Blizzard could have avoided the Diablo Immortal PR catastrophe
The scene was heartbreaking for pretty much everyone involved: fans, guests developers from NetEase, and Blizzard staff alike. Principal game designer Wyatt Cheng, tasked with sharing his vision of a Diablo game that he’s assuredly worked very hard on, was almost in tears by the end of his presentation. In my eleven years of writing for Blizzard Watch and its predecessor, I’ve never seen anything like what happened at BlizzCon yesterday. It was spellbinding in its unmitigated awfulness.
The backlash to the Immortal announcement was immediate and ferocious, across social media and in person. Plenty of sites that I won’t link to here are now attacking Blizzard’s fans for being “entitled asses.” Sure, some of them, a very vocal minority, have crossed lines that shouldn’t be crossed over a video game. I condemn those fans and their behavior unequivocally. We should always, always keep conversation civil, especially when it comes to the things that we’re passionate about. Every person deserves respect.
But we can’t put all the blame on the fans here. With a poor PR plan from the outset, and poor handling of the announcement, Blizzard has to shoulder the lion’s share of the fault for this situation. The real tragedy of the entire episode is just how easily it could have been avoided.
The pre-BlizzCon messaging
We’ve already covered this in detail, but it bears mentioning here because the seed for this moment was planted months ago. First, Blizzard hyped us up about multiple upcoming Diablo projects, with an S. Then Blizzard tried to derail the hype train.
Fans were confused. But once you announce multiple Diablo projects, that’s not a cat that can be stuffed back into an inventory slot. Expectations were mitigated, but still high going into BlizzCon. The worst-case scenario in the minds of most fans was better than the actual announcement for them, because not only were they not getting a new PC Diablo game or even a remaster of an old one, but Blizzard also spent Diablo development resources on a game that they did not ask for and do not want. A mobile Diablo, to fans, either further delays a Diablo 4 or means that it will never exist.
I wrote an old Officers’ Quarters once about how one of the worst things you can do as a guild officer is to create expectations and then fail to meet them in the minds of your members. Blizzard did that with Diablo at BlizzCon 2018.
The time and place
BlizzCon was not the right venue for this announcement. BlizzCon is a gathering of Blizzard’s most hardcore fans. Of all the PC gaming franchises out there, Diablo fans are already among the most hardcore. Given its mature content, its infinite difficulty levels, and the fact that you can play a mode where dying basically deletes your character, it’s a very old-school type of game. So Diablo fans at BlizzCon, by and large, are among the most hardcore of all hardcore PC gaming enthusiasts. They are likely not, therefore, the most receptive audience for a mobile game.
Saving Diablo Immortal for the end of the opening ceremony was also a huge misstep. Part of the reason it was held for the end, I’m sure, is because none of the other franchises had a new title or expansion to announce. Blizzard also wanted to honor the work done by the Immortal devs by letting them take center stage. But from the point of view of a Diablo fan attending the ceremony or watching on a Virtual Ticket stream around the world, seeing each franchise get its turn, and then realizing that Diablo finally, finally, after so many years of waiting for a new project, was going to be the final big announcement of BlizzCon? Hype at that point was completely off the charts.
At any other time, at any other event, Diablo fans would not have been as hyped as they were.
In its initial announcement, Blizzard decided to focus on the “playing with friends on the go” angle of a mobile game. That is not something that PC gamers necessarily value. They get home from work or school, hop on Discord or the Launcher, and boot up the game that their friends are playing. Playing with their friends just happens, organically, regardless of being tied down to a gaming desk. It’s not a problem that requires a mobile solution.
Blizzard instead could have focused on overcoming stereotypes about mobile games or on redefining the mobile experience — in short, on convincing PC gamers that mobile games are worth their time. They could have taken an approach that sounded more like, “I know you’re skeptical, but hear us out.”
They are, after all, a company that prides itself on taking things that other companies do and vastly improving on them — why not mobile games, too? Mobile games have an extremely bad reputation among PC gamers, and it would have been a good idea to acknowledge those concerns from the outset.
