Would Diablo Immortal Have Sparked Outrage If It Had NFTs?
Blizzard’s latest instalment in its popular ARPG series attracted huge backlash – but if the game had NFTs, would the outrage have been the same?
Diablo Immortal looks like it will live up to the second half of its name – it’s an unforgettable game, just not for the reasons it ought to be.
In November 2018, Blizzard announced Diablo Immortal at BlizzCon, when fans were eagerly awaiting the announcement of Diablo IV. Disappointment turned to anger upon learning that Diablo Immortal was to be mobile-only.
As if this flagship moment wasn’t turning sour enough already, Lead Game Designer Wyatt Cheng, who was on stage for the symphony of groans, quipped back at the disgruntled crowd, “Do you guys not have phones?”
If you’d asked me post-BlizzCon 2018 if things could get any worse for Diablo Immortal, I’d have been hesitant – and yet, as we’ve seen since its launch in June, things are now far, far worse. In fact, the game has acquired a level of infamy I’ve never seen before – and for good reasons.
Diablo Immortal represents the worst that Web2 has to offer when it comes to player exploitation, Pay-to-Win mechanics and immoral design choices, both in-game and in the framework that underpins it.
What’s most interesting to me however are the similarities between Diablo Immortal’s revenue model and so many Web3 games of today.
The Most Expensive Free-to-Play Game in History
Diablo is an ARPG series with a vast army of loyal fans gathered over its 25+ year history. The first three instalments, released in 1996, 2000 and 2012, were milestones for the genre, and the industry at large.
The last full release, Diablo III, was generally well-received, albeit suffering the difficulty of living up to its all-time-classic predecessor.
However, on launch, it included a real-money auction house, allowing players to purchase items from other players using real-world money (fiat).
This was Pay-to-Win at its finest; brash, demotivating, and giving those with the largest pockets a fast-track to success. As a result, the gaming community threw up its arms, and Blizzard removed the real-money dynamic. What had been chalked up as a foolish mistake can now be assessed as prophetic in light of Diablo Immortal.
Firstly, a positive truth about Diablo Immortal – if there were no Pay-to-Win elements, we’d have an unexpectedly excellent instalment of the Diablo franchise on our hands.
Raxxanterax, a gaming content creator who played over 400 hours of alpha client, gave early versions a “gigantic green check.” He allegedly played the alpha of the ARPG-turned-social MMO more than anyone in the world, and argued that it was extremely promising.
I’ve also heard similar songs of praise about the feel of the game (despite its mobile-centric engine), the difficulty, the social aspects, the advent of PvP, and so on. What Raxxanterax didn’t have access to – and nor did any of the alpha testers – was the real-money implementation, and that’s exactly the point at which the problems start.
Pay-to-Win is a revenue model uniformly detested by gamers, but it’s a broad category. Any game in which a player can gain an advantage by paying real money (legally and within the game’s terms and conditions) could be seen as Pay-to-Win, but there’s many examples where Pay-to-Win mechanics are shrugged off.
One example can be found in World of Warcraft whenever a new raid is released. The top guilds invest thousands in the game’s token (which allows real money to be traded for in-game gold) so that they can eke out competitive advantages in the race to complete these new raids first. This is, for the most part, not loathed – however similar MMORPGs, where players can buy the best items from an in-game shop for cash, are demonised.
So, where does Diablo Immortal sit on this broad spectrum? It’s shattered the glass ceiling of what the most egregious Pay-to-Win game could be – and it’s done so in ways so laughably inconceivable that I’ll have to keep hyperlinking sources to prove I’m not inventing these statistics.
The number that fizzed around the internet like an amusing cat was $110,000 USD. That figure was allegedly (and incorrectly) claimed by Bellular, a beloved World of Warcraft YouTuber, to max out one character.
That number is so absurd that I doubted it immediately. I wondered whether that figure was calculated as if a player were to buy miniscule incremental upgrades again and again, and I was right to doubt it: it seems that it is incorrect.
The new maths suggests it is actually $540,000.
In fact, if you were unlucky (yes, even purchased power has RNG), you could end up spending closer to $1,000,000 for a fully maxed-out Diablo Immortal character.
