Free-to-play games accounted for over 85 per cent of game sector growth in the five years between 2013 and 2018.
That trajectory is predicted to continue, taking the market’s total value to $180 billion in 2020. At least that’s what market intelligence outfit Newzoo’s data tells us.
Drilling down into those numbers, it’s clear the vast majority of this growth has - and continues to come - from mobile games. As you’d expect, a decent chunk comes from the mobile-heavy markets of China, South Korea and Southeast Asia more generally.
So, you don’t have to be a brainiac to see why 10 years on from the Apple App Store’s launch, mobile F2P games, especially those that appeal to the Greater China audience - China, Hong Kong, Taiwan etcetera - continue to top the list for games companies looking for growth.
A devilish dilemma
That’s a long introduction for an article considering Blizzard’s announcement of Diablo Immortal; an F2P mobile game set in the signature action-RPG universe, which is now in development with Blizzard’s long-term Chinese partner NetEase.
Yet at a high level, the financial numbers place that decision in stark context.
Although technically possible, there is no point releasing a paid version of Diablo (say the Nintendo Switch version of Diablo III) on mobile. Yes, it would a ‘proper’ Diablo game, as much as the Switch version is, but on mobile no-one would buy it or play it.
So, Diablo Immortal is clearly going to be something different and that’s what the game’s core fans are complaining about.
Yet for all the flaming angst and sense of entitlement, there is more than a grain of truth in their arguments.
Taking console and PC games that have created a strong heritage over many years to mobile is a difficult - almost impossible - task when it comes to maintaining their core identity, especially when that identity is centred around a certain type of gameplay (and business model).
Diablo is the antithesis of a mobile F2P game.
Simply put, Diablo is the antithesis of a mobile F2P game.
Many aspects of Diablo Immortal - including gameplay and monetisation - will be different, very different from what we’ve seen in previous Diablo games.
And that’s as it should be if it has any chance of becoming a successful mobile game. Notably, Blizzard hasn’t said anything about monetisation yet, but don’t expect it to be different from NetEase’s previous mobile action-RPGs MMOs such as Crusaders of Light.
Even some seemingly minor features such as the UI and controls immediately look jarring to Diablo fans. In terms of its controls, Diablo Immortal is using what’s become the conventional layout for touchscreen action-RPGs like, yes, Crusaders of Light again.
Ironically, given its recent reputation for making straight up copycats games of the likes of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds (Knives Out, Rules of Survival) and Fortnite (Creative Destruction), NetEase is now moving on from years of copying Diablo to combining that experience with canonical settings, characters and timeline to make the real deal.
Diablo Immortal may end up the most hated mobile game ever in the West but it will also be the most widely played Diablo ever.
Given that’s the case, if I had been a Diablo fan sitting in the audience and looking forward to a Diablo IV reveal, I’d be pretty pissed off too.
Not in Kansas anymore
But let’s not forget that despite Blizzard’s incredibly tin-eared announcement - ‘You all have phones, don’t you?’ may end up as infamous for gamers as ‘Let them eat cake’ in world history - the axis of power has shifted somewhat since December 31st, 1996 when Diablo was originally released.
From paid games in North America, we’re now in an era of F2P mobile games in Asia.
That’s why Blizzard has announced it’s working on more mobile games, while Activision has at least three F2P mobile Call of Duty games in development, two of which are co-developments with Chinese companies.
The truth is Diablo Immortal may end up the most hated mobile game ever in the West (taking the mantle from EA’s Dungeon Keeper) but that doesn’t mean it won’t also be the most widely played Diablo ever. It certainly will.
Perhaps it will even be the most lucrative game in the series’ already long and successful history. And that's the reason for Blizzard's Faustian Bargain: enduring the ire of its core audience to monetise the hundreds of millions of gamers who have never even heard of it.
For more on Diablo Immortal check out our opinion piece on why mobile remains a dirty word in triple-A.