Rod Fergusson on the highs and lows of working on Diablo 4, plans for the future of PTR, improving microtransactions — and unicorns 🦄

Diablo 4
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to chat about Diablo 4 with the franchise's lead, Rod Fergusson. In our short time we covered so much, that we had to split it into two parts. In Part 1, Rod discussed Diablo 4 on Xbox Game Pass, learnings from Season 4 and the idea of a Diablo Netflix adaptation. In part 2, we talked more about why a specific Season of Diablo 4 seems to have resonated with the community compared to others if the Player Test Realm (PTR) is a permanent fixture and will be available to console players, and even all about the perceived notion of items being 'cooler' in the Diablo 4 store. Oh and of course, I had to bring up Unicorns.

What was the best Season, and why was it Season of Blood? 

Season of Blood had the sauce for success, but why? (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

It's no secret that I loved Season of Blood, from the loot rain of the Blood Harvests to the Vampric Powers, something about Season 2 had the magic sauce needed for a Season to succeed and make me want to complete that Battle Pass. It wasn't perfect, as we reported in our Season 2 review, but it's certainly the one that I put the most hours into and was noticeably the most well-received of the 3 seasons we've had so far in Diablo 4. I asked Rod why he thinks Season 2 stood out in comparison to Season of the Malignant and Season of the Construct.

"I think it was a combination of a couple of things. I think the vampire fantasy is a strong one that is easily relatable. Malignancy or malignant hearts or corruption is a little harder to necessarily get right away, whereas Vampires you instantly understand.  So I think there's that notion of approachability. But I also think Season 2 helped us understand what we need to do around things like Hell Tide. And one of the big things we're also learning, as I go back to your original question about what we are learning through the Seasons, is really around monster density in terms of, you know, being part of Diablo. The fantasy really is about slaying multitudes of monsters and that feeling of power. And in Season 2,  we worked really hard to optimize the engine and optimize the art, and to be able to turn that dial up. So when you had the Blood Harvest, which was a sort of a themed version of Hell Tide. You had that moment of, I can have all these monsters and I could summon the council. And there's legionaries everywhere. So there's this density there, that everybody loved. "

Season 2 helped us understand what we need to do around things like Hell Tide

Rod Fergusson

"You'll see that in Season 4, when you look at the PTR with the new Hell Tide, with the giant worms coming up and spitting monsters at you and gaining a threat level. We could have this sort of larger ambush. We were trying to, you know, have a certain pace to the combat before, and I think what we're recognizing over the Seasons and with player feedback is that people want to turn that dial, obviously higher. And it's just not something that is easily done. Every extra monster you're putting on screen is something that's eating at the performance and in the memory and those sorts of things. So, we have to kind of come at it systematically and go, Okay, we want to increase the density 10%, we have to go and optimize the engine, go and optimize the art to get there and, and try to find smart ways to do that. So what you're seeing through the seasons, you've seen the density get more and more and more. And I think it's coming to a good place in Season 4, when you see how rich the Hell Tides are."

Of course, I asked Rod when we will hear about the Season theme for Season 4 of Diablo 4. While the itemization and base game changes have been tested in the PTR, the Season theme was not included in the test build. He let me know this is on its way via a Campfire Chat. He doesn't know an exact date yet, but as we are four weeks away from the Season 4 launch, it would be expected "in the next couple of weeks."

On experiences with Diablo 4's first ever Public Test Realm (PTR)

Having a Public Test Realm comes with pros and cons for Diablo 4 developers (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Diablo 2: Resurrected and Diablo 3 have had Public Test Realms (PTR) for a while now, releasing a test build of the game for players some weeks before a season start to test and implement community feedback. Diablo 4 took some time implementing its own, but ahead of Season 4's huge changes, we were able to access a test build for the first time through a few days earlier this month. Like the other games in the franchise, can we expect this ahead of each Season update?

