by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 1st December, 2018
At the recent BlizzCon event, everyone were excited about the imminent Diablo-related announcement. The company itself stirred speculation and built up hype by releasing videos discussing the future of one of its most popular franchises which immediately pointed to Diablo 4, and Diablo-related job openings made fans to believe that the company is getting ready to start serious work on the long-awaited sequel. Instead of all this, we got something nobody asked for, the mobile version of Diablo dubbed Diablo: Immortal.
Fans were outraged; Blizzard saw nothing wrong with them releasing a free-to-play mobile port of one of the most iconic PC titles ever, and some fans got worried Blizzard lost touch with its fan base.
Because let's be honest, the company surely knew that fans begged for news about the main Diablo series. Many of those who bought tickets for BlizzCon traveled there to hear something, anything about a cool new, yet unannounced Diablo game. Instead, they got a pompous announcement of a mobile title. Should we be worried that Blizzard releasing Diablo Immortal continues a growing trend of big publishers releasing mobile versions of their core titles? Should we be worried that mobile titles will take place of PC and console games in the near future? And is Diablo Immortal the first sign of a new, mobile-first Blizzard?
Well, the first question has a pretty straightforward answer, and that answer is yes. Big name publishers releasing mobile versions of their successful IPs isn't anything new and it will continue in the future. Lara Croft went mobile in a couple of titles released back in 2003, and many of us probably remember God of War: Betrayal, the only God of War game available of devices that aren't PlayStation. This one released for mobiles in 2007.
But these were simple titles that didn't stir up core audiences of these two games because mobile gaming was virtually nonexistent back then. Instead of being regarded as money-generating mobile games these were more of promotional products, like interactive advertisements for full-fledged titles. Mobile gaming was nonexistent back then and not a single fan was worried about companies releasing mobile versions of their favorite games.
Things changed a bit a decade later. Smartphones and their beefy specs revolutionized mobile gaming and publishers tried to release mobile titles that would take a cut of the fast-growing mobile games market. But back then, big-name mobile games were still paid-for titles that offered the full experience for a one-time payment. Games like Dead Space (mobile version), Mass Effect Infiltrator, and Assassin's Creed Altair's Chronicles were all mobile versions of core franchises for EA and Ubisoft and they all took the formula from their console and PC counterparts and translated it to the mobile terrain. The same can be said about Hitman and Lara Croft GO, two cool puzzle games that were based on massively popular IPs from PCs and consoles.
But fans weren't infuriated about those games and they weren't worried about publishers neglecting their core fan base because firstly, mobile gaming was still far away from being the mammoth source of cash as it is today and secondly each of those games was a regular, pay and play title that didn't offer any microtransaction or recurrent payment model that is the most popular way of earning from mobile games today.
Further, the aforementioned titles weren't announced during some big event, taking the stage off major PC and console games, nor they were mass marketed and promoted in gaming media or on social networks. That was the second wave of major video game franchises going mobile and things were okay. But since 2011 and the release of Dead Space for the iOS and Android devices the video games industry changed dramatically.
The fantastic article from Newzoo shows just how big growth mobile gaming had experienced since 2012. Back in 2012, the video games industry was $70 billion business with mobile gaming taking modest 18 percent of all revenues. In 2016 the industry broke through the magical $100 barrier and went on to earn $106 billion with mobile gaming taking 40 percent of all revenue.
And by 2021 video games will earn $180 billion out of which more than $100 billion will go to mobile games. Now you see why publishers from all around the world are racing who will release more of its core IPs as mobile games. Now, if they simply released paid mobile games that offer the same experience as their PC and console counterparts that wouldn't be a problem but the thing is that almost every successful mobile game follows the money grabbing free-to-play model that is built on a recurring payment system. And big publishers base all of their mobile games on that model.
EA, Ubisoft, and other publishers had their piece of the mobile cake for years but the fact was that they didn't offer their core titles in mobile form. That changed when EA resurrected the cult classic Dungeon Keeper in 2014 and managed to infuriate gamers from all around the world. They used a famous IP and transformed it into a greedy, money grabbing free-to-play mobile game that simply took gamers by their coats and screamed at them to shell out money at each turn.
The game was heavily scrutinized by video games press and fans alike because, unlike before, this game was based on a famous franchise that existed in the world of PC and console games and it was a free-to-play title unlike previous attempts, which were always regular paid mobile games. Dungeon Keeper mobile started a third wave of releasing core IPs in mobile form, but this time publishers took things to the extreme.
This time, each game followed free-to-play model because today, you can earn serious cash in the world of mobile gaming from this kind of games. But still, most games weren't perceived as money grabbing attempts because they were still seen as simple mobile versions of famous games that simply cannot replace major titles.
But in 2018 things started to change. EA resurrected yet another famous franchise and turned it into a free-to-play game in the form of Command & Conquer Rivals and Bethesda announced The Elder Scrolls Blades, a free-to-play mobile version of the publisher's famous TES franchise. But instead announcing those games simply on their web pages, or during some quarterly earnings reports, both companies used the biggest gaming show of the year, E3, to announce the two games.
And Blizzard did something similar when the company used the final day of their BlizzCon event to announce Diablo Immortal. This is why gamers are concerned and angry right now; publishers use prime-time events to announce mobile games instead using those events to share exciting new games for PC and consoles, making fans to believe that the future will be filled with crappy, free-to-play mobile games and that PC and console games will be left behind because they cannot earn as much as mobile games.
Well, that isn't really true because, despite the fact that today mobile gaming takes more than 50 percent of all revenue, console and PC games are still going strong. They are on the constant rise for more than a half a decade and today they have a combined worth of more than $67 billion. Believe us, publishers are still interested in releasing quality PC and console games.
