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Blizzard acknowledges the mobile reality

Diablo Immortal didn't go down well at Blizzcon, but Blizzard's Asian following makes a high-profile mobile strategy a necessity, not an option

Blizzard messed up its introduction of Diablo Immortal. Wow, there's a smoking hot take for you. The Blizzcon keynote that managed to provoke a massive fan backlash and knocked millions off Activision Blizzard's stock market valuation was ill-judged. Hold the presses!

But the crucial twist buried in there is that Blizzard's error was not, as its fans might claim, in its actual product strategy. Nor was it even in its choice of venue, as some commentators have suggested. Rather, I'd argue that Diablo Immortal is absolutely the right product, being announced in absolutely the right venue. The errors were merely down to stage management and presentation.

Rather than looking at the stage management that Blizzard got wrong, then, I'd like to think for a moment about what Blizzard got right. For around a decade, we've had a peculiar situation where mobile games have existed as a world parallel to, but separate from, PC and console gaming. As mobile games' commercial importance has grown - eventually rising to the point where by most measures the mobile sector is a bigger market than PC and console combined - the majority of companies have recognized that they desperately need to be present and relevant in this market.

"There was an absolute inevitability to the meeting of Asia's huge market for mobile titles and Blizzard's huge success in Asia"

But there's been an uneasy tension between that commercial reality and the cultural truth that self-identified 'core' gamers have adopted a hatred of mobile titles as part of their identity. Hence, the world's biggest developers have been on mobile, but they've been there quietly. Mobile has been the dark family secret, locked in the basement, spoken about as little as possible.

That situation has become increasingly untenable - in so much as it was ever anything other than ridiculous from the outset - and Blizzard is on the sharp end of it. The divide between core and mobile has always been thinner in Asia, where some pretty hardcore mobile titles have been major cultural phenomena and revenue drivers for many years. That's especially relevant to Blizzard because, well, Blizzard's games have also been major cultural phenomena and revenue drivers in Asian markets. There was an absolute inevitability to the meeting of Asia's huge market for mobile titles and Blizzard's huge success in Asia. The notion of being a relevant player in the gaming market in Asia without having a high-profile mobile strategy raises eyebrows today; within a year or two it will seem outright crazy.

As a result, Blizzard finds itself between a rock and a hard place, a position that pretty much every major developer or publisher will find itself sympathizing with in the coming years. The company has a large, devoted audience of core fans in the west, mostly on PC with some on console; but it also has a large, devoted audience in Asia of people who love its games but are primarily mobile players. Even this is an over-simplification, since it underestimates the large group of surprisingly core, or at least devoted, western fans who have shifted to mobile as their primary gaming platform.

But for argument's sake, let's discount that in favour of thinking purely in terms of the gigantic Asian market that's played such a big role in making Blizzard into the powerhouse it is today. When the moment comes to broadcast the company's future plans to the world, what wins out? The need to address the core 'PC master race' fans in the room, keeping their feathers unruffled and assuring them of their ongoing importance? Or the need to show the huge population of mobile gamers in Asia and elsewhere that Blizzard is making this monumental transition alongside them?

"Simple commercial reality means it's not realistic for a major company to ignore or downplay its mobile strategy any more"

This, I think, is the aspect many commentators who have written about Blizzard's stage management of Diablo Immortal (again, for the avoidance of doubt - badly stage managed!) have missed out on. Yes, Blizzard misjudged the audience in the room, and that's a bit daft. Of course the people who pay serious money to come along to Blizzcon in person were going to be mostly the wrong audience for a mobile title. The audience in the room, however, was only a fraction of the total audience.

The audience on the Internet, the broader audience watching online and following updates from the event either in real time or through later reports, is a different beast entirely. This audience, I suspect, Blizzard judged perfectly correctly. For every disgruntled person in the hall, how many watched online and thought that Diablo Immortal looks like something they'll definitely try out when it's available for their phone?

This is the crux. Blizzard could absolutely have hand-waved away Diablo Immortal as a low-profile, unimportant announcement, essentially sticking to the line many major developers have used in the past decade that implies mobile development to be a coincidental side hustle, something to be gestured toward between announcements of 'real' games. This, however, would have been commercially incompetent.

Outrage aside, reports from those who've played Diablo Immortal indicate that Blizzard has a strong product on its hands

Outrage aside, reports from those who've played Diablo Immortal indicate that Blizzard has a strong product on its hands

The truth is that in Asia, and to a lesser extent in western markets, there are countless gamers who are absolutely big enough Blizzard fans to be tuned into Blizzcon, and simultaneously absolutely big enough mobile gaming consumers to be excited for a Diablo mobile title. Downplaying that title during the event would amount to soft-pedalling - or even undermining - the launch prospects of what could end up being one of the company's most commercially important titles in years. Is that worth doing just for the sake of leaving some core gamer feathers unruffled?

