How to handle entitled gamers when announcing a mobile game
Blizzard isn't the first games giant to have to manage its fans when moving to smartphones
Video game announcements are a bit like signing a top player on Football Manager.
There's is no better moment than when you've signed that super star striker. The buzz of seeing that accepted contract, all that potential... nothing matches it, even when they go onto become your best player.
The same psychology is true with video game announcements. E3, we're told, is like Christmas, if Christmas was a time when you get told what presents you're getting, rather than actually getting any.
When a game gets announced, at that point it could be the greatest thing anyone has ever played. It's exciting.
As a result, these big announcement moments come with a level of anticipation and expectation. Gamers will tune in and hype up an event for you, but you better deliver a show to remember.
Of course, you can't always announce a plethora of AAA blockbusters each time - especially if you've fallen into that trap of teasing titles years in advance. It was a situation Sony faced at E3 this year, where it had a lot of AAA products to talk about, but not a lot to announce. And it's the really 'new' things that fans want to hear about. Just like Football Manager, it's all about the promise of the next star signing, not the last one that you've not even played yet.
"Yet as these bizarre backlashes increase, you can only expect publishers to become more risk averse"
Get it right, and you can create buzz around your product and brand like no other. But likewise, the level of expectation (and indeed entitlement) can lead to the very opposite reaction if you don't hit the mark. Which was a situation that Blizzard found itself in this weekend with the reveal of Diablo Immortal for smartphones at BlizzCon.
On paper, Diablo Immortal is a major announcement. It is Blizzard continuing to push significantly into the mobile space. It's an effort to expand the franchise into Asian markets. It's likely to appeal to some of Diablo's lapsed fans, who perhaps no longer have the time to devote to the main PC series. It's not a remake or a reimagining, but a full new game based on one of its most cherished IPs for the world's biggest gaming platform.
You can see why Blizzard thought it would make a fitting closing announcement to its BlizzCon opening ceremony.
In hindsight, it was clearly not the right fit for an audience of (mostly) core PC gamers. But even so, the level of venom and anger aimed at that game has been surprising. The developers were accused by fans - while on stage - of making an out-of-season April Fools joke. Campaigns have begun to get the title cancelled, and there has even been appeals to the President of the United States to intervene.
A bit of disappointment would have been expected, but the hatred felt unjustified. Blizzard had already announced that there are other Diablo games in the works - this title isn't replacing anything else. And a successful mobile game can often benefit the core series in a significant way. Just look at the impact Super Mario Run had on Super Mario Odyssey (it's on course to become the best-selling 3D Mario game ever) and Pokémon Go had on Sun and Moon (the fastest selling games in the series history). A success in mobile can result in more revenue, more investment and, ultimately, more games.
"A successful mobile game can often benefit the core series in a significant way. Just look at the impact Super Mario Run had on Super Mario Odyssey and Pokémon Go had on Sun and Moon"
Nevertheless, anger was the response. It all comes back to that sense of expectation that surrounds these events. To a certain type of gamer, these moments are almost more exciting than when the games actually arrive. So as those eager fans sit in anticipation for the big reveal, if it's not what they want, they'll certainly let everyone know. On reflection, Immortal was never a good centrepiece for BlizzCon, no matter how significant it really is. So what else could the company have done to give this major title the airing it deserves, whilst not incensing its fans?
The solution from some others in the business is to simply announce the products away from the eyes of the fanbase. Nintendo rarely announce anything related to its mobile titles during its fan-favourite Direct videos - Super Mario Run was officially unveiled at an Apple event. This doesn't always work, however. Sony announced its Playlink range (a series of PS4 games that use smartphones as the controller) before its E3 conference in 2017, presumably because it didn't quite fit with the main show's core viewers. Unfortunately, this hasn't helped the product achieve any real cut-through, even with 14 Playlink games released in 18 months.
It's also tricky when your game does - at least partially - target the core audience. Diablo Immortal may not be aimed squarely at the core PC crowd, but nor is it built for players of Clash of Clans, either. It's for those in-between. Blizzard fans who perhaps can't afford the time to be Blizzard fans.
Another solution is to set expectations prior to the event. Blizzard sort-of did this by suggesting that it might be a bit early for the next mainline Diablo game, but clearly that message didn't quite reach everybody. Sony did a similar thing before its E3 conference this year, when it warned fans that the focus will be (primarily) on previously announced products. This set the tone for some, but in both cases there were still a huge number of people expecting the earth, who were then left underwhelmed when it didn't materialise.
One other method adopted by a few companies is the 'reassuring tease'. When Nintendo announced Metroid: Federation Force for 3DS in 2015, the reaction was similar to what Blizzard has faced here - it wasn't what fans wanted and a campaign to get it cancelled took place. This made Nintendo nervous when announcing last year's Metroid: Samus Returns - a 3DS remake of a 1991 Game Boy game. Would fans be similarly disappointed that this wasn't a brand new 3D Switch title? So Nintendo did something it rarely does, it teased a future title - in this case Metroid Prime 4 - with little more than a logo.
It's quite possible that the logo was the only thing that existed of the game at that point, but it did the trick. Indeed, Bethesda followed in Nintendo's footsteps this year at one of its E3 presentations. A bit like Blizzard, Bethesda announced an iOS and Android Elder Scrolls game (Elder Scrolls: Blades) and immediately followed that with a glorified logo for Elder Scrolls VI (the next main title in the long-running series).
Perhaps if Blizzard had flashed up a Diablo 4 logo at the end of its event, that may well have been enough.
Again, this has its drawbacks. Announcing a game too early is risky, because who knows what development challenges might arise over the following years. And then there's the years of questions the developers and publishers will have to face as fans await that first actual trailer. Bethesda Game Studios will be fending off questions about the next Elder Scrolls for what might feel like an eternity.
The level of expectation and entitlement that surrounds these big conferences has made it almost impossible for developers to deviate from the script. They have to focus on big AAA projects, there's little room to talk about things that are new and different. It's no wonder Sony decided against holding its European and Experience conferences this year. Why put on an expensive event if you're only going to get criticism for it?
That's actually quite sad. When the AAA sequels are not quite ready yet, why not put on a show to promote different things? A conference dedicated to experimental concepts or new platforms would actually be quite interesting. Yet as these bizarre backlashes increase, you can only expect publishers to become more risk averse. They'll just have to put on predictable conferences speaking to the same audience about the same old things.
And when the reception can get this nasty, who can blame them?