Yesterday, during a BlizzCon Q&A shortly after the announcement of mobile game Diablo Immortal, a fan in a red shirt approached the mic. "Just was wondering," he said in a deadpan tone, "is this an out-of-season April Fool's joke?" The audience cheered.
It was just the beginning of a very long weekend for Blizzard. The company was expecting fans to react passionately, one of its co-founders told Kotaku in an interview today, but it wasn't prepared for the level of vitriol that ensued.
During yesterday's on-stage Q&A, a developer on stage let the fan down gently. "No," he replied to the facetiously phrased question, "it's a fully fledged Diablo experience on mobile, which everybody will get to play, and hopefully, which will bring new heroes to Sanctuary as well as welcoming our community back into it and something we're very excited about."
Backlash to Diablo Immortal, however, has continued to rage across social media, YouTube, Reddit, and other sites since then. It stems, for the most part, from a pre-BlizzCon Blizzard blog post that was meant to temper fans' expectations and clarify that there are multiple Diablo projects in the works, but which did say that "we do intend to share some Diablo-related news with you at the show."
The blog post got many fans' hopes up for even a low-level loot drop of information about Diablo IV. Failing that, they were at least holding out for a remaster of a classic Diablo game. Instead, they got a mobile game that's being developed in collaboration with Chinese company NetEase.
Some fans have taken this as a sign that Blizzard has forsaken PC and console in favour of greener mobile pastures — and thus, that they've forsaken the fans that they built their foundation on.
The Diablo subreddit, especially, is an avalanche of outrage right now. "Blizzard used to cancel games like Ghost and Titan for not meeting Blizzard quality," reads the current top thread, which has over 12,000 upvotes. "Now they are outsourcing and reskinning games. I'm not sad, just disappointed and angry."
Fans are especially focused on a joking remark principal designer Wyatt Cheng made during yesterday's Q&A after getting booed for saying Immortal isn't coming to PC. "Do you guys not have phones?" he asked the audience in a faux-incredulous tone. Fans have decided this is the ultimate example of Blizzard's tone-deafness.
Riffing on that comment, a thread with nearly 4000 upvotes reads, "Everyone is saying that Blizzard is out touch with their fans. Except touch is the only way you'll be able to play the next Diablo game. Don't you all have phones anyway?"
Other threads on the subreddit accuse Blizzard of "killing" Diablo, call the game a "slap in the face," and justify being disrespectful to Blizzard employees, while people on Diablo's official forum call for boycotts and petition to get Immortal canceled.
There have also been accusations that Blizzard is removing dislikes from Diablo Immortal's cinematic and gameplay trailers — which currently have 215,000 and 132,000 dislikes on YouTube, respectively — but others have suggested that the number fluctuations are an algorithm issue or an adjustment after multi-account votes were removed.
Unsurprisingly, Gamergate subreddit Kotaku In Action has also lent its considerable numbers to the more culture-wars-adjacent and conspiratorial elements of this backlash wave — in effect, amplifying them.
Speaking to Kotaku in an interview at BlizzCon, executive producer and Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham admitted that Blizzard was expecting some backlash, but "not to this degree."
"We know our audience here is passionately PC- and console-focused," he said. "We've also seen this before. We saw a similar response when we announced that we were bringing Diablo to console, and we saw a similar response to the announcement of Hearthstone."
But, of course, there's also the elephant-sized lord of darkness and torment in the room: People thought they were going to see Diablo IV. "That being said, we knew our audience here desperately wants to see and hear about one thing in particular," Adham said in reference to whatever major Diablo game is coming after Diablo III.
In theory, the aforementioned blog post was supposed to head that thinking off at the pass, but it backfired. Big video game companies have a way of talking around things they haven't announced, and the post exemplifies that. If you read through it with the benefit of hindsight, it's pretty obvious that it's telling people not to get their hopes up for anything too big at BlizzCon.
However, it's easy to see how fans could also interpret it as though it's saying the complete opposite. Nowhere does it just directly state that people shouldn't expect to see the next big Diablo game at BlizzCon.
Adham, though, feels like he and his team did the best they could. "At Blizzard, we don't announce things until we're ready. It's all about game quality, less about timing, all about delivering an overwhelming experience to our players," he said. "We tried to get ahead of that a little bit with the blog post to let that group know that we are working on multiple things and continue to work on multiple things. But it's pretty clear that their incredible passion for Diablo manifests in interesting ways."