But that’s not the case that they made when they announced this game. Are they actually trying to innovate in the mobile action space as much as they normally do for other genres? Only time will tell, but it’s pretty hard to imagine that they aren’t trying.
The comment, “don’t you guys have phones?” was made in the heat of the moment. It did not go over well — but we’ve all said things we regret while under pressure. The problem with the statement, from a larger perspective, is that fans can use it to say that Blizzard fundamentally misunderstands their audience. Based on the way Blizzard handled this announcement, it’s hard to argue against that point of view.
Blizzard has every right to use their IP to go after new fans on new platforms. But they weren’t making that case. They repeatedly assured the BlizzCon crowd that the game was intended for existing Diablo fans.
Blizzard had to know that a mobile Diablo would be extremely controversial. They could have given fans an entire day to calm down, try out the game for themselves, and then ask questions at the official Diablo Q&A on Saturday night. Instead, Blizzard made the disastrous decision to allow a live Q&A immediately, when fan reaction would be at its most raw.
Thus, we got the “Is this an April Fool’s joke?” question. That will most likely go down as the defining moment of this entire BlizzCon, and it’s not a good one.
The lack of other announcements
Blizzard always likes to keep their cards close to their vest about the games they’re developing. They have good reason for this, both in terms of keeping their competition in the dark and also because they do understand that they shouldn’t get our hopes up about a project until they know it’s going to live up to their brand.
Titan became Overwatch and was a huge success. Would Overwatch have succeeded on this level if they had announced Titan first, and then scaled it back into Overwatch? The reaction wouldn’t have been so overwhelmingly positive in that case, I would argue.
So it’s hard to say that Blizzard should have announced another PC-based Diablo project alongside Immortal if they weren’t ready to announce one.
Then again, we recently saw a model for this exact situation where the company did the opposite. At this year’s E3, Bethesda announced a mobile Elder Scrolls. Elder Scrolls fans had also waited a long time for the next major PC release after 2011’s Skyrim. But there was no rioting. No massive outcry. Why not? Well, Bethesda also showed one short video, just a landscape, from the next major PC Elder Scrolls release. Fans didn’t know the next thing about it. But they knew it was coming, eventually. And that made all the difference.
At BlizzCon, Diablo Immortal and its dev team were made to stand against all of the hopes and dreams of the entire Diablo fanbase — alone. That was an unfair position to put them in.
While BlizzCon rolled onward, fan reaction across the Internet was explosive. The Immortal trailer became one of the most disliked videos on Youtube of all time. Blizzard could have owned all of that, took their lumps, and focused on changing the fans’ minds. Instead, they removed the trailer and uploaded a new version to restart the dislike counter. They also reportedly deleted negative comments — not just offensive ones, but ones that were lamenting how Blizzard no longer understood their fans.
Censoring the outcry always backfires. Comments with offensive language or threats deserve to be deleted, but you have to let the rest stand. Read them. Try to understand where the emotions are coming from. If someone spent the time to make a reasonable post, it’s because they care about the franchise. Deleting comments just because you don’t like what they say is extremely bad PR. It’s not a good look for any company.
This reaction was predictable
One could argue that it’s easy for me to say all of this in hindsight after it all played out yesterday. Still, if you had asked me on Friday morning what would happen if Blizzard announced a mobile Diablo game and no other Diablo games, I would have said, “The fans will riot.” The reaction was predictable, which is why so many fans feel like the way Blizzard handled the announcement came across as out of touch.
I feel sorry for Wyatt and his team. At this point it doesn’t matter whether they created an incredibly engaging Diablo experience or not. Our early hands-on report said that the game is fun and faithful to the franchise. But Immortal will always be remembered as the title that provoked a historically angry backlash in the gaming community. It’s not the development team’s fault. Blizzard’s overall strategy and presentation put them in those crosshairs.
There was always going to be some initial skepticism, even disappointment, with a Diablo mobile announcement. But it didn’t have to be like this.
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