One month after launch Diablo the Immortal has one of the lowest Metacritic user ratings of all time, at 0.4 on iOS and 0.3 on PC. “Disgusting design,” says one typical comment.
However, the Apple App Store Diablo Immortal has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. “Finally a mobile game done right!” commented by one user.
In their own way, both of these assessments are correct.
Diablo the Immortal is not just a new addition to Blizzard’s legendary RPG series, it puts Diablo in a new context. Actually a few new contexts: it is designed primarily for mobile devices with touch controls. This is a massively multiplayer online game with a shared world where you can see other players running around. It was co-developed with Chinese company NetEase, and more than any other Blizzard game before it, it was designed with Asian markets in mind. You can play for free. These are all huge changes for Diablo.
On the other hand, for any Diablo player – especially any Diablo 3 player – Diablo the Immortal will feel comfortingly familiar. There is the signature isometric perspective of the series, crazy fights with hordes of monsters and fountains with loot. More than that, Immortal clearly built on Diablo 3 Engine and uses the assets of this game, retaining the feel and feel of Blizzard’s 2012 game. ImmortalThe artwork has the same rich golden glow, the combat is the same intoxicating fireworks, and the clanging and splashing sound effects offer the same deep, Pavlovian satisfaction.
It’s because Immortal it’s the same game in a new context that the opinions of different groups of its audience can vary so much. Existing Diablo fans hate how their favorite game has been monetized in its new free-to-play incarnation, while mobile game players who are more accustomed to this business model are impressed with the polish, depth and scale that Immortal inherited from his predecessors. None of the bands are wrong, so we should just chalk it up to different strokes and move on? Unfortunately not, because Diablo the Immortal is not only at the center of the video game culture war. He is also at war with himself.
You won’t know about it when you start playing the game. Firstly, Diablo the Immortal as fun to play as it sounds: lightweight, portable, social and fast version Diablo 3. It’s also more generous and open in its design than many of its freeware counterparts. There is no energy style mechanic that limits the amount of time you can play without paying, and none of its activities are behind any pay. The campaign is long, luxurious, and mostly grind-free. On the few occasions when you need to level up to progress, you’ll find plenty to do beyond the main quest, including rewards, replayable dungeons, and randomized “rifts” to help you bridge the gap. In-game guides, achievements and activity trackers shower you with rewards to help you explore a staggering array of game systems. There are even innovations here that could be copied from the main Diablo games, such as a build guide that suggests skill sets and equipment that you need to work on.
It’s only if you’re intimately familiar with Diablo, and in particular its all-consuming item game, that you’ll notice that something isn’t quite right. It’s becoming apparent that loot – equippable items that can transform your character’s power, to the point of changing the way skills work – has been shifted slightly out of the spotlight.
First, the equipment can be upgraded, and then its rank can be transferred to another item in the same slot. This means that a significant amount of your character progress has been shifted from getting exciting loot from monsters to a gradual, colorless grind where you collect a huge amount of unnecessary loot for scraps that can be loaded into the upgrade machine.
Secondly, your items are now greatly enhanced by placing legendary gems of great power in them, and this is where most of the complaints about Diablo the Immortalmonetizations have been focused.
BUT Diablo the Immortal the character has six legendary gem slots. Each gem has a rating from one to five stars, which cannot be changed and greatly affects its power; five-star gems drop much less frequently than one-star gems. Legendary gems can be upgraded and the easiest way to do this is to consume Another legendary gems. A fully upgraded gem can then be further upgraded with the “gem resonance” system, which requires, you guessed it, more legendary gems, up to five per gem slot.
If you want to upgrade your character – and maxing out your character is what Diablo is all about – you need a ton of legendary gems: find the right ones for your physique, get a good star rating, upgrade the gems you have, and, in eventually, insert into additional resonant slots of each stone. It’s endless.
