More than a million people crashed into the Diablo 4 early access beta over the weekend, myself included, and I hopped on a train to London yesterday to talk to Blizzard about how it went.
I spoke to Diablo general manager Rod Fergusson and Diablo 4 game director Joe Shely, and we managed to cover most of the hot topics from the weekend. We talked about the queues, which were a particular problem on the opening Friday; we talked about whether any of the classes will be rebalanced now; we talked about the surprise Butcher ambushes; we talked about couch co-op and why it’s not available on PC; and we talked about dungeons feeling laborious as we traipsed back and forth. And they had some eye-opening things to say about each topic.
The 6th June release of Diablo 4 is coming around quickly, and with only a fifth of the game-world on show here, there’s a lot left to polish. That’s amid concerns over incentivised crunch in order to get it done, and periodic staff walkouts as unionisation efforts seek to tackle unfair working conditions. And, of course, there’s the apparently never-ending Microsoft buyout saga looming large. Far from ideal working conditions.
Remember, the Diablo 4 beta opens to everyone this coming weekend and it will include the Necromancer and Druid classes that were unavailable in the early access beta. We have a Diablo 4 beta guide to answer any other questions you might have. Alternatively, try me in the comments below.
Eurogamer: Did you have a metric for success for this weekend, something in particular that you were looking at? And if you did have one, did you meet it?
Rod Fergusson: Yeah. Part of it is the number of players. “Beta” has been a twisted word that has become “marketing beta”, which means demo, and for us this was a true beta because we wanted to be able to test that load and what does it mean to get a lot of players in? And Friday was a little bumpy because of that, but the way that we looked at it is the issues we find now are issues that will be a lot smoother at launch. And so this weekend was to prepare for next weekend, and next weekend prepares for launch.
We ended up doing six really big hotfixes that fixed dozens of issues, so we saw server stability come back up and the queues went down, and so we’re feeling really good about that particular aspect.
So we had goals around how many people were going to be playing because we really wanted to test the servers, and so we’ve exceeded the number of players we thought we were going to get.
How many people were playing?
Rod Fergusson: I don’t have final numbers but well over a million people were playing this weekend.
This one had restrictions because you either had to be part of a promotion or you had to pre-order, and so next weekend, where it’s fully open, again, we want to have millions of people – hopefully – playing.
Are there any restrictions on numbers next weekend?
Rod Fergusson: No. No.
On PlayStation, Xbox, PC – on all of our supported platforms – anybody who wants to play can play.
I tried to play on Friday and couldn’t because of the long queues (that were a couple of hours’ long), but on Saturday morning, and even into Saturday evening, the queues had disappeared, they were less than a minute, which is impressive because I’m sure just as many people were playing then as on Friday.
It makes me wonder what people’s expectations should be about queueing when the game comes out. Is there an expectation that queues will be a thing we have to deal with, to some degree?
Rod Fergusson: Of course the ideal is that there are no queues – that is where we want to be. Basically, what we’re having today in the beta is what we’d like to have for launch – you go in, there’s no queue, you go.
Sometimes, queues are part of how many servers are available and those sorts of things, but the other side of queues, honestly, is around protecting the services. Sometimes you’ll put a queue in place just so that if there’s one particular service – like writing to the database – that you’re trying to not overwhelm, you’ll add to the queue to say, “Hey let’s just slow down a little bit while we fix this or look at it.” So it’s not always just availability of space. Sometimes something’s being investigated, or you’re trying to manage pressure on one particular thing until you can reinforce it.
And that’s actually what happened: we actually turned up the queues a little bit to protect this while we were working, and then, once we did the work, we were able to start dialling it up and dialling it up and the queue was going back down again.
Because it’s an inexact science: you don’t know how slow it has to go to not fall over and so you go conservative immediately. And that’s what people were seeing through the bigger queues when we were being very conservative, to say, “We fell over once, we don’t want to fall over again.” And then, as we started to work and gain confidence, we started to go, “Hey let’s halve the time. OK, let’s halve it again.” So eventually it goes away to nothing.
