I have long envied Blizzard Entertainment. Unlike some Korean game developers hell-bent on churning out cookie-cutter mobile games infested with dubious monetization tricks, Blizzard has proudly focused on gameplay over profit. Korean gamers, including hard-core fans of the “Diablo” franchise, were quick to praise the US-based company’s “legendary” game development culture.
I had respected Blizzard’s dedication to making great games since I played “Diablo 3” with friends and was impressed by its gamer-oriented features. I slayed demons past midnight and formed a team to fight off seemingly insurmountable monsters. It was fun to play, and I came to have fond memories about what I did in the virtual world.
Things have changed overnight. On YouTube, a host of Korean gaming creators began to put up videos criticizing Blizzard’s decision to ditch its long-cherished corporate culture. The uproar started shortly after Blizzard unveiled a plan to release “Diablo: Immortal,” a mobile-only game, at BlizzCon 2018, the company’s annual fan event held over the weekend.
Many Diablo fans across the world are now upset, jamming online communities with all sorts of angry comments. The backlash also hit the stock: shares in Activision Blizzard tumbled 7 percent in trading Monday. Negative internet memes are also flying throughout cyberspace. One particularly shocking meme generated by a BlizzCon attendee posed a disturbing question to Blizzard executives onstage promoting the new mobile edition: “Is this an out-of-season April Fools’ joke?”
Blizzard uploaded the “Diablo: Immortal” cinematic trailer to YouTube and attracted more than 480,000 “dislikes” while getting some 18,000 “likes.”
What’s wrong with Blizzard’s decision to launch a mobile edition of a beloved PC gaming series? In the face of negative reaction about “Diablo: Immortal,” Blizzard lead designer Wyatt Cheng asked a rhetorical question, “Do you guys not have phones?” (This clueless question has also quickly become a meme in the gaming community.) Of course we have phones and might consider playing the mobile edition. But that’s not the point.
The real point is that Blizzard is outsourcing “Diablo: Immortal” to NetEase, a Chinese game developer that previously plagiarized its games, including “Diablo.” For instance, NetEase previously released “DIA:M,” a mobile game alleged to have copied some elements of the “Diablo” series, with a strangely similar title. Some gamers have claimed that “Diablo: Immortal” appears to simply be a reskin of “Crusaders of Light,” a free-to-play mobile game developed by NetEase.
Of course, Blizzard might not have other viable choices than recruiting a co-developer in its push to expand its presence in the lucrative Chinese market. Business-wise, NetEase is not a bad choice, as it is licensed to operate several Blizzard games in China. But many ardent fans did not like Blizzard’s move to outsource a “Diablo” game to a copycat software company. Just imagine a scenario in which Apple outsources its iOS mobile operating system to a Chinese company and claims its focus on software development remains supreme. Steve Jobs might jump out of his grave.
However, the firestorm of anger and frustration among fans might not matter much for Blizzard executives. The underlying premise is that developing free-to-play yet pay-to-win mobile games is immensely lucrative. Ironically, Blizzard might take a hint from Korean game developers raking in cash with such mobile games. NCSoft, for instance, earned a record $1.25 billion within a year of the launch of “Lineage M,” a mobile version based on its flagship “Lineage” title. Is there any rule that Blizzard shouldn’t take advantage of its own “Diablo” intellectual property to make some easy money?
The answer can be found in a note by research firm Cowen & Co. to investors: “Blizzard severely miscalculated how their fans would respond, which suggests they are not in touch with their players as maybe they should be.”
Some Korean gamers are quite critical of domestic game developers, many of which are preoccupied with mobile titles built upon the “loot box” monetization system. With the loot box system, gamers have to throw in huge sums of real money for the chance to get more powerful weapons and accessories. This luck-based microtransaction system is nothing if not an outright gambling arena. And this is why some developers get away with an incredible amount of profits with quite pathetic mobile offerings.
When Korean gamers complained about this sorry situation, they often pointed out that there’s still Blizzard, an outlier that shores up the true spirit of gaming and spares no efforts to serve core gaming fans. Unless Blizzard drops a teaser for “Diablo 4” in the near future, the uproar from disappointed gamers is likely to continue.
If the uproar does continue, I would no longer envy Blizzard. Instead, I would envy Blizzard’s co-founder and longtime CEO Michael Morhaime, who, after 27 years, retired in October this year. He seems to understand that nothing is immortal in the gaming world. By Yang Sung-jin
The writer is multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org - Ed.