It's not that I don't sympathise with those who expected Blizzcon's big reveal to be something quite different. I've been a fan of the company for long enough to have played the Blizzard anticipation and let-down roulette plenty of times, but mobile games aren't a sideline any more. Whatever issues regarding quality and business model may continue to dog the sector, simple commercial reality means it's not realistic for a major company to ignore or downplay its mobile strategy any more. It is even less realistic for a major games company to 'sneak' onto mobile under the radar, handicapping its own releases by failing to use its branding, its platform and its PR and marketing reach to give them the best possible start.

Whatever errors were made in stage management, then, do not change the underlying calculus, and even the downturn in the firm's share price doesn't make a damned bit of difference to the business reality around Blizzard's mobile strategy over the coming years. A Diablo mobile title focused on the Asian market is probably one of the most solid business ideas Blizzard has had in a long time, and the company's hints that it's knuckling down on mobile make perfect sense given the IP it owns and the markets in which it's strong.

Make no mistake, a big part of what we're seeing is North American gamers getting upset about a business strategy that squarely targets Asian markets. If Blizzard wants to retain its status as a premier developer in Asia, big, high-profile mobile editions of its games are non-negotiable, and kicking and screaming from North American core gamers won't change the cold commercial reality of that. With those changes to the structure of the market gradually filtering through in North America and Europe as well, the path Blizzard has started down looks even more set in stone.

An indignant backlash won't change the plans for Diablo Immortal a single bit, nor will it change the likelihood of Warcraft, Starcraft or Overwatch mobile titles appearing down the line. The only thing it will change, with any luck, is the attention paid to stage management along the way.

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Latest comments (9)

Paul "Haku" Chen Game Designer, Runewaker Entertainment10 days ago
This is one of the most misleading and biased articles I've read on gamesindustry.biz. First of all, I'm in no ways against Blizzard moving into the mobile space. But simplifying this to: "Some Asian fans watching online loved it" is as bad as ATVI claiming overwhelming positive hands-on sentiments at Blizzcon (11/8 Q3 conference call). It's baseless and almost racist.

1. Chinese Regulations
I think it would be fair to assume that based on the < December 2019 release date for D:I, that it was not only inappropriate to announce at this Blizzcon specifically, it was also a questionable time to reveal for the Asian markets. China's in a knot right now with regulation, and that would be the biggest market to go after. How do you think Blizzard & NetEase will fare in terms of regulation for releasing D:I in the Chinese market? Possible chance of Headwinds? Even Monster Hunter World from Tencent got blocked for violence. How is announcing a product that Chinese consumers may or may not see before December 2019 a good move.

2. Crowd Sentiments
Well this one's simple. You may have mobile Blizzard fans out there, but watching on-site fans BOO a product you're probably still on the fence for is probably going to tip the wrong way for Blizzard, isn't it?

3. Disrespect Your Stans
The fans who paid for the ticket, made time and travel arrangements to be there. I'd say the crowd is more passionate and committed (spiritually and financially) than most Apple fanboys at WWDC. Now, let's say Steve Jobs announced a "one more thing.. we've teamed up with Xiaomi for the next flagship phone, they're developing most of it, we supply the brand and overall direction". It might be great for your Chinese fans, but neglecting your current consumers as ANY company is bad PR, regardless of any new market opportunities.

4. Soon (tm)
This is the trademark Blizzard approach to the craft. It's no-nonsense approach to perfection and attention to detail, willingness to strive for quality over quantity. Most major Blizzard IP launches were done WHEN THEY WERE READY. If D:I is such an "epic" and "authentic" undertaking, I don't understand the justification for the late 2019 schedule, or on the flipside, the 2018 announcement. NetEase and any decent Chinese dev can make a game from 3-12 months, from start to finish, why announce now? The only reason I can think of is corporate trying to have something to fall back on for Q3 conference call, hopefully inject some hope for the declining MAU numbers released. Imho they were looking for a mediocre reaction from fans, and great reaction from investors. They got neither.

There are so many other things wrong with announcing D:I at this particular Blizzcon, and at this time, but I think the rant has gone on long enough. So please, dear Rob, please don't overly simplify the backlash, the broken hearts, the horrible venue, the wrong time, the wrong crowd, the wrong product by summarizing it into a simple tl;dr "..how many watched online and thought that Diablo Immortal looks like something they'll definitely try out when it's available for their phone?"

The answer to that question I suspect, should be "Less than what it would've been if they had given the Diablo franchise and fans their due diligence".

-A PC/Mobile gamer, and developer in an Asian country.

Edit: grammar

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul "Haku" Chen on 9th November 2018 9:26am

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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz10 days ago
There is a fundamental difference between releasing in China and selling in China. Diablo doesn't need to be released in China to sell there.

