Last week, Blizzard gathered a throng of ultra-fans at its annual Blizzcon in Anaheim, Calif. and there, in full view of the gathered horde (and Alliance), announced that its very next game would appear on phones. And the long-awaited Diablo 4 is still nowhere in sight.
The spotlight swerved to the crowd where one shining, white face, appearing small amongst such large gathering of humanity, stepped up to the mic and asked “Is this a joke?”
What happened next was as dramatic as it was expected. Fans — both at Blizzcon and elsewhere — picked up the refrain, hurling memes and insults, decrying the company they felt had betrayed them. Then, like planes stacking up in the landing pattern at JFK, the “anti-decry” backlash stormed the internet, all but drowning out the original offense.
And just like that, the curtain fell on whatever else Blizzard may have wanted to talk about. “Is this a joke?” became the mantra of Blizzcon ’18.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I’m with the fans. Announcing Diablo Immortal on the main stage at Blizzcon 2018 was a bullshit move.
Blizzard wildly miscalculated. Not the demand for Diablo Immortal. I honestly think it will do quite well and I’ll probably play it. I love me some Diablo, and I love my big-ass phone. Mixing chocolate with peanut butter doesn’t make either taste any less sweet on their own. For as much as the hardcore fans may not like it, mobile gaming has taken over the planet. The days when those who understood the archaic ways of cranky PCs and consoles ruled the Land of Gamers has been over for some time. Good or bad, it just is, and we’re all having to adapt to it.
No, demand for a Diablo-like game on phones is huge, and, for Blizzard, taking advantage of that is a no-brainer. If Blizzard miscalculated anything at all about the demand for Immortal, it was how long they could wait to get around to making it. What Blizzard failed to take into account, however, was how best to use their own creation to help market it. And by “creation,” I mean the fans themselves.
Major game publishers have been cultivating their own fan communities for decades. (Nintendo Power, anyone?) But since the early aughts, that effort has kicked into overdrive, with the majors assuming control of fansites and forums once run by enterprising fans themselves, and slowly accreting attendance at events focused around only their products, or in some cases, one single game.
There are numerous advantages to this approach. Publishers essentially plug their marketing directly into the convention experience, shilling new products and merch directly to their most adoring consumers, and controlling the messaging in the process. These gatherings also give publishers invaluable data on their most hardcore fans that simply can’t be captured through in-game analytics. Even running at a loss (which some fan festivals do) the benefits are incalculable. Companies get to see — literally see — their most dedicated fans all in one place, and can track who buys what from ticket sales to onsite point-of-sales data. Added to the online demographics information gathered from account sign-ons, Steam analytics, and sales data, publishers gain an almost unheard of glimpse into the mindsets and desires of their most valuable consumers. All of which makes Blizzard’s blunder in Anaheim even more astounding.
Blizzard gathered the hardest of its hardcore fans, and, armed with mountains of data all pointing to the fact that what these fans wanted most out of anything in the world was Diablo 4 (preferably on a PC) Blizzard gave them the 2018 equivalent of Barbie Horse Adventures (for the record: I liked that game). Blizzard then expected them to help market it. That was bullshit.
I don’t blame fans for feeling betrayed. Blizzard’s desire to capitalize on the mobile games market is just good business sense. But announcing that game at a gathering of fans who are not representative of the mobile market was beyond stupid. Especially considering that many fans consider Diablo 3’s early connectivity issues and the auction house massacre to be never-healed wounds, still tarnishing the brand to this day.
Now here’s where I’m really going to lose readers: The backlash against the fan backlash was even worse.
Everyone knows that one person who gossips about everyone else. That person is usually insecure in themselves, and they try to make others look bad so that they, by comparison, look better. There’s a corollary, which we see a lot at times like this, where those with a vested interest in appearing “correct” will leap at the chance to make others look “incorrect.”
Psychologists call this “rankism” and it happens everywhere. It’s tied to our predatory past, when humans competed against every other animal on the planet (and other humans) for limited resources. As humans evolved, so too did our predation, and we went from preying on the animal kingdom to each other’s kingdoms. Racism, sexism, and many other “isms” all have their root in excuses for preying on anyone we perceive to be “less than.” We practice rankism “to institutionalize and normalize predation.” Literally to give any detraction of others a sense of rightness.
This may seem to have little bearing on how communities interact online, until you look hard at who’s doing the interacting and why. Since approximately 2014 (some would say well before, but that’s another essay) the games writer community has held a deeply entrenched interest in deprecating fans. The reasons for this are complicated. If we’re talking about “before 2014,” the most prominent reason was that games writers themselves were mostly one bad day and a missed appointment from being “merely” fans themselves. Post-2014, well, we all still have a long way to go to fully recover from Gamergate.
Suffice it to say, there’s a common, knee-jerk response from the games press and other observers of the space to attack fans expressing disappointment, even when that disappointment might be justified. In this case, I think it is. Toxic fandom exists. It is a very real and ugly thing. And yet many in the press attack “toxic fandom” in the same way toxic fans attack publishers and press: with a too-broad brush that merely widens the gulf of distrust between us and the audience we serve.
In this case, I think the fans got it right out of the gate, whether or not some then took the message and made it toxic. Blizzard invited their most devoted customers to a party supposedly in their honor and served them a shit sandwich. Then it expected them to leave a five-star review on Yelp. Blizzard deserves to get spanked for that. The fans? Not so much. And if you’re among those attempting to shame them for feeling betrayed, maybe give a good, long think about why.