Diablo Immortal is an albatross around the metaphorical neck of Blizzard Entertainment.
The game’s announcement, as the marquee announcement at Blizzcon 2018, lives in infamy. The game has conspicuous roots, being a title largely made by NetEase with Blizzard collaborating, down to the use of NetEase tools and technology that have been spruced up to feel “Diablo-like.” The game has been a long time coming, with nearly 4 years passing from that initial reveal (and one of the only times the game has had any major coverage) until it launched earlier this month. In the process, it gained a PC open beta and cross-play, and now, with the released product on virtual shelves, we can discuss it openly.
Diablo Immortal As A Gameplay Experience
Making a good ARPG feels like it is both easier and harder than we might think from the outside. A lot of things can fly in an ARPG – balance is a moving target so long as the classes are fun, gear can be a complete shitshow that overpowers players, and the core elements of a good ARPG are things most of us intuitively understand – a constant flow of weaklings we can demolish en masse with modest strategy, meaty bosses that take some effort and work to get down, and a constant stream of loot and rewards to keep the dopamine rush in a constant stream. These things also take a lot of design effort and consideration – how often do you spawn enemies, how big are the maps, how do you pace the discovery of enemies, and how do you set these things to be as engaging in group-play as they can be solo?
Diablo Immortal gets most of the way there. The core gameplay loop is satisfying enough, and it has a fairly decent enemy density, boss challenge, and mechanical loop to keep things feeling good. If you play it as mobile titles are often meant to be played – in short, focused bursts that rarely pass 15 minutes, it’s pretty good. However, while the aesthetic is Diablo (III-era, which for some is a problem), you could just call it Immortal and be accurate, as the changes made to accommodate the monetization model take away some of the Diablo-charm.
The biggest thing is that, without paying real money, the loot showers that define Diablo are just kind of not there. Instead, a free player gets what looks eerily similar to Diablo III at launch, when the real-money auction house was a thing – scant loot drops, a slow and steady drip-feed of very meh-feeling gear and power upgrades, and a treadmill for basic leveling that scales up very hard in a game that borrows elements of the Paragon post-cap leveling system from revamped Diablo III. It scratches the itch but leaves the job half-done, and without spending money, the experience can feel a bit threadbare. Having said that, if you play the game in a very mobile-centric way, you’ll still have mostly a good time – the fundamentals are there – but if you came in on the lofty promises of a true mobile Diablo you could play for free, well…they’ve mathematically determined how to make that formula optimized for cash extraction.
Monetization and How We Discuss It
I think we need to start with this, from my perspective – I do not hate developers of free to play titles for finding ways to monetize their work. As long as we all live under the oppressive yoke of capitalism, people need to make money to survive and for the people who work on such titles, they need to be on a project that succeeds to some extent to see their roles secured. There are ways that we can deem better or worse to monetize (pay-to-win is generally frowned upon while cosmetics and non-gameplay impacting upgrades are the fan-favorite choices), but monetization is not itself a dirty word.
However, we have to look at each case as it is and in the case of Diablo Immortal, the formula sucks, frankly.
To start with, the caterwauling from the obstinate DI team prior to launch is that you could not buy gear – and while this line won’t live in nearly as much infamy as “don’t you guys have phones?” this statement is worse, in part because it is, via a very tedious technicality, true. Diablo Immortal does not let you plug in a credit card number directly to receive gear. Instead, the game uses an unholy number of indirect mechanisms to obfuscate the nature of the purchase, in some cases quite obviously to skirt lootbox odds disclosure laws.
To start with, the biggest problem for a title of this nature – only the Battle Pass option is shared with multiple characters, and even then, it is only shared with characters on the same server it was purchased on. Everything else? No can do, character-locked. Want to level an alt class? Pony up, paypig. There’s a purchased rewards track that offers daily login rewards (in addition to the free ones) where you can miss out on rewards if you do not, indeed, log in daily, rendering some portion of your payment as wasted (but fear not, you can pay multiple times and have this reward track running in parallel with itself!). The game’s premium currency system, Eternal Orbs, is fundamentally built to squeeze your wallet dry through a ton of psychological tricks, discounted pricing tiers, and the pricing of things you can buy with them. Lastly, in order to give the game the Diablo-esque loot showers we all really want, you need to pony up for Legendary crests, which make legendary gems drop like candy from a pinata while in rifts, so while you cannot directly buy legendary gear, you can guarantee some number of gem drops through a cash purchase (empowering your gear), which, because you have to use them in a rift and complete it, allows Blizzard to go “well technically you didn’t buy gear!” and also allows them to say to gambling regulators “well, they had to play content and the crests didn’t directly give them loot, so we don’t have to disclose odds on drops for these!” and the whole thing fucking sucks and is slimy as hell.
