With hits like World of Warcraft and Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment is considered a progenitor of the “forever game,” addictive experiences that players cannot put down because they seemingly never run out of quests to complete or gear to collect.
Part of Diablo’s deviousness was that it took forever to get what you wanted. As players fought through dungeons, slain monsters dropped loot, such as weapons and jewelry, that would empower their characters. Sometimes they were randomly rewarded with rare and exceedingly potent loot, much like pulling a slot machine and hitting the jackpot.
The endless dopamine-inducing hunt was a winning formula that persuaded Diablo players over the past 26 years to invest hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours into building the perfect character. But as the studio, now part of Activision Blizzard, prepares to release Diablo IV for computers and Xbox and PlayStation consoles on Tuesday, it is modifying its casino-like tactics to build a forever game for modern times.
The industry has transformed since Diablo III was released more than a decade ago. Diablo IV will now face an array of online competitors, not just other formidable forever games like Destiny and Fortnite, but also streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ that are battling to monopolize people’s time.
“Games have become more of a hobby or a lifestyle,” said Rod Fergusson, the Blizzard executive producer overseeing Diablo IV. “That does mean that you have to think about it as this live service.”
The old-school video game model, which Blizzard still uses for World of Warcraft, asked those who wanted additional gameplay to pay for expansion packs known as DLC, for downloadable content. But players now expect regular updates for free, with publishers instead making money from the sale of cosmetic upgrades to an engaged fan base.
Taking cues from modern forever games, Blizzard plans to release quarterly updates to Diablo IV that introduce new quests, story lines, items and gameplay mechanics. People who engage each season can unlock in-game rewards through battle passes, an industrywide tactic for player retention.
Facing the increased demands for additional content, Blizzard is emphasizing the storytelling that in past Diablo games was treated like an afterthought. Diablo IV returns to a dark, heavy metal aesthetic and centers on the antagonist Lilith, the daughter of the Lord of Hatred, who has been resurrected by cultists; player-controlled sorcerers, barbarians, rogues, necromancers and druids will pursue her as she wreaks havoc.
In a first for the franchise, Blizzard said, each player’s unique character will be rendered in real time to appear inside the cinematic sequences intended to make Diablo IV’s story more immersive. And although defeated foes will continue to litter rare items at random, there will now be dungeons and quests where specific pieces of gear, like a special pair of boots or a dagger, can be found.
“Valuing people’s time and their experience — they don’t want to feel like they’re in a fight with the game,” Fergusson said. “Players have come to expect to have some control over the situation.”
There is no guarantee that longtime Diablo fans will appreciate the changes. Diablo III featured a virtual auction house where players could buy and sell gear with real money, but Blizzard shut down the store after concluding that it “ultimately undermines Diablo’s core gameplay: kill monsters to get cool loot.”
Major game studios pour resources into their biggest games, and Fergusson said the Diablo IV team, composed of hundreds of employees, was roughly double that behind the game’s predecessor. One group is focusing on the main story while two others are working on parallel tracks for season updates; another works on player customizations, such as the character outfits that are a key part of the game’s long-term plan to make money.
Gamers who have immersed themselves in franchises like League of Legends or Apex Legends will be familiar with the approach Blizzard is taking with Diablo IV.
The studio said each quarterly update would showcase fresh story lines, including quests featuring old and new characters, and concepts that shift the dynamics of how the game was played. Players who complete certain tasks will be able to unlock perks, including currency that can be used to buy cosmetic upgrades; though anyone can play on a free tier of the battle pass, those who spend $10 a month get access to a more exclusive set of premium outfits.
Jose Zagal, a professor who teaches courses on video game design at the University of Utah, said the forever game model was beneficial for workers, who experience more job stability when projects are extended years beyond their release date.
Yet he had mixed feelings about the implications for players. While they can get more hours of entertainment per dollar from forever games, he said, they are all essentially the same soap opera.
“Imagine you only watch one TV show and it was the only thing you watched,” Zagal said. “That is a bit of an unintended consequence of this shift toward really focusing hard on making the game work like a hobby. Are you getting interesting new gameplay experiences?”
Blizzard features different revenue models for its games — while Hearthstone and Overwatch 2 are both free to play with optional microtransactions, World of Warcraft requires a monthly subscription. Diablo IV is trying to reap the benefits of multiple models by charging $70 for the game while also accumulating revenue from the players who buy cosmetic upgrades.
Fans of other games have been happy to shell out cash for the outfits known as skins, said Lewis Ward, an analyst who studies the gaming industry for IDC, the research firm. “It’s an ego thing,” he said. “It’s basically a way to insert your own expression into the game environment.”
Zagal added that Diablo IV’s approach would allow Blizzard to extract revenue from different groups of players; longtime fans who are now parents might only have time to play through the game once, while players with fewer constraints could commit to playing the game in perpetuity.
Although previous Diablo games were fairly linear, Diablo IV embraces the popular open-world format where players can freely explore their environment and complete optional tasks at their leisure before resuming the main story.
The loose open-world structure also enables incentives for gamers to keep coming back for more. Each day, timed events will trigger at a random hour and location in Diablo IV, at which point up to 12 players can congregate to fight a boss together and earn special loot.
By making a modern forever game, Blizzard’s staff has committed to producing Diablo IV for eternity (or at least for as long as enough people are playing it). Fergusson said the effort was worthwhile because although gamers now have unfettered access to digital content, they tend to talk about the one game they played all year, not the new game they played each month.
“You definitely have to have a team,” he said, “that can respond to that consumptive nature of players to say, ‘Hey, you want a new experience in this existing game? How do I keep giving that to you?’”
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