At BlizzCon 2018, a developer's worst nightmare occurred: the biggest fan event intended to celebrate the announcement of a new game turned very sour.
When the Diablo hype train crashed, there were little to no survivors. Instead of excitement, there was skepticism, frustration, and even disgust in the air of conversations regarding the state of Diablo: Immortal. People wanted a new version of their beloved playable PC RPG and, instead, they were given an exclusive Mobile game.
Diablo Fans were not happy.
"Is this an out-of-season April Fools joke?"
The "April Fools" joke is (literally) another "Red Shirt Guy" moment. But instead of a charming peek into the dedication of one fan, it showcases a rude interaction in a setting that was meant to be friendly and welcoming. The Q&A format thrives off a spirit of genuine curiosity, not sarcastic traps meant to fluster people on stage. In another world, attendees might have rallied around developers and wagged their fingers at one grumpy fan's attempt to derail the festivities
But we aren't in that world. Our world features Diablo fans that feel cheated to the extreme, robbed of the juicy Diablo reveal they had been hoping for. As a result, these fans are rallying around the "April Fools" guy and praising him for taking the cheap shot. The Diablo subReddit is calling him a hero and countless memes are being made in honor of his open defiance at BlizzCon 2018.
Was it really that bad?
I attended BlizzCon 2018 and I was surprised to see an environment so tense and hostile towards otherwise lauded Blizzard staff. To make things clear, I am not a big Diablo fan. In fact, my two favorite game of all time is Warcraft 3 and Vanilla World of Warcraft, so this was an amazing BlizzCon for me. I was thrilled to see Warcraft: Reforged and WoW: Classic stand proudly as the most talked about games at BlizzCon -- long live the classic division at Blizzard!
So, initially, I didn't understand why so many Diablo fans were upset. Sure, mobile games aren't the most popular among the PC-oriented Blizzard crowd, but that isn't a reason to immediately write off the game, right? I played the demo and thought it was just fine -- it ran smooth, the controls were fluid (though they took some getting used to) and I felt like I was playing Diablo 3 all over again.
But then I started talking to fans directly. In fact, as I was writing this, I overheard an impassioned group of fans having a conversation about -- you guessed it -- how much they dislike Immortal. I have been hearing conversations like this all over the convention floor so I sat down with them, told them I was trying to figure out why Diablo fans are so upset, and this is what they told me:
"It's just not what we wanted. Nobody asked for it. Heroes of the Storm players got what they asked for, Warcraft 3 players, somehow, got what they asked for. Even Classic WoW fanatics are getting what they asked for."
"They waited till the very end of the opening ceremony to announce it -- like it was some big reveal. That is when they announced it. They announce their best stuff traditionally at the end, not a mobile game!"
"This game is probably going to be fun and worth some time to put in, but the entire announcement was so tone deaf."
After more chats like this and tons of lurking on Reddit and Twitter, here what I surmised to be the primary reasons why fans are so upset with Immortal.
1. It shouldn't have been announced at BlizzCon.
One of the first and most obvious thoughts on everyone's mind is how poor of a decision it was to announce this at BlizzCon. Now, hindsight is a weird thing. No one could have known for sure that Immortal would become a PR nightmare right off the bat, but it's fair to say Blizzard insiders had some idea things would be rocky.
First, there was the unprecedented pre-BlizzCon blog post that attempted to temper peoples expectations. While at the time I thought it confidently de-confirmed big Diablo news and set expectations low, in hindsight I think this move actually made people more curious about what Diablo announcement was going to be made at BlizzCon.
The Diablo anticipation was at an all-time high leading up to BlizzCon. So much so, I recall some of my Blizzard contacts mentioning to me weeks in advanced at how the team was aware of fan rumors circulating and were trying to figure out a way to ease expectations. Blizzard knew that people would be disappointed but, realistically, what else could they have shown?
It is a hard question to answer. What seems apparent now, however, is that BlizzCon hype is a double-edged sword. Blizzard can't expect the atmosphere and larger-than-life presence of BlizzCon to shine an otherwise dull announcement. Fans feel justifiably bamboozled -- a mobile game just isn't an announcement befitting of BlizzCon's prestigious reputation.
