For Blizzard Entertainment, the dust-up over the announcement of the mobile game Diablo: Immortal came at a bad time. Our review editor Mike Minotti was there at the BlizzCon fan event, where Blizzard cofounder Mike Morhaime went onstage for the last time to introduce J. Allen Brack, the new president.
Brack’s warm introduction by Morhaime was meant to convey continuity and confidence in the future. The keynote talk started well enough, as Brack was the longtime producer of World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s biggest game. But it ended in a PR disaster, as Blizzard closed the show with no mention of an upcoming Diablo PC/console game. Instead, it showed Diablo: Immortal.
One fan summed up the reaction when he asked, “Is this an out-of-season April Fool’s joke?”
It puts a bit of a stain on Brack’s first real interaction with fans as president of the legendary, fan-centric, quality-driven game company. And it’s not like it’s all his fault, as he’s just one of the messengers.
The hardcore fans who traveled to BlizzCon to hear about the next installment of Diablo were dumbfounded. Had Blizzard sold them out, opting to build instead a crappy mobile game that could monetize with greedy little microtransactions? That reaction had so much fear in it, and it was perhaps the worst backlash that Blizzard had ever faced from its previously adoring fans.
Speculation quickly surfaced to feed this meme, as fans said the game was a reskin of a NetEase Diablo clone or that NetEase was making the game and not Blizzard. A negative fan reaction started spreading, and the Diablo: Immortal trailer on YouTube had 560,000 dislikes to 21,000 likes. In turn, Activision Blizzard’s stock price fell because of the fan outrage, stripping out billions of dollars in market value.
Then it didn’t help that Kotaku reported on Monday, incorrectly according to Blizzard, that Blizzard cofounder Allen Adham had prepared a video of Diablo 4 and then yanked it at the last minute, leaving only the mobile game announcement. Kotaku backtracked, saying the video existed but it may never have been lined up for a showing at BlizzCon.
In issuing its denial about the Diablo 4 story, Blizzard was contrite, which was a kind of acknowledgement that it screwed up the announcement. That was wise, as it never pays to say to someone whose feelings are hurt that they’re wrong and they shouldn’t be hurt.
“First off we want to mention that we definitely hear our community,” the company said. To reassure fans, it added, “We do continue to have different teams working on multiple unannounced Diablo projects, and we look forward to announcing when the time is right.”
Electronic Arts felt the same backlash when it announced a new Command & Conquer game, and it turned out it was a mobile game instead of a hardcore PC game like the old series was.
The gamer outrage got more kindling as the offended gamers accused game journalists of piling in on them and labeling them “entitled gamers.” They felt that the game journalists should have been in sync with the fans, but instead these paid shills were defending the company’s dumb move. (One game journalist agreed with the gamers, saying the game journalists were wrong). I took some of this heat on Twitter.
— Brad Glasgow (@Brad_Glasgow) November 6, 2018
Mobile game crimes
We should stop here and note that it isn’t a crime of betrayal to create a mobile game. Mobile games reach wider audiences, and they serve the purpose of bringing non-gamers into the fold. Mobile games are also a $70 billion business, or about half of the total $139 billion game market. It is foolish not to make mobile games, as all of the major video game companies have realized. Why? Because big mobile hits can generate huge revenues, since the world has four billion mobile phone users.
These games also cost a lot less to make, and they can be made more quickly than PC or console games. It’s no surprise, then, that Diablo: Immortal could be announced and come out before a PC version of Diablo 4 gets announced. Also, for some reason, angry gamers assumed that Blizzard was not working on a new PC-based Diablo game, and that they were getting a crappy mobile game instead.
Here’s the thing. If Blizzard made a good mobile game, it could print money, like how Supercell does with Clash Royale or Niantic does with Pokemon Go. And it could use that money to make all the PC games that it wants. (I’ve run this theory by Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick, and he didn’t agree). The big point here is that embracing accessible game platforms like mobile will widen the game market, make all games more profitable, and result in more available capital and better games for hardcore gamers.
The negative reaction was built on another misconception: Real gamers don’t play mobile games. In fact, mobile games are becoming more and more popular among hardcore gamers. Razer is targeting its Razer Phone 2 at hardcore fans.
