Diablo Immortal got announced at Blizzcon, to much disdain from its community, so much so that it’s reached all end of the internet (and may have even whacked Activision Blizzard’s stock prices) - here’s my attempt at trying to figure out what exactly went wrong.
Why was there community outcry?
My opinion is that the main reason there was so much community outcry was because Blizzard completely misread and completely chose the wrong place to announce Diablo Immortal. I’m guessing this is in part from how Hearthstone was received - but the Blizzcon audience is essentially filled with their biggest, most ardent fans. They took the trouble to come to your convention, some came at great expense - they are your biggest fans (and will be among your biggest critics) of your core products.
At this time, these fans are mostly on PC and console. Blizzard’s titles almost consist entirely of games on these platforms. I’m not sure what their PC / mobile split is for Hearthstone, but I’m strongly suspect it would have a stronger bias to PC than a game like Shadowverse would have. This audience at this time views mobile games as a much weaker medium and even often treating it with disdain as these games often have to be simplified to get them to be workable on a small touchscreen.
Following off that, they then continued to treat it as a new pillar of Diablo, rather than as a more cautious experiment. If you’re wondering if there’s precedent, Nintendo is one of the big companies that does this - they always treat their latest console as an experiment at launch. Nintendo has had several high profile “experiments” definitely go awry (such as Wii U, New 3DS and DSi.) It’s definitely arguable that some of these were just pure marketing failures - they didn’t really sell that the consoles were different and that the games coming to them would be different. (And this failure often extended to both consumers and developers alike.)
Most of the biggest existing fans of Diablo are certainly PC players. It’s clear that as a business, Diablo Immortal makes a lot of sense - it appeals to a crowd the Blizzard doesn’t currently have much traction with, being the mobile gaming crowd (which would consist of both younger gamers and more “casual” gamers.) It was just a rather major public relations error that they announced this to the wrong audience.
What was really bizarre about the whole thing was that someone clearly foresaw the community outcry. This was surely the only reason they essentially pre-announced that Blizzcon would not be showing anything that the current Diablo player base would want. It was a shame that whoever foresaw it couldn’t get their concerns to override their decision to announce it at Blizzcon.
What could have been improved?
Given Blizzard’s history of waiting until they had more of a product to show before announcing anything, it makes sense that they wouldn’t have a Diablo 4 product to show. Given Rise of the Necromancer, there was probably a good chance that the second expansion for Diablo 3 was almost certainly scrapped - probably in favour of working on another mainline title. They are probably still prototyping and have yet to find anything they are even remotely close to happy with - let’s not forget that there are few games in this genre and even fewer games that everyone likes.
In terms of possibly working on other Diablo projects, we don’t know how well Rise of the Necromancer did for them - there is however a good chance that whatever was left of the player population was willing to pay for it (me included.) I think there’s a good likelihood that the sales of another class expansion would likely not sell anywhere close to as well - given that the Necromancer wasn’t as fun to play, and probably overlapped design-wise too much with the existing Witch Doctor. There was a fun rumour that they were working on an additional class, but I have my doubts since I suspect the Necromancer was really content from a scrapped expansion - it probably doesn’t make financial sense to build an entirely new class for a game that is seen as a weak entry in the Diablo franchise.
We can certainly speculate to no end as to what is going on internally, but Blizzard is just too cautious on game announcements. Going forward, I assume that they will be more cautious on the public relations end as well. They probably assumed (wrongly) that their biggest fans would support anything they did and didn’t expect them to be their biggest critics as well.
Fundamentally, choosing to not announce at Blizzcon would have been wise. Doing it on the down low, or announcing it at a more mobile game oriented event would have probably not caused as much outrage. Blizzcon was not the audience for this game, and should not have been the audience for this announcement. They are not a new company and this is not a new field - this should have been clear to them.
It is really difficult to pinpoint the real cause of the anger, and what could even be done to alleviate it now that the damage is done - it is entirely possible that the blowback would’ve happened regardless of when it was announced - Diablo fans, like Path of Exile fans, are a very different breed of gamer - they are willing to play the same game for hundreds, even thousands of hours, and they are not afraid to complain.
All it takes is one look at the Path of Exile forums every time there is a new major release - ARPG players are very willing to grind through a game for gear for a long amount of time and they aren’t afraid to tell you what they like and don’t like.
So really, what’s the lesson here? Know your audience and tailor your message for them. If the message is meant for a different audience, then find a place that will get to that different audience. If Diablo Immortal was announced at some sort of mobile game conference, I’m sure Diablo players would’ve still been disappointed, but the attention and outrage to it would have probably been more muted.
However, knowing your audience and customers is actually much harder than people think. It’s easy to say as a customer that all the things you think are right, but it’s a much more difficult reality when you are faced with millions of different, opinionated people like yourself and then trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which customers should you listen to? What do customers want as opposed to what they say they want?