Diablo Immortal has been out in the wild for several weeks now, and in that time the verdict has become clear--in addition to being heavily monetized, Diablo Immortal is, without a doubt, pay-to-win.
Ahead of release, fans knew Diablo Immortal would have microtransactions. After all, the game is free-to-play, and none of the story content or main features are locked behind a paywall. Blizzard needs to make money on Diablo Immortal somehow, but it wasn't clear to what extent the studio would monetize what it heralded as the most "ambitious" Diablo game to date. Fans assumed it would include a premium currency, paid cosmetics, and a battle pass, and it includes all that and more. What was less clear, and what Blizzard failed to disclose, was how heavy a role money plays when it comes to progressing your character in Diablo Immortal's endgame and the advantage doing so gives you over other players.
At the heart of the issue is Legendary Crests and Legendary Gems. You see, not all Legendary Gems are created equal–some are incredibly rare and powerful. These 5-Star Legendary Gems are miles above 1- or 2-Star Legendary Gems, granting more powerful effects, but also higher stats in the form of more Resonance, a stat which boosts the life and damage value of items. As a player, you want as many of these powerful gems, and as much Resonance, as possible. You also want to upgrade them as many times as possible to further increase their power. Gems are upgraded by salvaging unwanted Legendary Gems, and higher level gems not only require the leftover scraps of unwanted gems but also require dozens of gems of the same type in order to be upgraded.
The issue is that obtaining these highly coveted and extremely powerful gems is only possible through Legendary Crests. These crests are a premium item that can be purchased for real money and guarantee a Legendary Gem of some sort will drop when used in conjunction with the game's Elder Rifts. Legendary Crests also include a small--roughly 5%--chance to drop a 5-Star Legendary Gem.
If you are a completely free-to-play player, or even a player who only buys the battle pass and a few one-time bundles, you will have only a few Legendary Crests by the time you reach the endgame. To earn more, you need to spend more money. Instead, free-to-play players are relegated to using Rare Crests, which do not include any chance at all of a 5-Star Legendary Gem and don't even guarantee a Legendary Gem of any sort upon completing an Elder Rift. Considering how many Legendary Gems are also needed for upgrade purposes, players who aren't using Legendary Crests can expect to make almost no progress for weeks or months at a time when it comes to one of the key ways to improve your character.
The problem here is clear. People who spend money to buy dozens and dozens of Legendary Crests will not only have more Legendary Gems than players only buying, say, the battle pass, but will also have far more of the game's most overpowered 5-Star gems as well. Free players, quite simply, will never be as powerful as a person willing to spend hundreds of dollars. While there are technically some ways for free-to-play players to earn 5-Star Legendary Gems without spending money in the form of crafting, it's so time-consuming, resource-intensive, and luck-based that you might as well not even try.
Players that spend money will be much stronger than players who don't by a wide margin. It would be one thing if this only applied to the PvE portions of Diablo Immortal like dungeons, raids, and Challenge Rift leaderboards. However, it applies to PvP as well, which is a major focus of Diablo Immortal with its new Cycle of Strife system that pits two player factions against one another and the inclusion of PvP battlegrounds. While the game's Combat Rating stat is capped in PvP to ensure a more even playing field, the powerful Legendary Gem effects and the Resonance boosts to stats the gems provide are not, meaning players decked out in the game's best 5-Star Legendary Gems (which, once again, are realistically only obtainable by spending money) will absolutely decimate free-to-play players.
These types of paid systems aren't exactly new for many mobile or free-to-play RPGs. Genshin Impact, for example, is one of the most popular free-to-play games in the world. It relies heavily on a glorified slot machine system (aka the gacha system) where players spend real money for a chance to score rare characters and weapons that are vastly superior to those that free-to-play players have access to. Lost Ark, which just like Diablo Immortal is a free-to-play ARPG MMO, lets players directly purchase materials used to upgrade gear from its in-game store. The difference between those two examples and Diablo Immortal, however, is that Genshin Impact is PvE only and Lost Ark balances its PvP so that stats are equalized to ensure a fair and competitive environment.
If you ignore the PvP element, Diablo Immortal sadly isn't an outlier when it comes to popular free-to-play RPGs, and it doesn't do anything that dozens of cash-extracting mobile games haven't done before. These types of microtransactions aren't even a first for the Diablo franchise. When Diablo III released in 2012, it included a real-money auction house where players could sell in-game items for cash, with Blizzard getting a small cut of each transaction. As players reached higher difficulties and progress slowed to a crawl, many felt forced to engage with the auction house in order to improve their character. Blizzard listened to feedback and eventually removed the auction house from Diablo III entirely, seemingly having learned its lesson.
To see the same kind of scenario play out once again in Diablo Immortal--which also includes an auction house where players can sell items like Legendary Gems to one another via a special currency that can be acquired with another premium currency bought with real money--is Blizzard not only failing to learn from the mistakes of the franchise's past, but seemingly appearing hellbent on repeating them. Diablo as a series is all about slaying countless demons, obtaining more powerful loot, and progressing your character to tackle greater and greater challenges. Being able to simply buy your way to success, whether it's through Legendary Crests or the game's auction house, undermines the very essence of what Diablo as a franchise is all about.
