Immortal and the Future of Blizzard

Nov 26 2018 8 min read

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Slightly over three weeks ago, Blizzard Entertainment came under fire for their announcement of mobile game Diablo: Immortal at BlizzCon 2018. The severe community backlash that followed brought new details regarding a possible shift in power at the game development studio to light, as well as prompted allegations that Blizzard is falling out of touch with their fanbase in favour of increasing the profits from future releases. With former Blizzard employees and Diablo developers coming out with harsh criticism of the company’s change of direction in their approach to the gaming industry, the fiasco is still picking up steam. 

The community’s beef with Diablo: Immortal was not so much about the game being a mobile-exclusive title - rather about Blizzard’s delivery of the announcement and them also treating it as this BlizzCon’s main course. To a fanbase consisting primarily of PC gamers, with die-hard fans from all corners of the world spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to attend the event and celebrate their beloved games, to say that felt like a slap in the face would be an understatement. 

People expected a Diablo 4 announcement. I daresay most would even feel somewhat content with a new Diablo 3 expansion, seeing as the game was recently released on Nintendo Switch. There were even rumours of a possible Diablo 2 rework. With sundry Diablo-related job postings appearing on Blizzard’s careers page over the last few months, it became obvious the company was putting more resources into the Diablo franchise. Yet, no PC game set in the world of Sanctuary was announced at BlizzCon. Instead, the final announcement of the opening ceremony, the cherry on top, the game reveal to end all game reveals, turned out to be a mobile game. Thanks for coming, folks. Blizzard could have taken a page out of Bethesda’s book, who announced Fallout Shelter as a bonus project during the Fallout 4 reveal in 2015, or at least teased a new fully-fledged Diablo title, just like Bethesda did with The Elder Scrolls 6 at E3 earlier this year.

Adding fuel to the fire, the company followed up with a Diablo: What’s Next? panel and a Q&A session, where the developers pushed their agenda, disregarding all the signals coming from the already disgruntled crowd. Blizzard tried to play it off as trying to expand their target audience, seeing how mobile games are easy to get into and don’t require much commitment. And that was part of the issue. I was six years old when I ventured into the crypts below the cathedral in Tristram in the original Diablo, only to be traumatised for weeks to come by the Butcher encounter. Yet, somehow, it’s a memory I cherish. And a family-friendly PG13 daemon-slaying experience just simply can’t have a vibe similar to that of the previous instalments of the franchise. By looking to cater to a broader audience (i.e. trying to make as much money as humanly possible) the game will likely have to compromise on the overall feel of the story, becoming disjointed from the already established universe.

The community was even more concerned about the monetisation schemes that plague mobile games and would likely be implemented in Diablo: Immortal. The title is a joint venture between Blizzard Entertainment and NetEase Games, a subsidiary of NetEase, a Chinese Internet technology company. NetEase is reportedly quite notorious for their cash-grab tendencies, heavily reliant on games riddled with microtransactions. Although Blizzard denied having discussed the business model of Diablo: Immortal at a press conference, a photograph taken at a developer meeting between Blizzard and NetEase surfaced on the Internet, showing one of the possible monetisation schemes the companies are likely to use.

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The Reddit post goes on to explain that, according to a certain Taiwanese blog, the image shows a method frequently employed by NetEase in their mobile titles, where players are prompted to purchase crystals to increase the chances of successfully upgrading their gear. The more money is spent, the higher the likelihood of success.

The community backlash was spearheaded by notable ex-Blizz developers, such as Mark Kern, the lead on Diablo 2, who went on to bash the company in a series of tweets.

I hate to say it, but what you are seeing is Blizzard not understanding gamers anymore.
Blizzard coyly played up the Diablo hype, which is a good move, but failed to anticipate that their PC-based audience was going to expect...well...a PC-based announcement.
This isn't a toxic gamer issue, it's not an entitlement issue. It's just bad PR handling and ...a bad culture on the part of Blizzard I'm sad to say. It's a culture that says "we know better" and fits right in with "you think you do, but you don't."

