then crashes down with heavenly swords onto a group of enemies, is now a two-phase attack where a circle of light creates a damage over time obstacle until you trigger the actual falling swords — or not.“That’s another case where we could have done that on the PC, but found that it put a lot of pressure on your mouse hand,” Love adds. “On mobile you don’t have that same dancing around large spaces or moving your wrist and doing those kinds of acrobatics. It feels a lot more natural. The way Falling Sword works ends up being a mechanical hook that we can mess around with later by introducing Legendaries that mess with it.“Our word for that is design-space. In Diablo Immortal we’ve created a new design space that didn’t exist in previous games. We had some challenges but we turned those into opportunities and then capitalised on them.”

  Can we just have every class we've ever wanted?Beware the Crusader, a Holy class befitting its piety? Blizzard

  We have that experience with voice-over and cutscenes and all the sorts of things we use to deliver cinematic experiences…Justin Dye, Diablo Immortal senior narrative designerOutside of Hearthstone, which exists on mobile and PC, Diablo Immortal presents Blizzard’s first major game for the platform. And that prospect brings with it all the expertise and experience the studio has accumulated over the past few decades — namely creating cinematic single-player and multiplayer experiences. And in developing the story for Diablo Immortal — which takes place in the 20-years separating the events of Diablo II and Diablo III – not a lot has changed in the transition from big-screen to small.“In truth Immortal has a lot of similarities to the way that we tell stories in all our games,” says Justin Dye, Diablo Immortal’s senior narrative designer. “One of the things we’re able to bring to the table is that experience creating AAA videogames. We have that experience with voice-over and cutscenes and all the sorts of things we use to deliver cinematic experiences. Bringing that over to mobile means there are some changes to the approach. One of the big things with the platform is that many players read as their primary way of interacting.“Obviously, you can put on headphones and voices and music and sound will show up in full and it’s great,” Justin continues. “But knowing that it’ll be mostly silent for certain players does affect the way you write, in the sense that the way you talk versus the way you write can be different.”RelatedRead Story

  The Sanctuary we see is both epic in scope and narrative potential, picking things up after the shattering of the World Stone…As seen across both Alpha play-tests for Diablo Immortal, the narrative is one of those elements that immediately jumps out to put the game in a different category than other mobile titles. The Sanctuary we see is both epic in scope and narrative potential, picking things up after the shattering of the World Stone at the end of Diablo II’s tale. Here entire mountains like Arreat have become huge craters, and the world is dealing with the fallout, but as Justin asserts, “we haven’t made compromises when it comes to the storytelling, it was more a case of what we want to do and how we want to do it”.

  The lighting effects in Immortal are head and shoulders above so much else in mobile gamingWhen a place is named “cavern of echoes” you best tread lightly? Blizzard

  Duriel [in Diablo II] had that similar effect on me, where you hear “looking for Baal?”. Moments that get you right in the chest…Justin DyeDiablo is an action-RPG with roots and inspiration that goes all the way back to beginnings of the genre, yet the world of Sanctuary, the High Heavens, and the Burning Hells presents a tone more akin with horror than that of a world filled with trolls and ogres and magic. Taking on the mantle of driving back the darkness is key to the fantasy Diablo provides, though, and Immortal is carrying this dark and tattered flag through to mobile.“The Butcher [in the original Diablo] is a perfect example,” Justin enthuses of Diablo’s overall tone. “Opening a door and hearing “fresh meat”, it’s shocking and such a classic Diablo moment. Duriel [in Diablo II] had that similar effect on me, where you hear “looking for Baal?”. Moments that get you right in the chest, and Diablo has had so many of them. The sewers of Lut Gholein where there’s mummies and the undead creeping and crawling through dark and murky waters.”“We’ve been constantly looking back at our favourite moments, why they worked, how they worked,” Justin adds excitedly. “And not because we’re trying to create a nostalgia piece, but to bring that [same] spirit to Immortal. It is a Diablo game, so it has to carry the DNA of the franchise. At the end of the original Diablo when the hero shoves a stone in their head and eventually becomes the next Diablo — that’s a Pyrrhic victory. That’s the kind of victory that has a lot of costs. So, it’s important for us to ask that question, ‘does victory come at a cost?’, because making sure a game feels like Diablo is making sure victory is hard won.”RelatedRead Story