Among Diablo the Immortalan abundance of currencies, upgrade paths and reward systems, legendary gems – this is where the business model bites the most. Blizzard and NetEase aren’t rude enough to sell them directly through loot boxes or gacha mechanics, but what they’ve come up with is in some ways even more disturbing. Legendary gems only drop from Elder Rift randomized dungeon bosses, and you can only guarantee legendary gem drops by applying a legendary crest modifier to the dungeon before starting it. Otherwise, the chance of legendary gems dropping is very low.
Without spending money on the game, you can only get one legendary coat of arms per month, and even purchasing the Battle Pass will only reward you with one or two additional Legendary Crests each month. Besides, you need to buy them directly. Legendary coats of arms cost anywhere from $2 to $3 each. The sheer amount of gems you’ll need to max out your character’s gear, especially given the extremely low drop rate of five-star gems, is the reason why the cost of maxing out your character upgrade is Diablo the Immortal is valued at between $50,000 and $100,000—perhaps even more if you delve into the gemstone resonance system. (The Rock Paper Shotgun has a very thorough breakdown of costs, which is on the more conservative end of this scale.)
Diablo the Immortal this business model has been hit extremely hard, perhaps disproportionately given popular free-to-play competitors such as Genshin Impact as well as Lost Ark hardly free from similar gacha mechanics to lure big whale players. Diablo’s fame and reputation among the mainstream PC gaming audience, earned over a quarter of a century, has undoubtedly played a role. But it’s also true that this system is extremely problematic, and the very nature of the Diablo games has something to do with it.
When you buy Legendary Crests, you don’t buy a roll of the dice like, say, when you buy a FIFA Ultimate Team Card Pack. You’re buying the chance to load the dice, get to the game engine, and tweak the drop rate (slightly) in your favor. The addictive game mechanics are not separate from the addictive game mechanics, but instead are directly linked to combat and loot in the game. Diablo is frighteningly well positioned for this; as my colleague Maddy Myers pointed out, these heavily loot-focused games have always had a slot machine quality that Diablo the Immortalthe business model makes it literal.
Blizzard has pointed this out more than once. Immortalmonetization can be safely ignored until the endgame, which is true, and it is claimed that most players enjoy the game without spending a dime, which is plausible. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the main fun of Diablo games lies in progressing through the story, and not in leveling your character. It would be equally disingenuous to deny that these games have always been designed in such a way as to make players thirsty to reach the power limit. For people with a penchant for gambling or the addictive qualities of playing with Diablo items – or worse, both – the legendary crest system is exploitative and potentially very destructive.
For everyone else, it just makes Diablo less fun to play.
We’ve been here before or something like that. When Diablo 3 launched in 2012, it had a real money auction house where players could buy and sell their items. Theoretically, this existed in order to prevent the fraud and swindle that accompanied the trade in items in Diablo 2. But in order to steer players towards the auction house, Blizzard reduced the chance of loot dropping in the game to the point where equipping your character became a thankless chore and the game as a whole felt unprofitable to play. When the unpopular auction house was removed in 2014 and the odds of dropping increased, Diablo 3 instantly became more fun, even before innovations Soul Reaper expansion elevated it to classical status.
Lesson learned: On paper, it might make sense to try to monetize Diablo loot, but once you do, you lose the fun of the game. Same with Diablo the Immortaland this is it’s noticeable even before you get to the endgame because it’s deeply embedded in the game design. Loot drops are less efficient, while character progression is artificially stifled and thinly distributed across too many systems that are too polished and too detailed. It was more cleverly disguised than it was at launch. Diablo 3, but this is the same useless tedious work. Buying a Battle Pass or spending a lot on Legendary Crests is unlikely to help, because paying to drop a great item will never be as fun as just getting it.
I’m not sure if there’s a way to isolate the core of what makes Diablo interesting from the free-to-play monetization mechanics. If there is, Blizzard and NetEase haven’t found it. They made Diablo mobile smooth, enjoyable, and generous at first. But if you spend enough time with it, you can’t escape the fact that the heart of the game has been cut, sliced, and sold to you piece by piece.
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