Monday 5 November, 2018 13:20

I don’t post a huge amount about games on this site any more, mainly because the site’s focus has shifted over the years to being almost entirely a Blu-ray-centric one, but also because I don’t play or spend anything like as much money on games as I used to. I’ll make an exception for a select few developers, though, and when Blizzard Entertainment announces a new game, you can bet I’ll sit up and pay attention. I’ve never had much time for their cash cow, WORLD OF WARCRAFT, and I tried and gave up pretty quickly on their online card game HEARTHSTONE, but the WARCRAFT and STARCRAFT strategy games and especially the DIABLO action RPGs are near and dear to my heart, and so, naturally, I tuned into the live feed for their annual BlizzCon convention on Friday evening to see what they were going to announce.

The internet was rife with rumours about something DIABLO-related being on the cards, with speculation ranging from a new content patch or character pack for DIABLO III to a remaster of DIABLO II (we’re getting a remastered WARCRAFT III instead, which I’m super-excited about) to a full-blown DIABLO IV — which Blizzard sought to temper, putting out an announcement a couple of weeks ago which basically said, “We know you want DIABLO IV and we ARE working on it, but we’re not ready to talk about it just yet.” Unfortunately, what we ended up getting was a concept that had long been an extended joke among the DIABLO community, in a “What’s the most ridiculous thing they could announce?” sense: a DIABLO mobile game.

Le sigh.

Diablo Immortal

Diablo Immortal

DIABLO IMMORTAL is described by Blizzard as “a mobile Massively Multiplayer Online Action RPG (MMOARPG) developed by Blizzard Entertainment in partnership with NetEase, coming exclusively to Android, iPhone and iPad.” Set between the events of DIABLO II and DIABLO III, it’s less a sequel than a “sidequel”, in the vein of some of those ghastly Disney direct-to-video knock-offs that used to be all the rage a decade or so ago, or the “A Star Wars Story” line of STAR WARS movies. In other words, as the flagship announcement to an audience consisting almost entirely of hardcore PC fans — all of whom had paid in the region of $200 US for tickets, and many of whom would have travelled thousands of miles to be there — they announced a casual game for phones partially farmed out to a Chinese development studio famed for churning out pay-to-win mobile ARPGs which already look suspiciously like knock-offs of DIABLO…and whose interfaces are a virtual dead ringer for that of DIABLO IMMORTAL.

The response from the show floor wasn’t good, transitioning from stunned silence to snarky questions about off-season April Fools’ jokes to angry boos at the confirmation that the new game was being developed for mobiles only and would not be coming to PC. Bear in mind that this is the Blizzard faithful we’re talking about — the “true believers” who normally cheer every time Mike Morhaime pauses to take a breath. If THEY were willing to jeer and boo the game and its developers, you could bet the response from the wider community of Diablo fans — many of whom were already seriously irked at Blizzard for the perceived failings of DIABLO III and the lack of recent updates to the game — would be several orders of magnitude worse.

And so it proved to be. Reddit channels and below-the-line comments on fansites are currently no-go zones for those of a nervous disposition, and fans have taken to downvoting the cinematic and gameplay trailers on YouTube en masse, with Blizzard fighting a losing battle to delete negative comments as quickly as they appear (they even removed and re-uploaded the trailers, which only led to them being mass-downvoted again). Back on the convention floor, meanwhile, photos of deserted demo stations only serve to reinforce the notion that Blizzard misjudged the mood badly. Clearly, the Diablo faithful are not the target audience for this game — by Blizzard’s own admission, they’re attempting to branch out, trying to chase a more casual crowd, particularly from countries like China, where mobile gaming of this sort is massive. Which, of course, begs the question as to why this was announced at BlizzCon, and as the star attraction. Had they announced it at E3 or some other convention, I doubt there would have been anything like as much of a brouhaha about it. People would have shrugged their shoulders and treated this as the side project it so obviously is. As it stands, though, Blizzard have managed to severely tarnish their image as a developer in touch with what their core fans want, and have somehow done the impossible of uniting both DIABLO I/II and DIABLO III fans in angry condemnation.

Diablo Immortal

Diablo Immortal

Myself, I’m fairly sanguine about the whole affair. Ten years ago, I’d probably have been raging about this and posting all sorts of angry rants on web forums, blowing things completely out of proportion and acting like this was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone, ever. On Friday, though, when I saw the announcement, my immediate response was, “Oh well, there’s always next year.” I don’t see myself playing the game. It looks to me to be more or less a greatly simplified version of DIABLO III (itself already considerably simplified compared to its predecessors), with (most of) the same character classes and monsters, and a whole lot of re-used art assets. Why play a dumbed-down imitation when I can play the real thing on a proper computer with a proper control system? Besides, I never use my phone for gaming. Longstanding shoulder/neck problems mean that even using my phone for basic tasks like texting and web browsing becomes extremely uncomfortable very quickly, to say nothing of the sort of button-mashing (or screen-mashing) a fast-paced, slot machine-style action game like DIABLO calls for. So I doubt I’d be picking this up, even if it DID appeal to me — which it really doesn’t, beyond some mild curiosity about how they’re going to fill in the twenty-year timeline gap between DIABLO II and DIABLO III.

Of course, some of the invective that’s been hurled at Blizzard, and particular the developers they put up on the stage as effective human meat shields, has been completely over the top. Death threats or comments in the vein of “I hope they all get fired” are not cool…but, having said that, nor are attempts to cast a legitimately upset community of loyal players as entitled crybabies, not being “true” fans, or misogynists (if you’re trying to work out how they arrived at that one, it’s apparently because mobile games are primarily played by women, so if you don’t like mobile games, ergo you hate women), as so many in the gaming “press” have done. (I’m not going to link to any of these articles, as most of them are pure clickbait, but you can find them yourself if you’re curious.) I suspect, in time, Blizzard will come to accept that the manner in which they unveiled this project was a mistake. Possibly, they already had some inkling, given their belated efforts to calm fans’ inflated expectations in the run-up to the convention. But the fact they either didn’t see this almighty shitstorm coming — or, worse, DID see it and went ahead with this ill-advised announcement anyway — does make me seriously question their ability to read their own audience.