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Diablo Immortal interview: heavy metal PVP in your pocket

Seamus talks to Scott Shicoff and Kris Zierhut from the Diablo Immortal team about putting hardcore PVP into the mobile action RPG.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
17 min read
Diablo Immortal interview: heavy metal PVP in your pocket

We're digging into PVP on a very specific game with a very specific history in that space for gaming, I'm talking to two of the senior developers attached to Diablo Immortal, Scott Shicoff is the Principle Game Designer and Kris Zierhut is the Senior System Designer working on Diablo Immortal which is Blizzard's mobile version of the Diablo experience.

I've managed to have hands on with the alpha and it feels great. It feels like real Diablo.

And we are talking PVP in this discussion today, deep diving on the whole system that they're releasing for this mobile Diablo, it's called the Cycle of Strife, it is this whole server wide faction based to end game system. That is going to be part of the game. And the more we talked about it, the deeper it goes, the so many layers to this thing, which I think is what the crunchy stuff that serious PVP fans want.

Seamus: So. Yeah, we dive in the deep end. We talk about how the whole system works the way in which you get to climb to the top. But to kick off the interview, I simply asked why they felt it was so important to put a serious hardcore PVP system into a game like Diablo Immortal.

Scott: A robust PVP system is something that players have wanted for a while now. And, we've maybe gone a little bit over the top, but we are introducing something called the Cycle of Strife with Diablo Immortal, it's a server wide faction based PVP system. That's a kind of a King of the Hill vibe. So you have your group, the Immortals that are a really relatively small number of players on the server at any given time that are, you can almost think of them as of the elite, right?

This is a pinnacle. This is an aspirational goal, and they're trying to hold onto that top spot for as long as they can. Then you have everyone else who is try to push them off that hill. And those are the Shadows,  which anyone over the course of a Cycle, which is... Season,  Cycles,  you can think of them in the same.

You have the Shadows who are trying to oust the sitting Immortals and become the new Immortals themselves. And to do all of this... that's a really high level overview of something that's actually really intricate, has a lot of interlocking parts, and there's a lot for players to do with it.

Seamus: Thinking about the idea of bringing PVP to Immortal, was it for you always a must have in the game or was it something that  was tinkered with? And then there was a decision along the way to think, you know what? We can, we can pull this off well?

Kris: It was actually proposed very early in the project. We wanted to be more of an MMO, more of this big social game. So we needed a big, social feature to get all the players involved and battling for and against each other, working together working against each other, and a PVP system that would involve them all was one of the best ways we started to do that.

And we had this idea, and we'd never seen it done before like this in other games. So it looks really, really cool and, and something would involve players in a big social game.

Seamus: In pure vibe terms, are we getting the kind of heavy metal PVP or like a surgeon, like precision version of PVP? What's the vibe going to be?

Scott: Well, anything that has heavy metal in it is going to be where I want to head anyway. So I think that. I think you nailed it there. I'm also going to see if Wyatt will let me call something Heavy Metal in the game. I don't know. It'll be I'll check later. But yeah, we totally lend ourselves more to that heavy metal vibe.

Because Diablo is, you know, it's a very action-y combat game and when you're playing it on a mobile device, it's about your group, what you're doing, what you're able to see and understand happening on the screen. So I don't know that it would make sense for PVP to feel surgical in a Diablo game, I think. I just keep wanting to say it heavy metal. I think that's really the right way to describe it. So–

Kris: Honestly, That sort of surgical precision also doesn't fit a mobile game very well. You want something where the controls are going to be easy to use because you can be in any type of environment.

So that sort of big battle with, with big sweeps of action is going to fit the control scheme a lot better. And again, fit the Diablo universe better.

Scott: Yeah, that's a great call-out. We know that the Diablo universe is something that players love. And you're going to have a lot of players who love Diablo, and this might be their first mobile game of this kind, this sort of action adventure on mobile.

So we really wanted to make sure that, for those players who were maybe for the first time getting their hands on a virtual joystick, using virtual buttons, that it was going to feel like Diablo. It was going to be intuitive and they were going to be able to play it right out of the gate. And then of course, on the other side of the coin as well, you're going to have people who love mobile games, but maybe have never had the chance, the opportunity to play a Diablo game.

And so we really wanted to meld those things together and we considered both sides of that. When looking at what it would mean for PVP.

Seamus: Do you feel like it's going to give people a variation in the style of play compared to running different kinds of PVE style content? You know, I'm a massive old WoW nerd, and so I know that if you're playing PVP you almost change your load out a little bit because you're using your skills in a completely different way to go into that style of combat. Is that sort of the way you think people will treat it, that they treat it differently? Or is it almost like just a way to kind of show off the cool stuff that you've, you know, you've put together on your character?

