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Diablo IV interview: Making a modern rogue

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Diablo IV interview: Making a modern rogue 2

Diablo IV was a major part of Blizzard’s BlizzCon Online event last weekend, with the studio revealing the rogue class and explaining new systems like camps.

It was our best look at the action role-playing game since its reveal at BlizzCon 2019. And while we know Diablo IV won’t be launching this year, this taste of new info at least gives fans something to savor.

During BlizzCon Online, I interviewed Diablo IV executive producer Rod Fergusson and lead game designer Joe Shelly. I asked them about Diablo IV’s development progress, what players should expect from the new rogue class, how Diablo IV will interact with the other upcoming games in the franchise, and more.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Rogues return

GamesBeat: I assume there are multiple classes you’re working on right now. Why reveal rogue at BlizzCon?

Joe Shelly: The rogue is a very exciting class for us. It’s been a part of the franchise for a long time. Every Diablo game has had a character that speaks to that kind of ranged or sometimes melee damage-dealing, mobile, somewhat fragile archetype. You saw it in the rogue in Diablo, the assassin in Diablo II, and the demon hunter in Diablo III. Bringing a class like that to Diablo IV was so important to us. We know that it’s something that there’s a huge audience of players who are waiting to see. We’re excited to announce it today, to share it with everyone.

GamesBeat: You mentioned some of the other classes that have been similar. Are demon hunter players going to see some abilities or aspects that they recognize in this interpretation of rogue?

Shelly: One of the things I like about using the word “rogue,” about naming a class the rogue, first, it hearkens back to the history of Diablo and the start of the adventure. But it’s also a term that can encompass the breadth of things that players expect from this kind of class. Our rogue, for example, has at all times a bow or other ranged weapon and melee short range weapons equipped in their inventory. We did that because we wanted the rogue to appeal to players who when they think of themselves as a rogue, when they put themselves into the game, some people who play that kind of class think of themselves as getting in close, stabbing monsters in the back, moving quickly around monsters, being evasive, those kinds of things. Some players think of themselves standing at a distance, throwing lots of arrows, keeping monsters away from them, using caltrops or other things to slow and impede enemies so they can constantly stand off from them.

With our rogue class, we wanted to speak to both of those fantasies. This decision to have both things equipped at the same time allowed players who want to play a melee rogue to live that fantasy, and players who want to play a ranged rogue to live that fantasy, but it also means that you can have a mixture of those abilities equipped at any time. You can be shooting at range, dash in, do some quick melee damage, dash out. Or you can focus more exclusively on one of those two things.

Rogues.

Above: Rogues have a magic layer, too.

Image Credit: Blizzard

Rod Fergusson: What’s also nice: There’s a layer of magic on top of it when you look at the things the rogue can do as well, in terms of using shadow magic, being able to imbue your weapons with poison and use poisonous attacks, or imbue your weapons with ice and frost. What’s great about the rogue is its versatility. You can go into a situation, the situation can change, and as a rogue you can adapt. You have crowd control, area of effect, damage over time. You can fight close and from the back. You can put down traps. The ability to react to how battles play out is exciting, because it’s so adaptable.

GamesBeat: Was there a specific desire to bring back a class from the first Diablo?

Shelly: Well, Diablo is a world that has a rich history of things to draw from. We’ve talked about some of the things around Diablo II that have inspired us, or elements of Diablo III that inspired us. The rogue class from Diablo fits that as well.

All the Diablo

GamesBeat: You threw a lot of severed limbs into the BlizzCon trailer. Is it fun to be able to lean into that darker, more graphic atmosphere?

Fergusson: One of the big pillars for Diablo IV is the return to darkness. The idea of being able to lean into the tonality of games like Diablo and Diablo II, like the severed ears from Diablo II. It was nice to be part of the rogue announcement and speak about that in terms of the way the rogue is working for the priest in that trailer. But it also winks at the PvP we have in the open world now.

