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Diablo Immortal’s pay-to-win monetization issues corrupt the franchise

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The most enduring image of “Diablo,” the 1996 PC game, is a cathedral with red light bleeding out its doors and windows.

Places of worship are viewed as sacred. That’s why churches are so often the settings for horror stories. The juxtaposition of purity and holiness against dread and corruption is like the contrast between two primary colors, timeless as it is easily understood. But the red energy emanating from the “Diablo” cathedral highlights a running theme throughout the story of the games: that anything and everything can be victim to corruption, temptation and evil.

The first game ends with the hero becoming Diablo, a.k.a. the Lord of Terror, himself, no matter how strong or noble players imagined themselves. The humans of Diablo lore, who live in a world ironically called Sanctuary, have demon blood within them, and are constantly fighting their true nature. Leah, a main character of “Diablo 3” who was basically portrayed as a Disney princess, becomes the embodiment of the Lord of Terror. In the world of Diablo, anything and everyone is susceptible to perversion.

Since 1996, “Diablo” has been among the most revered series in gaming. It defined the “loot chase” of the video game medium, where defeating hordes of enemies means obtaining equipment to gain more power to kill monsters faster and harder. But in 2022, many longtime players are seeing the sanctity of the loot chase corrupted by “Diablo Immortal,” the latest and fourth game in the series that’s pivoted to a free-to-play, pay-to-win monetization structure.

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That is, in essence, the controversy and outrage surrounding the latest game by Activision Blizzard, a company with a long history of making the world’s most beloved role-playing fantasy games that, in recent years, has been beset by allegations and lawsuits surrounding worker abuse and sexual harassment. Now, the company has thrown its most revered fantasy franchise into the mobile market, which is often criticized for predatory consumer practices.

Make no mistake: “Diablo Immortal” is a pay-to-win game, in that players can spend money to increase their power relative to other players, something that the previous three games had not done. Through its marketing, Activision Blizzard developers have tried to stay ahead of the controversy by claiming the game does not sell gear or level boosts; this is pure spin. There are many ways to spend money to gain more power ahead of players who engage with the game for free, much of it explained through hundreds of videos from YouTube creators capitalizing on the outrage against “Diablo Immortal.”

But it’s also very true that a large portion of the game is enjoyable without spending any money. The video game news website Kotaku recently published a piece discussing how much its reporters have enjoyed the game without feeling any pressure to spend money. I have to admit, I am in the same boat, although I am only just above level 30, still hours away from any pressure around the endgame to spend money.

The various ways to spend money are very confusing, and much of the YouTube outrage against “Diablo Immortal” hasn’t been particularly informative. Much of the focus has been on buying “legendary crests” to increase players’ chances of finding legendary gems. While Activision Blizzard doesn’t call this gear per se, stronger, rarer legendary gems are a crucial part of upgrading your endgame equipment to be as powerful as possible.

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The conversation around “Diablo Immortal” has focused on the idea that a player must spend approximately $110,000 to max out a character’s power, according to one YouTuber’s calculations. But as appalling as that figure might seem in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine anybody actually spending that much on the game. To the Kotaku article’s point, most players simply don’t care about maximizing their character to that degree.

This may also be a rare case where the YouTube outrage doesn’t quite capture the breadth of a game’s issues, says YouTube creator Casey, who goes by the name Darth Microtransaction (Casey has withheld his last name for privacy and security reasons). For the last five years, Casey has specialized in playing and spending money in mobile games to guide players through these various systems. He has spent hundreds of dollars in “Diablo Immortal.”

“Pay-to-win people think it stops at gems. It doesn’t,” Casey said. “There’s raw, flat stats you can gain in the sanctum. The treasure room allows you to swipe to open more chests to get upgrade materials to use on the shrine. These stats are not mitigated in player-versus-player.”

The focus on legendary gems and crests is correct, Casey said, but it’s not the only way to pay to win, and it might not even be the worst way.

