Ever since Diablo Immortal was announced at BlizzCon 2018, it has had a cloud around its development. This announcement was poorly received at the time, and in the years following, Blizzard fell silent. Then out of nowhere, a technical alpha was launched last year while Blizzard simultaneously released a plethora of content that detailed the game's design, gameplay, and monetization plans. This was a reassuring maneuver to assuage fears of a blatant cash grab, and the lead designer Wyatt Cheng has detailed further at BlizzCon 2021 what we can expect from the upcoming mobile MMO. This reveal was followed up with an interview with Wyatt Cheng as well as the combat designer Julian Love to dig even deeper, so if you've been wondering about the game's current direction, we have tons of tidbits to share.
Plenty of new information was revealed during the above BlizzCon 2021 panel for Diablo Immortal. We now know that another testing phase will take place at some point and that it will focus on end-game content, whereas the previous technical alpha concentrated on early to mid-game content. It was also revealed that controller support is currently the most-requested feature and that the game is shooting for a constantly-updated live service, which is why it's now described as an MMO. Of course, I wanted to dig a bit deeper and was luckily provided the opportunity to talk with the lead designer Wyatt Cheng and the combat designer Julian Love. This conversation is listed below with slight edits for clarity.
Android Police: When Diablo Immortal was announced, there was a rumor circulating that it was built on top of an existing mobile ARPG, often known as a re-skin. Can you dispel this myth? Was it completely false?
Wyatt Cheng: This might be a surprise, but no one's ever actually asked me directly. I will absolutely say categorically, that is totally false.
And I don't think that we were really in a position to tell people that it was false 'cause people... That's just how human psychology works. Like they say, "Hey, this looks like a reskin." We say no. They're like, "Oh, well, now, you're also a liar." [chuckle] Well, people will believe what they wanna believe at a time like that. But I think if you look at the game and you look at technical alpha, and you look at how long we've been working at it, and how much love we've poured into the game, and how it controls, how there's no autoplay. I don't, I didn't even know where to start, it's just we have been building this game from the ground up to be a triple A Diablo experience.
Android Police: That's good to hear. Okay, so there's absolutely no code in this from anything else, it's all completely from the ground up, yes?
Wyatt Cheng: Well, it does use an engine that NetEase owns. Game engines are standard practice in the game industry, whether some commonly known ones would be like Unity or Unreal are very well-known. NetEase has an engine called the Messiah engine.
Android Police: So this is more an in-house engine?
Wyatt Cheng: It is an in-house engine, but using an engine is standard practice in our industry these days. It's no different. It's a lot different from a reskin, which would be taking the existing game design, and loops, and storyline, or whatever else. That's definitely not the case, but we were working with an engine.
Android Police: Alright, so after the (poor) reception of the announcement (in 2018), did that affect the development of the game at all? Did things change after that, or was it still just continue forward?
Wyatt Cheng: Well, yes and no. We did not change the scope of the game or what kind of game we wanted to make. We knew what kind of game we wanted to make. We were not able to completely communicate the grandeur of what we were trying to make and... But the vision of the endpoint has never changed. What did change, I would say, is that the team really jelled and understood that the stakes were high, and we knew that people would be watching. And so from that point of view, it did sort of motivate the team to make sure that we were really giving it our all.
Android Police: Can you explain in detail how the monetization is going to work?
Wyatt Cheng: Yeah, the game is free-to-play. And this is great because it's going to allow millions of players to check out the game for themselves. We've just finished talking about things like the announcement, and one of the interesting things, the people who attended BlizzCon in 2018 that played the game, we had exit surveys that people could take and provide us feedback after they had played. Overwhelmingly, people said, "Wow! This game's good!" We realized that playing is believing. And so from a monetization standpoint, free-to-play is a great way where if you're not already convinced, give it a try.
In terms of supporting the game, it will have optional in-app purchases. And we're sort of guided by a few different values in how we want make sure those in-app purchases are structured. It's really important to us that gameplay comes first, this is one of Blizzard's core values. So ideally, if you make a purchase, it should enhance the game and the game experience, rather than bypass it. So we're trying not to put in, say a blockade. We want make sure that the full game, that it's genuinely free-to-play, and that your purchases feel like bonuses.
I have two quick examples for you. One is we have an item called a Legendary Crest. And what a Crest does is you can run an Elder Rift. An Elder Rift is a lot like a Greater Rift from Diablo III. An Elder Rift is a short, randomized experience. It takes about three to five minutes to clear the whole dungeon with a boss at the end. If you use a Crest, it can add a modifier to the rift, a random modifier. Sometimes, the modifier will make the dungeon experience harder; sometimes, it'll make it easier. But either way, when you reach the end, you get a bonus drop for the legendary gem.