Is there anything you’re worried about in this regard with the open beta coming up, when presumably many more people will play?
Rod Fergusson: We’ve made a lot of forward progress. The reason we’re doing these tests – I mean part of it is we want people to get hands-on and see if it’s a great experience or not, and fortunately, once we got into Saturday, the last two days have been phenomenal in terms of feedback positivity. But beyond getting it into players’ hands to try it themselves, and to get balance-feedback and other feedback that Joe’s received, it really is about making sure we can run it at load.
So, my weekend was spent playing the game in couch/same-screen co-op, which I didn’t get a chance to play back in December. I must say, I love those independent menus [in Diablo 4, each of the two players in couch co-op can independently call up their inventory and skill panels on their half of the screen]-
Both in unison: Yes!
Because having to stop while someone took over the screen to alter their build before, in Diablo 3, was… argh!
Joe Shely: You have no idea how much work it is to make sure all of those UIs can work on the screen at the same time, ha ha.
Rod Fergusson: Having a teenager who I played with, every time he levelled up he wanted to change the skills. It would drive me… Or [they’d be] in the shop for thirty minutes and I’m falling asleep waiting for my turn.
Ha ha! I love the compromises that come from it, like, ‘When we have the next bit of downtime, then you can change your stuff.”
Rod Fergusson: I put three TVs in my living room because of this, because I play with my two boys, and the notion of taking over the whole screen to optimise the build or to go shopping… Three Xboxes, three TVs: let’s go.
I don’t think that’s very energy efficient, Rod.
Rod Fergusson: Ha ha ha! But it’s play-efficient!
So I was looking on the Diablo Subreddit to see people’s general reactions, because that’s a good gathering place for them, and one note I saw mentioned couch co-op and how it was a console-only feature. Firstly, is that right?
Rod Fergusson: That’s right.
And this person then wrote an impassioned post about couch co-op and the salient point seemed to be that why was a series that originated on PC now lacking an additional feature that consoles get?
Rod Fergusson: It’s a technology question. Trying to do shared-screen co-op on PC is much more challenging when it comes to account management and how you play together.
Why – how is it different from console?
Rod Fergusson: Well, console is pre-set up for that in terms of the ways you can associate the accounts to it.
Oh I see.
Rod Fergusson: And it’s been that way… Having split-screen or shared-screen co-op on consoles [has existed] for a long time.
Because those systems allow multiple users to be signed in?
Rod Fergusson: Right, exactly. Whereas trying to get two Battle.net accounts signed into the same PC at the same time… It’s a technology problem.
And the notion of two people sitting together at a desk: when you prioritise the problems you have to solve, solving for two people sitting at a desk, playing on the same PC, is lower priority when the majority of couch co-op that’s going to happen is going to be in front of a sixty-five-inch TV.
Is it a solvable issue?
Rod Fergusson: Um, not sure. I’d have to talk to our TD [technical director]. I don’t know if it’s a game-solvable issue. It might be a platform-solvable issue but I didn’t know that it’s a game-solvable issue, like [with] support from other aspects like Battle.net. I think there’s more tech that has to happen.
Okay, fair enough.
So, something I was delighted to hear about and had no idea about until I came into work this morning and read about it, is the Butcher. [Quick explainer: the Butcher was a ferocious enemy originally from Diablo 1, and now he’s in Diablo 4 as a surprise ambusher in dungeons. He shows up seemingly at random and then disappears after a certain amount of time, and by all accounts, is as ferocious as he always was.]
Rod Fergusson: Ha ha ha!
Was the Butcher in the build in December?
Joe Shely: No.
Whew! I’m glad I didn’t completely miss him two times around. But where did this idea to have the Butcher surprise-ambush people come from?
Joe Shely: First off, we really like the way that some monsters can change the players’ gameplay priorities. If you look at the treasure goblin [quick explainer: the treasure goblin appears at random as well, and you have to kill it before it runs away, to get its loot]-
Sorry, just to slightly interrupt: I saw someone describe the Butcher as a “pissed off treasure goblin”.