Kris: Probably. So it's a way to show off what you've gotten. In some ways it's a justification for why did get it. You go out and get this awesome gear, so you can take it into battles and crush your enemies with it. I mean, What else you can do with it? But also I think one of the aspects of our PVP battles, I think it's a very PVE-ish thing, which we have this event, Scott will talk about more, which is Raiding the Vaults, you go into the vault where you start off attacking the monsters or the guardians of the vault, which are not players are, you know, computer controlled.

But eventually if you accidentally set off the alarms, the Immortals would come to defend it from the Shadows who are attacking it. So you end up with a PVP in the middle of PVE combat. So it's much closer to it's Diablo combat. You're going to want to go in there with your best stuff for killing monsters, but be prepared in case the enemy shows up too.

Scott: It's really important to know that within the Cycle of Strife, it is a mixture of PVE and PVP activities. The thing that we care a lot about is that players are able to have fun and participate, whether you're Shadow or Immortal, and feel like you're able to contribute to your faction, even if maybe you aren't the best PVPer on the server.

Run the path of blood, which is a PVE solo experience to see how far you can push yourself, or do contracts, which are, sort of, extended themed quest, just for the Shadows. And you're going to be improving your faction without even doing PVP. And then as you get stronger, as you go out in the world and you play all the different content and you find the legendary equipment you're looking for, when you're ready, take it into PVP and see what you can do.

One of the things that I want to call out really quick is, we think it's very important that when you get a piece of gear or when you learn a skill that once you understand how to use it or how it works, that it works the same in PVE or PVP. We don't want you to have to relearn a skill because you're in one mode or another now.

It may mean however that we need to implement some global rules. So let's say you have an item or a skill that puts a five second stun on a monster. In PVE, great, five seconds, who cares. In PVP? That's an eternity. We can't do that. So we may have rules where no stun can last longer than two seconds and maybe it has diminishing returns.

But that would be a global rule and we wouldn't want to focus on a specific skill or a specific piece of equipment to make the game feel right.

Seamus: Yeah, let's dig in a little bit more on a couple of these features that are around it. You've sorta touched on Immortals and Shadows. Then I see we've got this... now I'm going to get the pronunciation wrong. Is it Kion or Kion... Kion's Ordeal?  And then the Raid the Vault system. So it does seem like there's like lots of options. It isn't just run out into a field and try to beat each other up.

Scott: So I'll talk about Kion's Ordeal a little bit, so yeah, Kion (pronounce: Ky (like 'sky') -on). There will be a test later. So you've got Kion. You've got Daedessa. You've got Akyba.

Kris: Don't worry. Even developers will fail it.

Scott: So Kion's Ordeal. It is a 48 person raid. It is PVE. Way it works is 48 players go into an area. They break off into four groups of 12 and they fight a boss monster from a pool of possible enemies. And the goal is to coordinate and synchronize so that all of these bosses are killed as close to the same time as possible because each time one dies, the others get stronger.

So, yeah, and if you're able to succeed at Kion's Ordeal, the Immortals. And, I don't actually know if I've mentioned yet, but the adventurers. So a quick aside, the Shadows and Immortals, that's an opt-in system for players who do not choose to opt in, they are considered Adventurers. So Adventurer just means you are not a Shadow or an Immortal.

Yep. So if the Immortals win Kion's Ordeal they get the blessing of Deadessa and this provides a buff to the Immortals and Adventurers so that whenever they run an elder rift, they get better rewards. If the Immortals lose that blessing because they're not able to regularly defeat Kion's Ordeal the Shadows get the buff.

A Kion's Ordeal boss fight.

So over time it gets harder and more expensive for Immortals to continue earning this buff. And the Shadows the whole time are whittling away at the resource Immortals need to do it by rating the vault. So when Shadows go in and raid the vault, they are trying to steal two types of things from the Immortals primarily. They're trying to steal that resource that lets them attempt Kion's Ordeal. And they're also trying to steal items from an Immortal specific vault.

So as players with the buff on the Immortal side are running these elder rifts, new equipment is being created and stored in the special Immortal vault. This equipment lives in that vault for a week during that week, members of the Immortals can say, "Hey, I want that item. I want that item." And we have an internal system that decides who gets what, but that gear is stuck in that vault for the week. So during the week, while the Shadows are raiding it, while they're within the vault, if they find a chest, they open it up. They have a chance to directly steal that item out of there.

