Ears. If you watched the debut trailer for Diablo IV’s rogue class, that was your main takeaway—at least, if you’re anything like me. The rogue showed up to “confession” with a big ol’ bag of ears. The priest had a whole darn trophy case of ears. This might have struck you as strange—most regular people only keep one or two disembodied ears on hand at any given moment—but if you played Diablo II back in the day, you probably felt right at home.
In Diablo II, ears were tokens other players dropped in PVP combat. If you killed somebody, you got an ear with their name on it, which you could sell for one gold if you were really hurting for money. It was one of those grim bits of strangeness that made Diablo II special. Blizzard says the system will be making a return in Diablo IV, in some form.
“We’re really excited about bringing that idea back in Diablo IV,” lead systems designer Joe Piepiora told Kotaku in an interview over Zoom, noting that the development team is still sorting out the particulars of how the system will be implemented. “What we don’t want to do with this is make it currency, the ear-earning, that you spend on cosmetics. That’s not the focus.”
The goal, Piepiora explained, is to emphasize the system’s appeal from Diablo II, as opposed to turning ears into yet another coin you can insert into the game’s endlessly churning loot slot machine.
“We think the thing that’s exciting about ears and was interesting about ears was the fact that you basically had this permanent token of conquest over another character that you slew as part of combat,” said Piepiora. “We are excited about finding a way to integrate that tightly with the PVP experience that we have without making it part of, like, some kind of PVP progression. We want to leave it in that trophy space where it’s exciting to collect these things and look back upon things you’ve done without feeling like you’re just kind of grinding as many of these things as you can get to get some axe or chest piece.”
So, to sum up: There will be ears, but there won’t be an earconomy. The fact that some players would even expect such a thing, however, is illustrative of the awkward space in which Diablo IV finds itself. Despite Diablo III’s disastrous “always online” launch, Diablo IV will not have a single-player mode. But Blizzard isn’t trying to make an MMO, either. While titans like Destiny and Path of Exile—with loot tables and other playing field-leveling systems—now rule the roost Diablo once lorded (of destruction) over, Piepiora characterized Diablo as a series where even a random barrel you destroy could contain a unique weapon.
Blizzard is aiming for a middle ground between single-player and MMO, where encounters with other players will be infrequent, and when they occur, nobody will feel blindsided. There will be designated PVP areas in the game’s open world—called Fields of Hatred, presumably because that’s where you’ll be planting bodies—and you can complete various objectives within them to earn currency that you can exchange for special, mostly cosmetic loot. This loot will not be intrinsically better than weapons and armor you earn elsewhere in the game, but it will be unique. These areas will also contain many NPC enemies, meaning that you’ll be able to farm Fields of Hatred for legendary weapons you can also obtain elsewhere.
As a result of systems like this, Blizzard finds itself staring down the earhole of a philosophical schism within its community. Some players want a Diablo II-like multiplayer experience where chaos reigns and anybody can trade any item—regardless of how they earned it—with any other player. Others want something more structured. Other-others want the option to play entirely solo. Blizzard is trying to cater to all of them with a single shared experience. There will be some chaos in multiplayer; Fields of Hatred have been designed to facilitate moments of asymmetry—for example, one player ambushing another while they’re battling an NPC boss, and a mechanic that marks especially successful PVPers on other players’ maps so they can squad up and hunt them down. But this isn’t going to be Diablo II-2. Despite controversy within the community, Blizzard is still going to limit systems like trading to at least some extent.
“There’s going to be some very particularly high-end or specific kinds of items [that won’t be tradeable],” said Piepiora. “You can imagine, if you were to go and do, for example, the PVP content, and you get a special PVP-only mount. We wouldn’t allow that to be tradeable, because we want that to be a prestige item that players collected. But when it comes to, like, a legendary item that has a power that’s pretty good, but maybe not for you, we like the idea of trying to find ways to make those tradeable for players.”
Players have expressed concern that such limits might negatively impact Diablo IV’s endgame, funneling players into a small handful of activities like in Diablo III, where many items could only be acquired through Blizzard-prescribed means and were subsequently bound to players’ accounts. Meanwhile, Diablo II did not have an endgame in the modern sense, but many players considered PVP to be the endgame—something Diablo III’s limited systems didn’t allow for. But Piepiora said that in Diablo IV, high-level players will still have something to strive for.
“There are gonna be some specific kinds of items—pretty much top-tier stuff—that we’re not gonna make tradeable, but we want to make sure that players who are at endgame still have things that are tradeable, that are valuable to them,” he said.
It’s abundantly clear that Blizzard is walking a fine line, trying to make a game that satisfies all the different sorts of players the Diablo series has picked up over the course of decades. But Piepiora thinks Blizzard has learned its lessons from Diablo III. It’s not trying to shoehorn in an auction house or MMO elements that don’t fit. The goal, he suggests, is to create a Diablo game that both hearkens back and looks forward.
“As far as I’m concerned, Diablo is a single player game you can play with friends and a party game you can play single-player,” said Piepiora. “So it really is compatible to go either way. We’re not trying to create content that says, ‘You need to go get a four-player party to do this dungeon.’ That’s not the Diablo experience...We don’t want to take away from players who want to play the game on their own. Likewise, players who want to play it with their partner or a friend on the couch—we want to make sure that it never feels like you need to go beyond that if you don’t want to. But if you want to, it’s great, right?”