This is going to be a short one, because I think it is worth noting and discussing in brief. (edit: lol 2,122 words)
Yesterday was investor call day for a lot of companies, including Activision-Blizzard. Call was a little misleading, however, because due to the pending Microsoft acquisition, there was no conference call – just a slide deck released with the relevant numbers and stats. Blizzard-wide MAUs took a hit, finally dipping from a half-year stagnation at 26 million to 24 million, despite the release touting that WoW had its “strongest engagement…outside of a Modern expansion year in a decade.” This decline, contrary to the MMO-focused narrative, is likely down to big declines in Overwatch, a game that has been hit hard by the lack of new content as focus has shifted to the oft-delayed Overwatch 2, and continued declines across other life-support titles like Starcraft II, Heroes of the Storm, and Diablo III.
But I’m not a financial analyst nor am I here to interrogate the investor numbers in that much detail. What caught my eye (and indeed many eyes) was the statement “getting all-new mobile Warcraft content into players’ hands for the first time.” This was a part of the 2022 planning statement for Blizzard in the release, and well…I’m intrigued.
Firstly, let’s say the obvious – there’s a stereotype of the core Blizzard gamer as being mobile-averse after the Diablo Immortal unveiling fiasco back at Blizzcon 2018 (which was nearly 4 years ago…whoa). I think that is largely overplayed – in that particular moment, with that particular announcement and the build-up we had seen leading up to Blizzcon that year, the disappointment with Diablo Immortal made sense and the poor reaction from the game team exacerbated that response. “Do you not have phones?” will live in poor reaction infamy alongside, “you think you do, but you don’t” for as long as Blizzard exists in some form. Given that Diablo fans had waited 6 years at that point for a new title and there was a lot of rumor-millery about Diablo IV, Immortal could only be a disappointment in that context – saving it for last in the keynote made it worse. I don’t think that a core Blizzard gamer, whatever that even means in 2022, is not necessarily or inherently mobile-hating. Diablo Immortal got backlash because of the intersection of all the factors in play – the anticipation and rumors of IV, the keynote ending spot, the built-up hype to the unveiling, and the tone-deaf responses to the immediate chorus of boos from Blizzard. If you peel away most of those, I think there would be excitement, or at least a muted sort of buzz for it.
Secondly, mobile still remains the juggernaut of gaming, for better or worse. I’ll show my cards now – I am not a mobile gamer, but it largely rests with a weird psychological quirk I have personally in that I can almost never play a portable or mobile game at home and have precious few opportunities to do so elsewhere. At home, I have consoles and a gaming PC – I’d rather play those even if the experience on mobile is great, and I live in the dilapidated United States, where we don’t really believe in public transit to any extent, so I have no means to play games on the go – can’t play games on a work commute without it being a crime (I guess I’ll pay attention to the road, then) and it’s not exactly my idea of fun to focus in on a game experience for very short, 15 minute or less bursts of time. However, mobile gaming works really well for a lot of people – my parents are addicted to Facebook-connected slot machines, I know plenty of Pokemon Go fans (even in 2022), and the impact (no pun intended) of titles like Genshin Impact (which is also on PC and PS4, but has a not-small portion of its playerbase on mobile) is easily observed.
So with only a single sentence in an investor release to go on, let’s wildly speculate!
All-New Mobile Warcraft Content
The first thought of many on mobile Warcraft content is a companion of sorts to WoW, something like pet battles. They’re lightweight, turn-based, over quickly, and create an additional incentive to subscribe to WoW. My first thought, seeing the news, was that this would be the case as well. After all, Cory Stockton, the guy who made the battle pets minigame in WoW a reality, is now in the “incubator” team responsible for mobile at Blizzard, to my understanding. It makes almost too much sense.
However, I’m going to play contrarian here for a moment and over-read the single line we did get. “All-new” Warcraft content. That doesn’t sound quite like battle pets, does it? The emphasis on Warcraft over WoW as the brand is also a tell, at least to my eyes. Logically, that makes sense as well – if you want a game to be a breakout hit, the best thing to do is not have it anchored to another game. If you ask someone to subscribe to WoW to also play this mobile game, you are immensely limiting the audience for the game and making getting into it cumbersome and annoying.
So I don’t think it will be battle pets or something else tied to WoW features. I think it will stand alone and will use the flavor of Warcraft to go in a new direction, or at least something sort of different. What do I think it could be? Well…
Warcraft Impact or Clash of Warcraft?
The way I see it, Blizzard’s model has always been to cheat off the other students in class – take a thing they like, add a Blizzard-y touch to it (trope-y fantasy, oversimplified characters), and then push it out. So for the company’s first foray into mobile gaming with Warcraft, I suspect that there are two obvious games they could crib notes from.
