The issues with Diablo Immortal are a worrying indicator for Blizzard’s future aspirations for its properties.
We’ve been playing a lot of Diablo Immortal since it arrived this month in Asia on Blizzard Entertainment’s platform. This diversion brings the Diablo series to mobile platforms and condenses the traditional looter-slasher experience into portable adventures. Since its terrible first debut at BlizzCon 2019, Diablo Immortal hasn’t had the best of times, but it’s still a surprisingly addicting game that’s enjoyable to play both on mobile devices and PCs.
Yes, for a while. Hacking vile demons to pieces, switching out gear, and hoarding loot are all fine and dandy for the first part of the game, but then it gets more difficult to level up your characters and unlock better levels of equipment. Before the game constantly and subtly informs you that there is a quicker way through all of this monotonous churning and repetition, but it will cost you.
The problems with Diablo Immortal are numerous and now well-documented, but they also hint at a deeper issue inside Blizzard Entertainment. The formerly beloved game publisher has started to make inroads into the smartphone market in an effort to find simpler and faster ways to monetize its games. The true issue is not this mobile game. It’s merely a foreboding sign of things to come for Blizzard games in the future.
This is how it starts
Ten years later, Blizzard Entertainment is not the same business. Following a string of lawsuits and allegations including anything from a hostile work environment to sexual misconduct, which culminated in a 2021 lawsuit from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a large portion of its seasoned leadership and core developers left. CEO Mike Morhaime retired in 2018 and was succeeded by J. Brack Allen Brack resigned in 2021, and Jen O’neal and Mike Ybarra took over as co-leaders. Oneal left the company the same year in search of greener, less troublesome pastures, leaving Ybarra as the sole head. Of course, Activision Blizzard signed a new agreement in 2022 to merge with Xbox Game Studios by 2023.
The conflict that has raged within Blizzard for years is reflected in the nearly continual leadership changes, but it is not the only cause. It has frequently been said that Activision sees Blizzard as less profitable than its Call of Duty studios, particularly in recent years when Call of Duty has not only maintained annual releases but also a battle royale brand. That pace cannot be maintained by Blizzard’s own franchises. Expansions for major live multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone only provide these titles brief bursts of renewed life, and even that has diminishing returns over time for sequels like Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, which take years to develop and distribute.
It’s possible to argue that Blizzard’s problems have reached their peak and that things will only get worse from here. The business has two significant games planned for this year and the following year after a lack of new game releases: Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4, as well as a new survival game. Furthermore, despite the fact that Diablo Immortal has only been available outside of North America for a month, Blizzard has already experienced tremendous financial success from the game. When the broader company’s poor performance in 2018 was attributed to Blizzard’s lack of new releases, then-CEO J. As a remedy, Allen Brack committed to launch a number of brand-new initiatives across several Blizzard properties. Now that Brack is gone, it is obvious that he maintained his promise over time.
Why mobile games?
Whether we like it or not, Blizzard has had a ton of success with Diablo Immortal. Before it was released earlier this week in SEA nations like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Indonesia, the game made $20 million in just the first two weeks after its introduction. That’s a lot of money, and the majority of it can be linked to the game’s aggressive use of in-game purchases. Every time a player logs in, they are taken to the online store where they can purchase cosmetics, chests, and bundles for real-world money.
Of course, that isn’t even the worst of it. Players have discovered that in order to unlock the game’s most advanced gear, you must purchase Legendary Crests and complete Elder Rift dungeons in order to have a chance of receiving a five-star Legendary Gem drop. You have a pitiful 0.05 percent chance of obtaining a five-star Legendary Gem, which is required for expensive equipment upgrades. The battle pass is another option, which unlocks a variety of extra bonus things in addition to the free items you receive as you advance through the game. Diablo Immortal is similar to a hedge maze where all the walls vanish the moment you take out your wallet, therefore playing it for free is like playing it.
That’s good, isn’t it? If you don’t like this particular game, don’t play it. If you don’t like the franchise, it’s that simple to avoid. But what if you like Warcraft? A free-to-play smartphone game called Warcraft Arclight Rumble, which Blizzard released a few months ago, appears to be the company’s response to casual strategic games like Clash Royale. You must not have been paying attention if you believe that game won’t have a microtransaction issue. The second Overwatch game? The follow-up to the hero shooter releases as another free-to-play game, with a brand-new in-game shop where players can buy battle passes and many additional cosmetic items.
Then there is Diablo 4 as well. Overwatch 2 proves that cosmetic-only microtransactions can be pretty extensive – ranging from the simple battle pass unlock to the more complex add-ons: gun charms, skins, emotes, flags, and more. Blizzard has promised that its microtransactions won’t be anything like Diablo Immortal, only, “built around optional cosmetic items and eventually full expansions.” Even if a microtransaction is not intended to be used during gaming, it might nevertheless feel intrusive. The most extreme end of a spectrum that consumers should never wish to participate in is represented by pay-to-win transactions.
Somewhere, there must be some good.
It’s a true tragedy that the consequence of Blizzard’s tenacious drive for higher profit margins is readily apparent in its most recent and upcoming games. Even with the recent wave of controversies and employee departures, this organization still has a ton of talent. Even though it is hampered by poor lag and odd game design decisions, Diablo Immortal is actually quite entertaining and addictive. Until those Legendary Gems came into focus, I didn’t think the game was completely beyond repair. So far, at least, Overwatch 2’s new hero and maps are a showcase of the original game’s brilliance. With stunning visuals that presage a return to the franchise’s darker and more gruesome incarnations, Diablo 4 is already proving to be the game that fans have been waiting on for years.
The regrettable situation of Diablo Immortal demonstrates Blizzard’s willingness to stretch the definition of “free-to-play” to its nth degree, raising questions about how user-friendly any of its future products will be. Every other year, this corporation discovers new methods to lose its good reputation, so we must eventually cease counting for it to rise again.