At Blizzcon, Diablo fans were hoping for something new — maybe DLC or possibly even the announcement of a new Diablo game entirely. They got a new Diablo game announcement, but not the one many wanted.
Blizzard announced Diablo Immortal, a freemium hack-and-slash RPG co-developed by Netease, a veteran in the mobile game space. Blizzcon attendees made it very clear this not the game they were hoping for and just like that, we have a hot button topic to talk about! Let’s dig in.
A little background
The last Diablo game, Diablo III, launched six years ago in 2012 on PC and Mac, 2013 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and 2014 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It saw rave reviews from pundits, and fans of the series were generally happy with it after overcoming a few early issues. However, six years is a long time between major game releases, even if Diablo III received a slew of updates, DLC, and bug fixes in the meantime. A few months ago, the company began suggesting multiple Diablo projects. That’s when the guessing started. People openly hoped multiple projects didn’t mean just a Nintendo Switch port and a mobile game. The Switch port turned out to be true and people actually liked it. Blizzard also teased more stuff in its official pre-Blizzcon blog post in mid-October.
The hype culminated in an announcement at Blizzcon 2018, where Blizzard told everyone its big new thing was a mobile Diablo game that takes place between the second and third titles in the series. The backlash was so intense Activision’s stock fell, people raged about it on Twitter, and gamer blogs took to the internet to discuss it, many saying the backlash was unwarranted. Regardless, people were mad about it at Blizzcon and made sure Blizzard knew it.
In defense of the fanbase
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the fanbase first. Diablo’s fanbase consists of — among other subsets — many hardcore RPG gamers. Diablo I, II, and III were all massive RPGs with deep storylines, tons of lore, Easter eggs, and basically a whole fan culture of its own. Each new game introduced more polish, more lore, and more fun content without compromising the core experiences that made the game series fun to begin with. That all changed with the announcement of a freemium mobile game. Cue the hatred!
Blizzard should know the recipe for announcing a mobile game without backlash. They've done it before.
From a fan’s perspective, this backlash was kind of warranted. Blizzard broke the golden rule of announcing a freemium mobile game version of its hit game series. It’s mostly a matter of timing.
Bethesda Softworks announced its Fallout mobile game Fallout Shelter at the same event as Fallout 4 during E3 2015. Fans of the series knew they were getting a brand new Fallout game after all the years of waiting. Fallout Shelter acted as a kind of hype generator instead trying to be the main event. Bethesda was smart enough to announce Fallout 4 alongside Fallout Shelter so hardcore and casual fans knew they were both getting something.
Blizzard could have, and frankly should have, gone with the same route as Bethesda. After all, Diablo 4 is actually in the works. It could’ve avoided basically this entire thing by announcing Diablo 4 alongside Diablo Immortals. You don’t tease a loyal fanbase six years after your last major title release and then deliver a freemium game. You especially don’t tease multiple projects and then only announce the one that the most hardcore portion of the fanbase is will hate. There isn’t a lot of extra analysis necessary. It’s just not something you do.
Companies have tried to hype up a big mobile game announcement before and failed superbly. Super Mario Run continues to have mediocre ratings on Google Play and iTunes to this day because of the stunning number of one- and two-star reviews from an angry fanbase. There was a point where only five percent of people actually bought the game after downloading it. Plenty of other developers avoided big backlash by being smart about announcing a mobile game alongside some other exciting announcement as part of a bundle as opposed to a standalone announcement. Even Blizzard avoided backlash with Hearthstone by launching it on PC first. This isn’t rocket science.
Teasing multiple projects and delivering a freemium game is a stupid idea in 2018.
Other potential factors may give fans even more cannon fodder, though. Netease is co-developing Diablo Immortals. This studio hocks solely freemium games, including three PUBG Mobile clones and a Diablo clone fans are claiming looks very similar to Immortal. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Additionally, one should consider the very nature of freemium games. They generally have simpler mechanics, less lore, and a larger focus on casual gamers.
Diablo is one of the most hardcore RPGs on the market. The last thing you want during a good dungeon crawl is to run out of energy or, worse yet, grinding for months to achieve the kind of character growth you can usually obtain in a week or two. Teasing Diablo fans with multiple projects and pumping out a freemium game without even a hint of Diablo 4 is like promising your kids ice cream and then taking them to the dentist.
