A month after launch Diablo immortal has one of the lowest Metacritic user ratings ever: 0.4 on iOS and 0.3 on PC. “Disgustingly designed” is a typical comment.
In the Apple App Store, on the other hand Diablo Immortal has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. “Finally a mobile game done right!” comments one user.
Both assessments are correct in their own way.
Diablo immortal is not just a new entry in Blizzard’s storied action role-playing game series, but places Diablo in a new context. In fact, several new contexts: it is mainly designed for mobile devices with touchscreen controls. It’s a massively multiplayer online game with a shared world where you see other players walking around. Co-developed with a Chinese company, NetEase, it was designed with Asian markets in mind more than any Blizzard game before it. It’s free to play. These are all huge changes for Diablo.
On the other hand, for every Diablo player – especially for everyone Diablo 3 Player – Diablo immortal will feel comfortably familiar. The series’ signature isometric perspective, frenetic combat with swarms of monsters and fountains of loot are omnipresent. Furthermore, Immortal was clearly built on the Diablo 3 engine and takes advantage of that game while keeping the feel and atmosphere of Blizzard’s 2012 game. Immortal‘s artwork has the same richly colored golden glow, the combat is the same exhilarating fireworks display, and the jingling and splashing sound effects offer the same deep, Pavlovian satisfaction.
It’s because Immortal is the same game in a new context that the opinions of the different constituencies of its audience can differ so widely. Existing Diablo fans hate the way their favorite game has been monetized in its new free-to-play incarnation, while mobile game players who are more used to this business model will love the polish, depth and scope are impressed Immortal inherited from his predecessors. Neither group is wrong, so should we just attribute this to other strokes and move on? Unfortunately not, because Diablo immortal isn’t just at the center of a video game culture clash. It is also at war with itself.
You wouldn’t know until you start playing the game. At first, Diablo immortal is as fun to play as it sounds: a lightweight, portable, social, and fast-paced version of Diablo 3. It’s also more spacious and open in its design than many of its free-to-play peers. There are no energy-style mechanics that limit the amount of time you can play without paying, and none of its activity is behind any type of paywall. The campaign is long, luxurious and largely stress-free. In the few instances where you need to level up to progress, you’ll find a wealth of activities aside from the main quest – including bounties, repeatable dungeons, and random “rifts” – to help you bridge the gap. Guides, achievements, and in-game activity trackers shower you with rewards and help you explore the game’s bewildering array of systems. There’s even innovation here that might well emulate mainline Diablo games, like the building guide, which suggests a ton of skills and gear to work towards.
It’s only when you’re thoroughly familiar with Diablo, and particularly its all-consuming item game, that you’ll realize something is amiss. It’s clear that loot – the equippable items that can alter your character’s power, even to the point of altering how abilities work – has been subtly de-focused.
First, gear can be upgraded and then its rank transferred to another item in the same slot. This means a significant portion of your character’s progression has shifted away from thrilling drops from monsters and towards an incremental, colorless grind where you salvage massive amounts of unwanted loot to feed into the upgrade machine.
Second, your items are now greatly upgraded by equipping them with legendary gems of tremendous power, and this is the source of most of the complaints Diablo immortalThe monetization of has been focused.
A Diablo immortal Character has six legendary gem slots. Each gem has a rating of one to five stars that cannot be changed and which greatly affects its power; Five Star Gems are much rarer drops than One Star Gems. Legendary gems can be upgraded, and the easiest way to do this is through consuming them Miscellaneous legendary gems. A fully upgraded Gem can then be further enhanced through a “Gem Resonance” system, which requires – you guessed it – more Legendary Gems, up to five more per gem slot.
If you want to max out your character – and maxing out your character is really what Diablo is all about – you need a lot of legendary gems: finding the right ones that suit your build, getting good star ratings to get the gems to improve that you have and finally to insert the additional resonance slots of each gem. It’s endless.
