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DiabloAug 28, 2018 2:00 pm CT

Why this could be the year of Diablo

With BlizzCon coming up, I have two very contrary ideas in mind. The first is that I know no one has ever won trying to predict what Blizzard is going to do. For every BlizzC0n where players sussed out we were going back to an alternate history Draenor, there’s a BlizzCon where oops, Blizzard has a totally new IP called Overwatch and it’s coming out soon and you didn’t even know you wanted it.

But I’m on record as speculating on the future of the Diablo franchise, and I think this BlizzCon has the potential to be a very big year for the game series about smashing monsters and taking their loot. We very much don’t know what’s coming, but the Switch port and various tie-in media have been announced, including the Book of Adria coming out in October. That’s one month before BlizzCon, and frankly, I feel like there’s simply no way we aren’t going to get some more of those announcements Nevalistis mentioned at this year’s con.

It’s time

We’ve already done posts speculating what those announcements might be. What I want to do is talk about why a return to form for the Diablo series is called for. A classic smash ’em up drawing on each of the games in turn, expanding upon the world of Sanctuary while keeping the tone and playstyle of an isometric dungeon crawler. Or, honestly, the isometric dungeon crawler. Sure, there are other games in this milieu that I love, like the Torchlight series, but it’s fair to say that Blizzard did with the Diablo games what they often do with a genre and essentially distilled and defined it.

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Blizzard has a chance here to take everything they learned from making Diablo 3, both positive — the Reaper of Souls version of the game is nearly flawless for the genre — and negative. The negative includes making the game always online and then botching the launch so that people couldn’t play it for hours, maybe even days on release. It also includes the entire concept of the Real Money Auction House, which ended up hurting the game and its reputation to the point where people who haven’t played Diablo 3 since launch still hold it forth as a sign of all that’s wrong with the game.

Six years of lessons

It’s been six years since Diablo 3 launched, and in that time Blizzard has given us Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch. They’ve gotten much better at always on games and making sure they’re up and running with sufficient stability. That’s something that any future Diablo title absolutely needs.

But more importantly, they’ve had time to refine their storytelling. Both Overwatch and the by now venerable World of Warcraft have shown Blizzard’s evolution as a game company in terms of how it tells story, how it gets the story to the players, and how complex its narrative can be. As much as I love Diablo 3 and as much as I see hidden complexity in its gnostic tale of ancient Anu and Tathemet, the plot of Diablo 3 ended up feeling more on rails and left some very large unresolved threads.

It’s time for Blizzard to resolve those threads, and in so doing, create whole new ones. The Diablo series has a completely different tone, one of heroic adventure in the face of absolute horrors and madness and evil that I feel is extremely relevant now. And beyond that, the lessons of the last six years of the franchise, and of the company as a whole, need to be brought forward. This is absolutely the time for a new Diablo game.

Still, it needs to be said — that doesn’t mean we’re getting one. I am purely speculating here. As always, managed expectations are our friends, and getting too excited for a game that hasn’t even been announced yet is definitely not our friend.

So, if we get a Diablo 4, what can it learn from the games of the past?

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Build on what came before

Well, for starters, Diablo 3 got one thing absolutely right — being able to play as either a male or female character is extremely important. Making it so every class had options along those lines meant that you didn’t feel stuck as an Amazon or Assassin if you wanted to play as a woman. That needs to move forward — whatever classes Diablo 4 has, it needs broader representation. In fact, I’d argue it’s time for Blizzard to do something it’s never done in a Diablo game — it’s time for greater character creation and customization aspects to the series.

Giving players the option to control elements of their character such as name, skin and hair color and even build could well help create more of a feeling of it being your hero, rather than just a hero, saving Sanctuary from evil. Diablo isn’t like most RPG’s in that you play either as a Human being or a Nephalem, who is simply a Human with near-divine power. Letting players have some ownership of that character isn’t, to my eyes, a bad idea at all. It’s a bit heretical and a departure from the previous games, admittedly. But I think it’s time.

Secondly, it’s time for a Diablo game to rise to the storytelling challenge of Diablo 2 and exceed it. Diablo 2 felt broad in scope, a story of a race across the world in pursuit of the Prime Evils. Diablo 3 actually has even more travel but it doesn’t feel traveled in the same way. You go to a place, explore around it, go to another place. It’s time for a Diablo game to actually exceed the arbitrary act structure in terms of locality and let you move from city to town to countryside exploring and conquering the minions of Hell. This is where actually allowing some player agency and having quests with actual narrative consequences could be a great change for the Diablo series.

Look, we’ve all seen the amazing work Blizzard is doing with cinematics and shorts for Overwatch and World of Warcraft lately. But back in the day, Diablo 2 redefined what games could do in this area, and a lot of what we’re seeing now builds on those old cinematics of the Lone Wanderer losing control in a tavern and setting madness loose on Sanctuary. It’s time to see that kind of visual storytelling return to the Diablo franchise. Remember the Wrath short? We should definitely get a lot more of that kind of storytelling in Diablo.

More than more of the same

One of my biggest fears for the Diablo games going forward is that the Real Money Auction House will be seen as a cautionary tale. That the formula of Diablo is set in stone and must never be changed or deviated from. I think that the RMAH is a lesson, but the lesson isn’t never change anything or even be conservative, but rather think carefully about how these changes will ripple forward.

When it comes to the basic gameplay of the series you don’t want to lose the dopamine hit of getting that upgrade and grinding out that loot. But when it comes to narrative? It’s well past time for the Diablo series to live up to its astonishing potential and deliver on all that vast cosmic horror it’s been hinting at for years.

This is the time for a Diablo game with branching narratives, different possible endings, callbacks to previous games. This is the time for a Diablo that lets you make the wrong choices, lets you pick a side in the Eternal Conflict or say no to both and fight all comers in defense of Sanctuary. This is the time for a game where you make decisions for your character and your world that actually have consequences.

It should still absolutely play the same — smash monsters, scatter their sundered broken bodies in great arcs of gore and steal all the hoarded treasures they leave in their wake, absolutely yes — but it should try to go places the series has never been while it does so.

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This is the time. This is the year. Blizzard, I’m begging you here. Give us Diablo 4.

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