Some Theories About The Diablo Immortal Backlash

Some Theories About The Diablo Immortal BacklashScreenshot: Diablo Immortal cinematic trailer

Why was the Diablo Immortal backlash so severe? Why didn’t Blizzard see it coming? Today on Kotaku Splitscreen, we discuss.

Kotaku’s Maddy Myers returns to the show this week, joining me and Kirk to chat about last week’s big Diablo disaster. First we talk about some of the games we’ve been playing, including Assassin’s Creed Origins, Return of the Obra Dinn, and Red Dead 2. Then we get into the news of the week on Nintendo removing a racist animation from the new Smash, BlizzCon announcements, and the big Diablo controversy. We talk about why Diablo Immortal frustrated fans and offer some theories as to why marketing is such a large part of video game culture. Finally, off-topic talk and Kirk’s Music Pick Of The Week.

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Jason: I can promise everybody that Diablo 4 is in development. I have talked to many people who have worked on it, or seen it, or played it. The game is being made right now. That’s not to say the game won’t be canceled, because we have no idea what’s going to happen in the coming years, but the game is in development. So to the people who freaked out, and many many people freaked out about Diablo Immortal, thinking it was going to replace Diablo 4, don’t freak out any longer.

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So yes, there was a lot of fan backlash to Diablo Immortal, for many, many reasons. Everybody saw that guy who got on line at the Diablo Q&A afterward and asked, ‘Is this an off-season April Fool’s joke?’ Everybody saw the rage, the YouTube downvotes, the Reddit comments. And so there are a lot of questions about this rage. Here’s a question I want to ask you two, and Maddy I’ll throw it to you first. Blizzard has created this atmosphere where they hold BlizzCons every year, and they say, ‘Hey, Blizzard family, get together.’ And they always ask the same questions at the beginning—How many of you is it your first BlizzCon? Your tenth BlizzCon?

Maddy: And they started out with that trailer showing everybody’s smiling faces in the audience saying, ‘Welcome home!’

Jason: So here’s the question. And I don’t say this to justify any of the awful reactions I’ve seen from some people online. But do you think Blizzard has facilitated this type of rage by creating this atmosphere where the fans think they’re part of the Blizzard family and they should be getting whatever they want because they’re part of the Blizzard family and they’re coming to BlizzCon every year? Do you think that’s part of this conversation?

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Maddy: I think so. I don’t know if I’d say, ‘Well Blizzard deserves this because they have been facilitating these kinds of cons,’ because Blizzard is not the only organization that does stuff like this with games and encourages this kind of mentality. I think they’re a good example, because it’s a convention that’s PAX-esque but it’s run by Blizzard and it’s only Blizzard games, and there’s a sense that if you’re there you are really only a Blizzard gaming fan, and you can walk from the StarCraft bar to the Hearthstone-themed bar. ‘You’re only playing these games’ is sort of the vibe of that convention, so it’s unique compared to PAX.

But it does call up that sense of, well then how much are the fans socially permitted to ask? And is it okay for them to voice those opinions directly at a Q&A where they can literally speak to the developers and insult them to their faces? And that is I guess socially normalized enough now that people feel confident about doing it and they think it’s funny and they can be on a Twitch clip and share it with their friends, and that’s rewarded. That’s a little bit different but also kind of the same as tweeting at somebody to drag them and getting upvotes and stuff like that, but now it’s in person at a Q&A so it’s a little uncomfortable.

Jason: I think that because people feel like they’re part of this extended Blizzard ‘family,’ because of the way Blizzard has created this atmosphere, they feel like Blizzard should be making games that’s just for them. So when Blizzard is like, ‘Hey we want to make a game that appeals to the mobile audience,’ and it’s clearly not for this crowd at BlizzCon, or for Diablo fans on the greater internet at large, they feel personally attacked. ‘Hey, I took a day off work, flew across the country to be at BlizzCon, and this is what you give me?’ And that I think is really interesting and worth a conversation—Kirk what are your thoughts?

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Kirk: I have a lot of thoughts, because this captures so many parts of this discussion about video game culture that’s been going on forever. So there’s a ton to it. I guess I’ll try to maybe zero in on one thing. Something I’ve noticed over the years of covering video games is that some of the most angry and intense backlash tends to be about things that are not out yet. It tends to be more like about marketing campaigns and announcements, and things people have heard about but haven’t yet played for themselves or seen. I think in this case it’s definitely a marketing failure for a lot of reasons, and the intensity of the anger around it.

