In extremely careful and definitive language from director of product Kegan Clark, the blog lays out how Diablo 4 will be monetized (beyond the sale of future expansion packs). The in-game shop will sell only one thing: cosmetic enhancements for your character.
There will also be a battle pass-style Season Pass, which refreshes alongside the in-game seasons. Season passes will have a free tier and a paid tier, but again, the paid tier will only award cosmetic items, or premium currency which can be used to buy further cosmetic items from the shop. Selling anything affecting gameplay is explicitly and repeatedly ruled out by Clark.
This deliberate messaging is surely a result of the controversy that has engulfed Diablo Immortal. The mobile game, co-developed with NetEase and released earlier this year, is well made but has attracted consternation for the exploitative and deceptive depths of its monetization, which effectively paywalls drop rates for the game’s most powerful items, and makes the cost of maxing out a character prohibitive. Blizzard is clearly keen to try to avoid Diablo 4 being tarred with the same brush.
But, while the language of this blog is likely a response to Diablo Immortal’s reception, it’s unlikely that the same is true of the game’s monetization design. A similar controversy over the real-money auction house included in Diablo 3 at launch taught Blizzard that its players would not accept any monetization of Diablo’s prized item game in a premium, mainline release. Diablo Immortal is an exception that was developed with different markets in mind: mobile platforms, and Asian countries, where players’ expectations are different. It will not have occurred to Blizzard that it could get away with the same in a $60 PC and console release aimed at hardcore fans.
Nevertheless, Diablo 4’s shop and Season Pass represent significant departures for a mainline Diablo, and the community will likely be alert for any detail of their operation that sounds off.
Perhaps most surprising is that the free tier of the Season Pass will offer gameplay boosts. These are defined as “things which make the journey of leveling up a fresh seasonal character more streamlined” — for example, a boost that accelerates the rate at which XP is earned.
“We want to be clear that players can’t unlock Season Boosts more quickly through purchases — there is no way to unlock more boosts, or boosts at a faster pace, by spending money,” said Clark. This is worth hammering home, because it will be possible to speed your progress through a Season Pass by buying the next tier, in the now-traditional fashion. But gameplay boosts will be locked to character level, so there will be no way to shortcut getting to them. And, since they are exclusively awarded by free tiers, they will be awarded to all players equally.
All other Season Pass rewards, free or paid, will be cosmetic. Some will be exclusive to the season and reflect its theme. It will be possible to accelerate your progress through the Season Pass by focusing on the Season Journey, a series of achievement-style objectives that will be familiar to Diablo 3 players.
As for the cosmetics sold in the shop, these will be ways to modify the appearance of your character that have no in-game stats or any other impact on gameplay. It will be possible to closely inspect how all items look on your own character before you buy. They will be mostly specific to individual character classes (whereas cosmetics exclusive to the Season Pass might look similar across all classes). You’ll be able to use them on any character of the right class on your account. And they can be mixed and matched with transmogs from items acquired in-game.
Blizzard is keen to stress that the cosmetics may look different to in-game armor pieces, but not necessarily better. “There are incredible pieces — Unique and Legendary quality items — for players to find without ever going to the shop,” Clark says.
As cleanly and clearly defined as it is, Diablo 4’s monetization design may still rankle with the community. The Season Pass unavoidably carries with it the flavor of free-to-play gaming, while the rabidly competitive Diablo community will surely test the assertion that the seasonal gameplay boosts are fair, and cannot be exploited, to within an inch of its life.
Selling cosmetics is common practice in long-running live games, and there doesn’t appear to be anything controversial about the way they will be sold in Diablo 4. Nevertheless, for some in the community, a character’s splendid appearance should be a sign of the effort and skill that went into acquiring those armor pieces. To those players, offering similarly stunning looks for sale will undercut that value.
But Blizzard needs to do something to fund the maintenance of Diablo 4’s ambitious-sounding live service in the long term. These cosmetics and the Season Pass that feeds into them are what it has settled on. Time will tell if players find them more palatable than Diablo Immortal’s race to the pay-to-win bottom.