"That's a good question.  I think that's sort of a TBD for us.  There are pros and cons to PTR. Like Season 4 is such a big change that we definitely needed to get more feedback than usual. If you look at Season 3, we released Season 3, we got some immediate feedback, and then we patched up pretty quickly. And so we could patch Season 3 in the first 3 days. So we can respond pretty quickly to that stuff. There's a lot of value you get out of the surprise and delight aspect that a PTR can, in some ways, take away some of the excitement. It can work for you or against you, depending on what you're trying. And that's kind of why we were like, hey, the stuff we really need to test like the crafting and all the new systems. Let's get that out there. But oh, if there is anything to do with a seasonal theme, we'll hold that back to be a little surprise and delight. So there's still something left to discover. I think we're learning, this is our first one.

So that's a very long way to say we're learning from this one, or we learned from this one. And we can pretty much guarantee that every season we're gonna have that conversation. Is it going to be in our best interest to get people playing earlier? And getting that feedback? Or is it better to surprise and delight with, Hey, here's a new theme you didn't know is coming. We've been really happy with this Season for PTR. So we will probably ended up doing more of them for sure. "

What I don't love about the PTR is the fact that right now it is PC only. And that's more of a technological issue for us.

Rod Fergusson

The Diablo PTRs have always been exclusive to PC testers via With more players on console than ever before, I did wonder could we get a PTR on console? Thankfully, Rod read my mind and bought this subject up of his own accord.

"What I don't love about the PTR is the fact that right now it is PC only. And that's more of a technological issue for us. To get things onto retail consoles, you have to go through certification. And that's harder when you're in sort of a test build and with a test server and a different environment than a production environment. So we want to have PTR available to all of our players and whoever wants to join and have that access. So we're still working through how to best do that. Like I said, one of the ways we've been trying to grow Diablo is to make sure that we really lean into console play as well as PC. And so that's one place where we're going to be definitely looking at how we can kind of get there. But like I said, the console ecosystems with their certification just makes a bunch of this a little bit harder. And so that's why we're still working through that."

Diablo 4 microtransactions surpassing the earnable cosmetics

In the developer streams leading up to the launch of Diablo 4, much fuss was made around the games store and approach to microtransactions. Being a first for the franchise, there were, of course, many questions about how this would look. Repeatedly, we were told that the items you could earn from playing the game would be just as cool as what you purchase with real money, and it's safe to say at launch that was true. The store has always been the least of my concerns with Diablo 4, completely optional, and you're barely reminded of its existence unless you tab over to it. Still, as the months have gone on, its items have become increasingly covetable. I've succumbed to a few purchases myself, like the Beautiful in Sin set, with no regrets, but there's a growing concern that the quality of the cosmetics you can now get in the shop is much better than those that drop in the game. Presenting a dilemma for players who just want to earn the cool stuff.

There's been some mention in the Campfire Chats about work going on behind the scenes to make the shop items more obtainable, but I wanted a clearer answer on what this means. Shop items that can be earned? Or just easier to purchase?

"What we're trying to do, like with how to interpret the teasing [from the campfires] is a little bit of both. If you look at 'easier to acquire' at least from a purchase perspective, like we just released these class bundles where you could get two different looks for a much cheaper price. So we did one of those for each class. Perhaps less than half of what our top armor stuff normally goes for. So we wanted to find places for people to use the shop, but at a lower price point. 

We've had our 'authentic moment' now we can start to turn the dial to be a little bit more fantastic

We're also doing some stuff, this idea of personalized discounts, which is the other part, which we're kind of excited about. Other games have done this too where they look and say, based on your play, here's something that might be most relevant to you in terms of discounting. And so like, hey here's four different levels of discount on four different types of things. And again, it goes back to that notion of trying to find ways that make it sort of more approachable or easier for people to get into it at a lower price point if they're interested. But it's all cosmetic. They don't need to get it, they don't. It's all about how you want to look, again, Diablo being the ultimate power fantasy and kind of that 'how do you want to play, how do you want to look' and so there's no power in any of that. It's all about your vanity in playing your power fantasy."

One of the class bundles available in the Diablo store (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

"I think we're always talking about that notion of making cool stuff that people can earn. That's an ongoing conversation. At the beginning of Diablo 4, we were very focused on kind of staying authentic and staying grounded. As with each season, we kind of are getting more comfortable with, okay, our launch is over and we've had our 'authentic moment' now we can start to turn the dial to be a little bit more fantastic. So I think you're starting to see that in some of the shop explorations we're doing, like Lord Eater. There's some interesting skins there."

