It may well be cool to like Diablo 4 again, but it couldn't have launched like this — and that's ok

Diablo 4
(Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

It's official, Diablo 4 is back on the menu when it comes to positive press. Following wave after wave of headline variations on "Diablo 4 is actually good now" I'm now just waiting for the hilarious D4 Bad Radio to change its name and bring out a glowing AI country bop about how much we all love the new Helltide. 

I'm over the moon that so many people are now enjoying Diablo 4 again, especially given its recent addition to the Xbox Game Pass library. The reception for Season 4, Loot Reborn, is a testament to everything the developers have learned and implemented in the year since the huge launch. However, I've seen a lot of "this is how Diablo 4 should have launched" which I find a reductive statement, and I'd argue it could never have launched this way, and neither should we have expected it to. Diablo 4 might be 'good' now, but it had to learn to be this way. 

I was wrong about the early launch of Seasons

The new Diablo 4 Helltides are a dramatic improvement to the Overworld and leveling process (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

Not long after the Diablo 4 launch, its first season, Season of the Malignant, kicked off in mid-July and wasn't received favorably. A lethal combination of burnout from the die-hard audience — and the introduction of Seasons to a new, more casual Diablo audience who were still working their way through the campaign. A new audience that didn't understand the point of a character reset. These things meant it lacked the anticipation of a normal season launch. I argued that players would love season mode once they tried it, but ultimately Season of the Malignant didn't make the impression we wanted it to. Later, I myself criticized Diablo 4 for launching season mode too early in the game's lifecycle. But in retrospect, it was a good move to get us to where we are now.  

In a recent interview with Xbox On, Rod Fergusson, Diablo's GM, stated that we couldn't have Season 4 without the lessons from Seasons 1, 2, and 3. In my interview with Fergusson, I asked him to expand on this quote that resonated with me and challenged my concept of the Diablo 4 development process. Of course, it's easy to sit on the sidelines and say that Season 4 should have been the game's launch version, but have we not learned much of what works by going through the highs and lows of Seasons 1 to 3? Could Helltides be as amazing as they are (and seriously, they are amazing) had we not had the dopamine rush of Blood Harvests in Season 2?

The Seasons themselves have had different responses. Season 2 was a personal high, but Season 3 didn't resonate with me and many others. One big reason was the loss of the Blood Harvest, an addictive overworld activity similar in style to the Helltides with a boss summoning activity and intense monster density.

In Season 4, the Helltide is everything the Blood Harvest was turned up to 11. Seasons are, in themselves, an opportunity for the developers to experiment with what works and doesn't work within Diablo 4's wider scope.

Another example is Season 1; while the process of chasing down Malignant Hearts and fighting the same monsters twice wasn't a great experience, the Malignant Heart powers themselves were great. This realization meant that we got to keep some of the best in the form of Malignant Rings in the game forever. My partner, who's now jumping back into Diablo 4 afresh since bouncing off at the start of Season 1, never really got to experience the best 'malignant' powers. Only during this season, as he's playing Necromancer, a Ring of Sacriligeous Soul dropped for him. (This is a covetable ring for Necromancers that automatically activates their equipped corpse skills, practically an extra skill for free.) In that moment, I got to explain how this is actually a remnant, a lesson, from the good bits of Season 1 that we've got to keep. 

Similarly, some of the best vampiric powers from Season 2, Season of Blood, have rolled over into the main game as Aspects in the Codex. Did Seasons launch too early? I no longer think so, I think the Season 4 we have now is as good as it is precisely because of the early introduction of seasons.

Looking back at previous Diablo games with rose tinted glasses

Diablo 2 Resurrected is a more punishing game, but with repetitive 'endgame' activities (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Part of the "this should have been the launch version of Diablo 4" sentiment is rooted in the belief that Diablo 4 developers should already have the blueprints available to them from Diablo 2 and 3 to make a perfect game. However, it's easy to look back on those games and conveniently forget their flaws and, indeed, how long it took those games to become as good as they are. An amnesia that is common when a new game in a franchise launches; hell, Diablo 4 will no doubt be deemed perfect only when Diablo 5 launches. Nobody loves to hate Diablo more than Diablo players grasping at nostalgia.

Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 are very different games, Diablo 2 being the darker and broodier of the two, with a punishing leveling journey (some players may never reach the max) and incredible gear that you may never see in your lifetime because of its rarity or insane trading price. Diablo 3 is more palatable for a casual aRPG player; you feel all-powerful pretty much from level 1, can hit max in a few hours easily, and are wearing a full set of incredibly powerful gear on day 1 without much work. I like to compare Diablo 2 and 3 as different meals. Diablo 2 is a steak and potatoes with more depth and more flavor, but sometimes you just can't be bothered preparing and cooking that meal. Sometimes you want a Happy Meal. Diablo 3 is the McNuggets. Both are delicious in their own way.

