One criticism you’ll often hear about Diablo III is that its visual style, which included 3D models for the first time and a new infusion of colour into what had previously been a technologically limited and drab world, wound up being too ‘cartoony’ compared to the previous games. Blizzard says Diablo IV’s art design is meant to “chart a new course” for the series, but by making a bit of a return to the grim darkness that characterized Diablo II.
“Darkness does not mean bleakness,” John Mueller, Diablo IV’s art director, tells us. “There’s a lot of games that do very good dark, Gothic, bleak – almost like a horror movie. Which works, for kind of a narrower experience. But we know with Diablo, this is a game that players are going to play for thousands and thousands of hours, and so we use colour very purposefully.”
Launching a new Diablo game a decade later, when the action RPG game genre is far more crowded than it’s been in the past, poses a new kind of challenge: how do you maintain Diablo’s distinct visual identity while responding to criticism of the previous game, when newer games like Path of Exile, Victor Vran, and Grim Dawn have taken clear cues from the visual themes of the original Diablo games?
Mueller tells us that the answer for the Diablo IV team is a marriage of Diablo III’s painterly style with Diablo II’s evocative darkness, forged in a new engine capable of rendering techniques that were unavailable before.
“Diablo III had this really beautiful painterly art style, it was handcrafted,” Mueller says. “And that was at the time because the technology wasn’t really there to do some of the things that we’re capable of doing now. It was also what the studio was really excellent at, and it was unique at the time. There weren’t a lot of games that looked that way.”
That’s changed in the intervening years. “Now, like you mentioned, there’s a lot of games that have mimicked that, and do look that way. So we really made a choice to chart a new course,” he says. “We love the way Diablo II looks as well, so with our new technology – with our new rendering engine and physically based rendering – this was an opportunity to go back to this grim-dark world, but to render it in a very painterly kind of way.”
Mueller explains that this means looking to oil-style fantasy paintings, rather than photography, for visual reference. “We’re not trying to create realism, we’re trying to create something that feels like a painting.”
We still don’t have a Diablo 4 release date, but Blizzard has revealed several Diablo 4 classes, including the newly introduced Diablo 4 rogue class, which was unveiled during BlizzCon in a trailer that was made using the Diablo 4 engine. We’ll have to wait a while longer before we play, however – based on a recent Activision investors call, it sounds like the company doesn’t expect the game to launch until after 2021.