An in-depth Kotaku report on the state of things at Blizzard, and in particular the next Diablo game, has revealed a few very interesting, if unconfirmed, surprises, including that the studio had been working on a version of Diablo 4 that was similar in many ways to Dark Souls. Codenamed Hades, the game was being developed as a hardcore dungeon crawler with an over-the-shoulder view instead of Diablo's traditional isometric perspective.
Work on Hades began after Blizzard canceled a planned second expansion for Diablo 3, according to the report, which resulted in the breakup of most of the team that was making it. Those who remained, including Diablo 3 director Josh Mosqueira, worked on the Hades project from 2014-2016 until it too was canned; two sources said that in spite of all the effort that had been put into it, the game just wasn't coming together.
After that, the team went to work on two things: The Rise of the Necromancer DLC for Diablo 3, and yet another take on Diablo 4, this one codenamed Fenris, which Kotaku said is the version that's currently in development. Happily for Diablo fans who didn't care for D3's visual style, it will reportedly embrace the aesthetic of the first two games.
"There’s a lot of people who felt like Diablo 3 got away from what made Diablo Diablo in terms of art style and spell effects," one anonymous Blizzard employee told the site. "They want to make [Fenris] gross, make it dark, [get rid of] anything that was considered cartoony in Diablo 3… Make what people were afraid of in Diablo 2, but modern."
That seems like a reasonable approach to me: The initial reaction against Diablo 3's famously colorful visual style was, I think, overblown but not entirely unfair. The first two Diablos were dark, and the sight and sound of the Butcher charging out of his chamber beneath the Tristram Cathedral still sets me on edge. Getting back to that style would at the very least grab the attention of long-time fans, although it might also risk alienating players who came into the series with Diablo 3 and know Blizzard primarily for newer, more family-friendly fare like Overwatch and Hearthstone.
One of the challenges facing Blizzard is that Diablo is a tougher beast to monetize than its other games, and gamers are liable to be particularly touchy about efforts in that direction because of Diablo 3's disastrous real-money auction house. More broadly, the influence of parent company Activision is also apparently a growing concern: Blizzard has retained a remarkable degree of independence since the merger of then-owner Vivendi with Activision in 2008 (and yes, it's been a decade) but that may be slipping away. Longtime Activision executive Amrita Ahuja became Blizzard's chief financial officer in March 2018 and quickly called for a reduction in expenditures, and in October Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime very suddenly stepped down. A former employee reportedly said that a perception is growing in the company that "finance is making more calls than they ever did in the past."
The full report comes off as optimistic about Diablo 4 (which, by the way, is being developed by a team that's entirely separate from the one doing Diablo Immortal) but maybe somewhat less so about Blizzard itself. Give it a few minutes of your time at Kotaku.