When Josh Strife Hayes analyzed the game, it revealed no less than 22 different currencies at launch, a dizzying array of things designed to keep you in menus clicking through prompts to receive basic rewards and with constant enticements towards paid tracks popping up. Killed a boss? You unlock the ability to buy a loot chest for that boss, with a cost that scales up the deeper into the game you go. Want to take the most advantage of the Paragon-esque post-cap progression system? Better pony up for the paid rewards track that gives valuable rewards alongside the free ones. Nearly everything is locked to two rails, free and paid, with the free path and paid path often shown side-by-side as a fear-of-missing-out-inducing nightmare designed to trigger that part of your brain that wants to give in and buy the thing. Sure, you can earn some amount of legendary crests through free, standard play – but for the best rift rewards, you really want 10 legendary crests, which would take 8 months of free play to earn or cost around $20 to get it now. On top of that, the free legendary crests unlock untradable legendary gems, while the paid crests unlock tradable gems, because why not? Pay up.
This leads to the dizzying heights of greed many headlines have run with, like totals of $110,000 to max out and gear up a single character, and while that number can be much lower (or higher!) based purely on luck, there is a lot of monetization right there waiting in Diablo Immortal, and it does everything from give you a new FOMO daily reward for logging in all the way up to ensuring you get the trademark Diablo loot showers.
So the monetization. It’s bad, but because the picture it paints is one that is fundamentally awful and exploitative. Everything in Diablo Immortal is engineered precisely to point you at a paid path, get you to want to get your wallet out, and bombard your senses with rewards and encouragement when you do. Boss reward chests that proclaim an 800% value, the ability to trade legendary gems after being showered in loot, a UI that encourages you to max out a rift at 3 crests only to discover you can then add 7 more to get to a typical 10-pull gatcha-game scenario, and the psychologically-fulfilling, predatory ways in which everything is built around gambling – the hope of a big win, a big loot drop. Yet even worse still, somehow, is the way in which everything is built specifically in attempts to circumvent anti-gambling laws, odds disclosure, and general decency to players. If the monetization system existed on its own with odds disclosures, it would still be bad, but it would be less bad and more forthright, at least. If the game worked around these laws into the grey area but charged less and rewarded players more handsomely with fewer paid tracks and incentives to pay holding back the real good stuff, it would be bad but less so.
It is the precise way in which the game has been built to be incredibly scummy that sucks so bad – the way it flagrantly attempts to skirt the law (and still failed in Netherlands and Belgium anyways) and to fulfill the developer promises of “no paid loot.” Sure, you cannot directly buy loot, but you can buy power and the promise of power, and due to the way gear works through the Awakening system, you can buy power by getting and upgrading Legendary gems through Crests, with each piece of gear independently being empowered by its own gem with a damage boost and Awakened trait. These bonuses infiltrate every mode of play, as these bonuses work in PvP, in Challenge Rifts, and in Helliquary Raids, working in all modes to push you further up the leaderboard and set you on to newer and fresher challenges faster than possible without paying.
Gambling, Addiction, and The Way We Discuss Gatcha/Pay-to-Win
The issue with all of these intertwining monetization systems, then, is how they specifically prey on people with gambling problems, addictions, and use the functioning of the brain against the player. Psychological study has shown that people have a similar level of positive response in their brain to the process of gambling and nearly winning, or waiting to discover if they’ve won or not, as they do to winning. Loot boxes and such processes in games have often exploited this for gain, and Diablo Immortal is not Blizzard’s first time wading into that water, as Overwatch often typifies this for many people. The animations, the glowing effects, the ways in which the games give that pause before unleashing big loot – all of it is designed to play with the brain in a way that is very satisfying – and very exploitative and fucked up.
Diablo Immortal’s loot showers on a fully-crested rift aren’t sudden – there’s a pause, a small wait as items fall out before legendary lights start shining up from drops and names begin to reveal themselves. There is a real sense of anticipation built into the process, from the animation of the crests filling the Rift portal to the portal opening, to the end where that loot shower takes its sweet time before emerging in a procession of flashing lights and noises. It’s fun and bright, and it is disgusting how this is done in service of building an addiction to spending $20 a rift to get it.
A lot of the capital-G gamers will say to this that you should simply not play, or at least not pay. That these issues are not issues with the game, but issues of self-control, of personal responsibility. The response reflects a greater societal issue with how we respond to issues of addiction and control, and the ways in which businesses will often both stoke the fires of addiction through specifically-engineered mechanisms and then also pay lip service to the idea that addiction is bad and they take it seriously. The problem, of course, is that they do take it seriously – serious effort is put into utilizing these deep psychological triggers to enrich the company at the cost of the player.
Like a lot of responses to a lot of issues from those capital-G gamers, it falls short of realizing the real problems these things in games represent, the way in which players are turned into conditioning experiments with highly-tuned models designed to cause them harm. Sure, a $1 King Leoric loot box isn’t always the start of a long and sordid road towards gambling addiction, but it is designed and engineered in a way that enables it to be if the player is receptive. That so many people are is not a symptom of a weakness in players – a lack of self-control – but instead a symptom of a deep sickness in gaming, that these things are weaponized towards players to extract maximum value. Far from any DLC debates or horse armor, Diablo Immortal represents a grim future that has been here in various forms largely seen through mobile gaming – where the game is tailor-made to extract maximal value from each player. The game is paid for on the backs of people whom these tactics work on, and it is disgusting to me. It is foolish and wrongheaded to blame players or a lack of self-control for this, because the end result of these systems is intended by the developers, who deserve the blame for being exploitative, manipulative shits.
