By now, you've probably heard all about Blizzard's blunder of an announcement for Diablo Immortal, an upcoming mobile MMORPG. Of all places, Blizzard chose to reveal this game at BlizzCon, which didn't go over too well with the hardcore fans that attend such an event. But now that the dust has settled a little, many of us are still left wondering if Diablo Immortal is actually a cheaply made mobile MMORPG or a rightful member of the franchise. If anything, Blizzard's refusal to comment on the monetization is somewhat worrying.
NetEase - the Chinese company that helped to develop Immortal - and Blizzard actually have a long history together. It's also a very normal thing, because in order for foreign gaming companies to get a foot in the door in China, they generally have to partner with domestic studios like NetEase for localization, infrastructure, and distribution. This is one of the reasons Epic has a tight relationship with Tencent, and it's also why Nintendo has partnered with DeNA in the past. China is a huge, burgeoning market - and you better believe every single gaming company out there wants a piece of that pie.
Blizzard Entertainment NetEase have partnered on the operation of games in China including Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch, as well as new content for these games during the agreement period.
So when you think about it, it kind of makes sense that a mobile game like Diablo Immortal would eventually get made. After all, there are already hundreds of such games on the Play Store, so why not capitalize on the trend and release the true king of ARPGs on mobile? After all, nothing is being taken away from PC and console gamers, so what's with all the angst? A big part of it is likely that Blizzard hyped a Diablo annoucement before BlizzCon, and that as a result fans were expecting a little more than what, on the surface, seems like a very formulaic mobile game. Honestly, if Diablo Immortal had been quietly announced like Fallout Shelter, I doubt the uproar would have been as loud, but announcing such a game at BlizzCon, well, we can all see how that worked out.
Diablo Immortal Gameplay Trailer
Once the rumor mill started churning, though, there was no stopping it. In what will likely prove an impossible-to-dispel accusation, angry fans posited that Diablo Immortal was some type of reskinning of NetEase's MMO Crusaders of Light. Similar points were made about another NetEase ARPG, Endless of God. I'm still not convinced that either of these titles are the basis for Diablo Immortal, as the argument that the games feature similar mechanics and button layouts could be levied against literally hundreds of other games made by dozens of studios. Now, that's not to say the trailer linked above doesn't look like every other mobile ARPG out there, which is obviously doing Immortal no favors.
But what do those who have actually had a chance to try out the new mobile game think? On the show floor of BlizzCon, details have been trickling out. Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku went hands-on and wasn't all that impressed: the demo only lasted fifteen minutes, consisting of two linear zones and one boss fight.
Both areas were pretty linear, likely for the purpose of funneling BlizzCon attendees straight into the action.
One thing that worries me about Nathan's description is that many mobile ARPGs offer similar linear experiences. You're funneled from one bland hallway to the next to kill swarms of enemies, which I suppose does not stray too far from Diablo's roots, but in such a boiled-down state this setup can get old very quickly. I hope Diablo Immortal doesn't fall victim to this lazy type of level design. Still, the demo felt like something of a red flag, and does lend some credence to the idea that Diablo Immortal is just a highly branded version of the same mobile junk we've been playing for years.
Kotaku isn't the only outlet to go hands-on - Polygon's Ryan Gilliam had a stab at it, and noted that in the demo the same loot dropped from the same boss fight every time. This isn't how loot has worked historically in the Diablo franchise; largely randomized drops are a hallmark of the play experience (aside from a select few quest items). Further down in the article Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham states that Diablo Immortal will indeed carry across the best elements of previous Diablo games, but then goes on to describe a loot system that's closer to WoW than Diablo.
It’ll be a combination of some incentive to run specific dungeons and fight specific bosses. Not everything will just be kind of random world drop, but a lot of it will be random world drop and then the best game has elements of both.
Sadly, this is exactly the type of PR-speak that rightly makes gamers nervous. It neither confirms nor denies how the game will actually play. Oh, it'll have a little bit of both? Well gee thanks Mr. Adham, that answers everything.
The good news is things seemingly get better from here. Kotaku also had an interview with Adham, in which he points out that the game is purpose-built from the ground up, and that while the controls may look similar to those in other NetEase titles, that's normal for this kind of game because it's already been proven to work well.
I want to assure you that Diablo Immortal is purpose-built from the ground up. In the East, that control method is becoming ubiquitous, and it’s becoming ubiquitous because it’s very natural, and it feels great. Less so in the West, but we’re now starting to see some games that are bringing that mechanic to the West. So it’s us taking inspiration from some of the work they’ve done already.
That's all well and good, but it leaves a real question: what is the purpose of Diablo Immortal?
And that gets to the heart of the issue, and one that everyone is fairly concerned with: monetization. To that point, we don't yet have an answer, because Blizzard hasn't decided how it'll all work - and that's kind of worrying. You'd think that once the YouTube trailers started getting massive downvotes and the many articles covering the disaster of an announcement started popping up across the web that Blizzard would be more than glad to quell any fears that Diablo Immortal is just another cheap Chinese cash-grab with popular IP slapped on top. So far all we've seen is a heck of a lot of PR-speak from the company that, in the end, boils down to very little in the way of concrete answers. There is only one question that really needs to be addressed, and the fact that Blizzard refuses to answer tells me a lot more about this title than any of the PR-jargon bandied about in the last few days. And given how it's been received to date, Diablo Immortal is going to require a lot more effort on Blizzard's part to convince gamers that it's the real thing.