The funniest thing about Blizzcon 2018 is this – if you had told me, prior to day 1, that the Diablo announcement would be a new game that would completely push aside the community around the game, I would have laughed at you, but yet, here we are.
Even funnier? I may have called it over a year ago…
When I put together that video, the idea was more that a Diablo mobile game/app would be a companion to a mainline PC Diablo game.
Well…no, it isn’t.
To truly start with, this post is largely my opinion. There is a lot of overlap between them and the perceived mainstream community reaction, but there are differences and all of what I am about to say is all from my viewpoint.
Diablo Immortal Is Not Necessarily A Bad Thing
I want to start here, because I feel two things can be true – Diablo Immortal is absolutely antithetical to much of what the community wants, offers little new content short of lore – one aspect of Diablo which is, arguably, largely inconsequential to gameplay. However, having played it, I can say that the core gameplay is somewhat fun. There is something to the idea – it isn’t completely irrelevant and unwanted. Maybe the lore could be great – maybe the gameplay in the finished product will be tight and well-tuned. The fact is, the reaction to this game is largely premised not on the quality of the product, but the core idea of it.
Diablo On Mobile Kind Of Exists – A Lot, and This Game Just Feels Like Those Other Ones
There is a massive marketplace for Diablo clones on mobile. NetEase, Blizzard’s partner on the project, has made many of them. The thing they all (including, now, the game with the progenitor’s title!) fail to understand about Diablo is that the game, as it lives on PC, is interesting not solely because of the core gameplay loops, but because of the surprising depth of mechanics. Abilities have multiple runes that drastically change them, making each rune effectively a new ability. Item sets can interact with these abilities further, transforming your gameplay yet again. Diablo Immortal, in the state it was showcased, had none of this. Resource mechanics were replaced with simple skill cooldowns, runes and skill enhancements appear to be gone, evaluating gear and managing inventory seems to have been streamlined down to almost nothing, with upgrade gear you loot popping up on screen so it can be equipped immediately. Diablo isn’t necessarily a mega-deep, hugely mechanically complex game – but the complexity that exists within it serves to enhance the gameplay. This is missing in Immortal, and without it, I find it difficult to call this game Diablo.
The Announcement At Blizzcon Was Poorly Conceived, Designed, and Delivered
When Blizzard published the schedule for Blizzcon 2018, the large block for Diablo: What’s Next after the opening ceremony told a tale – new Diablo project incoming! When, two weeks before Blizzcon, Blizzard sought to tamp down expectations and say that the announcement was not going to be earthshattering, in effect telling us something – someone at Blizzard knew it was going to be rough. That person was right, obviously, with the gift of hindsight, but why? Here’s my take – if Warcraft III Reforged was the final, end announcement of the opening ceremony, it would have been far less poorly received. If they teased us with a Diablo 4 logo, anything to show the next chapter, we’d be so much happier. Humorously, that is, according to insider sources, exactly what the plan was originally. The reality was this – regardless of how much expectation-setting was done in advance of the convention, nothing less than a reveal that a Diablo 4 was in the works would suffice. Immortal is, needless to say, not that, and by closing the opening ceremony with it, Blizzard allowed nothing else to upstage it and wash away the unhappiness of that announcement, and so it festered and grew.
But more than that, Blizzcon is, primarily, an audience of PC gamers. Their are console players (of Overwatch and even Diablo itself!) and mobile players, but these projects have parity with the PC versions. Hearthstone on mobile is the same game, with the same collection of cards, same decks, etc. Diablo III on console has the bonus of action controls with a combat roll, but is otherwise the same game and it was very well received. WoW companion was, during Legion, a great app that offered excellent features to keep the game front of mind for players. This is not any of that, and instead is a game which takes an audience whose core is on PC and has given them a product that ignores platform preference in favor of selling to a new market. Which deserves its own point…
The Market Is There For Diablo Immortal, But That Market Is Not At Blizzcon
There is an actual market for a mobile Diablo – there are large swaths of the planet whom commute to work or school via public transit, and to whom mobile gaming makes perfect sense. If you have limited living space, and do not have to drive to work, a game that can be played fully on your phone, requiring no other hardware, is massively appealing.
However, this is the rough edge of the game I cannot overcome for myself. Blizzcon attendees and viewers are largely PC gamers, many of whom are Americans who do not live lives that are conducive to mobile gaming in the same way as those in more developed areas with strong public service infrastructure like transit. I live in a medium-sized, suburban area of the US. I drive to and from work – a short drive, but public transit for that route is unavailable and unwieldy when it is an option. I have short breaks at work and a short lunch, not enough time to really dive deep on a mobile game. When I get home, my wiring is to play on PC or console, since they are right there, and any attempt I make to play a mobile game at home is met by a large amount of mental resistance.
And that is, I think, where a good portion of this feeling comes from – Immortal is an okay game if the demo I played is representative of a nearly finished project, but even if it was the best Diablo ever, I would struggle to play it strictly because of the platform selection. It is baffling given that at least one of the NetEase games from which Diablo Immortal borrows its controls is available on PC! Honestly, even if it was exactly the same but available on PC, it would be much better received.
The Business Model Is Unknown, And That Is Bad
In the heat of the moment at Blizzcon, a decent amount of information was shared, but one glaring detail was missing – we have no clue of the business model. It could be buy the game and play as much as you want, but the fear is that NetEase is infamous for free-to-play, pay-to-win models that are awfully quick to attempt to milk players for as much cash as possible. Without being able to speak to that at Blizzcon, the imagination of the fans is left to run wild. With NetEase tied to it, it seems a foregone conclusion that the game will be a pure cashgrab, and that is making the situation worse.
The Panelist Developers Did Not Help
I want to take it a bit easy on the specific parties involved here, as I imagine two possibilities – either they were directed from on-high to develop a mobile game alone and are also not happy about it, or they had the idea, are passionate about it, and took the criticism poorly, which is fine. I won’t say it reflects well on the project, but it is hard to be too mad at them, as it is clear they were given something of a mission with no return.
But moments like challenging questions with, “what, you don’t have phones?” and the snippy, short responses to admittedly jerky fan questions led to memes that will outlive the game. Further, they display a lack of understanding of the actual fan concerns, and a lack of desire to understand them.
The tone was softer on the day 2 panel, with Wyatt Cheng kicking off by indicating that multiple projects are still in the works, but by that point, the damage was done.
And combined, all of these factors led to a massive backlash, one that has seen Blizzard, post-announcement, re-upload the announcement trailer on YouTube, presumably to soften the like/dislike ratio on the video, change their social media profile pictures back to Diablo III logos and assets rather than the Diablo Immortal ones the accounts flew over the weekend, and for the team to continue to spin stories, including tales of backlash against Hearthstone (which doesn’t seem to be substantiated or found), tales of resistance to console versions of their game (again, no substantiation of the claim and no evidence found to suggest a backlash against, say, Overwatch on console), and to constantly re-iterate that there are multiple Diablo projects in the works which have not been announced.
All of these measures serve to mask the core truth behind the Diablo Immortal announcement – in some measure, the modern Blizzard struggles to identify what it is about their games that resonates with people, and to communicate with their fans around those ideas. Putting the franchise name onto a game does not make it must-play, and in this case, Blizzard is treading upon well-travelled ground, where they are less likely to be able to execute effectively.
I imagine that Diablo Immortal will be a great mobile game, but by being mobile, it has kneecapped potential.
And by responding poorly to the player outcries, Blizzard has further handicapped the game.