Blizzard made a lot of missteps announcing a freemium game without announcing Diablo 4, partnering with a potentially questionable mobile developer, and teasing more than they delivered. The fanbase should be mad about it. Mario fans got to be mad about it when Super Mario run wasn’t a classic Mario game. Many freemium games received the same treatment from its fanbase without anybody criticizing the fanbase. Why can’t Diablo fans be mad for getting the same treatment for their favorite franchise?
In defense of Blizzard
We’ve already established Blizzard screwed up a few times with its Diablo Immortals release. Most of the criticism is true. Blizzard did, in fact, approach Diablo’s first freemium mobile game like other developers in 2015, rather than learning from their mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we should all hate Blizzard forever — the company had missteps, not catastrophes.
Diablo 4's proven existence makes it hard to stay mad at Blizzard. The Diablo game fans want is, in fact, coming.
Let’s start with the obvious: Diablo 4 is actually on its way. Fans of the series are getting a whole new, next generation Diablo experience for PC, console, and maybe Nintendo Switch as well. This takes a lot of wind out of the sails of the backlash against Diablo Immortal. It is true they should have announced Diablo 4 at Blizzcon because that would have been the best time to do so. However, we all know a full game is coming, and the fanbase will get exactly what it wants, at least eventually. That’s usually the moment when people start to chill out.
In addition, Diablo fans need to remember mobile gaming is kind of a big deal now. Square Enix saw its profits grow after its shift to mobile gaming. Pokemon Go has earned Niantic Labs and Game Freak almost $2 billion in two years. Fire Emblem Heroes helped Nintendo reach new heights. Fallout Shelter added $90 million to Bethesda’s coffers. Mobile gaming generated approximately double the revenue of PC and Mac games in 2017. Nearly 80 percent of Google Play and Apple’s App Store combined revenue came from mobile gaming. You see where this is going, right?
People who think mobile gaming still isn't a big deal are stuck in 2015. Things are different now.
Mobile gaming is where it’s at right now for developers. There is an enormous market and it’s growing every year. Game developers need to release at least some mobile titles to remain completely relevant. Hell, Blizzard’s Hearthstone reigns supreme in the digital card game market and Activision-Blizzard also owns King, makers of the Candy Crush games. The company knows very well how key a good mobile strategy is to staying profitable.
Diablo Immortal is Blizzard pushing one of its most successful properties into the mobile industry. It’s not the announcement people wanted, and a freemium Diablo game probably isn’t going to be as good as its PC and console counterparts, but does it really surprise anybody this is where Blizzard went with the franchise?
A lot of huge companies have tapped mobile developers to make games. Square Enix contracted Gumi for Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and DeNA for Final Fantasy Record Keeper. Both games are highly successful and — get this — a lot of people actually like them. Fallout Shelter wasn’t developed solely by Bethesda and people liked it too. There are tons of other examples.
Netease isn’t our favorite developer. However if Blizzard is directing the effort, it may help restrain Netease’s usually aggressive freemium strategies. It’s not a sure thing by any stretch, but at least Netease wasn’t given 100 percent control over the project. That might have been a disaster.
Let’s wait and see
The media coverage of Diablo Immortal’s backlash is probably a little overblown as well. Tons of things get a lot more resistance than Diablo Immortal without those people being accused of going too far. The line defining how much complaining is too much seems to shift arbitrarily with each and every topic inside and outside of gaming. This will likely blow over in a week or two. After that, everything will go back to normal like none of this ever happened and we’ll all joke about it when Diablo 5 and Diablo Immortal 2 get announced six years from now.
There is evidence Diablo Immortal could be another run-of-the-mill freemium game without a lot for the hardcore Diablo fan. However, there’s also some room for optimism. Plenty of huge game franchises have made a positive push into the mobile gaming scene without sacrificing too much of the core experience.
Diablo Immortal could fit that pattern and bring some good Diablo experiences to mobile. It will likely never match up to a traditional Diablo game, but I don’t think anyone (even Blizzard) expects that. It’s really difficult to judge a game nobody has access to yet.
We’d like to hear your opinions in the comments!