In defense of mobile Diablo Immortal
At the tail end of BlizzCon 2018‘s Opening Ceremony, Blizzard Entertainment announced Diablo Immortal, the latest installment in the Diablo franchise — and it’s a mobile game. It would be generous to say reaction to the announcement has been mixed. Too generous, actually. The audience reaction to the announcement has been overwhelmingly negative, with the Diablo community up in arms over it, and even individuals at the Diablo panel’s Q&A asking the on-stage developers if the announcement was a joke.
The reaction strikes me as more than a little overblown. If players expected Blizzard to announce Diablo 4, a true sequel to the Diablo franchise, I can understand some level of disappointment — Diablo Immortal is not Diablo 4. But weeks before BlizzCon, the Diablo developers specifically warned the community to temper expectations. Though they didn’t explicitly say there would be no Diablo 4 announcement … they more or less did, indeed, say that.
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.
We know what many of you are hoping for and we can only say that “good things come to those who wait,” but evil things often take longer. We appreciate your patience as our teams work tirelessly to create nightmarish experiences worthy of the Lord of Terror.
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.
Blizzard Entertainment essentially says it up front: we’re announcing something, but not the thing you want; we’ll announce that another time. Considering the warning, expecting Diablo 4 is a misplaced expectation. Granted, it’s entirely possible not everyone in attendance at BlizzCon — physically or virtually — saw Blizzard’s statement. But considering BlizzCon is typically viewed by Blizzard’s most diehard fans, most probably did.
More likely, the backlash is in response to what Diablo Immortal actually is: a mobile game.
Mobile gaming has a deeply negative reputation in North America and Europe, but it’s popular — and, in fact, the standard way to play games — in many other parts of the world. Handhelds are popular in Japan, and mobile gaming is the de facto gaming platform in regions such as China. In North America and Europe, mobile games are assumed to be shallow moneygrabs, and admittely, they sometimes are. But they don’t have to be.
Mobile phones are powerful computing beasts these days, capable of hosting full-blown RPGs, MMOs, and FPS games. The behemoths of gaming PUBG and Fortnite are both fully playable on cell phones. Stranger Things has released a tie-in RPG for mobile platforms, and it’s actually good. Japanese developer Asobimo, Inc has built its kingdom almost entirely upon graphically stunning MMOs for mobile devices. You’ve probably never heard of Asobimo, but Iruna Online is one of its most successful titles with 3.5 million players. In the realm of MOBAs, Tencent’s Arena of Valor boasts over 200 million registered players and 80 million daily active users.
Mobile games aren’t just Angry Birds and gacha games anymore. It’s a genuine gaming platform with an enormous audience.
Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t keep its mission statement a secret; it’s published directly on their website. They have always considered their global reach — both their reach as it exists, and ways they can extend it. It’s no secret StarCraft was a monster hit in South Korea and continued to be so for years after its release, and that’s exactly why StarCraft II was announced in Seoul, South Korea, not BlizzCon. The game’s most diehard audience existed in that country, and knowing that, Blizzard presented the new game to them directly.
Global reach is, no doubt, a consideration for this game. In North America and Europe, where most of us spurn mobile games, our phone isn’t necessarily the first place to turn for our gaming entertainment. But in other parts of the world, phones and tablets are where most — if not all — of their gaming takes place. Diablo 3 just released on the Nintendo Switch, and the Switch is a reaction to (and evolution of) how Japanese gamers play games. In that part of the world, handheld gaming is far more popular, something that can be done on the go — whether it be on public transportation, or a small gaming session on a lunch break, or some other moment of solitude in a busy day. The Switch is a handheld hybrid for a reason; that’s just how people in that part of the world play. They want to take their games with them, and sometimes, they need to.
Already, we’ve seen the community dismiss Immortal as catering to a Chinese audience. And you know what? To an extent, it’s entirely possible that’s true. And if it is, that’s how Blizzard Entertainment works. They know which regions love which games, how they play them, and how they want to play them. Blizzard has changed the monetization of World of Warcraft in countries where PC gaming takes place primarily in PC bangs rather than at home, where monthly subscription fees simply do not make sense.
Even if the game is developed with an Eastern audience in mind, that doesn’t mean Western players can’t enjoy it, too. We play JRPGs, don’t we? We love Pokemon in the West, and it’s a gaming franchise that exists almost exclusively on handheld platforms. Different regions of the world interact with gaming in different ways, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come together and share some of these experiences. I, personally, spend a total of 8 hours every week commuting to and from my day job on public transportation. Why couldn’t I spend that time smashing demons on my phone?
