When future gamers are writing lists about the most controversial moments in gaming history, the 2018 Blizzcon Event will undoubtedly be high on that list.
Game developers for Blizzard took to the of their annual event stage and infuriated a crowd of their most dedicated fans by announcing the upcoming release of a mobile game instead of the long-awaited fourth sequel in the Diablo series.
Even though fans had been told not to expect the announcement of Diablo IV, the crowd still held its breath in anticipation of a surprise Diablo IV announcement. To be honest, anything other than Diablo IV would have caused disappointment. But the mobile game announcement wasn’t just a disappointment, it was confirmation that Blizzard was just like everyone else. And this revelation devastated those who held the company to a higher standard.
Strike One: Mobile Game Catastrophe
The gaming industry is more and more turning to a micro-transaction-laden hellscape in which mobile games make quick dollars while developers build their “real” games.
EA loves to do it, Nintendo does it, and now Blizzard wants some skin in the game too.
It wasn’t just that they announced a mobile game, it was announcing it from the most important stage at their most important conference.
They put Diablo 4 level hype into a Diablo mobile game and expected an equivalent response. Then when they didn’t get that response, Blizzard developers reacted badly, to say the least.
Developer Wyatt Cheng was the first to react to the negative response from the crowd. At a Q&A portion of the event, a fan asked on the microphone whether the mobile game titled ‘Diablo Immortal’ would ever be ported to PC. Cheng said no, causing the crowd to boo.
After completely misreading the room, Cheng replied to the booing
“do you guys not have phones?”
A question that started an avalanche of rage and a meme that didn’t die for over a year.
The conference lived on as the butt of every joke for months, but after the dust cleared and the memes died, whatever happened to that mobile game?
Well, it’s still being developed, but not by Blizzard. As was always the plan, the game is being developed by Blizzard’s Chinese partner NetEase.
Strike Two: Controversial Team-Up
Some say the fall of Blizzard began with the 2008 signing of their partnership agreement with NetEase.
Originally intended as a three-year partnership, the deal was inked to allow Blizzard an online presence in China.
According to a statement made by NetEase, the company was being contracted to run the online components of Warcraft 3, Starcraft 2, and Battle.net.
CEO of NetEase William Ding went on to say
“By combining Blizzard Entertainment’s expertise in developing world-class games with NetEase’s strength in online-game operation in China, I am confident that we will be able to deliver the best gaming experiences in the world to our players.”
Although controversial, the partnership was necessary if Blizzard ever wanted an online player-base in China.
The Chinese government is extremely strict regarding what’s allowed on Chinese internet, and all foreigner companies need a domestic partner in order to operate within their borders.
Because of censorship limitations, Blizzard games like Overwatch are run by NetEase on an entirely different server with some noticeable changes.
When playing the Chinese version, the first thing I noticed was the aesthetic change of the Overwatch font.
While only a cosmetic change, it feels eery and like I was playing a knockoff.
The second thing I noticed was that there was no blood-splatter, a feature I’m guessing didn’t make it past censorship.
Partnering with NetEase could be seen as a necessity, especially since China is one of the biggest gaming markets in the world.
But this partnership aligned them with a company that’s best known for developing games that look like Blizzard rip-off games developed for mobile.
This was never a problem, until Blizzard announced they were making their own mobile game, and that it was being developed by their mobile game-making partner.
Critics and fans alike realised that the game was probably going to be a skin-swapped version of a previously developed NetEase game.
This meant that fans could no longer trust Blizzard to develop well thought out and perfectly crafted games every time. They were beginning to learn that Blizzard was willing to compromise to make more money.
If partnering with NetEase was the beginning of selling their soul to the devil, the completion of the sale was their 2013 equity sale to Chinese giant Tencent.
Tencent is an enormous player in China, controlling the largest communication and second-largest online payment app in the country, WeChat. (WeChat has an estimated monthly user count of over a billion people).
Since 2017, Tencent’s stake in Blizzard has been diluted to under 5%. However, their presence and that of NetEase has had a clear effect on Blizzard’s marketing and communication decisions.
Strike Three: Who Cares About Hong Kong
The influence of Blizzard’s Chinese partners was never more obvious than at the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters streaming event in Taiwan. (An event that will also undoubtedly be featured in the controversial moments list in the future).
The Grandmasters event was coincidently taking place at the same time as the Hong Kong riots being staged in protest of proposed Chinese extradition laws in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong native and professional Hearthstone player Blitzchung, real name 吳偉聰 (Ng Wai Chung), was interviewed after his match.
After the camera cut to him, he was seen on screen wearing a mask similar to those worn by the Hong Kong protestors and saying “liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” after which the stream was cut.
Blizzard’s reaction came swiftly and was seen by most as a move made to please their Chinese partners, rather than their fans.
Blizzard banned Blitzchung from the rest of the tournament for his anti-China statement, and told him that he would forfeit all the money he had won up to that point ($4000).
He was also banned from taking part in any more Grandmasters tournaments for a year.
They claimed that he had broken the rules, stating that no-one competing in a Blizzard tournament is allowed to “offend the public” or impugn Blizzards image.
It wasn’t just Blitzchung who was punished though, the two interviewers who cut to Blitzchung’s feed were fired from their jobs working for Blizzard at the Taiwan office.
The public backlash to Blizzard’s response came soon after, with #BoycottBlizzard trending on Twitter worldwide.
US senators Ron Wyden, Marco Rubio and representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski all signed a letterimploring Blizzard to reverse their decision.
Five days later, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack paid Blitzchung his winnings, and reduced the ban from a year to six months.
*Disclaimer: Blizzard is not the only game developer tied up with Tencent. Others include (but are not limited to) Epic Games, Riot Games, and Ubisoft.
Redemption Thy Name Is Diablo 4
Blizzard wasn’t in the hot-seat for long, because only weeks after the Grandmasters event controversy, Blizzard released the announcement trailer for Diablo 4 — and all was forgiven.
But the public knows where Blizzard stands now, and Blizzard’s public affection is far lower than the heights in which it once sat.
As for Diablo Immortal (the mobile game), it’s still coming.
Images released from the game’s marketing team have been criticised for its striking resemblance to the NetEase game Crusaders of Light.
Critics have openly accused NetEase of merely re-skinning their previous game, and re-releasing it with a brand new Diablo coat of paint.
Blizzard denies these claims and states they’re making a wholly original game in partnership with NetEase.
“Trust us guys, when have we ever let you down?”
You can bet that when the mobile game eventually does come out, critics will tear it apart if it even slightly resembles a previously released NetEase game.
In every sense, Blizzard has to watch every step more than ever before, because all trust is gone. One more misstep and they could lose their player base forever.
Until Diablo 4 is finished, becomes available, and is amazing… Controversy what now?