The only responses I’ve seen the defensive players muster is “I’m having fun” or “other games are just as bad, if not worse” and like, great to both. You can be having fun in a game that is milking players dry without spending a cent, in fact, that is a strength of DI. The game is actually pretty decent underneath the 22 layers of monetization and it has a satisfying-enough ARPG combat loop, and no one wants to take that part away from anyone. Other games can be bad, if not worse – that is also true, as the last several years have seen breathtaking advancements in taking money from players with ostensibly free games. Genshin Impact is one of the fastest games to ever break $1 billion in revenue, and it did it through similarly bad gatcha-mechanics.
Josh Strife Hayes put it best, in my book, when he said this, “No one wants you to stop having fun. We want the games industry to treat you better.” It is true that Diablo Immortal (and Genshin Impact, for that matter) are fun and engaging games in their own rights and have a lot to offer whether you spend $0 or $100,000. However, the fact that the games are built to enable rampant player spending, to encourage it through full usage of psychology, brain function, and exploiting those natural processes in many people to encourage constant spend, is objectively a bad thing. It is disgusting, because these games are not doing this accidentally – it is carefully researched, designed, and implemented, and one of the reasons you see roles on game teams for psychologists who work alongside rewards designers is exactly this. You want to make money – that’s fine, understandable – but to do it in this way? I cannot tolerate it.
Diablo Immortal and The Legacy of Blizzard
In many ways, Diablo Immortal represents what Diablo III wanted to be from a business perspective. Blizzard finally found a way to make Diablo a revenue machine that is more than just day 1 sales, to make it something that the older games never could be – a recurring boon to investor reports. Diablo Immortal is a fun game that does a decent job of carrying the Diablo experience to mobile in a way that works. Despite being worked on mostly by Netease with their tools and engines, the game manages to capture Diablo flavor and style in a way that makes for a good, solid ARPG experience.
The monetization, however, sours the experience in many ways. Industry-standard or not, Diablo Immortal is an absolutely detestable experiment in psychological manipulation, addictive behavior encouragement, and FOMO mechanics dialed up to their logical extremes. In a game with competitive PvP and leaderboarded PvE gameplay modes, it sucks that what is the most likely indicator of success is not skill with the game or time spent, but money spent. It sucks that there is a community of people out there willing to defend this by placing the blame solely on the players while ignoring the massive undertaking that engineering the systems this way took on Blizzard’s part. Blizzard and Netease did this knowingly, and they did their finest work on precisely building every paid track and system around the legal limits to avoid disclosures, bans, and player ability to see through the artifice, and they won – only two countries have player protection laws that have done their job here. Unlike Diablo III’s RMAH, the monetization runs deep and intrinsic to the game itself – there will be no Reaper of Souls, and Blizzard has been all too happy to tout DI player counts while also having the Diablo IV team distance themselves from the monetization schemes here, and Blizzard mouthpieces like Wowhead are all too happy to tout how it isn’t pay to win really while locking comments on any post that might invite scrutiny to the model.
In many ways, Diablo Immortal represents the grim future I see in Blizzard. Diablo Immortal itself is not a bad game – in many ways, it is quite good – but it takes a beloved Blizzard franchise, traps it in layers of bullshit that obfuscate what is, underneath all of that, still quite good, and then delivers it with a smile and a promise to do better next time, diminishing the value of the property in the process.
Diablo Immortal was a categorical misread from Blizzard from the start. They introduced it at Blizzcon, as the marquee announcement in 2018, and it got booed and ridiculed from day 1, in spite of being actually quite decent in demo play, as I noted at the time. The quintessential PC developer making a story-significant Diablo game on mobile felt like such a stretch, even as mobile gaming has been the defacto number 1 segment in gaming for nearly a decade now, and it cost them a lot of goodwill on that stage back in 2018. In many ways, the long and winding road to get here, now in 2022, is the byproduct of that disastrous decision to reveal it that way to that audience – there were no plans for a PC version but now there’s a PC open beta (which is just the mobile game, warts and all, running poorly on PC). There were promises of reasonable monetization, which are obviously broken if they were ever serious in the first place. You can’t buy gear, true, but you can buy a boost of nearly 50% increased total player power through a brokered transaction of crests, rift-runs, and obfuscated trades from dollars to premium currency to crests to rift to drop. The game starts early and heaps on the cash shop asks more as you go – there’s no need to wait for endgame to spend, buy now!
Blizzard is slowly taking the franchises that made them what they are and miring them in controversy. Warcraft was a nostalgic RTS experience until Warcraft III Reforged ruined that for folks still playing. Diablo was a game that steered out of the Diablo III launch issues and stuck the landing, only to be here. Starcraft is functionally on life support, the poor thing. World of Warcraft is in an identity crisis with players splintering between retail and Classic and the game hemorrhaging players to an invigorated competitive MMO scene. In many ways, though, it started back in 2018.
Diablo Immortal is an albatross around the metaphorical neck of Blizzard Entertainment.