Under Diablo immortal‘s plethora of currencies, upgrade paths, and reward systems, Legendary Gems are where the business model bites the hardest. Blizzard and NetEase weren’t blatant enough to sell them directly through a loot box or gacha mechanic, but what they’ve come up with is in some ways even more disturbing. Legendary Gems only drop from the bosses of the Elder Rift random dungeons, and you can only guarantee a Legendary Gem drop by applying a Legendary Crest modifier to the dungeon before you start it. Otherwise, legendary gem drop rates are very low.
Without spending money on the game, all you can get is a legendary crest per month, and even purchasing a Battle Pass only rewards you with an additional Legendary Emblem or two per month. In addition, you need to buy them directly. Legendary crests cost anywhere from $2 to $3 each. The massive amount of gems you need to max out your character’s gear, especially given the extremely low drop rates of five star gems, is what drives the cost to max your character Diablo immortal has been estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 – possibly even more if you dig deep into the gemstone resonance system. (Rock Paper Shotgun has a very thorough cost breakdown that lands on the more conservative end of that scale.)
Diablo immortal has had an exceptionally rough ride for this business model – perhaps disproportionate considering that popular free-to-play competitors such as Genshin Impact and Lost Ark are hardly devoid of similar gacha mechanics to attract big-spending “whale” players. Diablo’s fame and standing with a core PC gaming audience that he’s garnered over a quarter of a century is certainly a factor. But it’s also true that this system is uniquely problematic, and the nature of Diablo games has something to do with it.
When you buy legendary crests, you don’t buy dice like you do when you buy a FIFA Ultimate Team card pack, for example. You buy yourself a chance to load the dice, dig into the game engine, and tweak the drop rates (slightly) in your favor. The addictive gambling mechanics are not separate from the addictive gameplay mechanics, but are directly connected to combat and loot drops within the game. Diablo is shockingly well placed to do this; As my colleague Maddy Myers pointed out, these heavily loot-heavy games have always had a slot quality that Diablo immortal‘s business model makes literal.
Blizzard has made an effort to point this out ImmortalThe monetization of can be ignored until the endgame, which is true, and it is claimed that the majority of players enjoy the game without spending a dime, which is plausible. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that the main pleasure of Diablo games is playing through the story rather than maxing out your character. It would be just as disingenuous to deny that these games were always designed to instill a hunger in their players to push themselves to the limit. For those with a gambling tendency or the addictive qualities of Diablo’s item game – or worse, both – the Legendary Crest system is exploitative and potentially very harmful.
For everyone else, Diablo is just less fun.
We have been here before or somewhere similar. When Diablo 3 Launched in 2012, it had a real-money auction house where players could buy and sell their item drops. In theory, this existed to ward off the fraud and fraud that plagues the item trade diablo 2. But to steer players towards the auction house, Blizzard lowered the in-game loot drop rates to the point that equipping your character became a thankless drudgery and the game as a whole didn’t feel rewarding. When the infamous auction house was removed and drop rates increased in 2014, Diablo 3 was immediately more fun, even before the innovations of the reaper of souls The expansion made it a classic.
The Lesson: It might make sense on paper to try to monetize Diablo’s loot, but once you do, you take the fun out of the game. It’s the same with me Diablo immortaland it is noticeable before you reach the endgame because it’s deeply etched into the game design. Loot drops are less effective, while character progression is artificially throttled and thinly spread across too many systems that are too finicky and granular. It has been camouflaged more elaborately than when it was launched Diablo 3, but it’s a similarly unrewarded drudgery. Buying a Battle Pass or spending big bucks on legendary crests hardly helps, as paying for a great item drop will never be as exciting as just getting one.
I’m not sure if there’s a way to isolate the core of what makes Diablo so entertaining from the mechanics of free-to-play monetization. If so, Blizzard and NetEase haven’t found it. They’ve created a mobile Diablo that’s slick, fun, and even 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 excised, chopped up, and sold back to you piecemeal.