“The marketplace allows buying and purchasing, meaning you don’t need to run the rifts,” he said, describing the activity that’s modified by using legendary crests for legendary gem rewards. “You can log in and just buy stuff from other players. So we have people spending $10,000 for the content, when they could spend $100 and just buy the item from another player.”

This is similar in spirit to the infamous “auction house” that launched with “Diablo 3,” a feature that generated so much outrage and blowback that Activision Blizzard had to retool the entire game to remove the feature. But gaming companies will often try and try again to get consumers to play along. Instead of an auction house, we have a marketplace where players can sell gems to each other for “platinum,” an in-game currency that can be earned through play or purchased outright by spending “eternal orbs,” currency bought by real-world cash. If any of these explanations sound convoluted to you as a reader, it’s all by design. Many free-to-play games obfuscate their gambling or monetization mechanics to hide that the game’s systems are designed to push player spending.

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And yet, despite its monetization issues, “Diablo Immortal” is still entertaining as a free product in the early to mid game. Much like the recent disappointment of another free-to-play game, “Halo Infinite,” “Diablo Immortal” has a strong foundation for an entertaining game. It feels good to return to the world of Diablo, with the gameplay and pleasing audiovisual feedback that made the series among the best-selling role-playing games of all time.

The Diablo series was conceived by David Brevik, who had long dreamed of a more loot-driven, combat-focused role-playing game for PC. After his company partnered and joined with Blizzard North, “Diablo” in 1996 helped build the foundation for what Blizzard is today.

Brevik famously said that “Diablo” needed to be simple enough to pass the “mom test,” namely whether a parent can understand the game’s concepts enough to play it. In that sense, streamlining the Diablo series seems to keep within the spirit of that original design principle. “Diablo 3” received much initial blowback for its simplified skill trees, yet is now regarded as among the finest modern examples of the action role-playing genre.

But it’s hard to see how the confusing monetization schemes of “Diablo Immortal” could pass the mom test. While the game is fun, it’s a more arcadelike, peeled-back version of “Diablo 3,” with very little customization in individual character skills. “Diablo 3” at least helped you modify moves through level gains. “Diablo 2” had the most flexible skill tree of the series, with abilities feeding and supporting each other. “Immortal” just gives you moves and ranks them up, and all the build variety comes from collecting and crafting gems to slot into gear. It’s just not satisfying.

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Many players, like the Kotaku writers who don’t care about the endgame chase or those who are acclimated to free-to-play mobile games, will be able to ignore the looming threat of needing to understand these systems. I would usually count myself among these folks. I’ve already received well over 15 hours of enjoyable Diablo gameplay for free, and that’s a value proposition that’s hard to argue against. The game’s entertainment value well exceeds the asking price of nothing.

But this is also a series I have been playing since I first laid eyes on that creepy monastery in 1996. In college, I played “Diablo 2” incessantly, chasing loot as I happily clicked away demons for hundreds of hours. In “Diablo 2,” the endgame chase involved collecting items called runewords, which enhance your equipment. This meant hours of fighting enemies like the Countess and running dungeons over and over.

In “Diablo Immortal,” these same items are now used to craft legendary gems to enhance equipment. It’s a mechanic built on top of a mechanic that’s now being monetized through buying legendary crests with real-world money. This would fail Brevik’s mom test.

It fails my test as well. I have not spent as much time as I anticipated playing “Diablo Immortal” simply because that mess of mechanics on top of mechanics feels like too much busywork for a brain that just wants to see monsters pop and gold drop. Money isn’t the issue here; it’s how I value my time that matters, and what that time spent is building toward.

The greatest success of “Diablo Immortal” is that it has sent me running right back to the purity of “Diablo 2” and “Diablo 3.” Both games offer the same mesmerizing gameplay of “Immortal” without a future of me trying to circumvent spending too much money later down the line. It’s sadly ironic that the blood-red glow of the first game’s cathedral has become a true sanctuary.

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