Then we have this myth that Blizzard gamers don’t like mobile games, especially those microtransactiony free-to-play games. Uh, hello? Have you heard of Blizzard’s Hearthstone, which has been downloaded more than 100 times, both on the PC and mobile. By the way, our review editor Mike Minotti played the Diablo: Immortal prototype, and he was happy with it.
And Diablo is coming to the PC
Let’s also acknowledge that Blizzard is making Diablo 4, or something like it. Allen Adham, cofounder of Blizzard, had left the company in 2004 and returned in 2016. He’s working on Diablo, and he established Blizzard’s maniacal focus on quality. Do we really think that he’s going to mess up Diablo on the PC and leave fans with only a crappy mobile game?
He’s not the sort of guy to ship a really bad game, and he came out and said that Blizzard had not forgotten the core Diablo fans. Knowing what I know about him, I don’t think he would go onstage to make fans happy by saying Diablo 4 is coming when it’s quite possible that Diablo 4 will get put through the wringer before it sees the light of day — because he wants to make the game fun. Now if the fans don’t trust a guy like this to do right by the Diablo franchise, then I don’t know who they should trust.
Wall Street’s rage?
This contrition carried on during the earnings call on Thursday, when Blizzard executives like Brack had to field questions on Diablo: Immortal. Yes, executives at one of gaming’s must successful companies had to address the fan outrage at their carefully orchestrated fan event.
“And last week, Blizzard announced Diablo: Immortal, which will bring this tentpole franchise to a mobile audience in both the east and the west,” said Collister “Coddy” Johnson, chief operating officer at Activision Blizzard, during the analyst call on Thursday. “While fan reaction was muted to the announcement, players’ hands-on experience of this content confirmed what we believe, which is that Diablo mobile will be a very well received game when it releases, and players around the world will love it.”
On the analyst call, Brack also had to respond directly to an analyst who wanted to hear more on Diablo: Immortal.
“So we’ve seen some interesting reaction to the announcement. I think that it’s clear that there are a lot of players who are eager for more Diablo PC and console content,” Brack replied. “I think that came through loud and clear from BlizzCon. And frankly, we feel fortunate to have a community that cares so much about that franchise. The commitment and the engagement of our community is, I think, one of the things that makes Blizzard very special. It’s something that we really appreciate, and we like to hear the things that they articulate as to what they want to hear next and what we can do better, frankly.”
He added, “We feel that Diablo Immortal is going to deliver a very authentic Diablo experience, and we’re not going to compromise on that mission. Launching the game is only going to be the beginning. There’s going to be ongoing support, and we’re only going to release the game when we feel like it is meeting the community’s very high standards. In the end, Diablo Immortal is going to fulfill that, and we think that people are going to experience it, and we think that they’re going to love it.”
And he said, “Regarding I think the opportunity for Diablo and specifically on mobile, I think it is a very significant opportunity. Mobile is the biggest platform in gaming today. And taking a game like mobile onto that platform in a way that is really reflecting our quality standards I think can really open a lot of – it can open that franchise and other franchises to a global audience, including people who don’t have PCs, or especially in China where Blizzard is a very, very strong western brand.”
After reporting earnings with a forecast that fell slightly short of expectations for the holiday quarter, Activision Blizzard’s stock fell 8 percent, losing another few billion dollars worth of market value.
As a result of all of the commotion, Macquarie analyst Ben Schachter wrote, “Blizzard is known for its high-quality content, content that often takes quite a long time to develop. Now, as it tries to broaden out its appeal to mobile and larger audiences, we think there are cultural challenges, leadership changes, and scheduling issues that are impacting the franchises. It needs to find a way to more quickly iterate, grow its audiences and platforms, all while maintaining its reputation for quality and not releasing a game before its ready.”
That’s a fine analysis, but it amounts to putting pressure on Blizzard’s leadership to rush things out to make fans and investors happier. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do.
I don’t know who is crazier here. The fans or the investors. But it’s all a lot of manufactured concern that could do a lot of damage to one of the finest companies in video games. I would hate to see bad outcomes from this brawl. We should let Blizzard be Blizzard.