Diablo Immortal

Diablo_Immortal_logo

Diablo Immortal (2019)

Shockwaves of negative PR rippled throughout the gaming sphere last week when the latest Diablo game was shown off at this year’s Blizzcon. As a quick primer, the Diablo series is as hardcore PC gaming as it gets, and diehard fans were wet with anticipation for a long awaited Diablo 4. Blizzard/Activision, now joined in unholy matrimony, had initially hyped up a big announcement for Blizzcon 2018. Once this hyping up had its desired effect, and fans began frothing at the mouth, the company tried to downplay all expectations.

What happened next may well go down in Public Relations lore as a shining example of getting something wrong every single step of the way.

In the first instance, the hot new announcement was that this Diablo would be a mobile game. Now, to go from ultra-powerful PCs to throwaway Samsungs could well be likened to trading out your Maserati for one of those Fisher Price cars or a Ssangyong or something.

Mobile gaming is for deviants and housewives. It’s for people who have run out of Facebook and Instagram to browse. It’s something to do on the bus when there are sweaty oddballs closing in. It’s not a platform to put your dark, serious hack-and-slash game onto. And you certainly don’t do it when your fans, ordinarily fiercely loyal but extremely knowledgeable, know what the score is. To them, this is their worst nightmare.

Of course, if you’re a company that spots an opportunity to make rude bank from the aforementioned loyal fans via microtransactions and gacha mechanics, mobile is your man. The revelation that this new Diablo game wouldn’t quite be what the attendees wanted was made onstage in a couple of minutes that will go down in infamy. During an abruptly cut short Q&A session  held after the cinematic trailer of the game, someone stood up to ask the question about whether there were any plans to bring Diablo Immortal to PC.

That’s when it happened. The luckless fool tasked with breaking the news, Blizzard Game Designer Wyatt Cheng, scrambled for an answer. You had to feel sorry for him really, watching his professional reputation get nailed to the cross while the faceless higher-ups told him to take the fall and deliver this nonsense.

Well, when he drove the point home about this being a mobile only caper, his voice trembling ever so slightly as he did so, boos rang out for what I’m told is the first time in Blizzcon history. After this, he bit back with a probably more-foolish-than-brave question: “Do you guys not have phones?”

Poor chap consigned himself to an infinite maelstrom of YouTube reaction videos and Twitch clips with that one. Speaking of YouTube, Blizzard’s attempt at getting the toothpaste back into the tube committed PR cardinal sins #2, #4, #6 – #102 and maybe even #207. As you might expect, when the Cinematic Trailer for Diablo Immortal was uploaded (which in isolation looked great, chiefly because it rather obviously didn’t have any footage of the game itself), the Dislikes rained in faster than creepy comments on a female cosplayer’s semi-pornographic Instagram posts, not that I’d know.

As tempting as it may be for a company to stifle as much negativity as they can, sometimes you just have to sit back and own it. What you don’t do, and three guesses what Diablo did here, is: repeatedly delete the Top Comments which were critical in nature; almost certainly use financial clout with YouTube to have over 100,000 Dislikes removed; and when all of this failed, take down and reupload the video.

For the life of me, I’m not sure why they didn’t just leave the video up, disable both comments and Likes/Dislikes and just let the fans create uproar on other media channels. What they’ve done is worse than doing your proverbial business on your own doorstep – they’ve done their business with their trousers on.

It’ll be tough to come back from this one. Undoubtedly the game will find favour with those willing to pay dozens of dollars on the infinitesimally low random chance of getting the Heraeld Sword of Virgin Emancipation, but that’s all. The fanbase have been irked, consumer confidence lost, the brand is left embarrassed and all attempts at sweeping it under the rug or keeping the wheels turning have so far proven to be a disaster.

In one fell swoop of horrendous public relations, the consumers have not been given what they want; they’ve been mocked for expressing disenchantment; the game will be designed as a cynical cashgrab first and a new installment in the lore second; they tried to censure heavily upvoted negative talk about the game; and when this didn’t work they attempted to scrub as many Dislikes as they could and reuploaded the video altogether so that they could get the ‘right answer’ this time.

There’ll be a few more gaffes between now and the game’s ill-fated release, I’m sure. In the very least, some of the key figures at Blizzard haven’t gone missing. When asked of the business model, whether the game would be paid or free but supported by microtransactions, poor old Cheng squeaked about not wanting to discuss business commercials at this point in time.

This means, of course, that it’ll be a right old paypig, as the game is being farmed out to NetEase who are well-known in China for making games that make 10-year-olds prey on their parents’ credit cards. Such a business model is not just accepted in China, it seems to be preferred. Diablo Immortal’s chances of being a fairly priced good deal would therefore seem dead in the water.

I know little about Diablo. I have this sort of rule where, if a game doesn’t have much grass or greenery in it then I don’t really bother with it. But it’s been fascinating watching the debacle from start to what isn’t even near the finish just yet. Now, the online dweebs need to be under no illusions here. This game is not going to be cancelled, any more than Star Wars Battlefront II or Metroid Prime: Federation Force were, or that putrid upcoming Command & Conquer mobile game will be.

And unfortunately, it may not even flop, given the depressing fact that there are zillions of mobile players out there and there’s inevitably going to be some sort of profitable cross-section between these people and those who have spent oodles of hours on the previous Diablo titles. After all, I should hardly think this game will cost much to make. No mobile games do, and if they can manage to get that vital traction in even the first few days of going live, they could turn a massive profit.

It’s a no brainer from a business perspective, going down the mobile route. But you can hardly use a mobile strategy to supplant the real games, any more than Mario Kart Mobile is being put forward to serve as a replacement for Mario Kart 9. Maybe in twenty years time, when our attention spans have finally descended to sub-goldfish levels, we’ll just rub the shiny thing on our tappy tappys and put in money until goodness comes out, and everyone will be happy.

But in the here and now, Diablo on smartphone is a world so far removed, so incongruent from PC gaming that those gamers who try to make the switch are going to suffer an extreme form of Paris Syndrome. As is increasingly the case in big-time gaming these days, it’s good news for the shareholders who make fat stacks, bad news for the gamers who are left with a husk of a game, and awful news for the PR people who are tasked with stopping the multiple charging rhinoceroses of media dismay.

6 November 2018

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