23 Dec 2017

The Next Diablo: a Hybrid and Mobile MMO?

Earlier this week, MMORPG.com’s Suzie Ford made the bold claim that Blizzard wanted to show something new at Blizzcon 2017. Instead of majoring on Battle for Azeroth, the next expansion for World of Warcraft, her theory suggests that CEO Mike Morhaime wanted to introduce something new. That unannounced title? A new Diablo MMO.

It certainly sounds plausible. After a rough launch, Diablo 3 managed to redeem itself with the Reaper of Souls update, going on to sell some 30 million copies worldwide, so there’s definitely appetite for more. Beyond that, Blizzard has been hitting the job market hard, advertising for a Production Director with MMO experience to bring ‘the Diablo franchise into the future.’

However, it’s not all clear-cut. Blizzard’s also been hiring for a mobile RTS MMO project. Again, this is an unannounced title, but the studio also wants Unity expertise (the same engine used to power Hearthstone). Question is, are these job ads for the same game, or does Big Blue have two games in the pipe? The answer, frustratingly, might be yes and no. The next Diablo might be Blizzard’s biggest bet yet – going in-home and on mobile within the same grand experience.

This is Blizzard’s chance to release a title that dominates on all platforms – PC, console, and smartphone – with a unified world that enables players to hop from one to the other. In a single swipe, hybrids like Destiny 2 and Anthem look antiquated by comparison. The studio might not have been ready to share its vision on the Blizzcon stage, but there’s already plenty of hints about the direction being taken.

Any new Diablo game would need to preserve a few key principles from the original: constant and meaningful loot upgrades (I’m looking at you, Destiny 2); compelling combat that’s simple to understand, but with depth for mastery; procedurally generated dungeons that are packed full of monsters; and (most importantly) be a solo to small group experience. No 20-player raids to take down Mephisto, thank you very much.

This design also fits in with the Battle.net cloud architecture that Blizzard’s been gradually developing. By carving up the Diablo experience, each can sit on a piece of the cloud that spins up when you enter the dungeon, and closes up when you leave. The whole thing would scale horizontally, be resilient to outages, and still support online play. It would be a little like Destiny 2, Anthem, or that long-rumoured Borderlands thing that Gearbox still isn’t talking about.

Even so, online play is going to be a tough sell to the Diablo community, and Blizzard knows it. There would need to be a compelling reason for people to want an always-on experience, particularly when Hardcore mode gives players a single life, and a network glitch at a bad moment can ruin weeks of progress. While online might be a boon to co-op players, there’s not much for those looking for the toughest challenge.

However, I think that Blizzard will offer something extra for those willing to move online. This is where that second batch of job adverts comes in – making Diablo portable. Games like Lineage 2 Revolution, Arcane Legends, Bastion and Transistor have proven that a Diablo-style perspective can work on smartphones and tablets, with all the online plumbing to support online play.

There’s always been this idea of making an MMO accessible to mobile gamers, but it’s usually limited to add-on apps like inventory management or chat features. The idea of having a mobile Pet Battles app for World of Warcraft has been popular, but I’ve got a gut feeling that Blizzard’s ambitions are bigger. After all, it wouldn’t take much for Diablo 3 to be playable on modern smartphones, so why not build the mode into the new version?

Why is this a big deal? With this approach, Blizzard can respond to both the hybrid-MMO trend and the mobile-MMO trend, using a heavyweight IP that’s ideally suited to both platforms, and is proven to work well on consoles too. They’ve already got the creds for mobile development through Hearthstone, and this would be another step on the road.

Yes, it’s possible that Blizzard could be working on two completely different games, like a new Diablo MMO and a separate mobile MMO RTS. But the studio’s never been very good a splitting focus (cough Titan cough), and a mobile-only game would be unusual. It’s also possible that the next Diablo experience might be split – play the hero on PC/console, play the minions on your smartphone.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next year to find out just what Blizzard’s been working on, but I’m quietly confident we’ll be pleasantly surprised. With most of the studio’s heavyweights now working on the title, it’s bound to be big. Well, bigger than a Diablo 3 port to the switch at least.

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