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title art for Diablo Immortal showing a lone figure hoisting a sword above a crowd of other warriors

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Diablo Immortal’s microtransactions weren’t designed in a vacuum

And it’s not the last game of its kind

Image: NetEase, Blizzard Entertainment

When Diablo Immortal was announced at BlizzCon 2018, a lone member of the audience stood before the developers of the free-to-play mobile title to ask: “Is this an out-of-season April Fools’ joke?” This general vitriol and mockery followed Diablo Immortal up until its recent launch. And these sentiments haven’t diminished since. But it’s no longer the knee-jerk reaction to disappointing announcements, or the fact that the game is available on mobile devices. It’s the result of Diablo Immortal’s microtransactions, which, while predatory, weren’t spun up out of thin air.

Diablo Immortal is doused in layers of in-game transactions — a proverbial wall of offers with inflated percentages to convince players that the more they buy, the more they save. This has been common practice in the mobile market for ages, however different the presentation may have appeared. You see it with Genshin Impact’s Genesis Crystal store, where purchasing large amounts of currency will grant players an even larger amount of the same exact currency. You also see it in the case of Lapis — the paid currency in Final Fantasy Brave Exvius — which titillates players with “bonus” currency reaching into the thousands when purchasing packs valuing upward of $100.

“A common tactic for mobile games or any game with microtransactions is to complicate currency,” an anonymous employee working within the mobile game industry recently told me. “Like, if I spent $1, I might get two types of currencies (gold and jewels, for instance). It helps to obfuscate the actual cash value spent since there isn’t a one-to-one conversion. And, we also purposefully put worse deals [beside] other ones to make the other deals look more lucrative and players feel like they are smarter by saving out and getting the other deals.”

“In the company I was in, we had weekly events with unique prizes, and they were designed so that you could [...] complete it with rare in-game currency, which would let you get one of the main prizes. But designers also had to include extra milestone prizes after that main prize, which would usually require spending real cash to get ahead in the event. A lot of our milestones and metrics to measure if an event did well is of course how much folks spent. We did measure sentiment, but I think the higher-ups always cared more about if the event got folks to spend.”

A screenshot from Diablo Immortal showing a female Crusader’s inventory of gems Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Real-money transactions aren’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Diablo Immortal didn’t pioneer them, and it would be disingenuous to present that as fact. Blizzard’s action-RPG isn’t the root cause, but instead the worst amalgamation of hundreds of different free-to-play mobile and PC games. With two different Battle Passes, each with their own rewards that remain exclusive to a character (and not your overall roster), and too many different currencies for the average player to keep track of, Diablo Immortal’s economy reads like a mobile marketplace monstrosity.

These practices, though sometimes met with resistance, have become normalized within the industry at large. You could argue that the prevalence of loot boxes or other real-money transactions in AAA games has contributed to this kind of predatory economy — but the more that AAA gaming shifts toward the games-as-service model, the more it has in common with mobile games that have existed within this extremely popular sphere for almost a decade.

And this isn’t just reflected in the use of paid currency to obtain items, but also in gacha mechanics, and the disclosure of drop rates among rarer items. Gacha is the act of using in-game currency, whether it was free or purchased through an in-game shop, to obtain something at random: pieces of equipment, in the case of Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia, or characters in the ever popular (and persistent) Fate/Grand Order or Genshin Impact.

In Diablo Immortal’s case, it’s the use of Legendary Crests (which can be earned or purchased) to increase the chance of a 5-star gem appearing in endgame dungeons. While not entirely traditional in its presentation (most gacha are performed through “rolling” on a limited-time banner), players are still engaging with the kind of randomness in a similar manner. In many ways, the Diablo franchise has been building toward these mechanics since its inception, as Maddy Myers wrote a few weeks ago.

Diablo Immortal shop screenshot for the eternal orbs currency. Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Diablo Immortal also, in no uncertain terms, pulls direct inspiration from a “feeding” mechanic that many Japanese, Korean, and Chinese mobile games have normalized for over a decade. “Feeding” entails raising the stats, attributes, or rarity of an item by getting a duplicate of a drop. These duplicates are then fed to an item of the same rarity to increase the overall stats of said item. Generally, five copies are required as industry standard to max out an item or character.

My first introduction to “feeding” was in Fate/Grand Order, which was originally released in Japan in July 2015 and grossed a total of $4 billion dollars worldwide in 2019. In order to make a character the best it could absolutely be, I needed to obtain duplicates of each one. And when a specific banner rolled around, I ended up dropping upward of 300 euros to obtain the 5-star character I had coveted for years. However, I never obtained the duplicates I needed in order to see this character’s full potential. With rates for the most valuable 5-star characters now sitting somewhere at 1%, it was no surprise I never managed to get a copy of the character during my time playing the game (which I have since uninstalled). As of July 2021, Fate/Grand Order was the seventh highest grossing mobile game of all time, sitting just behind Konami’s Puzzle & Dragons, which, I might add, is also a gacha game.

During a GDC 2021 talk, Genshin Impact developer Hoyoverse (previously Mihoyo) outright admitted that its method for designing characters revolved around generating the highest possible capital from its audience. The Raiden Shogun and Kokomi character reruns in March 2022 alone netted the company more than $33 million in revenue.

The Genshin Impact Battle Pass screen Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

Diablo Immortal may be wearing a different mask, but the face beneath is always the same. Somehow, as Oli Welsh wrote, Activision Blizzard has made these practices even worse within its recent release. This has resulted in well-earned scrutiny from an international player base; the same can’t always be said for the games that set the precedence for these practices. While games with similar mechanics and egregious rates have been under scrutiny within their own respective communities, this is the first time we’ve seen pushback of this magnitude.

But this could largely be part of the reason the industry has continued to fester: These practices have gone unchecked as the sheer amount of consumers on mobile devices has grown significantly within the past decade. However, governments have also played their parts in expecting the games industry to “self-regulate,” as opposed to imposing some kind of international (or in-country) restraints on these predatory practices. Japan is the rare exception — it began imposing regulatory standards for gacha games and other “loot box”-based titles as early as 2012. That said, Japanese developers have managed to skirt some of these laws by working through loopholes and modifying their practices (which involves disclosing drop rates for any item available through gacha mechanics) to create the environment we see so commonly today.

The progression to this point feels like an inevitability to people who have spent enough time navigating these systems within mobile games for more than a decade. With a market so incredibly popular and profitable, Diablo Immortal feels like a most sinister take on some of the most predatory practices within the industry. Blizzard’s newest release earned over $24 million in revenue in just two weeks — not just through the dense layering of shop transactions that bleed into the very mechanics of the game, but also through sheer exposure on Twitch, with some streamers spending copious amounts of money to get the coveted 5-star gem. It seems like this beast could very much become the norm in the not-too-distant future. It feels like a joke, albeit a cruel one, indeed. Diablo Immortal is not the first, nor the last, game of its kind.

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