The last two links breakdown exactly how it’s that expensive, albeit the “why” can’t cover Blizzard’s inexcusable greed (few can understand that), but the details are irrelevant to this article. Instead, I want to highlight the ways in which Diablo Immortal has been rightly vilified and how those very issues are commonplace in the current Web3 gaming landscape.
What We Don’t Tolerate In Web2 Cannot Be Accepted in Web3
One of the chief difficulties for Web3 gaming right now is Play-to-Earn. Every other iteration of that term (play-and-earn and so on) still suffer from the issue I’ve raised on the Mint One podcast several times: everything in Web3 is an investment. Players will dump inordinate amounts of money into blockchain games because it feels like an investment.
I don’t wholly disagree with this, and true item ownership leads to a way you can recoup money spent on games you’ve moved on from, or even turn a profit. The problem is with how loosely players will speculate on these games, engaging in systems that the gaming community has aggressively rejected for years.
Firstly, Pay-to-Win is devastating to a game’s competitiveness and shelf life. It diminishes accomplishments and means that players with bigger bank balances have advantages over those who’ve put more time into the game. There’s countless videos of players getting crushed by whales in Diablo Immortal’s PvP and they’re being shared fervently because of how absurd it all is.
This is par for the course in blockchain games. For Play-to-Earn games to generate the most money, the NFTs you can buy and sell must impact the game in a positive way. This is the beating heart of Pay-to-Win, but because the NFT can (usually) be resold, it isn’t flagging itself to many gamers in the same way.
Next up is what YouTube gaming critic Josh Strife Hayes, calls “immoral design”. This is where gameplay is centred around the manipulation of players in order to extract more of their money.
As Hayes summarised nicely, it isn’t necessarily a problem that Diablo Immortal is monetised, but rather that it is abusively monetised.
For the chance of better loot, you must pay real money. To save yourself hours and hours of grinding – something that’s part and parcel of any RPG – you must pay real money. Login rewards are vitally important and act as a gateway to which Diablo Immortal builds predatory habits.
The game features a festival of ways to entice players to spend money, and then once you’ve made even the tiniest financial commitment, it doubles down until you’re chasing a sunk cost fallacy.
Without naming names, so many of the most popular blockchain games do exactly this, but then weave in the vague notion of returns; as if by spending more and more money could yield more and more generated wealth, even though that’s seldom the case.
My penultimate parallel (this article could double in size if I wanted to be exhaustive) is RNG. Again, as Hayes observed, Diablo Immortal has carefully skirted around loot boxes, and yet the element of luck (even in paid mechanics like the purchase of legendary gems) is so influential that the effects are almost identical – so much so that Diablo Immortal has been banned in the Netherlands and Belgium for failing to comply with EU gambling laws.
We see this sort of paid RNG (read: gambling) in every area of blockchain gaming, offset only by the ability to resell the NFTs inside. Pack sales and openings (which I regularly participate in) are no different from loot boxes that were deemed gambling – they play into the exact same addictive psychology.
The question is whether true item ownership in blockchain gaming is enough to justify these practices. I believe that the most generous view of this is that, at the very least, it needs regulation.
Finally, I want to discuss how convoluted many blockchain gaming economies have become. It’s increasingly more common to see one game feature many different in-game currencies – some tokenised, some not. This unnecessary complexity makes grinding longer and more difficult, and incentivises payment to overcome long-winded and confusing grinds.
In a blockchain game I tested recently, it had two tokens, several NFTs that act as sort-of tokens, then off-chain tokens that could also be exchanged. Crafting became so tortuous that I just looked up the price of the item I wanted off the marketplace.
It’s no coincidence that Diablo Immortal has 22 different in-game currencies; that’s a calculated move.
As with my previous article on the language of crypto, I expect some backlash to this. If that’s your gut reaction, please know that I work in crypto wholly for blockchain gaming, and to help build this new and growing industry.
By virtue of its young age, it’s a long way from perfect. The ability to earn within a game, and truly own the items you gather, makes for muddy waters. Nevertheless, we must avoid history repeating itself, particularly with exploitative and predatory mechanics that have the sole purpose of extracting money from players.
Blockchain gaming has already done so much good, and the future is promising. We cannot afford to let that be polluted by insatiable greed, particularly when the earning potential is already so high.