Adham also talked about the structure of the Diablo Immortal team, explaining that it's a joint effort between a team at Blizzard and a team at NetEase in China. While those teams do interact with the main Diablo team, the Immortal team and the main Diablo team are separate and working on separate projects.
"There are actually two distinct teams," Adham said. "That's something we tried to communicate. I know our community here, there's a concern that we are focused on this instead of that. The truth is that we have multiple Diablo teams working on multiple unannounced Diablo projects even after announcing [Immortal]."
Some fans have gone so far as to claim that Diablo Immortal is a reskin of a previous NetEase action RPG. Adham refuted that, saying that even the art and assets — which look like they came straight from Diablo III — were made for Immortal and Immortal alone.
"I want to assure you that Diablo Immortal is purpose-built from the ground up," he said. He went on to further clarify the similarities between NetEase's old game and Diablo Immortal, especially the touch-based control scheme, which is basically identical to that of NetEase's previous action-RPG: "In the East, that control method is becoming ubiquitous, and it's becoming ubiquitous because it's very natural, and it feels great. Less so in the West, but we're now starting to see some games that are bringing that mechanic to the West. So it's us taking inspiration from some of the work they've done already."
That's not to say that Diablo fans' fears are entirely misplaced. The world of mobile gaming is distressingly under-regulated and rife with exploitative business practices that prey on very real issues like gambling addiction. Blizzard, meanwhile, is a giant corporation that has implemented systems in its games that are, at heart, exploitative — even if its approach has generally been more innocuous than others'. As a result, people are worried that Blizzard will end up embracing the dark side of microtransactions with its mobile game about the dark lord. On that front, Adham wasn't able to offer any concrete reassurances. He instead pointed to Blizzard's track record.
"If you think about Blizzard over the last three decades, we've made lots of different games using different models: boxed products that we sell, digital downloads, WoW is subscription-based, Hearthstone and Overwatch have loot boxes and loot packs," he said.
"Heroes of the Storm is another free-to-play game. So I hope our community can see that, over that time, there are a few central themes that drive us at Blizzard, and they are always 'Make an amazing game and deliver overwhelming value ethically to our players.' That drives the way we think about this. So whether it's free-to-play or premium, that remains our north star."
The explosion of outrage has many on social media discussing the extent to which video game culture enables entitlement. It's not surprising, after all, that there's been some pushback on the idea of a mobile Diablo game. What's shocking here is the sheer amount of molten vitriol that's pouring in over what seems to be a pretty cut-and-dry situation: A proper new Diablo has been and continues to be in the works, and Diablo Immortal is its own thing that's not detracting from that.
Also, the game itself is fine, if a little too shallow. No harm, no foul — aside from maybe some hurt feelings over unfulfilled expectations. And yet, people have decided that this is the ultimate betrayal, all because a single game isn't hyper-focused on the diehard PC and console crowd. It's fine and understandable to be sceptical of a big company, but the reaction here is wildly disproportionate to what Blizzard's actually done.
Adham chalked it up not to entitlement, but instead to passion. "They love what they love and want what they want," he said of the fans raging at BlizzCon and across the internet. "That passion, it's actually what drives us, and we feel it too. It's why we make games and why we've made games for almost three decades now — and why our community is so passionate about our franchises. I understand their feeling and wish we could share more about all the amazing things we're doing, not just with the Diablo franchise but across the company as a whole."
Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric — obviously well-meaning and frequently employed by developers with vocal fanbases — can contribute to the problem. It positions the "passion" that leads to disrespect and even outright abuse as a virtue, which in turn begets subsequent cycles of vitriolic uproar when developers don't give their core crowds exactly what they demand. If even massive companies like Blizzard laud these fans' outbursts, after all, they must be justified.
Still, Adham hopes that, in the end, Blizzard is able to please everyone.
"Our hope is that our existing hardcore fans will play this game and love it, learn new things about the lore, but engage with a similar kind of gameplay that they know and love," he said. "The main difference now being that they can walk around with this in their pocket and play it anytime, anywhere. But then also bring in a new, broader audience that maybe likes action-RPGs but hasn't experienced Diablo. And then if we're really good at our jobs, bring in an entirely new mobile audience that has never played a mobile action-RPG or any RPG before. To get all of that right is a challenge we think about every day."