We knew the announcement was coming today and people had their theories, but now we know for sure: the first entry of Warcraft as a mobile experience is coming this year in the form of Warcraft Arclight Rumble, a mini-based strategy game designed as a mobile experience first and foremost.
I want to start this off by saying that I am not a mobile game guy by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve played mobile games, but I generally have an aversion to playing anything on the go unless there is no other option to fill idle time available. At home, I play on PC or console, and even for precious moments of free time at work or out and about, I prefer to do other things. I have this problem with handheld consoles too – I put in maybe 20-30 hours total on my PS Vita before it got stolen 3 years after I bought it, and my 3DS saw most of its work at conventions for StreetPass. Plenty of good games exist on those platforms and on phones, but as a medium, something about it just doesn’t work for me. Given that, here I am going to avoid making a lot of direct opinionated commentary about gameplay or the like because I am not the target audience for this.
That being said, let’s dive in.
The first thing I genuinely like about the game is that it seems to be tailored specifically to mobile in every way. It’s strategy but not classic Warcraft, it uses an art style that is visually similar to WoW but with bespoke models, textures, and UI elements – save for the re-use of some icons from WoW, the game has a distinct set of assets all to itself. It plays in vertical orientation so that you don’t need to grip your phone in landscape orientation, as most phones have physical discomforts from doing so – camera bumps, buttons you can fat-finger, etc. The match timer shown in most screenshots and footage seems to be fairly tight, under 5 minutes a match, so it should be something you can pick up and play at your leisure and put down quickly as needed. My cynical side suspected that Blizzard would take a lazy way out and simply engineer a version of the Warcraft RTS that used WoW assets and let you play on the go, or would build a Genshin Impact clone with WoW characters and world maps, and the fact that it is not that speaks to the idea that Blizzard is putting in some real effort here. The visual style of everything being miniature figurines like a tabletop game is a cool move, and depending on how balanced and stable the models would be if made real, I could fathom that a special release would come one day of this idea as a tabletop game, which would be neat.
Secondly, in some ways, the gameplay almost seems to feel like what commanding a BfA Warfront would feel like – pushing your forces up to the enemy base, capturing points of interest on the way. I think there was something to Warfronts that could have been really cool, but they never really landed the difficulty, replayability, or rewards in a place that made them feel worth doing much, so seeing a model that feels like it repurposes some of that design is also neat.
Thirdly, I like that the game both preserves the Alliance and Horde as main forces, but doesn’t make them the only choices – having the option for Beasts is nice. I do have some side-eye about Undead and Blackrock Orcs being separate forces, mostly because Orc flavor is the foundation of the Horde and while Undead have both the Forsaken and the Scourge in the lore, it makes me wonder if we’ll see Undead rep in WAR (oh hey, that’s an acronym that works as a word!)’s version of the Horde. To be fair, Warcraft III had Orcs and Undead as separate factions, and it’s likely that WAR’s Undead are Scourge, but it is an interesting choice to make now.
On the gameplay note, here is where I again call attention to the idea that I am not a big mobile game person, but I will say that the game seems…fine? Like, it doesn’t excite me so much I want to get it now or that I would even consider running it in Bluestacks to play on my desktop, but if I was one of those targeted mobile gamers, I think it hits for that audience. The focus needed to make it a fun experience seems to have been put in, and if my recent forays into FFXIV PvP via the 5-minute Crystalline Conflict mode are to be believed, it’s that short, focused bursts of gameplay can be a ton of fun if things are built well enough around it. It doesn’t even need to be perfect, because so long as the overall experience is good-enough, 5 minutes is a quick engagement that allows you to dip a toe in, have fun and let the dopamine rush override any thoughtful critique that would otherwise prevent interest, and then get out and repeat.