The genre’s been defined
Diablo Immortal isn’t being developed exclusively by Blizzard Entertainment; they’ve partnered with NetEase to create this game. No doubt, that knowledge sets off alarm bells about Blizzard outsourcing a game, but let’s first discuss Blizzard Entertainment’s relationship with NetEase.
Blizzard’s partnership with NetEase isn’t a new thing. NetEase licenses and operates Blizzard’s games in China: World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, Diablo 3, and Overwatch. While this partnership is partially out of necessity due to how publishing games in China works, the extent and duration of their working relationship suggests Blizzard trusts NetEase to handle their property with respect.
NetEase are also the owners of the Shanghai Dragons of the Overwatch League. In gaming, NetEase both develops games in China (mobile or otherwise), and ports popular PC games to mobile platforms. Since the announcement of Diablo Immortal, attentive gamers have noticed NetEase has some interesting games in its portfolio. Notably, Endless Gods (or Endless of God) and Crusaders of Light. Here’s some Endless of God gameplay:
And here’s Crusaders of Light, which is a mobile MMO:
The pessimist would say Diablo: Immortal is just a reskin of this Chinese ARPG. I think that assumption ignores something: Endless of God looks a whole lot like Diablo, doesn’t it? Is Diablo Immortal a reskinned Endless of God, or did Endless of God take inspiration from Diablo in the first place? Diablo may not be the point of origin for the ARPG genre, but it certainly popularized that genre, and NetEase brought ARPG gameplay to the mobile platform when Blizzard Entertainment didn’t. And not only did NetEase bring it to mobile platforms on their own, they did it well.
With that in mind, if you’re Blizzard Entertainment and wanted to make a mobile game, why wouldn’t you lean on a business partner who has already cut their teeth on it, and who already has experience bringing this gameplay to that platform? NetEase has already done it. Is the UI the same? It is, yes. But does it need to be different? Even if the new game isn’t just a reskin, and was in fact built anew from the ground up for Diablo Immortal, why change the UI if they already know it works? Doesn’t every FPS game have, more or less, the exact same UI, presenting the exact same information?
Age of Empires and Warcraft 3 have only cosmetic differences in their UI; that makes sense, because they’re both RTS games from the same era, presenting similar information in similar ways. Their UIs are similar because they’re effective. Likewise, League of Legends and Dota 2 have similar UIs. Why? Because the games are in the same genre and need to present similar information. Diablo and Path of Exile have similar UIs on the PC. Why? They’re both ARPGs, even if they aren’t the same game.
If NetEase has already figured out a good way to present an ARPG UI on mobile platforms, what compelling reason is there to change it? Wheels are round because round wheels roll. You don’t make wheels square because you made round ones last time. There’s a reason you don’t reinvent the wheel. If they’ve already figured out how to optimize Diablo-like gameplay mechanics for mobile platforms, why not lean on that knowledge to actually make… Diablo?
Broken hearts heal
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone needs to love Diablo Immortal. Some people don’t play mobile games. That’s fine. In that case, don’t worry about it, just move on and pretend it doesn’t exist. This game isn’t taking the franchise away from you. Blizzard has already stated they have multiple Diablo projects still in development beyond Immortal. Yes, multiple. Via Polygon:
“We have said that we have multiple Diablo teams working on multiple Diablo projects and that remains true, even after releasing [Diablo 3 for Nintendo] Switch and announcing Diablo: Immortal,” Adham said. “We still have multiple Diablo teams working on multiple unannounced Diablo projects. Diablo is a tentpole franchise for us. And it always will be. We love it. We hope our fans understand what we’re saying when we say that.”
It’s understandable that you got your hopes up, and ultimately, you didn’t get what you wanted this time around. The dark side of the hype machine is, when you give your audience too little information, their imagination is going to run wild and expect what you cannot possibly deliver. It’s natural to feel let down, and it isn’t entirely the players’ fault — the players and the company both share in the blame. Diablo players have been waiting for a new sequel for a long time and feeling disappointed is natural. But don’t let that disappointment lead you to dismiss an entire genre or platform — and it’s definitely no excuse to lash out at the developers, make damaging assumptions about individuals, or blame a Chinese bogeyman for your woes. Passion and emotion has a way of getting away from us, and even when we believe, deep down, that we have a genuine grievance, we step further over the line than we know we should.
When Diablo Immortal rolls around, give it a try. It might be good, and you might like it. Or it might suck. It might really suck. Who knows? We don’t. They haven’t even released it yet. Just breathe. It’s going to be okay.
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