What’s all the fuss about Diablo Immortal?

If you’ve given so much as a passing glance at any gaming news site, subreddit, or forum in the last week you’ve probably heard your fair share about Diablo Immortal already: Blizzard’s latest in a storied and beloved franchise, controversially taking the form of a mobile game developed by a third-party company with a less than stellar reputation. If you’re familiar with Diablo as a series, or even just Blizzard itself, you probably already know what everyone’s so upset about.

But from the outside, it can only be confusing. Controversies are like that these days, it seems: opinions and points of view appear everywhere you look, and it can be hard to get a sense of clarity. In this article, I intend to break down the situation from the perspective of a lifelong Diablo fan as clearly as possible, in the hopes it will illuminate to some degree what this announcement means between the lines, and why it represents something worrying not just for Blizzard’s passionate fanbase, but for the medium as a whole. So, if you’ll indulge me, stay awhile, and listen.

Diablo the first (1996) is widely regarded as a cult hit, and its 2000 sequel only built upon that. Never achieving the sheer numbers of Blizzard’s big hitter World of Warcraft, nor the international visibility of its esports giant Starcraft, Diablo made its name by securing a place in the heart of its fans. Let me be clear that each of Blizzard’s series – even the fledgeling Overwatch – is blessed (or, sometimes, cursed) with a legion of devoted followers, and Diablo has never been an exception; it’s just always hugged the shadows a little more, aptly enough for its themes.

I’ll give a brief overview, and in doing so try and refrain from from Deckard Cain-esque longwinded tale-spinning as much as I can. The series is set in the world of Sanctuary, a kind of no-man’s-land battled over by angels and demons, and unfortunately inhabited by humans. Yet for all the high stakes of this Eternal War, as far as the generally-disempowered human population of Sanctuary is concerned, all that matters is that the demons kill them for fun and the angels don’t care enough to help. It is a world of bleak melancholy, of casual violence characterised above and beyond all else by the cheapness of human life in the face of immortal beings. Sometimes, the angels are as bad as the demons themselves.

Diablo made its name by securing a place in the heart of its fans

The first game is set entirely within the once-proud town of Tristram which, when the player finds it, is beset by disease, madness, and danger lurking beneath the ground itself. The denizens give the impression of people who truly have no hope left whatsoever, so resigned to their circumstances that all they can hope to do is scrape a living until the day something drags them into the depths.

This is a tone established early in the series, and one which defines it. Diablo II (and its expansion, Lord of Destruction) continues this trend exquisitely, opening the setting out to explore the wider world of Sanctuary and all its assorted horrors and villains. The game is lauded, cherished, played endlessly by scores of fans going after the best loot and reliving the exhilaration of slaughtering daunting demonic foes again and again. And then everything goes dark for eleven years.

The story of Diablo III’s development – its many setbacks and delays, the hoax announcements and the passing around between development teams – is a storied one, and not one to which I can do justice in the space of this article. One of the fan-run wikis has a nice timeline of events during that period, which you can find here. But eventually, in spite of itself, Diablo III (2012) was finally released. But something was different.

This was no longer the unmistakably Gothic world we knew from the earlier games. Gone was that persistent pallor, Matt Uelman’s masterfully bittersweet score, and the sense of dread lurking in every cave and tomb. We were no longer small things in the face of enormous evil, winning by a hair’s breadth. Now we played as the Nephalem, half-angel half-demon superbeings easily vanquishing dozens of demons and beasts with a single blow.

Gone was that persistent pallor and the sense of dread lurking in every cave and tomb

To clarify, I like Diablo III. I liked it when it came out, and I like it now – I got my preorder copy on PC, the expansion for the same, then later bought its PS4 port and will soon be playing the Switch version too which, naturally, I also expect I will enjoy. But there very simply is nothing like that atmosphere so carefully and beautifully crafted by its predecessors. The music is largely forgettable, the colour palette is vibrant where it should be moody and bright where it should be dark, and most importantly the story never hits that feeling of hopelessness that Diablo I & II got so right.

You do win in the first games, but it’s never enough. The wanderer of Diablo I kills the Lord of Terror himself in his own domain, and yet his battle is ultimately lost as he merely becomes his foe’s new vessel. The hero or heroes of Diablo II arrive in Tal Rasha’s tomb moments too late, superhuman efforts all but wasted on a race there was never any chance of winning. Even the end of the expansion itself is a bittersweet one: despite singlehandedly defeating all the Lords of Hell, you discover that a vital part of the world itself has been corrupted and needs to be destroyed. The recurring theme here is that nothing you do is ever enough, because you are a mortal. Your quest may be noble, your talents spectacular, and your achievements admirable… but even so, you are still just a human being, facing down immortal creatures with a sword you found in a cave, because that is all you can do. It is the story of a losing battle, but a battle you must fight nonetheless. You may never truly win, but you must fight like you can.