The recent Spider-Man game became the best-selling first-party PlayStation game in history, and Red Dead Redemption 2 had the biggest opening in the history of entertainment earning $725 million in three days! And the PC gaming sector is still hugely popular, it's bigger than the console market by a small margin.
But, they will surely turn towards the mobile segment of the market in the coming years and that's a fact. The mobile part of the industry is too lucrative to ignore it but the thing is, all of these mobile titles aren't here to replace PC and console games we love. They are here to cater to a new gaming market that generates that huge revenue. Yes, we are talking about the Chinese video games market, the most lucrative video games market in the world today, which will surpass the US market in value in 2018.
In 2017 mobile earnings surpassed PC earnings (China's console market is a niche market compared to PC and mobile markets due to the long console ban that was finally lifted in 2014) and by 2022 mobile games will generate more than two-thirds of all earnings, which will be more than $33 billion. In fact, the Asia-Pacific region will bring more than 50 percent of all earnings with mobile gaming being by far the biggest market in the region.
Further, young gamers from around the world prefer gaming on their mobile devices, thus creating a huge chunk of the market that cannot be reached with classic console and PC titles. So, in order to bring their big franchises to Chinese and Asian gamers in general, publishers will continue to release mobile versions of those games, and that cannot be stopped.
And Blizzard, EA, Bethesda, and Ubisoft aren't alone in bringing mobile games that are based on successful IPs. Epic saw the value in mobile games and the iOS version of the game earned $300 million in 200 days, which is a huge number. PUBG Mobile surpassed $50 million in earnings in late August 2018, and the game was specifically made to cater to young gamers and gamers located in China.
It was a Chinese exclusive for months and it was made by Tencent the world's biggest video game company, which is located in China and which owns and publishes lots of popular PC and mobile games including one of the most popular online titles in the world, League of Legends. It's simple, mobile games are the most profitable part of the video games industry and each and every publisher will try to take a sweet and microtransaction filled piece of that cake, but PC and console markets are still too big (and they will continue to be for at least a decade) to be left behind.
And the future will bring video game streaming, with Microsoft already testing the company's Project Xcloud - a streaming technology that should bring Xbox games to every device with internet connection and big enough display. Ubisoft and EA are filled with hope when it comes to video game streaming. And streaming will continue to be the major trend in the coming decade so don't worry.
PC and console games are here to stay, and soon enough you will be able to play them (full games, no limited mobile ports) on your smartphone. And, of course, free-to-play mobile games are also here to stay, and you will see more of popular PC and console franchises on your smartphone.
And finally, the answer to the last question (will Blizzard become a mobile-first company) is also negative. Sure, the company announced it is working on multiple mobile titles, aside from Diablo Immortal, but they will continue to bring big budget PC and console games. They announced the remastered version of Warcraft III and the success of Overwatch cannot be ignored. Further, the company is developing Diablo 4 and it had plans to announce it during this year's BlizzCon (at least the company discussed it) but those plans were canceled. And that was the major mistake on Blizzard's behalf, the huge misstep that led to all this "Blizzard is going mobile-first" conundrum.
You see, when announcing a mobile game based on your popular IP you have to be careful about it, you have to give your biggest fans (and those all play on PC and consoles, mobile gamers is the population publishers are trying to reach and at the moment these gamers don't care about Fallout, or The Elder Scrolls, or old Command & Conquer games) some other game to be excited about that will make them forget about the announcement of a mobile game.
EA sort of did it during its E3 presentation by showing Anthem and some cool indie games although they sure spend too much time talking about C&C Rivals. Bethesda nailed it because they showed a plethora of cool games such as Rage 2 and Fallout 76 and they closed the presentation with a superb The Elder Scrolls VI teaser with their mobile game taking just a couple of minutes of the presentation. That's the perfect way to announce a mobile game based on a beloved PC and console franchise - throw a bunch of big games at fans, then go with a brief mobile game announcement, and close it all with a huge teaser.
Sadly, Blizzard did a huge mistake because firstly, they didn't have any massive announcement capable of providing sort of a cushion for the Diablo Immortal capable of softening up their newly founded mobile market direction. Secondly, they reserved Diablo Immortal for the BlizzCon closure event, and you simply cannot do something like that and expect fans to be happy about it.
Bethesda closed their E3 presentation with a super brief TES VI teaser, and Blizzard should've done the same. They could've simply created a ten-second long Diablo 4 teaser - which would be a couple of days' worth of work - and just played it at the end of the BlizzCon and instead of a huge list of anger and disappointment-filled Reddit threads over at the official Diablo Reddit page they would have a page filled with speculation about Diablo 4, with Diablo Immortal being completely ignored.
A small mistake that backfired dramatically. And a warning for all other publishers - do not announce a mobile game based on some hugely popular IP during a big event without softening it up by revealing another big game for PC and/or consoles. It doesn't even have to be a meaningful reveal; a simple ten-second long teaser is more than enough.
And as for Diablo Immortal, the game is a cash grab suited for mobile gamers who are ready to pay more and more money in order to advance through a game instead of making one payment and getting a full game. This type of mobile games earns billions of dollars and it is logical for Blizzard wanting a part of that cake. And the company developing Diablo Immortal, China-based NetEase, is known for its crappy, pay-to-win mobile titles that are great at just one thing, taking money from players.
So, do not look at Diablo Immortal as a next bit Diablo game, look at it as a product based on a loving franchise with a sole purpose of earning lots of cash. And don't be worried, we will get Diablo 4 and it willmost likely end up being great. And it probably won't include a ton of microtransactions because PC and console gamers already buried a couple of games (Battlefront II, Middle-Earth Shadow of War) that tried to go full-on pay-to-win. But, expect lots of cosmetic-based loot boxes because Overwatch is piling up mountains of cash based on its genius loot box system. Oh well, you can't have it all.