Mark Kern

Another former Blizzard employee, David Brevik, who founded Condor Games (later Blizzard North), the company responsible for the original Diablo, went on a rant that was caught on stream, where he implied the reason Blizzard is falling out of touch with their fanbase is caused by an alleged Activision takeover happening internally. Activision merged with Vivendi Games, the holding company of Blizzard Entertainment, back in 2008, forming Activision Blizzard. Brevik goes on to explain that Activision is trying to milk their employees to mitigate the low ROI on some of their titles, comparing Overwatch to Fortnite. Activision Blizzard did away with its employee bonus program in favour of incorporating some of that bonus into their regular salaries based on personal performance (details outlined in the 2018 Activision Blizzard Proxy Statement). The holiday bonus program was implemented before the merger in 2008. Brevik implies that Mike Morhaime, who stepped down as president and CEO of Blizzard on the 3rd of October, was in fact pushed out of the company by the corporate overlords for disagreeing with the change. Brevik also went on to suggest the same might have been true in the cases of Rob Pardo and Chris Metzen who both left the company during the last couple of years.  It needs to be pointed out, however, that Brevik’s wife interjected the rant clarifying they do not have actual inside information and the statements were just conjecture.

Whether that’s true or not will most likely remain unresolved for the time being - it does seem, however, that Blizzard might be losing its autonomy. In May 2017 it was revealed that Destiny 2, a game developed by Bungie, who is under a ten-year publishing deal with Activision (expiring in 2020), would be a exclusive title. For the first time ever, a non-Blizzard franchise was to be featured in the social network developed specifically for Blizzard titles. October 2018 also saw the inclusion of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (developed by Treyarch and published by Activision) in the system. At BlizzCon 2018 one of the developers of Destiny 2 came on stream to announce the game would become free to claim for a certain period of time. None of the aforementioned seems like decisions made by Blizzard executives. Or rather, they seem like decisions made under the yoke of people higher up in the pecking order than even the CEO of Blizzard.

Shortly after the opening ceremony at BlizzCon, Diablo: Immortal lead developer Wyatt Chang and Blizzard’s co-founder Allen Adham took some time to address the media at a press conference. The meeting made it apparent that Diablo: Immortal is not a one-off venture into the mobile market - Blizzard are actually looking to bring all their IPs to the mobile platform.

In terms of Blizzard’s approach to mobile gaming, many of us over the last few years have shifted from playing primarily desktop to playing many hours on mobile and we have many of our best developers now working on new mobile titles across all of our IPs

Allen Adham

Allen Adham went on to point out some of the aforementioned mobile games are being developed with external partners, such as in the case of Diablo: Immortal and NetEase, whereas some are internal Blizzard projects. One of the key points of the conference seems to be that the driving factor behind Diablo: Immortal (and quite possibly any future mobile releases) is simply attracting a broader spectrum of consumer, rather than sticking to the style and feel of games Blizzard are known for. And there’s nothing wrong with a company trying to make money. The issue at play seems to be that Blizzard is losing touch with their motto of ‘we make great games’ (that was even mentioned by Mike Morhaime in his farewell message), putting the financial aspect of the company at the forefront.

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It should come as no surprise that Activision Blizzard makes most of their money off in-game services in the form of microtransactions, as well as game subscriptions. It’s a recurring trend in the company’s quarterly financial reports, the latest of which indicated a net revenue of $263 million of product sales and over $1.2 billion off: subscription, licensing, and other revenues represent revenues from World of Warcraft subscriptions, licensing royalties from our products and franchises, downloadable content, microtransactions, and other miscellaneous revenues.

All of the above seems to indicate the company will put even more resources into those areas, as they generate the highest return on investment. And if that happens the franchises we’ve grown to love might be no more. 

A report by Jason Schreier of Kotaku mentions that Blizzard’s new Chief Financial Officer, Amrita Ahuja, is, in fact, a former Activision executive. Mr Schreier, through inside connections, came across information that might further indicate how the company is becoming focused solely on profit, stating that the CFO made it abundantly clear during a spring meeting with the Blizzard staff, that cutting costs would be their utmost priority moving forward.

Could that explain the recent Diablo fiasco and the community’s concerns for the longevity of the Blizzard brand they know and love? In a separate article, Jason Schreier also mentions that the long-awaited Diablo 4 is in fact in the works and it will be darker, more akin to the first two instalments in the series. Mr Schreier’s sources explain the lack of a D4 announcement or teaser at BlizzCon might have been caused by the fact the game has gone through multiple iterations and will likely change before taking its final shape. The article goes on to mention that Blizzard axe a large chunk of their projects, with roughly 50% actually making it onto the market, and by refusing to make any premature announcements the developers avoid another disaster akin to Project Titan (which, prior to being scrapped, was hugely hyped by the company).

The Kotaku article makes it clear that the employees who reached out to Mr Schreier with insider info are rather concerned about Activision’s strengthening grip on Blizzard and the company’s autonomous nature being in jeopardy. The story is still picking up steam, with new details and reports surfacing day in day out, and the worst might be yet to come. 


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