The first is Genshin Impact. Using that model would let you capture some element of the WoW audience, by building a vast, open-world RPG with a squad of Warcraft characters you could collect and have join you in battle. It would leverage a lot of assets that Blizzard already has for WoW – you could take the world map straight out of WoW, even the character models are pretty mobile-friendly due to how Blizzard tunes WoW to run on just about anything, and there’s a story there that players have some measure of connection to (we’ll just not talk about recent lore). As a comprehensive kit of stuff, WoW is pretty well equipped to slot right in to the Genshin Impact model and deliver something pretty interesting, I would imagine. GI even has a pretty damn good monetization model, and just straight ripping it from GI would allow Blizzard to make a pretty decent chunk of change, especially if they use different versions of the same character in the gatcha mechanics – you’ve got a lot of models of Thrall, Anduin, and Sylvanas (I know, I know) that could be used in this way. Cross-over events could be done too – if this game somehow beats Diablo Immortal to the market, imagine if you could get a Diablo in-game? Pretty interesting stuff on some level. I kind of feel like this is the most likely – it’s monetizable but not as inherently gross as the monetization of the second game I’m going to discuss, Genshin Impact is popular, the model would lend itself well to reuse of WoW assets in the game’s creation, and there’s a parallel between the gameplay of GI and WoW in style that would make it easier to pull in fans who only know Warcraft as an MMORPG.
The other model I could see them cribbing is Clash of Clans. The reasons I see this working are simple enough – the isometric strategy model is a good fit for classic Warcraft RTS vibes, the mechanics of Clash of Clans would allow a Warcraft mobile game to have the RTS feel without the actions-per-minute or the single-session time investments, and like Genshin Impact, the model lends itself well to mobile free-to-play gaming. I do find Clash of Clans-style monetization pretty bad – it’s actively pay-to-win and not paying just means being stuck with scraps, effectively, but there are plenty of Clash fans who enjoy the game without paying a cent and so it is a model worth interrogating. If the mobile team at Blizzard wants the old-school Warcraft RTS feel as a hook, there’s some power in that model. However, I think this one is less likely. The Warcraft RTS is so far away in people’s minds now that I don’t know how much power or nostalgia that has – I think there’s more nostalgia for Classic WoW compared to, say, Warcraft III, and that’s without accounting for the ways in which Warcraft III Reforged quite thoroughly destroyed fan interest in the RTS side of Warcraft. The other thing is that while Clash of Clans remains popular to a point, it is no longer the juggernaut of mobile gaming – the pocket RPG craze has pretty fully overtaken the market, spearheaded by Genshin Impact. There is room for that more traditional mobile-style gameplay in the market, but it often scans as more casual, less invested, and if you’re leveraging an existing franchise, it seems the mobile RPG route is the best one to get that immediate pop of interest – not to mention the gameplay of such games being a bit more interesting (in my opinion). Still, I think there is a decent chance that Blizzard has been working on this one for a while, and depending on when development actually started, Clash of Clans might very well be the model they used to build around.
Either way, I think I am somewhat interested to see what a mobile Warcraft game even looks like. I like the idea of Diablo Immortal (and the gameplay even back in 2018 wasn’t bad) and I think a well-thought out Warcraft mobile title could be a slam dunk. The key there is “well thought-out” and that is where I’d stake my skepticism. Undoubtedly, this has been in the works for a while, and I think there’s a lot of reasoning behind the weird non-announcement announcement – Blizzard is certainly not eager to repeat the Diablo Immortal fiasco, especially if they were to do a “Warcraft Showcase” event soon and then the lead announcement was a mobile game. I believe pretty firmly that we’ll see both a 9.2 release date and a 10.0 disclosure before we even see the first footage or details on Warcraft Mobile, and that is a sound play.
Am I excited for Warcraft Mobile? Well…no, not because I’m not enchanted with WoW right now but rather because I just don’t vibe with mobile games. Nothing against them personally, but I just can’t get over the resistance I innately have to play them for more than a few minutes before I move on to something else. I think there is a logic in making this play, and it could turn out quite well – I’m not staking anything on that idea right now based on the nothing we have, but I think the strategy of discussing said game alone will be interesting in the coming months.
One thing I certainly feel about Blizzard and WoW specifically is that they are not particularly agile or adept at reading changing winds and adapting appropriately. This announcement, while interesting, is also, relatively speaking, late to the party – people were asking for mobile pet battles way back in 2013 and there was a real opportunity to strike while the iron was hot. The iron isn’t exactly cool now, but it was molten hot and ready in 2013 and Blizzard totally whiffed on it. Before I torture this metaphor more, let’s just say this – Blizzard missed the first boat and probably even the second boat (Pokemon Go definitely made mobile the hot thing in 2016 for a while), but it isn’t as though mobile is a dying market or anything, in fact, it remains a strong growth sector for games. Thus, while they have been slow to get on the craze, I think it is still timely enough, especially as games like Genshin Impact push the boundaries of what mobile-intended gaming can be and is in the common perception. Arguably, now is a great time to work towards a more complex and layered mobile experience.
The question that remains (well, one of them) is this: will the Warcraft mobile team be able to hit the mark?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I am intrigued to see.