Season 2 of Diablo 4 — the Season of Blood — began in mid-October and is still over two months away from ending. The limited-time Abattoir of Zir and Midwinter Blight events for Season 2 were just announced at BlizzCon 2023, where Rod Fergusson, Diablo franchise general manager, told Digital Trends about how Blizzard designs the ebb-and-flow of content during its lengthy season.
“If it’s a different season every two weeks and you’re just dialed to 11 all the time, your eyes will start to bleed,” Fergusson tells Digital Trends. “Having a little bit of a valley there before you go to the next peak can be kind of refreshing and get you energized for the next thing. We want people to play all the way through; we want people to be there for 12 weeks, and that’s why we’re having more and more content. But that’s not to say we won’t change in the future.”
Diablo 4 is a full-on live service, and Blizzard doubled down on that at BlizzCon 2023 by revealing those upcoming Season 2 events, teasing Season 3, and announcing the game’s first expansion: Vessel of Hatred. In the five months since its launch, Diablo 4 has worked through one-and-a-half seasons of post-launch content, events, and updates. They’ve run the gamut from being controversial updates players hate to ultra-engaging ones that players love.
At BlizzCon 2023, Digital Trends spoke to Fergusson and Chris Wilson, production director, to get a better idea of what it takes to run a live service of this scale and how that informs the development of Diablo 4: Vessel of Hatred and even the expansion beyond it, which we confirmed is also in active development with a dedicated team.
Diablo 4 had the biggest launch in Blizzard’s history, but one of its first updates was its most controversial. The infamous patch nerfed many popular builds and made leveling a slower process. Fergusson attributes some of those mistakes to the team trying too hard to perfectly balance the game so that “every build was viable,” and no players or builds got too overpowered as Diablo 4’s live service updates began. Now, he says the team made a “design philosophy change” into being less aggressive toward updates like that as Season 2 rolls out.
“We recognize that maybe we were a little aggressive in terms of trying to get that balance, but it was coming at the cost of some players’ fun,” Fergusson explained. “In Season 2, we have similar outliers. Ball lighting is a very powerful build right now that’s more powerful than other builds. I think if we had the same Season 1 philosophy, we would’ve tamped that down pretty quickly. But with Season 2, we’re recognizing it’s more about player fun than trying to get this perfectly balanced game.”
In general, Fergusson and Wilson seemed pleased with how Season 2 has gone and all of the content they still have in store for it. They think that, coupled with better communication with the game’s fan base, is allowing them to be much more reactive to what players want and desire instead of having blind faith in an update players may despise.
“With Season 1, we were wrapping up development of that season right before the game came out,” Wilson told Digital Trends. “The game hadn’t come out yet, so we didn’t really have a chance to take stock of what players might want that wasn’t in the game yet and so forth. I’m excited that with Season 2, we were able to land a lot of the quality of life improvements and things that players are asking for.”
All of those learnings are things that the developers will have to keep in mind as they work on not just Season 3, but all 2024 seasons and the Vessel of Hatred expansion. Regarding the expansion specifically, Fergusson recognizes that it could appeal more to newer players or those more interested in the story rather than the broader live service. Still, he admits Blizzard will have to find a way for all those different kinds of players to be addressed in tandem as the team explores how seasons and expansions for Diablo will interplay.
“Seasons are free, and expansions are not, so you don’t want to get into the haves and have-nots and the notion of ‘We have this cool thing, but you can’t play because you can’t buy the expansion.’” Fergusson said. “There’ll be seasonal play and expansion play. We want to make sure that the people who are playing seasonally and don’t want to play the expansion are fine, and the people that get the expansion have new experiences they get from that.”
We know that Vessel of Hatred will take players to Kurast from Diablo 2 as Neyrelle tries to resist the titular object, which Mephisto is trapped within. It will add a new class to the game and explore themes of nature taking back what people have taken from it. Fergusson was hesitant to draw any comparison between Vessel of Hatred’s scope and that of Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls when I asked how the Diablo 4 expansion’s size compared to it, but stressed that Blizzard wants “the scope to be such that there’s value there that makes sense for you to want to be able to buy it.”
Fergusson says that’s why it comes with a new region and why players will be able to take its fully fleshed-out new class and other elements from the expansion back into the main Diablo 4 game. It’s shaping up to be the biggest addition to Diablo 4 live service yet — fitting for an expansion — but Blizzard is already preparing for what’s beyond that. Blizzard teased to Digital Trends during the interview that Diablo 4 will get multiple expansions, unlike Diablo 3.
Vessel of Hatred will not be the end of the live service’s support, with seasons continuing on after it launches next year. That seems quite overwhelming, but Fergusson offered insight into how the team is structured into “swim lanes” to accommodate this live service development. There are currently teams to handle day-to-day balancing, odd-numbered seasons, even-numbered seasons, Vessel of Hatred, and the development of Diablo IV’s second expansion.
“You can’t build it serially, you have to build it in parallel,” Fergusson says. “The trick for us is having the right pipelines and processes, but also the right team size so that it’s sustainable, that people aren’t burning the candle on both ends, that we’re able to keep all these workstreams going without having to push too hard. That’s been exciting as we’re settling into that. That’s been the transition of going from launching Diablo 4 into the live services: really being able to fill those five workstreams and being able to make that sustainable.”
Sustainability and safety in the workplace have been big issues for Blizzard. Diablo 4’s original game director was fired in 2021 following reports of workplace harassment at Blizzard, and the company is still dealing with problems like a controversial return-to-office policy. While that’s all happened at Blizzard, the Diablo team grew a bit as Vicarious Visions was integrated into the company as Blizzard Albany. That decision was controversial following Vicarious Visions’ excellent work on Diablo 2: Ressurected and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. Wilson, who is from Blizzard Albany, went into more detail on how the integration has gone on Blizzard Albany’s side of things.
“We’re fully integrated; the team is supporting every facet of Diablo 4. All the different swim lanes Rod mentioned, there are people in Albany supporting that. It’s not restricted to only doing one part of it,” Wilson says. “The Albany team helped do a lot of work on [Diablo 2: Resurrected], and that really helped us develop and get our feet under us for being a part of the Diablo team. It’s a fully integrated, cross-coast team.”
One of the things we want to be able to do is hear the feedback on this expansion to help inform expansion two.
With so many teams working on so much Diablo 4 content in parallel, there will likely be few gaps in its live service support for the foreseeable future outside of the intentional lulls Fergusson alluded to. Vessel of Hatred seems like it will arrive almost a year-and-a-half after the launch of Diablo 4, and because Blizzard is already working on the second expansion, I asked if there’ll be just as long of a gap between the first and second expansion.
Fergusson was clear that the timing of that second expansion is yet to be decided and, as Blizzard has with other aspects of Diablo 4’s post-launch support, it will be very reactive to player feedback.
“I like to say there’s a lot that can happen in game development. And so the notion of trying to call your shots too early, what is it, ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men?’ Because we’re developing in parallel, we have to get going, but the idea of what exactly that release cadence is going to be, that’s TBD. Expansion one is coming late next year, and then we’ll see. The other part of it is we’re continually getting feedback, right? And one of the things we want to be able to do is hear the feedback on this expansion to help inform expansion two. We don’t want to be so close together, so tight, that we’re unable to react to the feedback, so that’s another thing to take into account.”
Disclosure: Blizzard Entertainment paid for accommodations so that Digital Trends could attend BlizzCon 2023.
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