On the downside, the miniature aspect of units and some of the UI elements shown in the previews look extremely gachapon like. For those not in the know, a Gacha game (based on Japanese toy vending machines called Gachapon) is one that relies on players being enticed to hit the in-game shop for a chance at new characters through a random pull for in-game currency. It’s loot boxes in another, very slightly different form. The enticement, as you might expect then, is to gamble – to earn enough in-game currency or buy some with real cash so that you can hit the slot machine hoping for that rare character. The preview was suffused with these moments where I was thinking that the most cool stuff they showed off was going to be increasingly rare and hard to get without ponying up that wallet – Maiev can cloak units for easy kills? Oh you bet your ass she’s likely to be a rare pull. That Blackrock Orc does a sick air guitar and has a ton of personality? That’s gonna be uncommon, you might need to spend a little bit to ensure you pull that one. Cynical of me to think? Yes, absolutely – but it is also how such games live and thrive. Genshin Impact has really made a model of this and it is the guiding light into how gacha games can really capture more (of your wallet), and Blizzard in 2022 is absolutely the kind of company willing and ready to do that, especially when you consider how big of a force Overwatch was in pushing loot boxes in the first place.
I have questions and curiosities about the modes of play. They didn’t really explain much about co-op, dungeons, or raids, and mentioned guilds without any indicator of how that would work. All of these sound interesting, but the preview made no effort to distinguish the gameplay of these modes – how big is a mobile game raid? How big can a mobile game raid even be given the short-play nature of the base game? What distinguishes a dungeon from a raid from the normal game? Is there a deckbuilding or army-building aspect to the game, given the collection side of things, and if so, are units truly locked such that I might gacha-pull my way into only ever being able to play Horde, or is there base-unit equivalence so that a pull of some common unit unlocks it across the board in the different flavored versions per faction?
Lastly, I guess I will say I feel some minor disappointment that it isn’t mobile pet battles from WoW. I really think that would be fun and interesting, but at the same time, I suppose it really would be a value-add to something you can already do in WoW and wouldn’t have many avenues available for revenue generation, which would make putting resources to it difficult to justify, not to mention that mobile pet battling could open a whole can of worms if you could earn unique rewards on mobile that would give you a leg up regardless of what platform you pet battle on. I still think such a mode would be cool someday, maybe rolled-up into the Companion App, but I can get why it doesn’t make a strong business play as a mobile game tie-in.
Overall, I guess I feel two ways about this announcement. I’m impressed with what I saw to a point – Arclight Rumble seems like a fun, well-thought-out baseline way to bring Warcraft flavor to a unique mobile game with its own character and personality that is different from but contiguous with Warcraft as a whole. It seems like it will be a hit for the growing mobile audience and could even end up being an onramp for a younger generation to access WoW (of the mainstream MMOs, at this point, WoW is definitely the “boomer” MMO, and I am using mainstream here to exclude older games with smaller audiences like all flavors of EQ). Will it be successful? I think so, yes. Obviously it has brand cache and clout, and the core game looks like a reasonably fun time even in short, edited clips. On the other hand, I am not a big fan of gacha games as a business model (it’s successful, don’t hate the player, hate the game) and I think that Blizzard’s slow pace of content rollouts in most of their games could bite them in the ass here – gacha games thrive on a model of never being fully collectable, as new gacha items roll in all the time on a regular, frequent cadence, and modern Blizzard can definitely not be described as regular or frequent releasers of content, save for maybe the Hearthstone team. Also, I’m just not a mobile game enjoyer, so while I have an academic interest in it and the ability to say something like, “that looks enjoyable to the target audience,” it’s not me and so I can’t profess to have any major interest in it personally. I don’t begrudge them the thought of it – mobile is the biggest segment of gaming nowadays and still growing, so there is absolutely an audience there that deserves content and an honest look-in from a developer whose name has (had, I suppose?) value and respect.
Will it succeed in mobilizing (heh) WoW players to their phones in a way that Diablo Immortal met resistance from? Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing about this that differentiates it is that Diablo Immortal was trying to be a new, story-filled Diablo experience on the go, while WAR is just trying to be a WoW-reference machine that is otherwise its own game, free of lore, storytelling, or gameplay that ties back to the franchise’s roots (whether you consider that RTS or MMO). It uses Warcraft as a springboard to be a new thing all to itself, instead of DI, which is a Diablo game that was withheld from PC players (until the most recent earnings announcement, where a PC version was confirmed). It will stand out from the hundreds of Clash of Clans lookalikes and similarly bright and cheery quick-session strategy games by virtue of having the Warcraft and Blizzard names attached, opinions about the level of tarnish on both names aside. Will it be a fun game that stands alone and wins on the merits of gameplay and engagement? Well, I don’t know – but it looks promising.