When Diablo Immortal was first announced at BlizzCon 2018 as mobile-only, it was met with widespread disapproval from fans, who asked if the game's reveal was an out-of-season April Fool's joke and if the game would also come to PC. Blizzard responded as if players were the ones out of touch, asking "Do you not have phones?" While part of Diablo Immortal's disastrous announcement was due to Blizzard's hardcore PC-centric fans hoping to see Diablo IV and instead getting something completely different, the negative reaction also stemmed from the justified reputation free-to-play mobile games have as being riddled with predatory microtransactions. The idea of a heavily monetized, pay-to-win Diablo game sounded like the antithesis of everything Blizzard stood for.
As time went on and Blizzard eventually announced Diablo Immortal would also release for PC, some longtime Diablo and Blizzard fans, myself included, dared to hope Blizzard would use Diablo Immortal to buck mobile game trends and instead deliver a polished, freemium title fans of the franchise would be proud of, and some of that came to pass. Diablo Immortal is undoubtedly fun. It controls great on mobile and includes some top-notch production values, especially for a free phone game. It's entirely possible for casual players to play through and enjoy the game's main story without spending money. But as any fan knows, Diablo largely begins once the main story is complete, and Blizzard is capitalizing on that for Diablo Immortal.
The real disappointment of Diablo Immortal stems not from the fact it includes so many microtransactions or even that it's pay-to-win. It comes from the sad reality that instead of using Diablo's mobile debut to move the mobile RPG landscape forward, as Blizzard has done with numerous genres over the years, it instead chose to embrace the platform's worst practices. Diablo Immortal's pay-to-win mechanics encourage players to spend hundreds of dollars (or by one player's estimate, upwards of $80,000) to max out their character via Legendary Gems. Premium item bundles in-game can start as low as $1 and include made up "value" percentages of 800% to rope players in. Then as players progress and more bundles are unlocked, the bundles start to go up in price. Three separate paid services are present to give players who are willing to spend money more and more of an advantage over the player who thought they would be able to compete by just buying a simple battle pass. There's even an entire endgame progression system which revolves around opening progressively more expensive loot boxes with keys that can also be opened with a special currency bought with a premium paid currency. The list goes on. When you have players spamming the game's chat looking to exclusively form groups with other pay-to-win "whales" (a term used for players who spend vast sums of money in a free-to-play game compared to the average player), there's a serious problem.
There is a lot of potential money to be made in the free-to-play mobile game market, and there's no denying Blizzard's strategy seems to be working. Diablo Immortal reportedly made upwards of $24 million in its first two weeks, and that's with the game being banned in two European countries and delayed indefinitely in China (the game will arrive in other Asian markets July 7). People seem more than willing to spend thousands of dollars on Diablo Immortal, even if it's just to point out how terrible of an idea that is. One popular streamer spent roughly the equivalent of $16,000 US dollars to acquire just one of Diablo Immortal's coveted 5-Star Legendary Gems, only to immediately dismantle it, delete his character, and then uninstall the game in protest.
Spending thousands of dollars in Diablo Immortal just to make a point (as more than a few streamers have done) may seem hypocritical, but it doesn't change the fact that many of these streamers have disposable income to waste. They can throw thousands of dollars at a game like Diablo Immortal to get the attention of viewers, then delete their character once they become bored. The reality is the majority of players can spend a few dollars in Diablo Immortal, play for a bit, and then carry on with their lives. But for a minority of players with gambling and addiction problems who find themselves sucked into the predatory systems and microtransactions like those found in Diablo Immortal, that kind of luxury doesn't exist. Those are the players who can't afford to toss hundreds or thousands of dollars down the drain, but feel compelled to–and are in many ways pushed to–do so anyways that are the ones most hurt by these types of mobile game practices, of which Diablo Immortal is a textbook example of. That Diablo Immortal appears to be a financial success and players are spending large sums of money within it doesn't change the fact that the game's monetization model is predatory. In fact, Diablo Immortal's financial success further proves the point.
Could some aspects of how Diablo Immortal is monetized change over time? Sure, and they probably will be considering the state of the game's heavily pay-to-win PvP scene and overall negative public perception. Many longtime Blizzard players and Diablo fans are, to put it lightly, not happy about the state of Diablo Immortal. But Blizzard had years and the ever-present memory of Diablo III's failures to get this right the first time. Now the damage has been done, both to Blizzard's reputation and the Diablo franchise as a whole.
Diablo Immortal was among my most anticipated games of 2022. As a longtime fan of both Diablo and MMOs like Blizzard's own World of Warcraft, the idea of a free-to-play title that blended the best of Blizzard's storied ARPG series with the more social elements of an MMO was, on paper, a dream come true for me. I was excited about innovative new PvP systems like the Cycle of Strife, the likes of which has never been seen in a Diablo game before. I was excited about running dungeons, rifts, and raids with a clan of friends. I was excited to experience the world of Diablo in a new way. Unfortunately, that excitement soon turned into the depressing realization that Diablo Immortal was merely a demon in disguise--an entertaining Diablo game in many ways, albeit one currently corrupted by the power of the almighty dollar.
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