There's something devilish about Diablo Immortal's business model

There’s something devilish about Diablo Immortal’s business model

“Just was wondering,” said the gamer as he stepped up to the microphone, “is this an out-of-season April Fool’s joke?” Jeers filled the auditorium at the 2018 convention for Blizzard, then one of gaming’s most revered developers. The outrage from the audience and the gamer at the mic was in response to the announcement that the next installment in the Diablo franchise would be made for mobile phones rather than PC. Game director Wyatt Cheng looked at the crowd, baffled, and quipped: “Do you guys not have phones?”

Cheng had misunderstood the problem: it wasn’t that the attendees didn’t have phones, it was that they believed that turning Diablo into a mobile game would destroy everything they loved about the series. These self-described “true gamers” often dismiss mobile players as “filthy casuals”. To them, phones games are shallow, artless and poisoned by predatory business models. They have a point: app stores overflow with pale imitations of candy Crushmade to help pass the time rather than deliver a meaningful experience.

Yet mobile players have become a demographic that’s impossible for developers to ignore. They constituted more than 50 per cent of the gaming market in 2021. Remarkably, Apple made more from selling phone games in 2019 than Sony, Nintendo, Activision and Microsoft combined made from selling all games, according to the Wall Street Journal. And if you know where to look, there are excellent mobile games available — after all, the latest smartphones are significantly more powerful than the Nintendo Switch. You can play ports of modern classics such as Dead Cells, Stardew Valley gold Grand Theft Auto: San Andreasor impressive originals such as Genshin Impact, Monument Valley gold Fantasianfrom Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Mobile gamers constituted more than half of the gaming market in 2021 © Getty Images for Activision Blizzard

Diablo Immortal could have been the decisive release that finally banished the stigma. It plays like a dream. Pick a warrior and cut through swaths of monsters across a cursed land, enjoying regular doses of dopamine hits as you collect loot and upgrade your gear. Every element is fine-tuned, from the voice acting to the intuitive controls to the dramatic, multiphase boss fights. And the entire thing is free to download and play. What is there to hate?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Despite being downloaded more than 10mn times, Diablo Immortal has one of the lowest user scores on aggregator Metacritic after being review-bombed by angry gamers. They were already upset with Blizzard, which was once a byword for quality after creating the Warcraft, Starcraft and Overwatch franchises, but has since become seen as a corporate villain, plagued by claims of harassment and discrimination and failing to score a hit in years.

Specifically, players are upset about how the company has incorporated microtransactions into Diablo Immortal. The more you advance through the game, the more it offers you opportunities to buy improvements for real money. These might be cosmetic upgrades, season passes to regular rewards or “legendary crests” that improve your odds of monsters dropping the best loot. One YouTuber calculated that it would cost a player $110,000 to fully upgrade their character. Critics call these mechanics predatory and exploitative, comparing them to “lootboxes”, controversial gaming monetization strategies that operate like slot machines. Tellingly, Blizzard has not released Diablo Immortal in Belgium and the Netherlands because it would contravene those countries’ gambling regulations.

you do not have to pay for anything. I downloaded the game for free and played for hours, never feeling like I hit a wall where the only way to progress would be to spend money. Yet as you approach the end of the game, there is a point where you can no longer compete with players who pay and the monetization mechanics become ever more insidious. It’s easy to wonder what this game would have looked like with no microtransactions, if there was just a £20 price tag. But then, that game wouldn’t have been anywhere near as profitable for Blizzard, which has already made $24mn from Diablo Immortal in just 14 days.

Time and again we see how a developer’s choice of business model shapes the gameplay experience and fan response, shifting the dynamics of the developer-player relationship. Standard game releases with a fixed price offer a product that customers believe is worth paying for (or not). Free-to-play games with microtransactions often employ a spider’s web of mechanics designed to ensnare and juice players of every last penny.

These are the systems that give phone games such a bad rap. Until they change, many players are going to keep uniting in outrage against maligned mobile releases — and they have made their feelings clear on this one by giving it the nickname “Diablo Immoral”.

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