Another example of how we have in-app purchases is we have a Battle Pass. It's something that we've been seeing in a lot of games over the past few years. And I think done well, you can really structure the Battle Pass so that for the free-to-play player, they can progress along the Battle Pass and earn lots of rewards and have a good time. It also provides you with guidance in-game like, "Oh, what do I wanna do? Oh, let me work on this Battle Pass quest." And it's actually really fun to go and complete those Battle Pass quests 'cause it's providing your gameplay sessions with some structure.
Android Police: Crests sound similar to a key system for loot boxes where you can pay for a chance to get an item that you want to get, I guess, with a gameplay element built into it. How do you feel that's going to affect the PVP for people that are paying to get more loot?
Wyatt Cheng: I think the most important thing to remember is that for a player who just wants to make their character more powerful, the best way to do that is by playing the game. There are large portions of the game for which in-app purchases are not an option. So for example, legendary items, which are a very key part of any Diablo game. Those aren't for sale. And although we do sometimes have them on the free track of the Battle Pass, which means that they're available for everybody, you can't go into a shop and just buy legendary items. And if you wanna make your character more powerful, the best thing, the most effective thing you can do is get better legendary items, find extra items, and salvage them to rank up your items. And also like Paragon levels. We always wanna make sure that if someone says, "Hey, I wanna make my character more powerful," that just playing the game is always going to be your best option.
Android Police: Well, the Crests do allow for a faster way to do that, though, right?
Wyatt Cheng: Yeah, the Crests grant legendary gems, and the Crests are a great way for our players to feel like that they're getting a bonus. This is basically, it's an optional purchase that isn't required for players to enjoy the game.
Android Police: Do you know how long the main campaign's going to be, yet?
Wyatt Cheng: We're looking for the main campaign to be roughly comparable to Diablo III at launch. So during the tech alpha, the level cap was set to 45, but for the shipping game, we expect the level cap to be 60. And we're trying to interweave a couple different things because we are offering a new game style. We're really an MMO-Diablo on mobile. And so we're combining elements of different game types that haven't really been traditionally combined before. What we want you to do is play through the main quest storyline, and then at some point, you take a break from the main quest storyline, and you engage in some other activities like rifts or bounties. But then as you get to, you might say, "Hey, the next chapter of your story begins at level 30." You get to level 30, you move on to the next zone, Shassar Sea, you experience more of the story. And then after you see more of that story, you can then go back to those other repeatable activities.
Android Police: Did you notice many people gravitating towards certain metas during the public test? Were a lot of people forming specific builds, or was it just the really hardcore people?
Wyatt Cheng: What's really interesting is we have a much lower drop rate than Diablo III, and that's intentional. We want it to feel like, "Hey, I got a legendary item! This is awesome!" We want legendary items to feel special, but part of feeling special is that you're not being showered by them constantly. And so what we did see a lot of is, "Oh, I got this legendary item. I didn't even know this legendary item existed. And because it's my first legendary in that slot, I'm gonna use it. Oh, it's an ability that makes my leap have a charge-up component that makes it do more damage. I guess I better put leap on my bar." And so in some ways, we saw, we see a lot of people saying, "Oh, I'm gonna try and make a build based on the legendary items that I've gotten because the items are scarce." And for most players, we don't want this to be a game where one week, two weeks after the game comes out, you have every legendary item and now, it's just a matter of going on the Internet and looking up, "Well, what's the current meta, whatever?" It's more like, "Hey, you found 14 legendary items. Here's what you have. Which skills do you like? How does this fit together for you?" And because we are going to support this game as a live content game with content patches, we can add more legendary items to keep people playing and hunting for more builds and possibilities to work into their repertoire.
Android Police: Controller support was mentioned as a requested feature in the (BlizzCon 2021) stream. How come it wasn't considered from the start?
Wyatt Cheng: Quite simply, we wanted to make the best mobile experience that we could. That was the number one focus. And with our on-screen touch support controls, we can do some stuff that we can't with a controller, to be honest, like being able to click on ability, charge it up while aiming it. The face buttons on a controller don't do that. I think there are probably ways that we could try to investigate that, but our focus was really, "We're a mobile-first game. Let's make the controls as good as we possibly can on mobile and let that be our focus." Julian is a combat designer, though. He might have more color than me.
Julian Love: Yeah, the vast majority of people are going to try out Immortal with the controls that it ships with, which is the virtual controls that are on your phone. And controls are really, really hard to do, regardless of what the input scheme is. It's something that we start at the very beginning, and it's one of those things it's never really quite finished. You have to work on it the whole way through. You have to shave off all of the rough edges. And that just takes a lot of time. So right now, we're really focused on just trying to make that as good as it can be. It doesn't mean that we're adverse to adding controller support in the future, potentially. It's just that the main objective really has to be making the game as it is, and as most people whilst play it from the beginning, a top-notch experience.
Android Police: So is there going to be a public beta, a wider launch for more people to test?
Wyatt Cheng: We haven't announced our other testing phases yet. I can confirm there will be more testing phases, but nothing to reveal yet about the duration or scope or feature set for those testing phases.