Diablo Immortal - Dissecting the Blowback

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.

Conclusion?

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?

VR Is Amazing - So You Should Wait.

In the past few weeks, two new Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have been released - the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. I haven't used either of them, but I'm sure they are amazing.

I've chosen to wait. I have a computer completely capable of running both of these headsets (yay for the R9 290) - and I have an Oculus DK2 - and I love it to bits. It is the most amazing experience that you can buy today. It immerses you in another world. It is impossible to describe what it's like to be able to move your head and be able to see in 3 dimensions without going to enormous amounts of effort to figure out what's in focus and what's not.

It is by far the best new gaming experience money can buy.

So why wait? Firstly - there's the cost. Both the Rift and Vive cost exorbitant amounts of money to ship to Australia. Considering what they do, they are actually not that costly. (Good computer monitors and phones easily cost that much.) But knowing that you will almost definitely want to replace them the moment the next generation lands (unlike a good 27-inch monitor) makes it a difficult sale.

Secondly, this is the first generation. And with the first generation, comes compromises. While the screen door effect is less apparent than it is in my DK2, the fact that the screens are not high resolution enough are definitely something I'm not happy with.

This combined with the fact that Elite Dangerous is definitely by far the only game I really want to play in VR at the moment means that waiting is by far the best option.

(Elite Dangerous has a lot of text - and while text is not the only thing pretty in that game; having bad text rendering kills immersion really quickly.)

 (Screenshots belong to Tested.com - not me.)

(Screenshots belong to Tested.com - not me.)

Here's the recently released Final Fantasy IX on PC.

 The background is clearly from nearly 2 decades ago, but the text is definitely sharp by today's standards.

The background is clearly from nearly 2 decades ago, but the text is definitely sharp by today's standards.

Lastly - and this is probably the most important part - there aren't enough games for it yet. I made this mistake with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One - buying them the moment the console came out; only to find that there weren't many games to play. I have a DK2 now - so I can play most games that don't require the hand controllers, but really, knowing what I know from the Wii, those games will have limited longevity compared to deeper gameplay experiences that one would mostly do seated. There aren't enough games now - a year or two from now, that will change.

Batman: Arkham Knight Tweaking

Looking around for Arkham Knight tweaks, I found the this guide the most helpful.

Just to give you a reference point, I have an Intel i7 950 and an AMD Radeon R9 290, and most notably, the following tweaks seem to have helped me the most:

1. Texture Streaming

I've found this to generally be helpful, but I've only tried this on a WD Black and an SSD - your mileage may vary.

BmEngine.ini

[TextureStreaming]
MinTextureResidentMipCount=7
PoolSize=4096
MemoryMargin=192
MemoryLoss=0
HysteresisLimit=11
DropMipLevelsLimit=16
StopIncreasingLimit=12
StopStreamingLimit=8
MinEvictSize=10
MinFudgeFactor=1
FudgeFactorIncreaseRateOfChange=0.5
FudgeFactorDecreaseRateOfChange=-0.4
MinRequestedMipsToConsider=11
MinTimeToGuaranteeMinMipCount=2
MaxTimeToGuaranteeMinMipCount=5
UseTextureFileCache=False
LoadMapTimeLimit=5.0
LightmapStreamingFactor=0.1
ShadowmapStreamingFactor=0.3
MaxLightmapRadius=2000.0
AllowStreamingLightmaps=False
TextureFileCacheBulkDataAlignment=1
UsePriorityStreaming=True
bAllowSwitchingStreamingSystem=False
UseDynamicStreaming=True
bEnableAsyncDefrag=True
bEnableAsyncReallocation=True
MaxDefragRelocations=256
MaxDefragDownShift=128
BoostPlayerTextures=6.0
TemporalAAMemoryReserve=4.0
ReflectionTexturePoolSize=96

2. Upping Maximum Framerate

As my computer couldn't maintain 60fps, I chose to only increase the maximum frame rate.

BmSystemSettings.ini

[SystemSettings]
...
MaxFPS=60
...

BmEngine.ini

[Engine.Engine]
...
bSmoothFrameRate=TRUE
MinSmoothedFrameRate=29
MaxSmoothedFrameRate=62

[Engine.Client]
...
; This is actually your refresh rate, set it to match your desktop's refresh rate and ignore what its name seems to imply
MinDesiredFrameRate=60.0

3. Motion Blur and Reflections

I found that turning off Motion Blur and Reflections also helped with frame rates, especially during rain, it does make your cape and the Batmobile less shiny, but sacrifices have to be made.

BmSystemSettings.ini

...
MaxFilterBlurSampleCount=1
...
Reflections=False
AllowImageReflections=False
AllowImageReflectionShadowing=False
...

4. Update Drivers

This actually helped a lot - updating to 15.6 beta (now you can get 15.7.)

Hopefully this helped you get to roughly where I got to at the moment, which is about 60 fps with occasional dips to 30 fps. (I suspect some of that is due to my now 4-year-old CPU.)

Playing Fewer Video Games

I've realised that as time passes, I'm playing fewer and fewer video games. At first, I thought that I had changed. Maybe my tastes for video games have changed. Maybe I just have less time. I've come to the realisation recently that this is really not the case. There's quite a number of things at play - and they all conspire to make me play fewer games.