Rod Fergusson: Ha ha ha!
Joe Shely: Ha ha! He is a kind of reverse treasure goblin – yeah.
One of the things that can be really fun is changing up the players’ goals at any given moment, and the treasure goblin does that by running off with a pile of loot that you want, so you’re likely to opt into the extra danger [to get it]. And the Butcher does that by ambushing you and creating a situation where you’re likely to run and potentially run into other danger or navigate under pressure. So broadly speaking, in Diablo 4, we’re looking for other ways to add that kind of gameplay that changes the player’s experience on the fly.
I see – with unexpected, um, surprises?
Rod Fergusson: Yeah, because you never know when it’s going to show up.
Joe Shely: And the Butcher’s a perfect tool for that, because the essence of what players love about the Butcher is that ambush and that sense of fear, so he’s a perfect addition. And we want to add more things like that in the future as well.
Rod Fergusson: Joe and I have been talking about that in order for D4 to succeed, it had to walk this line between nostalgia of what is the best essence from D1, D2 and D3, and then what’s the new innovation for D4? Because if it’s too nostalgic, it’s the same old game, why am I playing? And if it’s too new then it’s not a Diablo game, where’s the stuff I love?
And I found the Butcher hits the nostalgia note for everybody who’s ever fought a Butcher before, and especially in the way that it’s done. The Butcher existed in D3 as a boss in an arena and that didn’t feel as true to the expression of what it was in D1, whereas this feels like a much truer expression that can surprise you and so it really plays off that nostalgia. But if you’ve never seen a Butcher before and you don’t know what it is, it’s still exciting and fun to play, and it still creates that really memorable moment because we’re seeing streamers and creators post their “What the heck is this?!” [content] which is awesome.
It’s a wonderful response to have. And just to clarify: is it like a reverse treasure goblin in how the Butcher appears at random? What are the conditions for him appearing – are there any?
Joe Shely: I think that there are some minimum level restrictions – there might be a few others. But it’s meant to be very random and very unexpected. He also will leave-
Rod Fergusson: [Chuckling to himself] pieces of you.
Joe Shely: Either after he killed you or after some amount of time. And this provides a couple of things: one, it gives you a moment to get revenge on him later, and two, he doesn’t kill you ten times in a row.
Rod Fergusson: What I love about the Butcher is that most of the stories around the Butcher are, “I didn’t know that existed, I was surprised, it killed me. What the hell?” And then, “I played a bunch more, I got stronger; when he showed up, I had my vengeance.” That overcoming, that showing of mastery, is a really cool kind of arc within an arc.
So are any other enemies getting a similar kind of treatment to the Butcher?
Joe Shely: Yeah, we’d like to add more enemies like that to the game. And because the game is a live service, we have a lot of opportunities to do that.
One other bit of feedback I saw, and this came from a few people, was their not being overly enamoured with dungeon design. The gist seemed to be that dungeons were too big and involved backtracking to grab keys and unlock doors and so on. Is this something you’ve seen and are you taking a look at it?
Joe Shely: We have seen it, yeah. There’s a few elements there. There’s some players who… We added the ability to teleport out of dungeons via the UI and some players don’t realise that exists. But certainly there are cases within the dungeon where you’re going to get a key and then you’re going somewhere else.
We don’t want players to be running through an empty dungeon. In cases where you’re going to get a key and you’re running back through an area, there should be enemies that are showing up to refresh that. It is a goal of ours that you’re not running through an empty dungeon, basically, ever. It can be okay for very short periods of time.
But when you think about dungeons overall, and there are well over a hundred dungeons in the game – and in the beta, of course, you’re only seeing the dungeons that exist in the Fractured Peaks [region], which is about twenty percent of the overworld – one of the design decisions we made is we wanted the dungeons, an individual dungeon, to have certain properties about it that were consistent and tied to that dungeon and that place in the world. So that when you go into a dungeon, it’s not just drawing out of a raffle all of the elements, there are some things that are consistent.
