Diablo IV – Season of the Malignant and the nerfing of fun

Diablo 4 Season of Malignant Art Header

The Season of the Malignant has started in Diablo IV, the first season for this quasi-MMO action RPG, and it boasts a few interesting additions. Alongside the new malignant enemies there’s a new questline to follow, a new boss, and some new loot of course. All of those might sound like fun new things, but they come alongside a Diablo IV patch that seems to nerf everything enjoyable in the game to make it take longer, reward less loot, and just generally be less enjoyable for players.

The response to this patch has been so poor that Blizzard quickly said they would respond to it today, while those of us who have been waiting for this season to start for six weeks now enter into it under a storm cloud of frustration.

Let’s start with the season itself, which is a decent expansion to the game. The Season of the Malignant features a new story about a new form of Lilith’s corruption spreading through Sanctuary, creating extra powerful Malignant monsters  that apparently murder people at random, which is somehow different to how other monsters behave – they do have more minions for you to clobber. Still, once you’ve killed one they’ll drop their Malignant heart, which you can fit into matching sockets in your jewellery for a powerful new ability.

These new abilities seem to be genuinely powerful, even build-changing in places, such as one that causes skills to use your health instead of your mana/etc to cast a core skill when you’re above 60% health, but adding an extra 10-20% damage as well, or one that stores critical damage on an enemy for 2-4 seconds then explodes it into surrounding enemies, with damage increased by 10% per second it was stored.

It’s not just Malignant hearts though, as completing the season’s chapters will unlock new aspects, a Scroll of Amnesia to completely respec your character for free, and you’ll earn favour towards the battle pass as well – we’ll get to that later. You can also unlock a new title, ‘Eldritch Monster’, and some transmogs that you can use to show off to all your friends who have unlocked the exact same things. Not exactly worth showing off in my books – that would be some of the super ancestral unique drops that are so rare that I’ll likely literally never find one.

Diablo 4 Malignant Heart

That’s where the official Diablo IV season page shifts focus to talk about the premium Battle Pass for the premium game you bought not that long ago. Sure, there’s a free tier, but there’s the premium track with much more stuff to unlock and a more expensive Accelerated Battle Pass which comes with a 20 tier skip. These are always confusing in battle pass games – why are you charging extra to skip through something that’s supposed to feel fun and rewarding?

Combine this with the patch that was released ahead of the new season and it feels like cynical changes to massage player metrics. Diablo IV players on Reddit have been collecting the issues, and I’ll mention a couple here to illustrate the point. All classes have been made less powerful thanks to nerfs on the effectiveness of a wide variety of stats, including Crit and Vulnerable, two things that basically all classes are likely to be using in the endgame. You can feel the difference, in some cases, so now my main Necromancer’s summoned skeletons keep dying to regular enemies that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as troublesome before.

They’ve made this change whilst making none of the promised improvements to upgrade costs that are far too expensive, apparently decreasing rewards for regular (non-Nightmare) dungeons, and for some moustache-twirlingly evil reason, added two seconds to the channelling time for the leave dungeon skill. Why does Blizzard want you to spend an extra two seconds channelling this skill in an empty dungeon? Who knows. They’ve even cut the experience bonus for killing monsters of a higher level than you by 90%, to make sure you can’t level your character up “too quickly”.

Diablo 4 Free Journey

The patch also rought some unintended consequences, dramatically reducing the amount of looting possible from the Helltides that descend on Sanctuary once you get to World Tier 3. The swing in how many Cinders enemies dropped and the timer constraints this brought were a bug, that Blizzard has now patched with a hotfix. Different bugs take different times to solve, but this fix (and the World Tier level lock reversal) certainly felt like they took longer than when Helltide chests were dropping super ancestral uniques too frequently…

Still, the use of timers is still a problem elsewhere, though. The Tree of Whisper’s missions all having timers and distance between them, forcing you to wait for the timer to end if you don’t have enough time to travel across the open world to the missions. These timers usually aren’t staggered between regions, which would at least allow you to go do them in another area where there was more time left. There’s not much that’s more frustrating that completing a mission or collecting enough cinders for a chest, only for the timer to just barely run before you can redeem them.

The Season of the Malignant brings some interesting new features to the table, but the patch that preceded it completely changes the tone for a lot of players. The game feels less enjoyable to play, it now takes longer to complete, and there’s reduced loot drops, when those are so much of the appeal of Diablo.

Diablo 4 Battle Pass

This is starting to look like a textbook example for why many gamers dislike the shift to always-online and ‘Games as a Service’. It’s not that the idea of an online, MMO-like Diablo is bad, and it’s not that this shift has to change how the game plays, but it goes hand-in-hand with a shift in business model that’s seems overly concerned with hitting specific engagement metrics, stretching out the game and incessantly trying to tease more money out of players’ pockets. Every aspect of the game is affected, because now dungeons need to be nerfed because people are levelling up “too quickly”, getting “too much” loot, which is making them “too powerful”. In a game like this, levelling quickly, getting lots of loot, and being too powerful is what’s fun – it’s the whole point.

Live service games are always pitched as offering fantastical benefits, letting you play with friends, an endless stream of new things to do, but that warm embrace of supposedly endless gaming almost always comes with a hand sneaking into your pocket to try and lift a few more quid. That’s something that players will accept is the game is fun and has enough rewarding stuff to do, but after an hour of The Season of Malignant’s new questline, you hit a roadblock to “Finish season chapter one and two” before being able to continue. I’ve only had two conversations with the new NPC and I’m already ticking boxes on a todo list. That’s Diablo now, apparently.