The idea of bringing PvP back to Diablo is an interesting part of this as well. When people go into the deep dives, they get to hear not only about what the rogue is doing, but what the open world has in terms of camps and PvP areas and mounts, that sort of thing.

GamesBeat: There’s a lot of Diablo coming out soon: Diablo IV, Diablo: Immortal, and Diablo II: Resurrection. Are you worried about oversaturation, or do you think these three projects are going to be able to coexist together well?

Fergusson: We feel like they’ll coexist well. It’s been a long time for new content. Diablo III was nine years [ago]? The community is hungry for more content, hungry to play more Diablo. This felt like a great opportunity. It’s the 20th anniversary of Diablo II, 30th anniversary of Blizzard. It felt like a great moment to bring D2 back. That sets everybody up and gets you back into what started it all.

It’s interesting. Immortal takes place after D2, so it’s almost a prequel/sequel situation, where you can take that story of the Worldstone shattering and take that into Immortal and understand what’s happening in Immortal from a story perspective. From that you go into Diablo IV. It’s many years later, but it’s that tentpole of the franchise, building a foundation for the future of what Diablo is going to be. I feel like each of them has their place. They each have a different play style, when you think about the way D2 plays like versus the way Immortal plays versus the way Diablo IV plays. It doesn’t feel like there’s a conflict there. There’s going to be lots of room for all these games.

GamesBeat: Is there any chance these games will interact with each other in any way?

Fergusson: Nothing we can announce today.

Diablo IV interview: Making a modern rogue 3

Above: Diablo II: Resurrection is a remake of the classic Blizzard game.

Image Credit: Blizzard

Developing Diablo

GamesBeat: It’s been a bit over a year now since you announced Diablo IV. What have been the major milestones in development since then?

Shelly: As [game director] Luis Barriga mentioned in the opening ceremonies, since the announcement of Diablo IV, we wanted to make sure the community’s voice was part of our development process. And so we’ve stuck to our commitment to releasing blog posts, meaty blog posts, every quarter that go over things we’re thinking about, designs in the works, progress on the game. We’ve been pretty gratified that everyone has had such a response to that and provided us with lots of feedback. We’ve been able to iterate on things we announced at BlizzCon at the same time we’re developing the rest of the game, like the rogue announcement we did today.

Specifically, we talked a lot about items at the end of last year. We know that items are a key part of the engine of fun in Diablo. We know how important it is to get that right. We spent a lot of time last year, and continuing this year, on iteration and changes to make sure that we’re living up to what players expect in terms of both understandable items, but also the depth of our item system.

GamesBeat: I know that the talent tree/skill tree has been another system you’ve been working on a lot. How happy are you with where that system is now?

Shelly: We think that it’s going in the right direction. I think I said something like this in the fourth quarter blog post we released. There’s this feeling when you open a skill tree in a game, of course it can be overwhelming to see lots of options, but there’s this feeling of, look at this huge map of things that I want to explore and learn about and optimize and figure out what I’m going to do. This looks like I have a bunch of choices. I hope I do have a bunch of choices. There’s this excitement and anticipation. We want to make sure we’re delivering on that.

When we announced the skill tree, it was a significant increase in depth from the skill system we had talked about at BlizzCon 2019. It was a result of player feedback from BlizzCon 2019. We talked about it, and players said, this seems great, we think it’s going in the right direction too, we want to have more and more. We hear what players are saying and we understand where they’re coming from in terms of looking at it like a thing you’re going to explore, just like you explore the world, just like you explore going off a cliff and climbing across ropes and stuff.

GamesBeat: If this was a normal BlizzCon right now, people would be rushing the demo stations to try whatever build you brought of the game. Do you miss having that access to immediate player feedback?