So let's say there's a legendary sitting in the vault. You really want it, you've worked really hard for it. You should be the one to get it. And then the Shadow steal it. Chances are, you're probably going to want to be sure to defend the vault whenever you can. And Immortals can defend the vault, as Kris mentioned, if the Shadows trip the alarm.

Kris: And also what's part of that push-pull of the whole cycle, the Immortals have a harder and harder time to continue to do Kion's Ordeal. Eventually they're going to falter, they're going to lose that buff and all the Shadows now get the buff and all the adventures and starting to think, huh? The Shadows got the buff now? Maybe I should go and join the Shadows. So maybe they give the Immortals a pass the first couple of times it's happened, but you know, it's been three or four days since they had the buff. "Dude, I'm joining in the Shadows" as part of what leads to the downfall of the Immortals.

They have to keep the buff up to keep the populace happy or they're going to get pulled down.

Seamus: This really does sound great. The more you go into it, the more it shows that there's a real depth and complexity and an interconnectedness to all of these.

A lot of the times when people think about a mobile gaming experience, they think about that whole idea of snackable content, not necessarily that sort of depth of engagement. I know that wonderful experience of just sitting down and going, this really does feel like a real Diablo game on a mobile. It doesn't feel cut down in some way, but how do you then make sure you're delivering that balance and that care to keep someone at that right level of engagement where they think, I am on a mobile platform and therefore I might be trying to just jump in here and there. It does seem like you're trying to sort of elevate that idea and not just treat it like it's a mobile game.

Kris: The key is we have a lot of different things you can do in the game. Some of them are bite-sized and some of them are medium-sized with some larger size. If I just want to log in to the game, play for five minutes, go in, do an elder rift. Bam. You can do it. And you'll be done within five minutes. Got a little bit more time? Maybe do a dungeon, maybe do a couple bounties. Got an hour? Maybe you get involved with some of the stuff with raiding and defending the vault. It depends on how much time you have and you decide how to spend it.

And no one's expected to sit down and play for four hours straight, but you're going to be playing on and off over the days, as much as you have time to. But there's definitely those times when you need to sit down on the couch and relax and play for maybe a little bit longer than five minutes. But if you want to play for just five, you totally can.

Scott: Yeah. And as I mentioned, if you do decide to participate in the Cycle of Strife, you don't lose access to anything that you had before. So if you see a piece of the Cycle of Strife that you want to do, but you know that maybe I need 20 minutes set aside for that then maybe you'll do that later. And you've got five minutes you log in and do a bounty, right? You don't lose your bounties. If you do have that 15, 20 minutes, maybe you run a dungeon.

The important thing is that all the Cycle of Strife stuff is add on, right? It is extra pieces. And even within there, there are bite-size things. So as I mentioned for the Shadows, go try a floor on the Path of Blood. That might only take you a minute.

Kris: Might take you 30 seconds.

Scott: Yeah. Depending on how you compare to the difficulty level of that floor when it comes to raiding the vault. Maybe you have a key, cause you have to earn keys to be allowed to raid the vault. Maybe you have a key and you can't raid the vault right now, but the key doesn't go away. So when you have a little bit of time later, hop in, raid the vault.

One thing I will note by the way, I know a lot of people who are going to be playing the Immortals are going to be very dedicated – this is a hard thing to achieve. We still don't want to make it feel like you have to be online 24 hours a day. So even things like Raid the Vault have windows. You know the windows, when someone would even be allowed to attempt to raid the vault, and maybe certain players will base their playtime around that, or maybe they won't.

Because again, it's not one person that's protecting the vault. It's all the Immortals.

One of the activities I haven't mentioned yet is called the Rite of Exile. This is as the Shadows grow in power, they eventually get the opportunity to try and overthrow the sitting Immortals. This is done through a weekly event called the Rite of Exile. So this is a special event that happens at the same time each week. It's a 10 simultaneous eight v eight battles. If the Shadows win at least half of these, then they get the opportunity to overthrow the sitting of Immortal. That's a fixed time so you know when that's going to be if you want to participate in that, and if you've worked yourself into a position where you'll be able to you might schedule around that specifically, but it's not daily. And if the Immortals, win on that Rite of Exile, then they're in control for another week. So they know that they have that next week to play as they see fit.

Seamus: There's a lot here for the kinds of people who want to go deep, deep, deep. Even through the testing phases so far I've been one of the more filthy casuals and just being enjoying exploring the world when I've had that chance, but I know plenty of people who have just been like, oh, when can I explore more level cap? There's plenty of people out there who are seeking the extremes of how far they can push content in this game already. Through that testing phase, what's that felt like for you all to see people wanting to know how deep this is going to let them go.