And the way that we want players to approach that as they’re levelling up, is to look at it as, “I want to do each of these different dungeons,” and that’s incentivised through things like the Codex of Power and the Renown system that give you a sort of checklist for all the dungeons you can do. And then when you get into the endgame, after you’ve completed the campaign and you get access to the Nightmare Dungeon system, we have the sigils that modify dungeons in really cool ways, with buffs and nerfs, and those dramatically modify the dungeon. But because the dungeons are designed with some properties to start with, you can get a sigil for a dungeon and have some context for what that means – it’s not just a random name that can be anything.
Rod Fergusson: People are seeing dungeons at the baseline level. It’ll be interesting the feedback once people get to experience what it means to go through sigils and get to see now there’s more monsters, now they have a different ability, now you’re being debuffed this way and they’re being buffed that way. And it’s going to feel like a much different experience.
Another thing I’ve seen feedback on is around the relative power of the classes currently in the game, and I know they’re not all they’re yet – the Druid and the Necromancer are being added in the open beta this weekend.
I’ve seen people say the game is easier as a Sorcerer with ranged abilities than it is as a Barbarian who has to fight up close, and the Rogue is somewhere in between. And I’ve had a go at all the classes and I tend to agree. Oh and the feedback is coming from people who have somehow taken all three currently available classes to level 25.
I wondered if everything is working as intended or if you’re looking at it again, with an eye to potentially rebalancing it?
Joe Shely: Whenever we make changes to the game, it affects the balance, so balance is a continual progression. And in particular, this beta – in addition to the technical aspects that Rod was talking about – is an opportunity for us to look at balance in the wild and make improvements. So certainly there are things like: Hammer of the Ancients is a little bit underpowered and Frost Sorcerers are pretty strong; Arc Lash is a little weak right now. There’s a few things like that.
But in general, there are no classes that are only for the really skilled people. When you see that campfire line-up, it’s not just mechanics that you’re choosing, it’s also the class fantasy. So if you have, for example, a fantasy of being a Rogue, we don’t want you to pick Rogue because you think that character looks really cool, and then for us to come back and say, “Oh no, that’s only for the people who have sixty hours of Diablo”-
Rod Fergusson: “You’re not good enough.”
Joe Shely: We absolutely don’t want that to be the case.
The way that we approach it is that we make sure that for each class there are builds that are accessible for players, and then there are builds or styles of play – and you mentioned the Rogue: the melee Rogue is more challenging to play than a ranged Rogue, for example. And within the melee Rogue, you can get into like, “All right, well I want a build where I Shadow Dash through an enemy and I Blade Twist and try to get the blades to go through as many enemies as [possible].” There’s lots of opportunity for a high skill-cap there. Certainly a Rogue, a melee Rogue, presents lots of additional opportunities because it is a more dodge-based class expecting more use of Evade.
But our overarching goal is that players can embrace the fantasy of it and then they can lean into the playstyles that they want. Or, if they want a higher skill-cap, they can lean into that.
Rod Fergusson: The thing that can’t be overlooked, either, is you’re only getting to play the first twenty-five levels, and the classes don’t stay balanced with every level change. The Barbarian is a really great example because the Barbarian has the most weapons of any character, and because of that, they have the most equipment slots of any character, which means they could have the most legendary affixes. So once you get all legendaries, the Barbarian can be super-strong because it’s got two extra legendary affixes that other characters don’t have, but you’re not going to get legendaries until, mainly, beyond twenty-five and above.
Same thing with the sorcerers: they have the two enchantment slots, that means you can have the most skills of any class. And, for example, the Druid specialisation happens in Scosglen [which won’t be in the upcoming open beta], so you’re going to play to twenty-five levels without ever being attuned to the animal spirits, which is really [important] to what the Druid feels like.
So the notion of yes, there are individual skills that [need tweaking] […] there’s also this notion about they each come into their own over a period of time. So to say “oh it’s much harder as a Barbarian in the lower levels” is true, but when you’re level forty as a Barbarian, you might be one of the strongest classes because of the additional two extra Aspects [legendary affixes] you can have.