2. NetEase, Pay 2 Win, and the "re-skin" concern.
NetEase doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to making quality games that don't, eventually, turn into cash grabs. The massive Chinese company has made it their business to build RPG's filled with pay-walls and lottery systems that hide a game's most powerful goodies. In the case of one of their most popular RPG's, Crusaders of Light, this is a big problem to a lot of players.
Yes, you can also acquire legendary in-game power with patience and tons of farming, but when other players achieve the same thing by simply paying more money, it disrupts the sense of achievement and progression that RPG fans care about. Diablo fans, in particular, remember the sting of the real money Diablo III auction house, so when it came to light that Blizzard "partnered" with NetEase to create Immortal, a lot of warning sirens went off.
Then, the sirens got louder when people started comparing the design and feel of Crusaders of Light to that of Immortal. By the time it also came to light that Immortal will use the same engine that Crusader's of Light does, the warning signs were deafening.
Diablo fans were mortified to see that their big BlizzCon announcement was, in their eyes, a reskin of a Chinese-made mobile RPG. The Diablo franchise is perfectly poised for the same style of aggressive micro-transactions and Pay 2 Win system that NetEase is known for and Blizzard didn't do much to quell fan dread that this system was the reason for Immortal's existence.
3. Blizzard gamers are PC gamers.
One of the most poignant moments during the Immortal Q&A was the audible boo'ing after a fan asked whether the game would ever come to PC:
It's not a complex point to understand: Blizzard fans are PC gamers through and through. It doesn't matter if mobile gaming represents a massive portion of gamers worldwide (China, in particular, have embraced mobile gaming to an extent that few Westernerners fully realize) -- BlizzCon is dominated by PC gamers that pride themselves on being so.
And, among PC games, the Diablo franchise is one of the most beloved. The emotional reality that the newest iteration of the game is a strictly mobile experience is very disheartening for long-time fans of the series. To these fans, it is as sacrilegious as if the newest Street Fighter or Call of Duty game was strictly for mobile devices.
"Do you guys not have phones?" was a line delivered under pressure while on the defensive. Unfortunately, it will live on forever until Blizzard somehow makes it right. However, if Vanilla WoW fans can forgive the notorious "You think you do, but you don't" moment from BlizzCon 2013, then anything is possible.
4. The Activision cultural impact
It's no secret that Activision is not as beloved as Blizzard. So, when the two merged into Activision-Blizzard, a stigma emerged concerning a Blizzard that is slowly losing the magic that made it great in the first place. Fans cite the decline of World of Warcraft subscribers, Starcraft Remastered's relative obscurity, and the multiple Heroes of the Storm re-boots as symptoms of the same problem -- the Blizzard they knew has changed.
It also doesn't help that Blizzard figureheads keep leaving the company or stepping down from their leadership roles. Mike Morhaime, Chris Metzen, Ben Brode, and Dustin Browder (the latter is still with the company, but no longer leading HotS or SCII) are just some of the more high-profile Blizzard veterans that are slowly leaving their positions of influence, and fans theorize that Activision's need for profits have diminished the "Blizzard polish" that gamers have grown to love.
Immortal is being viewed as the pinnacle of "new Blizzard" in the worst way. It's something no-one asked for that will surely make a ton of money. Despite this, I still didn't immediately buy into the outrage and anger over Immortals and thought fans were being unreasonable.
"It's brand new content! It's a new way to play!" -- as only a casual Diablo fan, I couldn't understand why people were so upset. However, sometime after talking to the dozens of Diablo fans there were visibly annoyed at Immortal, I started to think about how I would feel if Warcraft: Reforged was dealt a similar hand.
How would I feel if my favorite game of all time was recreated as a mobile game that borrowed heavily from a Chinese pay 2 win engine? If, instead of an authentic remastering that oozes Blizzard polish, attention to detail, and fan appreciation, I was fed a lame speech about how mobile gaming is the perfect platform for a game that has, for years, thrived on PCs?
What do you think about Diablo: Immortal? Let me know in the comment sections whether or not you think this is a new step for Diablo or the last straw.
Warcraft 3 is my one true love and I will challenge anyone to a game of Super Smash Brothers Melee.