The Paradox of Choice

Ever since I ended my boycott on Steam slightly over 3 years ago, I now have over 500 games on Steam alone. This is counterintuitively very bad. Can you imagine trying to pick a single game to play out of a list of 500+? It has led to countless number of times where looked at my entire list of Steam games and gone: "I have so many games, and nothing to play." I'm so overloaded with choice on Steam that I literally can't pick a game to play.

I have Battle.net, Origin, Uplay and GOG Galaxy installed; and it becomes clear that it's much easier for me to pick something to play from these clients. I have a much smaller list on everything except GOG, but GOG Galaxy only shows you what's installed by default, and I only have 5 or so games installed (compared to around 76 or so on Steam.) It's no understatement that it helps a lot when you have fewer to pick from – I'm sure I'll find a solution for Steam one day, but for now, I'm just playing whatever tickles my fancy at the time.

(I'm guessing the solution involves curating a selection of shortcuts for my desktop.)

Quality / Quantity

Some games just sell really well nowadays. The proliferation of "AAA-titles" being released every year is probably giving me some amount of exhaustion. I'm sure the model works and it works well. I have high profile titles I like a lot and would buy and play every year – Assassin's Creed being one of them. On the other hand, shooters have really fallen out of favour with me. I'm not sure if it's because I haven't played a shooter with a fresh storyline or gameplay in a while, or it's just that all of them are really the same and I'm not imagining things. I still haven't played Wolfenstein: The New Order, but Titanfall, COD:Advanced Warfare and Destiny have not scratched that itch.

Batman: Arkham Knight just came out recently, and that was when I realised that quality might be the deciding factor for me. I worked hard at finishing the game like I did with Assassin's Creed: Unity and I enjoyed every minute of it. (OK, maybe the tank boss fights and collecting Riddler trophies weren't that fun.)

It's probably time to come to terms with the fact that I will run out of games to play – and that's really OK.

My Surface Pro 2

A while back, the Surface Pro 2 finally went on clearance with an included Type Cover, so I finally jumped on the opportunity to own one of these amazing devices. It definitely feels like it’s a modern (post-iPad) version of the Microsoft Tablet PCs which I remember selling way back when I was working at a computer store. My device came with Windows 8.1 pre-installed, which I’m very familiar with as I use it daily at work as well as on my gaming desktop. A lot of choices made in Windows 8 make a lot more sense on the Surface than they do anywhere else - being able to do gestures and having much larger touch targets in the Start menu.

I’m just going to mention a few niggling problems I had. One of them was that there wasn’t a default Explorer for tablet mode - this is a pretty big deal as that meant managing files involved going into desktop mode and dealing with the small fiddly touch targets with your fingers.

The Windows Store offerings are lacking and you will notice the difference coming from iOS. The good news is that you can supplement these by using desktop versions of a lot of apps. It being a fully fledged laptop also helps tons - it can run games and it runs them well. I was able to play Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls comfortably and load quite a number of Steam games without worrying too much about stuttering. (It does get hot though - whether it's apps or games, and if you’ve never had a metal case laptop before, you may be in for a rather toasty surprise.)

The Surface Pro 2 has a 1080p screen, which is set to 150% scaling by default (if I’m not mistaken.) This is usually not an issue with apps; Windows 8.1 automatic scaling is pretty decent if you don’t mind the blur on the apps that don’t support scaling as well. However, I ran into a few issues running some games where they would behave oddly if you tried to run it at a lower resolution than native like Prison Architect and Civilization V.

The Surface Pro 2 comes with a pen, which behaves much like a graphics tablet stylus or the old Tablet PC stylus if you’ve ever had one. Hovering over the screen moves the cursor, touching it clicks it, or you can press the buttons on the stylus. You can use handwriting recognition on it and while I’m sure some people might have trouble, someone like me who has used Windows Mobile devices for years and demoing Tablet PCs will run into few headaches here.

I have the usual grips about the Type Cover. It is backlighted which is nice, but it doesn’t seem to be the case that the sleep and wake is particularly reliable. The sleep is more reliable than the wake. You don’t get the Apple level of speed from wake here - I’m not sure about the ARM models, but my Surface Pro 2 behaved much closer to a Windows laptop with an SSD than my iPad does. The trackpad buttons are terrible - it’s difficult to tell when they will register (if at all) which leads you to resorting to some rather awkward touch screen interactions sometimes.

As I knew I was going to want more RAM, I bought the 256GB capacity version of it which comes with 8GB of RAM. The internal storage can be boosted with a microSD card. I bought a 64GB microSD card which worked perfectly with Windows Store apps, so I have yet to run into storage issues - but I’m sure people with only 128GB of storage will find themselves running out of storage much quicker.

Battery life is probably not amazing for a tablet, but pretty decent for a laptop. My own use which usually includes some comic reading, video watching and a little bit of a text processing generally has the Surface Pro 2 last a bit over 6 hours. I’m looking into getting a Power Cover which should give me “all-day” battery life. They seem to be very difficult to get a hold of outside of the USA - but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. The charger is some sort of magnetic connector which works both ways. My only real complaint about is that it seems to be rather abrasive on the finish of the Surface Pro 2, so I’m seeing scratches and removal of some of the finish around the charging port.

Of course, now the Surface Pro 3 is out and it’s better in pretty much every respect - bigger screen, better battery life, improved kickstand. The Surface Pro 2 is still amazing in its own right - I hope that the Surface Pro 3 does well enough that Microsoft continues to make these great devices.