Scott: Yeah, it's an interesting question because Cycle of Strife is so big and it's very hard for us internally to really know how it's going to work. We need so many people – these systems are based on having so many people on the server, participating, seeing what their play styles are like, seeing what they enjoy, what they don't enjoy, finding all the places that are working well and finding the places that need improvement.

And so for me, just having players finally, you know? Like Kris mentioned, this has been in the works for a long time. Having players finally able to get into the system and really help us tear it apart. All of it does is make the game better. I love if they find a thing that's not working. I love when they find a thing that I thought was going to be too complex and they're like, no, we totally get it. So just having people playing, working through all these systems and finding all the things, all the bright spots and all the dark spots and figuring out how to fix and improve wherever we can.

Kris: Diablo Immortal is going to be a live game. A live MMO that goes on for years. So this is just the beginning of that cycle of collecting feedback from players, having them find the places where there's rough edges and problems and fixing them. We fix them, they play new things, the cycle of get back, give and take with our community goes on and on forever.

So this is that first stage we've really been looking forward to seeing them actually play a game, seeing what works, sometimes what doesn't, which classes and abilities are too strong. So we start all that balance process. It's just really exciting to dig into.

Scott: Yeah, I love watching, especially on the Australian server, watching some of the things that are like, ooh, this is going to take a long time. This is going to be really hard. And then players just demolish it. We're like, okay. time to make it tougher!

Seamus: A big part of PVP then of course is balancing classes. So how deep has that gone so far, or have you already got ideas of how the regularity of patches and processes like that will be.

Kris: So we've already put a lot of thought to what is our philosophy is on class balance. We wanted to have that all lined up before the players get there. The key idea on class balances, every class is valuable and viable, and no class is dominant. As long as we stay within those parameters, we're in a good place. If you reach the point where you say, "Hey, we can't go to this battleground, unless we have a Crusader," we have a problem. You say, "No, no wizards allowed" again, we have a problem, right? So we need to keep everybody within those ranges. Again, every class viable, no class is dominant.

In terms of our PVP combat, we've decided the real focus for now is on the 4v4 scale of PVP. So you think a battleground is in 8v8 but they're split objectives. You don't ever have the whole team in one place. You roughly have about four players from each team in one place at a time. You think about raiding the vault. There's four people raiding, potentially four defenders. So 4v4 is really the scale we focused on. And it's also a good scale where you don't have to micro into the exact specific abilities on each class to make sure it's a perfect fair fight. It's more about team coordination and planning and working together than it is about specific abilities that you use. So focusing on that for before scale.

And then of course, if something's really busted, something's really, really strong. We're going to fix it immediately. But for the most part, our goal is to make minor skill rebalancing on a continual basis. So minor skill rebalancing as needed. Again, as Scott mentioned earlier, we want skills to function the same everywhere, regardless it's PVE or PVP it has the same rules, but we can't have those special rules like the, like the stun durations.

Seamus: Yeah. Lastly, how do people show off their awesomeness? Are there going to be ladders or different areas where someone's name is gonna show up for being one of the best Immortals ever on the server?

Scott: Yeah. So we do have things like challenge rifts, where you'll see who has achieved what, and when, but if you're talking Immortal specifics, we have some of the biggest ways to show off for a Immortals.

The immortal leader will get a statue of themselves in Westmarch that will be visible during their reign. It updates every day, so if the Immortal gets new equipment, the statue will update to reflect that.

We also have the wall of honor, which shows, for the life of the server, the leader and the lieutenants and the roster, the people who helped found it, right. They were part of the winning dark house. So even when an existing group of a Immortals is overthrown, they will forever be part of that wall of honor. And you'll always be able to go back and see if you were one of those people.

Then one of the other cool cosmetic things that Immortals get. Something called the Immortal cloak. It's kind of a glowing, almost looks like caustic water that they get to show off as they run around. That's only on them while they are an immortal. And we've already seen people who are playing on the Australian server, they become an Immortal, so they have that cloak and suddenly they're getting a lot of group invites. I don't know why. The mystery!

Seamus: I love it. Last question. I know you're going to give me a very straight answer. When can everybody play?

Kris: Soon.

Scott: Yeah, Soon. The Blizzard answer, right?

Seamus: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Obviously, there wasn't really much PVP in Diablo 3, this feels like a good fishing line to throw out there and rip people over on, on to a Diablo Immortal.

Scott: Yeah, my pleasure. It's such a big system, hopefully we can get more people playing before you know it.

GamesHigh ResolutionActivision Blizzard

Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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