Usually if people are mad about something that doesn’t exist yet—in this case it’s a mobile game that’s in development, and it’s Diablo 4 that people don’t really know about. You’ve reported [Diablo 4] is happening but people haven’t heard about from Blizzard, so they don’t know what to think. There’s nowhere for that energy to go. So it builds and lingers and gets worse.

Thinking back to things like the Witcher 3 downgrade controversy, which comes to mind because I wrote about it when it happened three years ago. It was so similar because there was this sense of, ‘OK this game now looks worse,’ and they’re going through trailers… Basically, everyone is talking about something that isn’t [yet] real. And in this case it’s true too.

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Of course there were real things here—there was a real announcement, there was a real event, there were real people on stage. But I do get the feeling that a lot of this is just a byproduct of how much of video game culture is still built around marketing. It’s a marketing event, so much of what people talk about are announcements, which are basically just marketing. And in this case, it was clearly a marketing failure, only because, something as simple as putting [the Diablo Immortals announcement] at the end of a big opening event…

Maddy: Treating this like the big climax you’re building to.

Kirk: Exactly. And then everyone’s like, oh it’s gonna be Diablo 4, surely it is… and then it super isn’t. The whole thing relates back to how so much of game culture is about marketing: what you’re gonna buy, and what people are telling you to buy.

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Maddy: To your point about how people are mad about something that doesn’t exist and also that they can’t really interact with yet, then what they’re mad about is the assumptions they’re making about what it’s going to be. And maybe those assumptions are fair, maybe it is going to be exploitative or bad or whatever. But mostly what I’ve seen is people angry at the idea of Diablo being a mobile game. And some of it is more reasonable criticisms—this company is a known entity I don’t like—but some of it is ‘How dare they put Diablo on a phone, that makes no sense, and that’s not for me, a core gamer.’ So there’s definitely that as well, and even that is this idea of something that doesn’t exist, and so it’s your own assumptions about what it should be. It’d be neat if this was an amazing phone game, but I don’t think it’s going to be, so maybe some of this anger will end up feeling like it was ‘justified.’ And that’s kind of upsetting to me too, because I feel like some of it isn’t founded in reasonable sentiments.

Kirk: Especially because we know Diablo 4 is getting made. When you were describing their blog post, Jason, you used the word ‘basically’—basically it said Diablo 4 was going to be there. But that ‘basically’ is doing a lot of work, because it didn’t say that.

Jason: That’s the big concern, right? It’s not only about the fact that Diablo is on phones, it’s about the fact that Diablo is on phones and they haven’t said anything about Diablo 4. All they’ve used is this vague ‘We have multiple Diablo projects in the works.’ And if they would just say, and it’s baffling, it’s inexplicable to me that they wouldn’t say that. ‘We are working on Diablo game for PC.’ You don’t even have to say the name—save the big title for a cinematic or a teaser or whatever. But just say ‘We are working on a new Diablo game for PC.’ That’s all you need to say.

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Maddy: But isn’t that setting a precedent that at the following year’s BlizzCon there will be a cinematic? Because once you’ve announced that you have a game, and it’s a Diablo game, even if you don’t say it’s Diablo 4, I feel like that then primes people to assume, OK so next year we’re going to find out about it. I feel like that’s the way expectations have been built, and part of that is the way that these events have been run for so long—

Kirk: I wonder, it’ll be interesting to see how Bethesda announcing The Elder Scrolls VI 40 years in advance plays out. Because there could be a new norm established there, and it could be ‘Yeah, we’ll just tell people what we’re working on,’ and then next year, it’s ‘Yeah we’re still working on that, we don’t have anything to show you, sorry, but we’re still making it.’

Jason: That was brilliant, because the reason that is Fallout 76—‘Here’s this multiplayer survival thing, but don’t worry, we’re still making Bethesda-style games. Here’s Starfield, here’s Elder Scrolls VI, you won’t see them for a while, but this is what we’re doing, don’t worry, we haven’t abandoned our core fans.’

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And that’s what Blizzard didn’t do, and that’s why the core fans who feels like they’re betrayed by Blizzard are freaking out. It’s been really interesting to see, and I feel like it all could’ve been easily avoided.

For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at splitscreen@kotaku.com with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.

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