For anyone looking forward to Diablo 4 simply being a good video game – one you can have hours of fun playing and feel happy (not compelled) to return to anytime you choose – I’ve got bad news for you.
In the recently published Diablo 4 quarterly development update, Blizzard came out and answered the billion-dollar question: how is Diablo 4 going to be monetised?
Everyone is on edge, clearly, but not just thanks to how Diablo Immortal’s unethical monetisation was received, but also because Diablo 4 will be released at a time when game monetisation schemes have evolved beyond the point of parody.
What multi-tiered nightmare model is the game going to have, I wondered, because it can’t just be a video game you buy and call it a day. Well, the answer was delivered quite clearly in a blog post.
Diablo 4 is effectively turning into Call of Duty, from the Modern Warfare 2019-era going forward. It’s a full-price game, with regular battle passes sporting free and premium tiers – and of course, an in-game shop that sells cosmetics for real money. The trifecta of modern game bullshit.
This is the same exact model Call of Duty has been relying on since dropping DLC map packs. Shop updates are so significant now, they take up a decent chunk of every one of the game’s blog posts. Even during the lulls between content updates, you can count on the shop to continue to be refreshed with $20+ bundles.
This is the future of Diablo.
From reading the quarterly update, you get the sense that Blizzard knew it was going to cause some controversy. It’s worded in a way that makes clear what the system offers, while using the same defensive language to justify its existence.
If you’re already thinking “it’s optional”, and “have no effect on gameplay” are brought out, you’d be right. Blizzard is relying on those tired, old, and clearly meaningless phrases to convince us that Diablo 4 will ask for money, it just won’t be scummy about it.
Let’s start with the season pass, which the developer says is basically a battle pass. It’s going to have free and paid tiers, and will last for a set period of time – for maximum FOMO.
The old Diablo 3-style of seasons will return, but it’s evolving into the battle pass-hitched model of our nightmare present. Blizzard says “an army” of developers will be working on creating new gameplay content, quests, quality of life improvements, and balance tweaks for years to come.
By playing during each season, you unlock rewards in the season pass. Premium tiers will net you the coolest cosmetic rewards, while free tiers include gameplay boosts such as faster levelling. You can definitely purchase individual tiers, and it wouldn’t surprise me to a see a 20 or 50-tier bundle.
The cosmetic rewards will correspond to the season’s theme, and can only be unlocked by buying the premium track and earning your way up to them. And, like Call of Duty, you can also expect to earn the paid currency in the pass, which you can use in the shop.
It’s actually a little amusing the words “Call of Duty” do not appear anywhere in the update. I can’t decide if this is a conscious decision on the part of Blizzard to not draw attention to the game it’s modelled after, or if the studio sees its own plans for Diablo 4 as just the normal, expected thing for triple-A games in 2022/3.
Rounding everything out is the shop. Where else would you acquire cool armour and cosmetics in a Diablo game?
Right off the bat, Blizzard is keen to rely on the ol’ “it’s just cosmetic” argument quite consistently. The shop will use its own premium currency, some of which you earn in the season pass, but most you’ll be expected to spend real money on.
That includes transmogs for weapons and armour, similar to what you can earn in-game, but likely more interesting. The sets are split into different components and can be used on any character within the same class. You can also mix and match bought pieces with those acquired in-game, which is something, at least.
Don’t expect anything wacky, though; cosmetics have to be “holistic fantasies grounded within Diablo’s world.” So probably no John McClane or John Cena in your Sanctuary.
But while Blizzard claims “nothing offered in the Shop grants a direct or indirect gameplay advantage,” the developer neglects to mention that customising your character’s visual appearance is a core part of the Diablo gameplay experience. Diablo 4 is a loot game. We may enjoy its action combat, environments, music, and atmosphere, but it’s all in service of chasing the rewards the game offers – and many of them are rooted in aesthetics, rather than power.
To segment off that part of the game and put it up for sale is to compromise an inseparable component of Diablo. You’d need to have complete faith in Blizzard to not make shop items too desirable – which is a tough ask, particularly when money is on the line.
Blizzard clearly wants players to trust it not to go overboard, the blog post stresses that “the best-looking cosmetics aren’t exclusive to the shop.” What you’re going to get in the shop is, according to Blizzard, “more diversity of choices.” You know, the thing all other Diablo games had in their loot pool by default.
My favourite quote of the entire thing is this: “We want buying things to feel good–before, during, and after purchase,” Blizzard wrote. “So, if players choose to buy something, it should be because they want to, not because they feel like they have to.”
In a loot game, the only thing standing between you and acquiring the piece of armour you want (yes, even if it’s only for looks) should be your ability to play the activity that drops it. We can argue all day about RNG and drop rates for the rarest sets, but the fact remains: the pool of items earnable in-game is made smaller by the existence of a paid cosmetics shop.
We need only look at Call of Duty to see which part of the game gets updated more than any other. Welcome to the future of Diablo.