Shelly: Getting hands on feedback from players is super-valuable to us. When I’m at BlizzCon in person, I like to walk by the demo stations and look at people playing. There’s a lot of value in being able to see people directly interacting with the things that you build and that you’re excited about. But at the same time, when we talk about BlizzCon Online, we’re getting to share all of these new exciting announcements like the rogue with a huge audience of people. We get to share it with people in a way where they don’t have to fly across the country, right? That’s pretty cool.

Fergusson: There’s an energy you get from it. Whenever you meet players, just getting feedback or watching them on demo stations, the opportunity to shake their hand and hear their story is a big part of it, too. A lot of times you recognize that games mean a lot more than just a distraction or a way to spend time. It’s a way for people to keep bonds with their family, to stay in contact with a sibling or significant other. I’ve had stories of people getting married through the games they were playing, where they met online. You’ve been working all year and you put everything you can into it, and there’s a moment of energy you get from that face to face interaction with the fans. You can’t really replace that.

GamesBeat: You were pretty deep in the middle of some of the most important parts of development when the pandemic hit. How much of a challenge was it to shift to working from home? Do you feel pretty settled there now?

Fergusson: For me, I joined Blizzard on March 3. I had eight whole days in the office before we went to work from home. What was really interesting for me was, coming into Blizzard and the team for the first time, I got to see how they reacted to this moment. It was phenomenal, because all of the support around just making sure were safe first, and even to the point of when supplies started to run out like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, we set up a dropoff where you could pull into the underground parking and pick up stuff that the company could get, but you couldn’t get personally. It was just looking out after all the employees.

Once everyone was safe and taken care of, then it was about how to stay productive. Getting machines to people, buying whatever they needed to turn their homes into an office and have a work space there, just being more adaptable to work schedules and understanding how people are at home with elderly parents or young children. You have to be empathetic and adaptable to that. It’s just been great to see the resilience of the team and the support of the company allowing the game to continue to make great progress. You’ve seen the quarterly progress updates. The game keeps getting developed. You see great things like what we’re doing with Diablo II: Resurrected, with Shadowlands, with the expansion to Hearthstone. We can continue to work and get things done, and it’s because of the support of the company and the resilience and the talent of the team.

Rogues can use poison abilities.

Above: Rogues can use poison abilities.

Image Credit: Blizzard

What’s ahead

GamesBeat: Given some of the additional MMO aspects that Diablo IV is going to have, should we expect more of a testing period ahead of launch?

Shelly: We’ve built time into the schedule. We’ve made sure to set aside time to test the game, test the game systems, including the endgame systems, which take time to reach and grok and play themselves out. We know how important that is for any game that has deep systems with lots of interactions. Diablo IV is that kind of game, and it plays out in this huge open world, this huge canvas that we’re working right now to fill with awesome adventures for players to have.

Fergusson: My history is essentially hallway shooters. The idea of coming to a game as complex as Diablo IV and all the systems that have to interact and come together to make that experience what it’s going to be, it’s really interesting. I was introduced to a term I hadn’t heard before, which is the idea of the soup tasting. People like Joe and Luis and others, as they look at the play of the game and the idea of understanding how the systems are interacting, how the progression is working, how the endgame systems work, and that idea of the soup tasting, adding a little more salt here, a little more balance there, a little more progression here, it’s been interesting to see that play out. But it’s clearly an important part of making sure we deliver the best Diablo IV we can.

GamesBeat: I don’t expect you to reveal another class to me, but looking back at Diablo games, there are certain archetypes that classes fall into. We have our big beefy weapon guy, our magic guy, our ranged character. Is it fair to expect a traditional sword and shield class coming up, or should players maybe expect the unexpected for future classes?

Fergusson: There’s always room by the campfire. [Laughs] That’s one of the things we enjoy. As Luis said in the opening ceremonies, it’s a rare honor to introduce a new class to a Diablo game. There’s more room left, so there’s more to come, but nothing we’re announcing today.

GamesBeat: With the development of Immortal, do you have to talk to them closely about things like bringing rogues back? Are rogues off-limits for them now?

