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BlizzCon 2018 Diablo Immortal Reveal Post-Mortem

If you’re a gamer or a game developer, there’s a very good chance you’ve heard about the backlash southern California-headquartered Activision-Blizzard is dealing with after the poorly-received announcement of the mobile-only Diablo Immortal game at BlizzCon 2018. Diablo is generally one of the most popular game series ever developed, a bloody, gothic action role-playing game developed first for PCs in 1996, later on receiving ports for consoles. Blizzard Entertainment has created an original intellectual property (IP) for mobile, such as the card game Heartstone, but the company never made an announcement for a cornerstone (and traditionally hardcore) property like Diablo.

That is, until the recent 2018 BlizzCon, the annual event that brings together the hardcore community to celebrate all things Blizzard. Here’s a brief history of how things unfolded:

Before BlizzCon

A couple weeks ahead of BlizzCon, Blizzard posted what some believed to be a cryptic blog post about Diablo at their event, which left an announcement in doubt. Take a look at this quote from the post, which will not be the last time this will be said:

BlizzCon 2018 is almost here and we’ve seen a lot of rumors flying around about our plans for Diablo at the show. These are very exciting times—we currently have multiple teams working on different Diablo projects and we can’t wait to tell you all about them . . . when the time is right.

Followed by:

While we won’t be ready to announce all of our projects, we do intend to share some Diablo-related news with you at the show.

The post was open-ended and non-specific, but it also seemed to imply that Blizzard fans and game-players raising expectations too high might be unwise. Diablo’s tweet amplified the blog post, and the fans who replied seemingly understood the situation.

During BlizzCon

Fast forward to the end of the opening ceremonies at BlizzCon 2018, Principle Game Designer at Blizzard, Wyatt Cheng ascends the stage. The full reveal is in the video below:

In a nutshell, Wyatt Cheng enthusiastically sells the idea of a mobile massively multiplayer online (MMO) version of Diablo, co-developed by Chinese mobile game developer NetEase. The game is set five years into the 20-year gap between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3, addressing several storyline and character loose ends.

On the face of it, the reveal likes a somewhat low-key, somewhat unenthusiastically received reveal of a mobile game. However, given Diablo’s PC and occasional console-based legacy, many players seemed unready and unwilling to accept this iteration as the next step in the franchise. In the Q&A session following te reveal, what either started, or perhaps amplified, the backlash, there’s a moment when a now-famous (or perhaps infamous) red-shirted attendee flatly asks, “Is this an out of season April Fool’s joke?”

The on-stage experience didn’t get any easier for Blizzard when Wyatt Cheng replied to another attendee’s question about whether the mobile game would be coming to PC. Cheng replied that it was not coming to PC, which then roused a chorus of boos from the audience. To that he added, a little incredulously, “Do you guys not have phones?”

Breaking through the white noise and hyperbole, most of the game and announcement’s criticisms can be distilled to variations of these four critiques:

  • Diablo Immortal is a reskin of a NetEase Diablo clone:
    Blizzard has stated it’s a “purpose-built” Diablo game, while some folks allege Diablo Immortal so far looks like a reskinned version of a prior NetEase game. As Diablo Immortal is apparently very early in development, it’s too early to say whether the early iteration — which generically seems to have the user interface of a NetEase game thus far — will reflect the finished version.
  • Assuming Diablo Immortal is a mobile developed for the Chinese market as much or more than it might be the American market, will it be filled with in-app purchases?
    Monetization is a major question Blizzard has evaded because Diablo Immortal is early in development and it’s tricky because, however it’s answered, it is unlikely to leave many satisfied. If NetEase’s previously developed games are at all a barometer for monetization, in-app purchases are a definite possibility.
  • Why announce Diablo Immortal and not a remastered version of a previous Diablo game or even Diablo 4?
  • Why announce a mobile Diablo game at a convention for hardcore Blizzard fans? Both questions revolve around the disconnect between expectation and outcome, which is the thorny question about the rights and responsibilities a game developer has versus what the audience expects. Did Blizzard have a “contract” with the hardcore segment of their fans? Did fans read too much into Blizzard’s pre-BlizzCon blog post? Does a game developer have to close out a keynote with a teaser or announcement of a traditional IP in a traditional way, like Bethesda did at E3 2018 or Microsoft also did at E3 2018, for the event to be considered a success? At this time, there are more questions than answers, although some of the examples other big name developers and publishers have taken when revealing their game announcements have been mentioned.

Blizzard subsequently uploaded Diablo Immortal’s cinematic trailer and gameplay video to YouTube, which quickly garnered a hugely lopsided ratio of dislikes to likes.

After BlizzCon

Since BlizzCon concluded, an ongoing battle has been waged in social media between many of the interested parties, to shape the narrative about whether Diablo Immortal is a positive or negative addition to the world of games and whether Diablo gamers are entitled and toxic or understandably angered hardcore fans.

Meanwhile, the official YouTube videos dislikes and likes continue to fluctuate, which has been the source of additional debate. Speaking of YouTube, several videos a day are still being pushed out to follow where this story started, and where it might be going. The Diablo sub-Reddit is also buzzing with activity, still focused on the Diablo Immortal announcement, with every other Diablo-related topic taking a far backseat.

Beyond the bubble of gamer angst, the Diablo Immortal announcement was enough of a tremor to make Activision-Blizzard’s stock performance skittish so far this week.

Blizzard has largely stayed out of the skirmishes — except to deny a Kotaku report that the company had originally planned to announce Diablo 4 but shelved it last second. Additionally, in the statement, Blizzard stated, “We do continue to have different teams working on multiple unannounced Diablo projects, and we look forward to announcing when the time is right,” which is very similar to what the developer said in advance of BlizzCon. As before the convention, this statement leaves the potential projects that may be developed open for speculation, which will certainly happen.

Love or hate Diablo Immortal, development on the game is apparently going full-speed ahead and will be launched sometime in 2019. In the meantime, it will be interesting if Activision-Blizzard can pacify the angriest segment of the traditional Diablo fanbase, or if it will even be necessary by the time the mobile version of Diablo is launched.

For the foreseeable future, the debate around Diablo Immortal will surely continue.

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