How Diablo 4’s Open World Design Is Making Sanctuary a Place Worth Saving
Diablo 4 making the shift to an open world design raises several questions. After all, an open world is not just a type of map; on one end of the spectrum it’s a level design philosophy, and on the other it’s a whole genre with its own traditions and mechanics. So what, exactly, does open world mean for Diablo? Unsurprisingly, it ushers in quite a substantial change for the isometric series, but one then thankfully won’t burn its deep-seeded action-RPG roots.
“We don’t want to be too disruptive to the regular gameplay flow of Diablo,” explains Joe Piepiora, Lead Systems Designer on Diablo 4, in an interview with IGN. “We don’t want to create a slew of things that you need to do in the overworld, such that it might distract from the fun of killing monsters and finding dungeons. We’re being very intentional about the opportunities we can provide to players so that we don’t push them too hard in one direction or the other.”
Essentially, Diablo 4 is not turning into an open world with a map full to bursting with icons and question marks. Diablo 4 is still Diablo, it’s just that this time players will not only have more freedom of exploration, but Blizzard has the opportunity to make the world of Sanctuary feel like, well, just that: a world. “We want to make sure that when you’re playing a game, you don’t feel the need to open the map to continually track and re-track lots and lots of different things,” says Piepiora. “We want to make sure that it feels more like you’re uncovering this stuff as you wander normally.”
As you explore Sanctuary, you’ll come across less scripted characters and activities in a manner that sounds almost akin to Red Dead Redemption 2. “You may find a potion merchant not far from the road, who looks like they are in need of aid,” Piepiora suggests. “You might find even smaller things, like chasing a deer around the countryside. The corpse of a merchant on the road with bandits slinking nearby, hidden in bushes and such. Lots of like smaller things happen, just randomly, as you’re adventuring around.”
Previously, Diablo games were built from levels that represented chunks of Sanctuary. Diablo 4 fits those chunks together by filling in the gaps. “ I really want to know what’s between these places,” says Piepiora. “I want to know how these people really live. What does Sanctuary really look like? It’s possible to say Sanctuary is a bit of a stand in for the action that needs to occur, but there’s all this lore and there’s so much depth that’s put into the fantasy of the world of Sanctuary.” Diablo 4, then, is the chance to bring that lore to life.
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This open world won’t represent all known regions of the world – it’s only Eastern Sanctuary – but that does mean an entire region with the likes of the misty forest of Scosglen, the burning deserts of Kehjistan, and everything in between fully realised. That includes not just the landmass, but the things living there, too.
“We’ve got wildlife and background characters, as well as the creatures and monsters that you come across,” reveals Careena Kingdom, Diablo 4’s Lead Animator. “It’s not just the heroes, it’s the villagers, and creating those different personality types.”
“There’s so much out there in the environment just to stumble across as you’re wandering around,” says Piepiora. “Small little stories, like that one hermit’s hut in the middle of the forest that’s far off the beaten path, or the misty valley in Scosglen that you go inside and people don’t return from. There’s all these interesting little places all throughout the world.”
With these elements populating the world, it sounds like the team has shifted Diablo 4’s world designer closer to that of a more traditional RPG, such as Baldur’s Gate, while maintaining the action gameplay loops the series is loved for. This will hopefully make for a better sense of place; Sanctuary as a real location, rather than a series of battlefields.
Piepiora is keen for Diablo 4 to emphasise the various cultures of Sanctuary, providing each location a sense of authenticity through aspects such as architecture, garment and weapon design, and the attitudes of the people who live there. “The Fractured Peaks and the hardy people that live there, these people live very different lives to the people that live in the misty valleys of Scosglen, or the sun drenched plains and dunes of Kehjistan… All of these people have their place in the world and they’re dealing with things in their own way, with even many subdivisions among them as well.”
Some of those subdivisions will provide unique opportunities, depending on the player’s class. “As the Rogue is advancing and exploring the world of Sanctuary, she’s going to gain access to a number of different organizations that she can work with,” explains Piepiora. “Factions that grant her training, that are going to give her certain extra abilities or specializations.”
This increased emphasis on NPCs and interactions is all in aid of one thing. “It’s about making you feel like you are interacting with the world and that you have presence,” Kingdom says. “The world is aware that you’re there.”
Perhaps the most notable impact of your presence in the world comes with the liberation of Sanctuary’s numerous camps. In the wake of Diablo 3’s Reaper of Souls storyline, in which Malthael wreaked almost genocidal-levels of devastation upon Sanctuary, many of the world’s important landmarks have been taken over by the forces of darkness. Taking these back for humanity is a major part of Diablo 4’s activity list, and success has both a visual and gameplay impact on the world.
“You’re not going to see a bunch of other players around you when you enter one of these camp locations,” explains Piepiora. “But when you manage to finish it, and you’ve cleared the camp and liberated it, then it turns into a public version, where you now will see other players nearby.”
With the transformation of the camp into a public player space, you’ll be able to meet other parties here and potentially team up for co-op activities. Furthermore, NPCs will move in and offer new quest lines and stories, as well as potentially opening up new dungeons. “Basically, it opens up more options for exploration and more ways for us to tell different kinds of stories, as the player progresses to the world,” Piepiora says. “Plus, they always get the sense that there’s this permanent change they’re making.”
Seizing camps from the enemy has a large impact on the world, but there are smaller examples. With the open world making traversal much more important, players can make their mark by discovering and creating shortcuts. “Wandering across a cliff face and finding an area that is climbable feels pretty cool and that you feel like you’ve discovered something, but it’s even better when you come across these places and you find that there’s an area where you can kick down like a rope or create a shortcut for yourself later,” says Piepiora.
Quick travel between waypoints will still be available for both convenience and the more traditional Diablo player, but it sounds like Blizzard is making Sanctuary a much more compelling place to explore than in previous games. Where once scouring hidden corners was simply an exercise in ensuring every last drop of loot was found, the Diablo 4 team appears to be thinking about Sanctuary in the same way as the Warcraft team thinks about Azeroth. And while they may be entirely different experiences on the gameplay front, I’m excited to play a game where, hopefully, Sanctuary finally feels like a place worth saving.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.