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Diablo 4 Season 2 will put fun before balance, but "we want every build to be viable"

Blizzard's Rod Fergusson tells RPS season 1 was an "educational" experience

A close-up shot of Lilith from Diablo 4
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Vampires might be the themed threat for Diablo 4's second season, but it was arguably its own player base who drew first blood when season one started at the end of July. As you may have heard by now, Diablo's Season Of The Malignant didn't exactly go down all that well, with much of the hissing and fang-bearing directed toward its nerf-heavy balance patch that arrived a couple of days before the season started in earnest - a series of events that Blizzard's franchise general manager Rod Fergusson describes as "a perfect storm of a couple of situations" when I sit down to talk with him at Gamescom.

"Season one was exceptional, because we did something we'd never do again," says Fergusson. "As part of listening to players wanting to carry over their renown, we had to put the patch out a couple of days before the season. The intention is that a season and a patch would go [live] the same day, so at the time we make a balance change and you start a level one character, it feels differently to go through the progression with the new balance."

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Alas, the decision to put them out separately meant that end-game players felt those changes much more keenly than expected, and Fergusson says the resulting backlash was "definitely educational".

"That was when we realised we need to be more proactive and more managing expectations," he continues. "I've been using the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down analogy, and so I think when we were trying to be so quick in our responsiveness and trying to be so pure with the balance, that I think we reacted really quickly to getting in the balance right, but we didn't take the time to bring all the sugar. It was more medicine and less sugar, and so as Joe [Shelly, Diablo 4's game director] talked about, we're not doing that anymore."

Instead, Blizzard are now planning to communicate their patch notes a week ahead of them going live in the game, and Fergusson says they've been putting more effort into gathering feedback from player surveys and roundtables with different members of the community. "That's something we want to do more of and be more transparent about what we're doing," he says. "That idea that we needed to be more talkative and more proactive, and that notion of making sure we have enough sugar with our medicine, those were the two really big learnings for us."

On top of that, Fergusson says they'll also be trying to take a more measured approach in how they respond to balance changes more generally. "If something is slightly out of balance but players are having fun, then we're going to be okay with that until we have something that's equally as fun but within what we want to do from a balance perspective," he explains, the aim being to strike a better balance between their buffs and nerfs, and not to be "ruled by outliers".

"The big thing for us is season one was basically developed at the same time we were shipping the game," he continues, "so we didn't really, other than the open beta feedback, we didn't have a lot of feedback to go on into season one. Having the pre-season gave some feedback for season one, but having the pre-season and season one really helped to inform season two."

A sorcerer wields lightning magic in Diablo 4
Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Indeed, associate production director Chris Wilson tells me that many of season two's upcoming quality of life changes, such as the changes to gem inventory management and the carryover of all skill and paragon points, came directly from their more active approach to gathering that feedback. The same goes for the five new end-game bosses, he says.

"We're still feeling that there should be more moments of challenge," says Wilson, saying that the bosses will "serve as challenge points and milestones for the player to test their mettle and test their build. […] We're just trying to take stock of things that are pain points for players, be mindful of that for the future, and how we apply that to future updates".

For Fergusson, this is Blizzard "trying to be responsive to what we hear from the players directly", and he hopes that any future tweaks and adjustments will live up to "our ambition to always make a good change".

"We want every build to be viable and we want to have a diversity of builds," Fergusson explains. "We don't want just one way to play. We don't want only 'this build' is viable, only this Necro is viable, only this Druid is viable. We want there to be all kinds of builds and so that's part of the challenge. People will find this thing and then get all these powers, and you want people to feel overpowered in the cycle of the game, but at a certain point you want everybody to have that opportunity."

Ultimately, it seems the "educational" experience of season one is just the start of a continual learning process for Blizzard, and both Fergusson and Wilson seem optimistic about what lies ahead of them. "It's going to be really interesting as we transition to season two and we see how players play that with the new mechanics and the richer end-game, and then even as we go into season three with leaderboards, how will that change the end-game there as well," says Fergusson, and Wilson agrees.

"As we start to better understand the different types of players, we want to make sure we're servicing all of them, season after season," Wilson adds. "It may not all happen in season two, but in time we're going to find ways to make sure that the completionist, or the explorer, or the competitive players are all being fed, essentially, and getting what excites them as a player."

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

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