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Hot new video game 'Diablo: Immortal' sparks controversy over its business model

Diablo ® Immortal™ (AP)
Diablo ® Immortal™ (AP)

Diablo fans have battled demonic legions and plundered rare treasures since the original game hit shelves in 1996. But now, many are rallying against the latest title, Diablo: Immortal.

The Netherlands and Belgium have gone so far as to ban the newest iteration of the game entirely, released earlier this month, for allegedly exploiting players to keep them hooked and spending money. Though the game can be downloaded for free, users can pay to improve their odds of scoring valuable loot. One streamer spent more than $15,000 in an effort to obtain just one of the game’s most desirable items.

“Even the original creators of Diablo have compared the game to a slot machine,” says Polygon senior games editor Maddy Myers. “But when you add micro-transactions to the equation, you get that slot machine effect in a much more literal way. That’s the piece of it that I think may have upset some officials in the Netherlands and Belgium.”

Diablo: Immortal now faces headwinds in entering China’s lucrative mobile game market. But there’s little sign developer Activision Blizzard will bow to critics and change the game’s model. Even as furious gamers bombed Diablo: Immortal’s Metacritic score, the game reportedly earned $24 million in its first two weeks.

Interview Highlights

On how Diablo: Immortal makes its money despite being free to download

“Well, I think people might be familiar with the idea of a free-to-play mobile game. Maybe they have Pokémon GO, for example, which is not decried as being quite as manipulative emotionally as Diablo: Immortal. But folks are probably at least familiar with the concept.

“You download a game; you play it for a while. If you want to advance just a little bit faster — not have to collect all those items all by yourself — you can just throw a couple of bucks at it and get those items right away. That is more or less how Diablo: Immortal works. It’s just that it’s significantly deeper. There are a lot of different kinds of characters you can choose. This is a medieval setting. You’re clicking on little skeletons in order to destroy them. You’re fighting the devil eventually — hence the title Diablo —  and the amount of things you can buy in the game is astounding. And the more you buy, the better you perform. That’s the controversial part.”

On the backlash against Diablo: Immortal from fans who prefer the older PC games

“I think the backlash comes in two different forms. Actually, there is a gendered backlash against mobile gamers that is based on the fact that that’s a very diverse gaming platform. Everybody does have a phone, after all. But then there’s also a backlash against the kinds of predatory monetization techniques that are used in certain mobile games: free-to-play mobile games.

“I would also say, for example, Pokémon GO, my go-to example because it’s so popular, no predatory microtransactions there, in my personal opinion. You can buy stuff if you want. It’s also pretty fun to just play it without spending a dime. Diablo: Immortal, however, I think the backlash, despite that some of it did seem gendered, at least at first, now that the game is actually out and we can see how it’s been designed, we as critics and as gamers can tell that unfortunately, it is using some of the worst predatory design practices that can be attached to microtransactions.

“But even the original Diablo games still had that emotional manipulation. Even though you were just paying once at the beginning and there wasn’t a dollar sign attached to every treasure chest you opened, those games were still addictive. I’m not sure if any game that’s addictive can ever be fully value-neutral.”

On developer Activision Blizzard’s response to the criticism

“[Activision Blizzard] seems just fine with it. So now the game is at 10 million installs. And Blizzard did an official tweet from their account saying ‘in just one week, Diablo: Immortal is the biggest launch in franchise history,’ suggesting by this tweet that this is a massive win for Diablo fans everywhere, which is funny because, critically, this game has been panned by people.

“Yes, it’s making a lot of money and a lot of people are installing it. But people who actually review video games for a living and also user reviews are decrying how manipulative the game actually feels to play. And it makes you wonder: are all those people spending money because they really want to or because they feel like they were tricked into it?”

James Perkins Mastromarino and Jorgelina Manna-Rea produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Perkins Mastromarino and Manna-Rea also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.