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Diablo: Immortal broke the unspoken rules of Blizzard, and BlizzCon

The Diablo: Immortal controversy is the result of a company breaking its own social contract with fans

Blizzard wasn’t ready for the immediate, and overwhelmingly negative, fan reaction to the announcement of Diablo: Immortal. And interviews after the controversial press conference indicate that the company may be confused about why fans are so angry.

“The way I’ve been kind of looking at the mixed comments is what those folks are really saying is they desperately, passionately want the next big thing,” Allen Adham, executive producer and Blizzard co-founder told Polygon in a previous interview. “So I actually think that those two items are being conflated ... It’s pretty clear to us that there is a huge audience around the world that is gonna love this title. So hopefully we’ll get there.”

I disagree with this assessment, and it ignores the expectations that Blizzard itself has spent decades creating in its fans.

So what went wrong with this reveal? How did Blizzard mess up what should have been a fairly standard game announcement? Why is Diablo: Immortal such a bizarre shift for Blizzard, and why is it triggering such rage and anxiety in the audience?

You have to look at the big picture to make sense of all this, because there’s more logic to this situation than it may appear.

How Blizzard pitches its games

To understand Blizzard, you need to understand that it’s a developer that is known more for its execution on existing ideas than its original concepts. Blizzard takes games that people already love, and iterates on them with a focus on lore, character design and polish.

Blizzard doesn’t need to get to a genre first, it just needs to be able to do it better.

“Let’s take a game that we all love playing, do what we want to do to make it ours, just like we’ve done with every single game from the past,” Blizzard’s Sam Didier told Polygon in 2014. “Vikings was Lemmings. Rock and Roll Racing, name any of those car games out there. Warcraft came from Dune, so it’s the same thing with Heroes of the Storm.”

In this case, Heroes of the Storm was Blizzard’s attempt to create something like Dota 2 or League of Legends — games that actually spawned from Blizzard’s own Warcraft 3.

“It’s like, we take a game that we like and then we make our version of it,” Didier explained. “If we like it, it turns out that people like it as well.”

So that’s the format for how Blizzard reveals new games, and it’s easy to explain:

  • World of Warcraft: Blizzard does Everquest!
  • Warcraft: Blizzard does Dune!
  • Overwatch: Blizzard does Team Fortress 2!
  • Hearthstone: Blizzard does Magic: The Gathering!
  • Heroes of the Storm: Blizzard does Dota 2!

Diablo: Immortal isn’t the sequel that Diablo fans wanted, nor is it Blizzard taking a crack at an existing genre. Instead, it’s an example of an external company, NetEase, in this case, taking a crack at a formula Blizzard had seemingly perfected. Fans were at BlizzCon to see what Blizzard can do with the ideas of other companies, not what other companies can do with Blizzard’s ideas.

NetEase is collaborating with Blizzard on Diablo: Immortal, but Blizzard builds excitement by asking questions that don’t yet have an answer. What happens when Blizzard tries its hand at creating a collectible card game? We didn’t know until Hearthstone was released.

Diablo: Immortal asks what would happen if a third-party developer tries its hand at Diablo on mobile platforms, and that’s a question that has been answered many times in the past. The results have always been mediocre. We know what off-brand Diablo is like; it’s not a rare thing in gaming. Blizzard working with NetEase on Diablo: Immortal seems suspiciously like someone replacing the labels on store brand sugary cereal to say “Lucky Charms.”

It doesn’t help that the demo given at BlizzCon doesn’t live up to what we expect from Diablo.

“With Diablo: Immortal, it’s easy to feel like you’re playing Diablo, but it also feels like an illusion,” our own Ryan Gilliam wrote after trying the game. “It looks like Diablo, it sounds like Diablo, and it even plays like Diablo. And yet it feels like it’s missing the sense of satisfaction that comes each time you crumple a demon corpse in every other Diablo game. The soul of Diablo doesn’t feel present.”

Diablo fans are used to games that look like Diablo but aren’t as fun as the original; it’s almost a genre of its own on mobile platforms. But this may be the first time the fans have had to deal with a mediocre-looking game that’s actually called Diablo, and comes with Blizzard’s blessing.

The assumption being made, and being spread throughout social media, is that Blizzard is selling out its ideals for a chunk of the lucrative mobile gaming market, at the expense of the fans that have been there all along.

And perhaps the worst thing of all? It’s not on PC.

Why the platform matters

“We were like, ‘Oh, PC games. That is what we want to do. We love PC games. We are big PC gamers you know, and we are only doing these projects to kind of pay the bills, but we’ve got this great game idea,” former Blizzard North president David Brevik told IGN in 2017, talking about his company’s first meetings with Blizzard and bonding over doing console contract work to keep the lights on.

“We’ve pitched it to everybody,” he said. “We’ve been turned down, you know, 50 times, or whatever it is. Nobody wants to do this game because RPGs are dead, but we got this great RPG idea we would love to make some day.’”

That game became the first Diablo.

Blizzard is known for its PC releases, and Diablo games have always come to the PC and Mac first, to be later ported to consoles. Overwatch is one of the rare Blizzard games to be released on consoles alongside the initial PC launch. Hardcore Blizzard fans are, generally speaking, PC gamers.

You can see the confusion and, yes, hurt coming from a fan when he asks whether Diablo: Immortal will be playable on PC. The answer is no, there are no plans to bring the game to the PC. The fans, predictably, boo.

“Do you guys not have phones?” Blizzard developer Wyatt Cheng said in response. Not only did he misread the room with that question, he missed the point.

These folks have phones, and they probably love playing games on those phones. But Diablo was born, and made popular, on the PC. And now there will be a new Diablo game that looks better than Diablo 3, and they’ve just been told that not only will it not launch on the PC, but that there aren’t any plans to ever bring it to the PC.

Blizzard is once again breaking one of the core expectations the company has built across decades of game releases, and no one from the company seems to grasp why the fans feel hurt by this decision.

So what now?

J. Allen Brack, Blizzard’s new CEO, has to convince longtime Diablo players that Blizzard hasn’t begun to sacrifice its quality and long-term beliefs for profit.

That will be a challenge. Blizzard has risen to prominence by applying its strengths to existing genres, making sure that PC players are never left out of the experience and keeping quality high while competitors chase trends.

Diablo: Immortal breaks all three of those rules at BlizzCon; what happens with the project next will shape how fans perceive not just the game, but the company.

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