Diablo 4 attempted to establish a middle ground between these amazing but ultimately flawed games while trying to stand independently and be completely different. In trying to navigate this, it can certainly be said that the developers threw the baby out with the bathwater in their efforts. Part of Season 4's draw is taking some of the elements of Diablo 3, such as Greater Rifts and Season Journey gear rewards, and implementing them in a new 'Diablo 4' way.

It's not an easy task, and I don't envy those trying to unite the audiences of those previous games. In my opinion, this isn't something they could have achieved at launch, and they needed actual player data from the current game to solve the problem. Is Diablo 4 that 'uniting' game now? For me, it is; for many, it isn't, and it will take longer and more iterations before we get there. I'm here for the whole journey. 

When it comes to the power fantasy, you can only go forward, not backward

The draw of a good Diablo game is the power fantasy, and in Season 4, I can, without a doubt, say that I feel powerful, and a lot earlier in the leveling process than I ever have. While feeling that power is important to have fun with the game, it's extremely difficult to balance this with future additions to the game without tipping the scale too far. 

The crutch here is, you can only make players more powerful, not less. As displayed with the infamous Patch 1.1, in which power and defense nerfs made out of necessity for the long-term health of the game enraged the player base. We already have a live example of what too much power to the player does to a game, and that example is Diablo 3. While fun, it means there's little to no challenge outside of climbing Greater Rift levels at the end game. As Diablo 4 navigates what it provides to us in endgame activities, it needs to balance the player power so as not to be able to exhaust all the content within a few days. The only real way to do this is trial, error, and of course the Public Test Realm.

Had Diablo 4 truly launched in this state, with the characters feeling this powerful, it would have been more difficult for the developers to decide where to go next with the seasonal content. They still have a tricky road ahead, but the game is in a good state. PLUS, they have nearly a year's worth of data on what does and doesn't go down well with the fan base to make that journey a lot smoother. 

So WHY is Season 4 so good? 

The Hellborn are a new enemy type to encounter within the Helltide (Image credit: Blizzard)

Diablo as a franchise has a whole new audience now, an audience bigger on console than it probably ever has been. Lest we forget Sarah Bond's comment on Xbox Game Pass being it's biggest platform (for daily active users). That huge audience, like it or not, is a large majority of casual players. Casual players who aren't going to hit level 100 in 3 hours and complain they have exhausted the content. They also are an audience who are going to be perplexed by the concept of a Season and having to reset to zero on a new character. An audience that needs converting and convincing to return to Diablo 4 regularly and engage with its service content.

What the Diablo 4 team has done exceptionally well with Season 4 is making leveling a new character fun and enticing. From World Tier 1 (the easiest of difficulties) you can jump into Helltides now, something previously reserved for World Tiers 3 and 4. The developers have poured a lot of work into making Helltides incredibly FUN with new activities to complete, new bosses to summon and an overwhelming monster density — and they want you to see that content from level 1 of your journey. This, in turn, means leveling is quicker so that a 'casual' audience will reach levels where they will want to engage in more difficult content they may have never previously bothered with. New crafting systems like Tempering and Masterworking have been added, but you only need to engage with them if you want to explore the more difficult content such as the Boss Ladder and The Pit. Season 4 feels more accessible and more fun for more players. 

Season 4 is great, but the real test comes next

Diablo 4 has hit it's all time high on Steam, a small platform for the game so one can only imagine the numbers on other platforms. (Image credit: SteamDB charts)

Diablo 4 recently hit peak Steam concurrent players at 29,035. This may seem like a small number, but bear in mind that the majority of players are playing via or Xbox. Steam is not Diablo 4's biggest platform and was not available at launch, but it is the only one we can gather real-time data on.

But... we've been here before. Season 2 felt like a real turning point for Diablo 4. When that Season came to an end though, it was clear that without it, Diablo 4 had a lot more work to do to keep us coming back. Season 3 didn't scratch that same itch.
Season 3 only ever peaked at 15343 near the beginning of the season and steadily declined, meaning Season 4 is objectively doing twice as well as its previous season.

Season 2 also did incredibly well, hitting a peak of 28,836 in November 2023. These numbers do make me pause for thought and wonder if we could experience a similar downturn when Season 5 rolls around. Still, the key difference here is that Loot Reborn has brought with it widespread changes to the entire base game, not changes we will be waving goodbye too at the end of this 3-month period.

Diablo 4's challenge now is to build upon this new base and impress and delight us further. Make these new 'seasonal' players still see the value in starting a new Diablo 4 character. Will this trajectory continue into Season 5 and beyond? I can't wait to find out. 

Jennifer Young

Jen is a News Writer for Windows Central, focused on all things gaming and Microsoft. Anything slaying monsters with magical weapons will get a thumbs up such as Dark Souls, Dragon Age, Diablo, and Monster Hunter. When not playing games, she'll be watching a horror or trash reality TV show, she hasn't decided which of those categories the Kardashians fit into. You can follow Jen on Twitter @Jenbox360 for more Diablo fangirling and general moaning about British weather.