Diablo Immortal, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smartphone

What a fun two weeks it’s been on gaming Twitter eh? BlizzCon, the giant corporate huzzah that gamers flock to as if it were some sort of PC Master Race pilgrimage, ended with the announcement of a brand new Diablo game… for smartphones.

The gamer rage for Diablo Immortal was real, and pretty much instant, with one of the first questions being asked at the panel immediately following the opening ceremonies soaked with snark. “Just was wondering, is this an out-of-season April Fool’s joke?”

Let’s get something out of the way first: Regardless of how you feel about Diablo Immortal, your feelings and emotions can be heard without being a jackass to the developers. You can, and should, be critical of the product Blizzard puts out, but you can do that without resulting to name calling, berating, whining, or gatekeeping. Capitalism works when you vote with your wallet. If you don’t think Diablo Immortal is going to be your cup of tea, don’t engage with it. It’s not stealing your lunch money or making racist comments on Twitter.

Second: Just because Diablo Immortal exists doesn’t mean that other, future, Diablo projects won’t happen. It’s not a zero sum situation. Blizzard even stated this in a video released 3 months before BlizzCon.

A lot of fans assumed we would be seeing Diablo 4 at BlizzCon, perhaps along with a trailer or tease for the long rumored Diablo Netflix series. This was obviously way off the mark, but watching that video after the Diablo Immortal announcement, it’s very clear Blizzard meant for the video to temper expectations, not amp them up.

So, what’s happening with Diablo 4?

Blizzard is working on Diablo 4 in some capacity. It could be finishing up pre-production, ramping up for its first playable internal alpha, or simply a folder on a server with a title card and design document. The same can be said of just about any giant media property though. Disney probably has plans for Star Wars Episodes 10, 11 and 12, and they are probably one page documents with a very very brief outline. DC Comics is already banging on Tom King’s door for an outline for a comic event they don’t even have a name for yet (Coming to your local comic shop in the summer of 2020.) Nintendo is probably in pre-production of the next Zelda game, and Sony is looking for partners for the PS5. All of these things should not be a shock, this is how modern media works. So why didn’t Blizzard just come out and say that they are making Diablo 4?

As reported by Kotaku, that might have initially been the plan. For some reason, it never materialized. The only people who will ever know for certain why it didn’t happen is Blizzard, and it’s most likely buried under tons of legal NDAs. So the prophesied video (likely just some slow establishing shots with a voice over and a title card) while cool, never showed up. Fans were pissed.

Diablo Immortal

I get it. Diablo Immortal is not what I expected as the next entry into one of my favorite series. But there’s one huge reason Diablo is coming to phones, and that reason is simple to understand: money. In April, Fortnite (on mobile platforms alone) made nearly $300 million. Blizzard has already tested the waters of mobile gaming with Hearthstone with a 26.7% market share in the digital card game space. Hearthstone also won multiple Mobile Game of the Year awards in 2014. Of course Blizzard is going to continue to chase that carrot. They would be stupid not to. You know what is a bad investment right now? PC Gaming.

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A similar situation happened at E3 with Bethesda Softworks. They announced a mobile game, Elder Scrolls Blades, to a tepid audience response. They then showed off a title card for Elder Scrolls VI. No one threw a fit online, no developers got harassed, and everyone seems pretty okay with it as of this writing.

I know, it hurts to type that as much as it hurts you to read it, but it’s true. Ars Technica has a quick little article about Microsoft’s Q1 performance for 2019 (financial calendars are weird!) and the byline to the article states “You know the drill by now: cloud money good, consumer PC sales not.” Further down in the article? “We continue to see the split between corporate PC sales, which are growing, and home PC sales, which are not.” So if you are Blizzard, and you are looking at the mobile market, and the home PC market, which one are you going to develop your new game for? Exactly.

Look, I am super excited for the inevitable Diablo 4. I fully believe Blizzard will give us another great and full classsic-esque PC Diablo experience, but how are they gonna fund that? Loot boxes from Overwatch are in the crosshairs of world governments. So maybe a mobile game with some light microtransactions isn’t that bad of an idea. When the time comes and Diablo 4 finally hits I will absolutely be there on day one. I’ll bring friends. But that desire to play on PC doesn’t mean I don’t also have the desire to sit down on my lunch break in my car–or, Sanctuary forbid, a toilet–and slay endless demons on my phone.

