Life After Blizzard: Moon Beast On Recapturing The Diablo Spark

Life After Blizzard: Moon Beast On Recapturing The Diablo Spark

With two confirmed expansions already in the works for Diablo 4, Blizzard has big plans for the future of its gothic ARPG. Amidst that hype, it’d be easy to miss that the wheels have begun to turn on a smaller-scale project that might end up being a much bigger deal for longtime fans of the series. 

A number of those involved with the first Diablo games, specifically Peter Hu, Phil Shenk and Erich Schaefer, have recently reunited under the banner of Moon Beast Productions. The fledgling studio hasn’t officially announced a title or timeline for its first release, but it’s already shaping up to be a continuation of what they’ve done before in spirit and style. 

“Our mission is to find new ways to make this kind of game more fun for players and more efficient to operate as a service,” Phil Shenk told GameBeat in early 2023.

“We have ideas for changing the genre with a different approach to progression and trying to solve some of the problems that are beholden to PvE games, especially games like the Diablo franchise has dealt with.”

The minds behind Diablo and Diablo 2 are at it again with a new ARPG. Here’s everything we already know about what Moon Beast Productions is up to.

It’s a whole new world

It’s no big surprise, given that the developer is starting afresh, but early signs suggest that Moon Beast’s debut title will take place in a new and original setting. 

Based on the handful of screenshots that the developer has shared in the Moon Beast Productions subreddit to date, it looks like it’ll stick to the isometric-esque perspective but adopt a more stylised 3D look that hews closer to Torchlight games than the darker stylings of Diablo.

While it’s still early days for the project, a post by Peter Hu in the Moon Beast subreddit indicates the team is looking at influences that go far beyond their previous work. 

“We thought about all the different types of terrain and levels in World of Warcraft, in Warcraft III, in Diablo II and III and IV, in Torchlight, in Marvel Heroes, in Hellgate: London, in Path of Exile, in Grim Dawn, in Minecraft, in Valheim, in Super Mario Galaxy, in Tomb Raider, in Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening… we covered a lot of ground because there are a lot of ways to build levels, and there was stuff we could learn from all of those.”

“In the end (or maybe it’s really just the middle), we came up with something pretty cool. It’s chunky and grid-based (which makes it very easy to work with) but it’s also got fine details and lots of soft edges (which makes it look good),” he said.

Even more procedural generation

While recent instalments have seen the Diablo franchise zig towards a more curated experience, Moon Beast Productions is keen to zag in the opposite direction. Put another way, the studio’s spiritual successor to the genre they pioneered is looking to bring random and procedural generation back to the forefront.

As Hu puts it, “An ARPG with little to no socialisation, limited loot game, and barely randomized dungeons doesn’t advance the genre.”

“In the chase for higher fidelity graphics, there’s been a disturbing trend towards larger and larger set pieces and less and less procedural generation. The stories have gotten much more complex, and the lines of NPC dialogue have skyrocketed. But none of that has added to replayability, and all of it has pushed the genre more and more towards traditional RPGs. It feels like the magic is being lost.” 

To push back against this trend, Moon Beast Productions’ first game is looking to offer a more granular take on the procedural generation seen in its predecessor. On paper, the idea sounds less like old-school Diablo and more like Minecraft or No Man’s Sky

A skill system that’s familiar but hits different

Before we jump into the specific ideas that Moon Beast have for how to do Diablo’s iconic skill system differently this time around, it’s worth throwing out an unavoidable but important caveat. This game, whatever it ends up being called, is still very early in development. 

Everything mentioned here is subject to change. That said, there are a lot of big names attached to this project and it’s fascinating to see that talent talk about their design process, their past projects and how those things inform the decisions the team is making this time around.

What’s more, based on what Peter Hu has posted to the developer’s subreddit thus far, it’s very clear that the Moon Beast team knows what it wants to avoid when it comes to skills. For instance, it wants to avoid overly complicated skill trees that are heavy on passive bonuses.

“We tried this in Hellgate: London, inspired by one of the Final Fantasy games (please forgive me for forgetting which one), but it’s too complicated for the benefits,” Hu said.

Similarly, the way that Diablo 2 required you to sink as many as 20 points into the same skill before it became truly powerful is another bad habit that Moon Beast is keen to break.

On a broader level, skill trees are supposed to guide players towards developing a build. However, Hu notes that this has to be balanced against the reality that some classes are more weapon-dependent than others. 