The Immortal announcement was one announcement in a multi-day festival. To suggest one announcement during one moment across the whole event was disrespecting or insulting of fans is pure hyperbole. Being disappointed in that closing reveal is perfectly reasonable, campaigning to get it cancelled and pillorying the company over it, is a bit ludicrous.
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Paul "Haku" Chen Game Designer, Runewaker Entertainment10 days ago
@Christopher Dring: Not sure what you mean by being able to sell in China without releasing in the region.

Blizzard fans have been know for their fervor, their overreaction is akin to stocks undervaluing/overshooting. Imho I think it's completely understandable (Jay Wilson fiasco, WoW balancing forums, D3 initial reception, among many many others in the fan interaction history).

Edit: Spelling

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Paul "Haku" Chen on 9th November 2018 2:23pm

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Show all comments (9)
Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 10 days ago
You know, there was a fan at Blizzcon who asked a simple question: When was the game coming out on PC.

Note that he already knew that this was a mobile game, since he had seen the announcement.

He didn't say he didn't want a mobile game.

He didn't say mobile games were bad.

He just wanted to play the game on his PC.

Considering Blizzard already makes Hearthstone, I don't think it's unexpected that Blizzard would be releasing more mobile titles in the future. That said, I think fans were expecting future titles to be cross-platform, and that future Diablo releases especially would be available for PC.

Also, I don't think that announcing a game at a largely US based conference makes sense if their strategy for the game is in Asia. The region is wrong, the time zones are wrong, the audience is wrong, it simply doesn't make sense. Most people in Asian countries very likely missed the announcement because of the time zone difference alone, not to mention you can't watch it live if you don't have at least a virtual ticket.

Okay so the strategy is to theoretically announce a major mobile title to the Asian market - but the announcement can't even reach the Asian market you're trying to announce to. Doesn't sound like a great strategy.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour Interactive10 days ago
The only mistake I see here is not making the game available on multiple platforms. Focusing on making it primarily accessible on mobile is great but everyone would have been pleased if they had simply said "PC version forthcoming".
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 days ago
From an investor's point of view it is a positive, if a company announces to expand their audience. If Harley Davidson announced to make cars, for example.

Expansion implies serving the audience you have, while serving a new audience at the same time. When everything is said and done, more people buy the product.

This event has shown that the Blizzard's current expansion strategy does not expand. As an investor, you want to see established fans remaining loyal to the brand, while new fans are added. However, platform loyalty seems to be higher than brand loyalty in this case and Blizzard was not prepared. This is something you can focus test for in advance. The same applies to the perception of mobile across consumers of other platforms. Find out the concerns of people to defuse them early.

Or ignore all that and see where it goes, let a public core fan gathering be the focus test anybody can see the results of.

At the end of the day, this line of thinking hurts stock prices, not a few downvotes, or people complaining about the 95% downvote percentage of so-called 'vocal minorities'. Because who are you fooling at this point? Public perception has run away with the narrative and no amount of alternative facts is going to stop it. Sure, the stock price gets lower and a few Youtubers dance around the dumpsterfire.

But at the end of the day, you look at the 5 year index of the stock, shrug shortly and from there life goes on. On that scale, Blizzard does not have to scramble to release a PC trailer the next day. Sit down, sort it out, strike back. The beauty of 2018 is that day any is a good day to wreck havoc with an announcement trailer. Doing it at your own event is just the typical level of self-importance and pretentiousness you see anywhere.

Maybe gamesindustry.biz should do websites that count down to paid live streams which announce new articles to be released soon.
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Davin Ng QA Assistant, Ubisoft Singapore7 days ago
Mobile games are a massive revenue source which is impossible to ignore - this much is undeniable. But I can empathize with gamers who feel uncomfortable about fundamental changes being made to a brand they've followed for 2 decades, for the sake of appealing to the Chinese market.

Perhaps reception to Diablo Immortal would have improved if the title was China-only like Call of Duty Online and NBA 2K Online, and announced at ChinaJoy instead.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 days ago
The biggest mistake would be to blame this on mobile, because it has nothing to do with mobile. That is why 'don't you guys have a phone?' is a meme now, because of how spectacularly it misses the real point.

Call of Duty fans would never react in this way, for the simple reason that they get their $60 pound of CoD each year and they know it. They might each want something else out of each year's title, but they would not protest more versions of CoD, because, in contrast to Diablo 3, there actually are more new entries of the game each year for every platform.

A more similar case to what happened to Diablo is what happened surrounding the exclusivity of Tomb Raider on Xbox. Fans of the brand were angry that the game was seemingly only available on Xbox and not their platform. Sony and Microsoft spend a lot of money to create platform loyalty, so it can hardly be a surprise that brand loyalty takes a back seat and developers get into hot waters when they ask their customers to shift platform.

I believe this to be the core misunderstanding, that also happened to C&C Rivals. The assumption of being able to take a brand to a new platform and migrate fans of that brand over from other platforms.
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Stoyan Trendafilov QA Lead, GameLoft6 days ago
Asia =/= China.
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