Having Diablo in my pocket sounds awesome!

If you would have told 13-year-old me, losing sleep hunched over my PC playing my Necromancer in Diablo 2, that one day I would be able to have a Diablo game on my cell phone, mini-me would have lost it. This is the world we are living in now! Our beloved fandoms are invading our phones, and that is pretty cool.

Diablo Immortal

The reason I have faith in Diablo Immortal comes down to one big thing: A gorilla with a tesla coil cannon. Overwatch was announced in 2014 and it was met with a boiling excitement. Known for giant MMO World of Warcraft, competitive RTS juggernaut StarCraft 2, addicting mobile card game Hearthstone and more, Blizzard had never done a First Person Shooter game before, and well, Overwatch is pretty much synonymous with gaming now. Its characters will soon be immortalized in a LEGO deal, among other honors.

Blizzard is co-developing Diablo Immortal with NetEase, a Chinese communications company that handles all of Blizzard’s IPs in China, from World of Warcraft servers to Hearthstone microtransactions. They have been working with Blizzard for years, and it’s cool to see that relationship develop outside of Asia.

Unfortunately, this relationship is where a lot of players are aiming their frustrations. Gamers have been pointing at Crusaders of Light, a free to play fantasy game rife with microtransactions and convoluted systems (developed and published by NetEase) as a red mark for Diablo Immortal. Crusaders of Light is closer to World of Warcraft than Diablo; aside from the UI–lifted because it works–there is little comparison to be made.

In an effort to see if Diablo could work on mobile, I went through the App Store and downloaded Crusaders of Light and two other Diablo-esque games, Goddess: Primal Chaos and Brawl Lords. There is one simple change Diablo Immortal needs to make to these established games to win the hearts of gamers everywhere: Get rid of auto play.

Lightning Round Reviews
Goddess: Primal Chaos isn’t bad, just busy with a crappy UI. Crusaders of Light is moderately fun but has a sharp learning curve that I wasn’t ready to tackle for a mobile game. Brawl Lords is a steaming pile of flashy screens that mean nothing.

In these dungeon crawlers, you can turn on what is called Auto mode, which allows your character to be played completely by AI, beating baddies, using spells and collecting loot. If you enable this mode, you are no longer a player, just a passive observer. It takes away any pretense that the player exists for any reason other than to open their wallets for those juicy microtransactions. For Diablo Immortal to succeed, just don’t have this as an option. Gaming as a medium is built on interactivity, and by taking that key component away from players, you just dilute the experience.

Diablo Immortal

Other things Blizzard should keep in mind is to look at other big video games making the leap to mobile. Fortnite is successful because it’s a complete experience that has additional purchases that are purely cosmetic and don’t effect the core gameplay for the player or others. Fallout Shelter has been played* by more players than all other Fallout games combined and it’s incredibly minimal on the microtransactions, only offering Lunch Boxes and speed-up items.

Blizzard keeps saying that playing Diablo Immortal will change a lot of minds, and I sincerely hope they’re right. That would be the biggest way to curb everyone’s fears, although it might push people further away from the full game when it finally does release. Blizzard has backed themselves into a nightmare of a PR corner based on how they handled the announcement and in subsequent responses. If it were up to me, I would release the BlizzCon demo to the masses. It would give people something tangible to talk about and to cite directly instead of allowing short sited and hateful gamers to lead the conversation with speculation.

But honestly? I just really want to play Diablo Immortal to make up my own damned mind.

*Authors Note: This metric, while impressive comes with a big huge caveat, it counts who ever downloaded and opened the game at least once as a player. Some people uninstalled it right after and never put in more than 5 minutes of play time. Bethesda counts the download and the opening of the app as a player, but should it really count? Depends on who you ask.

I am a Colorado based freelancer and graphic designer who loves games, movies and technology. I love seeing cool characters do cool things. My wife, son and two stupid cats keep me grounded. Follow me on twitter @RyanMHolt.

Ryan M. Holt

I am a Colorado based freelancer and graphic designer who loves games, movies and technology. I love seeing cool characters do cool things. My wife, son and two stupid cats keep me grounded. Follow me on twitter @RyanMHolt.

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