According to him, the goal is for players to make one meaningful decision about their character’s skillset every time they level up. To that end, the tentative plan is for every class in the game to have three trees. 

You’ll pick one of these branches during character creation, with access to the other trees available later. Each tree could have as many as 12 main skills, each offering as many as six different permutations, similar to Diablo 3’s rune system. Once you unlock a skill, it will gain levels automatically and become more powerful over time.

Each tree also includes a movement skill that you’ll get for free. 

Hu emphasised the need for these trees to offer and embody distinct playstyles.

“Every tree has skills that make it very obvious that a character has taken that tree. For example, dual-wielding axes is a visual indicator that a character has taken the Destroyer tree, no matter what their base class is.”

Last but not least, the skill book system from the first Diablo 1 is slated to make a comeback through in-game tomes that allow you to level up skills you already have. The stat requirement for doing so will rise as a given skill’s level does, but the bonuses these skill books bestow may stick around even if you respec your character.

That good loot system

Of course, the skill system is only half of what made Diablo so sticky. The other half of the equation is the loot system. In recent years especially, there has been no shortage of games that try and fail to get this aspect of the ARPG formula right. 

“To replicate the feel of a system, you have to first of all understand how it works and what about it is good. Without that, any fixes or even improvements you try to make risks [sic] throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Peter Hu explained.

As he puts it, itemisation is a complicated system with many moving parts that are “very hard to get right.” 

One of the ways that it can often go wrong has to do with a stat called iLvl. This behind-the-scenes term refers to the level of a given item. It is typically determined by the level of whatever dropped it, which is in turn tied to the level of whatever in-game area you happen to be in. 

If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t find any good loot in a given ARPG, there’s a non-zero chance that iLvl is behind it. 

This approach to itemisation can be a useful shortcut by itself. However, Hu warns that overly relying on it is a “common mistake” and “lazy” design.

“The pressure from the players will be to cut that part of the game out (or at least make it as short as possible). And at that point, you’ve spent 90% of your development effort on building a part of the game that no one wants to play (for long).”

Safe to say, Moon Beast is planning to err in the opposite direction.

Solving the multiplayer problem

Even if ARPGs like Diablo have been solo-friendly, the social aspect of ARPGs has always been a big part of the draw. It’s simple enough that most get it right, but games like Redfall are a timely reminder of just how off-track things can get when they go wrong.

As the person behind the in-game seasons introduced with Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, it’s unsurprising that Peter Hu has a few ideas about how to do them better this time around.

Originally, in-game seasons were devised as a response to a plague of hackers and in-game item duplication glitches. They were pitched as a “quick and dirty” way to reset Diablo 2’s competitive ladder and in-game economy.

“At the time, I had zero clue that it would become an enduring concept that would make its way into other games, and if you had told me that that would be the case, I would’ve scoffed,” Hu said.

When it comes to Moon Beast Productions’ debut ARPG, he’s keen to take a different approach. Rather than echo the live service and battle pass-centric model seen in the likes of Diablo 4, the developer wants to let players create and manage their own servers, called shards.

According to Hu, this concept will be tied to the in-game setting and lore. On a more functional level, it’ll work similarly to how private and public servers in Diablo 2 did. When players create a shard, they’ll be able to tinker with any number of options for it. Should they make it PVP or PvE? Hardcore only or higher difficulties only? Open or private?

“As you might expect, we’ll create and manage a set of official public shards. For a lot of people, these will probably be the place to be. Your rankings on the leaderboards there will be your official ones.”

If you haven’t guessed where this is going already, this feature leads us to one of the biggest design decisions that Moon Beast has already talked about.

The studio’s as-of-yet untitled ARPG will be “fully moddable, with a comprehensive suite of creation tools so players can add to the game or create entirely new ones.”

Let them cook

If you like games like Diablo, there is no shortage of ARPGs out there that try to scratch the same itch. In the decades since Blizzard North’s iconic ARPG made its big debut, the series has inspired countless rivals, from Titan Quest to Path of Exile to Last Epoch.

However, there aren’t many with this kind of pedigree attached to them. Even if all we have to go off is a few screenshots and a handful of Reddit rants, there’s already a lot to like about the unique angle that Moon Beast seems to have on the very genre it helped pioneer.

Fergus Halliday is an editor at Australia and a regular host on the We Review Stuff podcast. You can follow his work on Threads, or take a trip back in time to see his work as the former editor of PC World Australia.

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