Welcome to hell: Diablo Immortal and the trouble with moving core IP to mobile

 

Diablo Immortal is a slick, thoughtful and generous version of Blizzard’s beloved series, but that doesn’t seem to matter right now.

Its Metacritic user score is getting hammered and claims about the total cost of maxing out a character continue to fly around. There are angry YouTube videos and furious comments threads.

Why? The problem with Diablo Immortal is not the product itself. Far from it. It is fanbase expectation intertwined with mobile gaming’s long-standing image problem, neither of which Blizzard can fully control.

In the eyes of many hardcore players, mobile games are a blight on the industry – they’re scammy, IAP-packed casinos, and Immortal is being slotted into that narrative whether it’s true or not. (It’s not.)

Loud, influential fandoms are part of the fun of videogames, of course. And in reality, away from social media, there’s a silent majority of folks out there who will play Immortal, enjoy it, pay absolutely nothing and move on with their lives. Blizzard and NetEase will continue to support the game and make their investment back, and plenty more on top. It’ll all be fine, in the long run. 

But the discontent around the title tells us plenty about what dedicated players can – and can’t – deal with when a beloved IP moves over to mobile.

And this turbulent launch comes just after a financial results season in which EA, Ubisoft and new Zynga owner Take-Two pledged to make bigger moves in mobile. PlayStation, too, has grand plans in the space. (They’re all about five years too late, frankly, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Those established PC and console developers would do well to look at how the Diablo Immortal launch is going and think a little harder about bringing their big brands over to mobile.

Look, the stuff some mobile games do to monetise is a little grubby, and that’s not okay. But Diablo Immortal is not one of those games. Tapping to get rid of a pop-up offering some IAP on discounted loot is just not a big deal to most folks who play mobile games.

But it is a big deal to Diablo players. They’re used to the grind without the interruptions, and the upgrades without the limited-time offers. Technically, with its varied loot and deep character tinkering, Diablo’s a great fit for mobile. But are the IAP structures of mobile games a great fit for hardcore PC players? Nope. That’s the difference. 

COD works on mobile because the meta is a neater fit and the fanbase knows it’s a complimentary game that isn’t replacing the core title.

Some have made it work, of course. Call of Duty Mobile is a success because there’s not a huge perception difference between the meta in the big boy PC and console games and the meta in the mobile one. You play a round, you tinker with and upgrade your loadout, you play again. There are seasons of content. All good stuff. Apex Legends Mobile will enjoy the same luxury, as will Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six game – shooters seem to be relatively safe territory because of that pre-existing loadout meta and seasonal structure.

It’s also about timing and context. These shooters are already live service games, so if COD or Apex fans want to check out the mobile game, they can give it a whirl without feeling like their core PC or console experience is being phased out or changed in some way. The pressure’s off the accompanying mobile game, because it’s there to serve different players and doesn’t represent the next big thing for the franchise.

The same has not been true of Diablo. Even at the game’s reveal at Blizzcon 2018, it got a rough ride because fans had been waiting for years for a fourth game, and then they got this instead. You could argue the die was cast back then.

A Blizzard community manager fighting off angry YouTubers, pictured yesterday.

Outside of these messaging problems (and the strange decision to release it on PC in beta), you could argue that on a pure product level, Blizzard and NetEase have done everything right with Immortal. And yet because of that fiery fanbase, this will still be seen as a damaging chapter in the series’ history.

So why risk damaging your IP at all? Those established console and PC giants moving into mobile need to tread very carefully if they are bringing their most valuable IP with them.

An Assassin’s Creed game on mobile, for example, will need to adopt the rhythms of something like a Genshin Impact if it’s going to work on iOS and Android. But won’t that just end up annoying the fanbase, causing another drama and damaging the brand?

It’s already really, really hard to make a successful mobile game. And as Diablo Immortal proves, it’s even harder to make one with all the extra baggage that comes with a large, passionate fanbase who already view mobile games with such contempt.