Fergusson: [Laughs] It’s not so much an off-limits thing. It’s more about sharing. It’s one of the nice things about having the entire franchise under one person now, under one umbrella. It’s much easier to have back and forth. Having Luis and the Diablo IV team playing Resurrected and playing Immortal when we’re doing the tech alpha, getting feedback and sharing ideas, it’s great, very collaborative. It’s not really about ring fencing, because again, I think the experiences are so unique. We’re not so worried about, oh, you have that, we’re doing that too, don’t do that. It’s more about, this is what we’re doing, what do you think? It’s been a great collaboration between the many teams.

GamesBeat: For the future, should we expect updates to continue to come in every quarter, or will we see any bigger news drops?

Fergusson: Joe can speak to the quarterly updates. As we’re getting further into development, the idea of having a once a year cadence may be not quite frequent enough. Who’s to say? There might be some more stuff on the horizon, but I know we’re going to continue the quarterly updates.

Shelly: [BlizzCon comprises] our quarterly update for the first quarter of Diablo. It’s a huge update, right? We’re announcing rogue. We’re talking about the open world, talking about camps, which are super-exciting. We’re going to be back next quarter with another update and we’ll have more meaty stuff to dig into and talk about.

A new kind of Diablo world

GamesBeat: Since I’m talking to you two right now and not watching the Diablo IV deep-dive presentation, I’ll probably have to leave it to you to explain camps to me. You don’t have to do the deep dive, but a shallow dive would be nice.

Shelly: Absolutely. One thing we’ve done with the campaign in Diablo IV is have the campaign take place in the world. But we know that players often want the experience of learning what’s happening in the story, of characters being revealed, work well in settlements where the player has a lot of control over it, whether you want to play it by yourself or invite a couple of friends to the party. You want to have a lot of control over who’s passing through when that’s happening, so that you can have the best experience possible. When you are playing in the world and playing in the campaign, you’re only going to see people who you’ve explicitly invited to it. But as you progress through the campaign and complete areas, those areas become public areas, and you’ll start to see other people in them as the world changes.

Camps are areas of the open world that, when you first encounter them, will be overrun with monsters, will often have some key boss or a sinister monster controlling things. They’re areas of the world that have cool architecture, that are built up. Areas that are especially interesting. We realized that one of the powerful things about how we’ve set up the campaign is we can change the world from when you first experience it to its final state. And so we took that and we leveraged it for camps, where when you arrive at a camp, it’s in a certain way, but you can take on that camp, accomplish various objectives, take over the area, take out the boss or whatever’s controlling it, and change the state of that camp so that it’s now cleansed and the people of Sanctuary can come back and live in it. This obviously changes the world in a dramatic visual way. It also affects your gameplay. When you take over a camp, for example, you can unlock additional waypoints that let you teleport into a part of the world that maybe you’d have to ride farther to reach otherwise. It changes how the world is, and it lets you stake out and have an effect, a direct effect on the world itself.

Fergusson: It becomes a mini-base. It creates a waypoint. You can get vendors, and even get access to new dungeons. The notion of taking over a camp and flipping it, now it gives you access to this portable base in the world that you didn’t have before.

GamesBeat: When you talk about the open world, is this the same structure as, say, Diablo II and III, where you have acts and each one has its own area with the one city, or is it more like one big open world that’s structured differently than we’re used to?

Shelly: While there are acts in the sense that there’s a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that comprises the campaign, there are not acts in the sense that they were in Diablo III. It’s an enormous world with five different zones that you can explore. There are multiple cities in each zone. We talked about camps. There are world bosses, world events, smaller events. There are capital cities and Caldeum. Caldeum existed in D3. But just in terms of — to answer your question, no, it’s way bigger. It’s enormous. You’re going to get to explore the world of Sanctuary in a way that’s so much bigger than anything we did in Diablo III.

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