Fallout from BlizzCon and the Diablo Immortal announcement continues and some fans who feel betrayed by it are now looking at every Blizzard word and action trying to find new reasons to be angry at the company.
There was that whole statement made, then retracted, about Blizzard having planned to show a trailer for Diablo IV at BlizzCon. Blizzard keeps coyly stating that they have “multiple” Diablo project ongoing, but their refusal to give us a hint as to what is really in the bag just gets more frustrating every time they repeat it. It is feeling less like a reassurance and more like a taunt every time they say it.
And then there was Allen Adham’s statement at a press conference:
Many of us over the last few years have shifted from playing primarily desktop to playing many hours on mobile, and we have many of our best developers now working on new mobile titles across all of our IPs. Some of them are with external partners like Diablo Immortal. Many of them are being developed internally only, and we’ll have information to share on those in the future.
That practically set the hair of enraged on fire.
The statement was quickly interpreted and repeated as Blizzard moving on to only doing mobile titles, with all their good developers are working exclusively on mobile, and that Blizzard is essentially abandoning PC and console games to whatever interns happen to be handy to take over the reigns.
This panicked point of view both accepts and ignores the long history of Blizzard. Ben Kuchera did an excellent article over at Polygon about how Diablo Immortal broke the “rules” of Blizzard. The essence is that Blizzard only ever makes games that are improvements of existing titles, trotting out the evidence with which many of us are already familiar, summed up in this list:
- World of Warcraft: Blizzard does Everquest!
- Warcraft: Blizzard does Dune!
- Overwatch: Blizzard does Team Fortress 2!
- Hearthstone: Blizzard does Magic: The Gathering!
- Heroes of the Storm: Blizzard does Dota 2!
Unfortunately, he missed a key aspect of the Blizzard story.
While it is absolutely true that Blizzard does this, they also only do this whole improvement cycle for games they are actively playing.
I was just reading David Craddock’s Stay Awhile and Listen Vol. I, received as part of my Kickstarter pledge for Vol. II, which details the early days of both Blizzard and Condor. Blizzard’s first big title was the original Warcraft, which was, as note above, an improvement over the game Dune, which the team had played and loved. Condor, which was purchased and became Blizzard North, was working on the original Diablo, which was a graphical version of Rogue, incorporating the random levels and monsters and loot ideas from the text game, which the key people at Condor had played to death in college.
Ben Kuchura, while mentioning David Brevik and his plans for an action RPG in his article, missed the whole Rogue angle. It should be on that bullet point list above as “Blizzard does Rogue-like RPGs!”
So Blizzard doesn’t just improve games that are already out there, they improve games they actively playing and enjoy. So you can see from the list above not just what they did, but the games they were playing and passionate about that got them on track to make the Blizzard versions.
And we’ve had ample evidence of this, up to and including not only tales of the Blizzard dev team recruiting from their EverQuest guild but a full on homage to EverQuest as their inspiration for WoW as part of the keynote of a past BlizzCon.
So you can see the problem here. Blizzard devs play a game, love it, then make their own improved version. And what happens after that?
Sure, sometimes they play their own game and realize they can do better. Warcraft begat Warcraft II which begat Warcraft III as the tech and the team capabilities improved. Likewise, Diablo led to Diablo II.
But when the game is good and the devs aren’t inspired to improve it because they like it as it is or have moved on, where do you go?
You get things like StarCraft II.
StarCraft II isn’t a bad game. But the design is so close to StarCraft in so many ways that is feels like it was made just to get the original on a better engine rather than evolve the franchise in any significant way.
Likewise Diablo III, also a decent game, started off with some bad ideas likely because it was made by people who didn’t get the core of Diablo II. When your core fans are complaining about the game being too light and colorful and that the itemization sucks… and that the cash money auction house is killing the game and looks like a cash grab… it might be better to pay attention rather than dismiss them.
But Blizzard rarely pays attention to fans. They make the games they want to make because those are versions of the games they already play. Clearly there wasn’t a big Diablo contingent left at Blizzard when Blizzard North left the building over a dispute with how Vivendi was pushing them towards things they didn’t want to do.
And we see it with World of Warcraft with every expansion. In 2004 they launched something based off of the EverQuest template. Since then they have fumbled about looking for ways to improve things. When you’re making a product, you have free reign over ideas. But when you have a product in production you suddenly have to listen to the customer support team and the GMs and IT team and whoever else has to keep things going every day. You stop being as focused on innovation and start solving complaints to keep people from tying up the support line.
World of Warcraft was an improvement for MMOs the way the mini-van was for family transportation, replacing EverQuest the way the mini-van replaced the station wagon. But after that you just refine. The Blizzard team is adding cup holders and such. And it isn’t because of the live team, B-list developer rumor perpetuated by angry fans. It is because Blizzard mostly got what they wanted on the first pass, but the game made, and continues to make, so much money they felt they had to keep extending it. You don’t walk away from a billion dollar a year game.
And so it goes. Blizzard is never going to make another MMORPG because what would they copy? They are never going to make another RTS because what would they copy? It isn’t even a matter of competing against themselves as, say, another collectable card game would inevitably do. It is simply that once you’ve made the game you really want and refined it a bit, you’re done. After that you just fiddle and add some content or features to generate some more revenue.
So what does Blizzard do now?
They find a new game to copy and refine. In this case, as Allen Adham stated above, the senior developers have been playing a lot of mobile games. What does Blizzard do historically? They copy and improve the games they are currently playing. So this statement is a clear indicator where Blizzard is going.
The odd bit is the deal with NetEase. That is not something Blizzard does. So my guess on that front is that Diablo Immortal is a move more to sate the board of directors and the large investor groups than what they really want to do. Blizzard is part of a publicly held corporation and has to bow to the whims of the shareholders, and we know rule by the masses rarely leads anywhere fruitful. The only mistake was thinking Diablo fans would give a shit about it.
I suspect that, at best, this is Blizzard setting their mobile baseline and learning the ropes from NetEase while they work on the mobile game they really want to make… and grab some of the China market along the way, since the Chinese government is no longer approving foreign video games for domestic consumption. But the end result, given what Allen Adham said, is that the next real Blizzard title… not Diablo Immortal, but whatever it is they are actually working on down in Irvine… will be a mobile title.
It isn’t a cash grab or a betrayal, it is just the way Blizzard works. It is how they harness their passion for what they do best. It is following the same system that made them the company they are today. You can’t put a gun to their heads and force them to be passionate about WoW or Diablo again. It just isn’t possible. The moment has passed.
The actual cash grab is the stuff that likely interests fans more. StarCraft Remastered. Warcraft III Reforged. World of Warcraft Classic. Those are milking the fans by attempting to relive past glories. Remastering an old title to stoke nostalgia is an excellent way to get money from your installed base.
I am not saying Blizzard doesn’t love those titles, that there isn’t a ton of affection for the days when WoW or WC3 were fresh and new. You could see that affection at BlizzCon, when the devs on those projects… often devs who started at Blizz working on those titles… were talking about them. But there isn’t a long and successful and lucrative tradition where Blizzard remakes one of their own titles fifteen years later.
So we will eventually get a “real” Blizzard mobile game… because, again, Diablo Immortal isn’t it… that might make people rethink mobile games. And we will get the remakes and remasters, which will make the old school happy.
And maybe we’ll get a Diablo IV. But it won’t be anything new. At best it will be a good refinement based on lessons learned from Diablo III, the same way all the other games Blizzard has essentially “finished” keep going. At least that is the way it looks to me.