  In terms of look and feel, Immortal is in many ways an extension of Diablo III’s aesthetic — specifically, the darker feel of the Reaper of Souls expansion. One of the locations that players will visit fairly early on is the Dark Woods of Sanctuary, and here with the threat of demonic invasion the cost of victory can be felt when villagers and families can’t be saved no matter what you do. “Surprise comes from taking what we think you’ll expect and trying to subvert it and play with it,” says Justin. “For that horror tone to succeed things have to be dangerous. The world of Diablo is scary, and it needs a saviour. We embrace the dark Gothic nature of it all.”

  A frozen tundra you'd not want to set foot on, lest you have the loot you needVisual storytelling is such a strength of Blizzard and its dev teams? Blizzard

  Of course it doesn’t stop there, as when anyone gets power there’s always a chance that power will corrupt…Releasing a Diablo game on a device that is always online and connected has also opened the door to a world full of heroes. A shared Sanctuary that features elements not dissimilar to those found in massively multiplayer games like Blizzard’s own World of Warcraft. Yet like the approach taken with the designing Diablo Immortal’s combat — here the same care and opportunity is taken.Diablo Immortal features the sort of campaign and adventure fans will be familiar with, but in seeing other players roaming Sanctuary’s swamps, woods, towns and icy tundras there’s a suite of both PVP and PVE elements adding a new twist. Which ties into one of the main endgame pillars that combines these two sides — called the “Cycle of Strife”. Here we learn what the “Immortal” in Diablo Immortal means, with a narrative-driven experience that draws on some of the lore-iest lore that ever lore’d in the franchise. Dealing with a character known as Daedessa the Builder.A master crafter that was in the business of protecting Sanctuary, for which she created the Eternal Crown and a group called the Immortals. Keepers of Sanctuary, led by her son Kion. Of course it doesn’t stop there, as when anyone gets power there’s always a chance that power will corrupt. So a new group was born to keep tabs on the Immortals called the Shadows. And with this bit of Diablo lore we get a robust mix of PVP and PVE where players can take on the role of Shadows, that continuously test the Immortals and hopefully one-day take the Eternal Crown for themselves.

  It’s not mandatory or something you would have to take part in to become powerful or get access to the best gear. And in that sense it’s presented in much the same way Diablo’s combat choices are…“We had an idea of the story, and we had an idea of what the mechanics would be, and we would go back and forth and continually shape each side,” Justin explains. “There was never a moment where we had a cool system and had to figure out how to jam a story on top of it, or a story that forced a system to go a particular way. It was this coexistence between the two, where both inspired each other. You can see that in the Vault Raiding, as Shadows, you’re testing the Immortals to see if they’re worthy of being the protectors of Sanctuary. If they can’t hold on to their stuff, well they shouldn’t be fighting demons.”

  Abilities and magic in Immortal look awesomeSonic BOOOM!? BlizzardIt’s a complex and fascinating system, one that Blizzard has been testing with the Alpha builds of the game. Even so, it’s not mandatory or something you would have to take part in to become powerful or get access to the best gear. And in that sense it’s presented in much the same way Diablo’s combat choices are — a way in which to offer players the fantasy that they’re looking for.“We know there’s a preference out there for a player to have a specific kind of fantasy, so what do we think the playstyle is that best matches up with that,” Julian concludes. “That’s their gateway into the minute-by-minute aspect of the game, engaging in a style that they prefer. If you look at Immortal’s endgame systems, they are a macrocosm of that same thinking.“There are going to be players who won’t like this one system and prefer a different kind of system. We don’t want to get into a place where engaging with one system or another ends up being the only answer, because then those choices aren’t choices anymore. There’s a conscious effort that goes into making sure that those choices, of your preferred endgame activities, are actual choices and not dictated to you. That way you’ve got the agency as a player to control your experience on a play-session by play-session basis.”Diablo Immortal still nestles fluidly in “2021” as its release window, with nothing firm currently in sight.For more gaming and gaming culture coverage, follow @redbullgaming on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.