Lord Eater armor

The Lord Eater armor was added with Season 3 (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

"I think that's the type of thing you'll start to see also become part of our earnable stuff, as well, how we look at Season Journey and how we look to improve Season Journey. How we look to include new types of cosmetics, the way that you saw in Diablo 3. So there'll be some interesting stuff on the horizon, I think you'll be excited about. We're always trying to find the right balance there in terms of what is earnable. We want cool things for people that they can earn, which I think you can. My brother doesn't spend a dime and he looks cool when he's playing with me, and I try to basically buy everything I can! You can still earn really cool things.

What I love about being part of a live service is that it allows you to iterate, and so it's not like a one-and-done, so much like we're seeing with the loot. So as we look at all of our systems, whether it be the Battle Pass or Season Journey, or the shop, is that we can continue to evolve those over time. And so just because it's not here today, doesn't mean it's not going to get improved and looked at in the future. It's always something we're talking about. "

At this point in our conversation, I derailed the interview by campaigning for more Unicorns in Diablo 4, which will be much to the disgust of my Diablo 2 purist friends, of course in jest but thinking back on the franchise, Diablo 3 definitely had some goofy items I miss wearing in my travels across the hellscape. Thankfully for me, Rod appreciates the fun factor.

"There is one in there! There's a Unicorn mount! It was really funny because we were joking with our art director because in one of the original interviews, when we launched, he was like, 'Yeah, we're not gonna do anything crazy, like unicorns', and then in the shop there showed up an armor that added a horn to the horse. And so he's like, 'Yeah, or maybe we will at some point."

On working on Diablo during periods of uncertainty

John Mueller (Art Director for Diablo 4) and Rod Fergusson attend the BAFTAS in London (Image credit: BAFTA)

As we reached the end of our interview, I asked Rod one last question as we looked back on his career at the helm of the Diablo IP. What had been his most rewarding moment and his most challenging in his four years of residency?

"I think my most challenging moment is just what we, what the company, has gone through in the four years I've been here. I think it's well-documented. I don't need to bring that back up. But you know, that's just been hard to see. That was challenging. And I guess it kind of feeds into what has been the most rewarding is too, with all that, and you add a pandemic on top of it, and the fact that we still were able to come together as a team to launch Diablo 4 the way that we did."

launching 3 Diablo games in 3 years was just part of why I wanted to come to Blizzard and be able to have that level of impact, and be able to see this resurgence of the Diablo franchise again

Rod Fergusson

"In fact, launching 3 Diablo games in 3 years was just part of why I wanted to come to Blizzard and be able to have that level of impact, and be able to see this resurgence of the Diablo franchise again. We have 10 years between the Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 and 10 years between Diablo 3 and Diablo 4, so these beats are very slow. And so to have 3 years in a row where we've had a new Diablo game or a new way to play it is just really exciting. That's been really rewarding to see Diablo come back and start firing on all cylinders again. And now that we're with this live service and seeing all these players and being able to iterate on the game and keeping them engaged, as we get ready for the expansion later in the year, that's very gratifying to be part of one of your favorite franchises. To be able to bring it to players, it's just it's really exciting."

Fans wait with baited breath for Season 4

And so we now wait for the new era of Diablo 4 to being, Season 4 in which old players may well return, and the players that never left have a raft of new content to enjoy. Wherever you sit in your Diablo 4 fandom, as a Seasonal or Eternal Realm player, it's likely Season 4 of the game will bring something for you to enjoy. I'll be there day 1 and reporting on my experience, and with a critical eye as my own journey with Diablo 4 has been full of highs with Season 2 and lows with experiencing burnout at the early launch of Seasonal content altogether. As I look back on the past year, and after my chat with Rod Fergusson, it becomes clearer than ever that the mistakes made and lessons learned since launch have been necessary to get where we are today, hopefully, with the pending launch of effectively Diablo 4 2.0.

So, will you be jumping into Season 4 with wide-eyed anticipation? Or perhaps holding off to see the reception? Maybe you're an experienced player who's had a break, perhaps you're one of the many new Xbox Game Pass players? Sound off in the comments, and let me know!  

Diablo 4, Season 4 will drop on May 14, 2024.

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.