This is an element missing from Diablo III, and the reason for that – if you’ll permit some cynicism on my part – is that Blizzard don’t need to tell a good story to make money anymore. Their priorities have shifted, and if I had to guess on a date for this, I’d say it was probably around the time World of Warcraft started spitting out cash faster than an ATM with cholera. For the Blizzard of the present day, the bottom line is the only line, and whatever they can throw out to satisfy those margins is officially ‘good enough’.

So (and here we finally arrive at the point), when Blizzard sent Diablo Immortal up to the firing squad of their own conference, I may well have been disappointed, but I was certainly unsurprised. Others have shared the same sentiment. We know this is what they do now – the signs have all pointed towards it for the past few years. Diablo II producer Mark Kern weighed in on this on Twitter, describing Blizzard as an out-of-touch corporate monolith with a pervasive culture of “we know better”.

Blizzard’s priorities have shifted, around the time World of Warcraft started spitting out cash faster than an ATM with cholera

Diablo Immortal encapsulates perfectly what Blizzard is now: a company who will use the recognisability of their intellectual property to sell games, regardless of their quality. I haven’t played Immortal myself, but third-party developer Netease’s track record does not inspire confidence, nor does the conspicuous absence of anything more solid Diablo-wise at this year’s conference.

I’ve seen people call the collective response to this ‘entitled’ (which is very much a buzzword in games journalism in the current era), but I don’t think that’s true. A company like Blizzard is built entirely on the shoulders of the people who buy their games, and to say that the company owes nothing to the people who put them in the prominent position they now enjoy is disingenuous at the least, and insulting at the worst. To be clear: you have a right to be annoyed when a billion-dollar company that made its fortune by selling you enjoyable, memorable stories and experiences begins to treat you like nothing more than a wallet to be stripped bare, and has the audacity to sell your nostalgia back to you in order to do so.

Diablo fans are not upset because the game is a mobile game (or maybe some are, I can’t speak for everyone). In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with a game simply because it’s played on a phone or tablet – and honestly, the idea of an action RPG I can play during lunch at work is pretty great, albeit slightly redundant with Diablo III now on the Switch. The problem here is that it’s the only thing being offered to a crowd of fans who have already been ignored and sidelined for a very long time: Diablo is a twenty-two year old series of only three games with one expansion pack each, discounting the Rise of the Necromancer pack for Diablo III. Besides that, it’s also being outsourced to save a buck at the very probable expense of quality.

These are not the actions of a company that cares about its fans. These are not things you do to show your audience you’re listening to them, that you know what they want and are willing to give it to them. I don’t know if Blizzard is genuinely so far removed from the vox populi that they actually didn’t anticipate the recoil when they pulled the trigger, or if they do know what their fans want and simply don’t care. I don’t know which would be worse between ignorance or malice, but I know well enough what it means.

To be clear: you have a right to be annoyed when a billion-dollar company begins to treat you like nothing more than a wallet to be stripped bare

We’ve seen it with Ubisoft, we’ve seen it with EA, we’ve seen it with Rockstar: companies bloated on prodigious profit margins, running nothing more or less than a business and trying to peddle it as an art. Unfortunately, you can have one, but not both. Good, memorable games – like the product of any medium – come at the cost of hard work, passion, and a genuine love of the craft; easy profits come at the cost of the art itself.

This may well be the deathknell for Diablo. To extrapolate from this deeply foreboding announcement, I can foresee only two possible futures: one in which there is no Diablo 4 at any point, in which case we may remember it only by the total anticlimax of a mobile game and nothing else; or, alternatively, one in which we get a Diablo 4 stripped of everything that made the series good in the first place, leaving only the names you recognise and the fond memories they can use to part you from your money. I can only hope I will be proven wrong, and yet somehow, I don’t believe I will be.

If that must be the case, then so be it. There are greener – yet darker – pastures in which to settle our hell bovine: Torchlight remains an excellent game from the developers of Diablo 1 & 2 (even if that studio has now closed its doors), and I’ve had a lot of fun with Grim Dawn and Path of Exile, both of which serve as excellent spiritual successors to the Gothic fantasy legacy of classic Diablo. It is in the nature of things to be left behind – not forgotten, nor necessarily abandoned, but simply discontinued. To fight that would be like waging war upon the armies of Hell itself, armed only with a sword you found in a cave.

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