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.
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.