The mobile game dilemma

I'm not a huge fan of Diablo, I've never really liked it in fact, so that in mind, I don't really care about what Blizzard does to the series. That said, I do think Diablo as a series offers an interesting segway to this article: mobile games and their reputation.

If you are not aware of Diablo, it is in short, an action RPG, where you pick up a character and complete simple quests which more often than not are just about killing a tonne of enemies. As games, they are relatively simple, repetitive and based fully on grinding your character to a level where you can kill the main baddies aided by the equipment you collect and buy. A style of gaming that actually is pretty well suited for a microtransaction monetized mobile gaming. But more about that later.

The big debacle around Diablo began during the Blizzard expo, where the developers announced that they were doing a Diablo game for mobile devices. The fans were outraged, as they were expecting news of a 4th instalment to the series, not a mobile game that would most likely be heavily tied to some microtransaction scheme. To add insult to injury, the game in question Diablo Immortal, it seemed it also was just a cheap re-skin of an existing mobile game the Chinese developer NetEase had done before jumping in bed with Blizzard.

So here's how things stand: the fans were outraged, they did, in fact, almost booed the developers out from the stage and if you look at the announcement video, you can almost see the how the room freezes over. And what's worse, the developers seemed almost desperate in their attempt at making the game look good, while they must have known it themselves as well, that something like a mobile game might not sit well among the hardcore fans of the series that were in the audience. Yet they still thought it was a good idea to present it there like it would be their next flagship.

The source of fan outrage, Diablo Immortal.

As I probably angered some people earlier by saying that the gameplay style of Diablo suits mobile gaming well, let me assure you, that I fully stand behind it. There is a difference in how it has been done for the PC and how it works in mobile though. Usually, in a full-fledged PC game, the grind can be done in a reasonable amount of time. While it is repetitive, the advancement is faster in both character and in the game and you can expect to play the game through in a couple of days if you are so inclined. Thins you need to complete the game can be bought with the money you earn in the game and that's that.

The mobile version of this is quite different. While at first, it might seem like the progression is fast, it doesn't take long for the grind to turn into a slough fest. It will take a lot of time to get from one level to another and usually the better equipment has to be bought with a special currency, that can be obtained in the game, but is usually obtained very slowly. This is where real money microtransactions come into the picture, as the progression can be made faster by using real money. And the more money you use, the faster you can complete the game, if it can be even completed, as games that do well get more and more things to buy to keep the whales (the small number of people with too much money in their hands, who basically keep the wheels turning) happy.

This kind of microtransaction gameplay is the stable of mobile games. Every game in the top 10 earners list of mobile games is based on the grind effect, where your brains just snap into a mode, where you convince yourself that it is just simpler to buy advancement rather than spend 24 hours in trying to earn it through gameplay itself. It is, also, a practice I find predatory, as it does, no matter what the developers and publishers say, those people who don't know better. Or who just are terribly rich and have hired someone to play the game for them 24/7.

This kind of mechanics has been tried on PC and console games. Most notable the mechanics were implemented in the Battlefront 2 and Shadows of Mordor 2, both games that got a huge amount of flack about it and lost a good amount of players as well. In the case of Battlefront, the publisher tried to appeal on the behest of microtransactions by saying, that not all gamers had the time to earnt thing through gameplay, so it was just a good thing to offer a possibility to buy them with real money. But in truth, it just is a bit too obvious, that if your game needs a component like that, it has been either badly designed from the get-go or very intentionally designed to prey peoples wallets. And that isn't a good thing with games that can cost up to 80 dollars when bought new.

Syberia, a mobile game with no microtransactions in it.

Now with this, we come to the mobile game dilemma. Despite mobile games cost money to develop, just as any game, they are often free for people to install. So, unlike console or PC games, the developers don't actually get money when someone decides to start playing the game, so the big question is, from where do the developers get the compensation of their work. while some mobile games are paid for in advance, the majority of the mobile software market depends on either commercials or microtransactions. Out of the two, microtransactions are the most lucrative one. It is telling, that Supercell made 810 million dollars profit in 2017 without releasing a new game. Every game company in the world would be happy to get even a fraction of that.

From a developers point of view you can do a simple thought experiment: let's say you have a game that sells 10 000 copies during the first year, 20 dollars a pop. That's around 200k dollars. From the first year. The second year the sales dwindle to 5000 copies and you've also put the game on sale, often less than half the price, so let's say those 5000 copies make you around 70k. The third year comes and the game sells less than 2000 copies anymore, most of those from sales, so you make around 2k or so. On the top of that, the distributor and the publisher takes their cut as well, so your profits aren't actually that great.

But let's assume you've released the game on the mobile devices and rely on microtransactions. Your player base is the same, 10 000 people. Now granted, most of them, most likely more than half will never spend a dime on the game. But even if you get only 10% of the players to spend 10 dollars on the game each month, that will make 120k a year. And if the game is successful enough, it can do that or more in several years a row.

So, the question becomes thus: would you rather have people paying beforehand a price that gets lower the older the game gets or would you rather have them get the game free and for a smaller player base potentially pay you money for a longer duration of time, resulting in a bigger cash flow.

The mobile game dilemma is not that the mobile devices are unsuitable for good games, far from it. You can buy full games with no microtransaction in them, games like Final Fantasy series or adventures like Syberia. The problem is, that people don't want to use that much money in getting those games for their mobile devices. While they are happy to spend 20 bucks on a Final Fantasy game for their desktop machine or a console, they might not be as willing to spend the same amount to an exact same game on their mobile device.

Final Fantasy IX for the mobile. It is just as expensive as the PC and console version. And if Googleplay numbers are to be believed, it has been installed over 100k times. So surely there's some money in mobile gaming without the need for microtransactions.

This adds another layer to the mobile game dilemma and that is reputation. As people have been unwilling to pay money upfront, the developers have largely gone towards microtransaction gaming. Which has had an effect on how people see mobile games and mobile gaming at large: pay to win gaming.

Another thing this kind of model does is turning the game system into a service. This service kind of a model isn't anything new mind you, as every MMO game out there is essentially a service, that ends after the developer turns off the last server. And Blizzard as a company isn't stranger to this kind of a revenue model, as they are the ones behind World of Warcraft, one of the most successful MMO's ever made.

This mobile game dilemma in mind, here is the question Blizzard is toying at the moment: is it worthwhile for them to potentially lose some of their existing customers in order to get a potentially steadier stream of revenue from a different customer segement. Keep in mind, that they don't necessarily even need European or American players at all. Potentially they can turn mobile Diablo into a money making machine from the Asian market alone.

Blizzard is very aware of the fact that they have a well-liked franchise in their hands with Diablo. While they know, that making a traditional console or PC game is lucrative, they are also aware of the fact that with the name alone, they can make a hame that rivals with games like the Clash of Clans as far revenue goes. They have a potential to make a game, that makes steady 800 million dollars several years in a row with no need to put out a new game every year. Sure, they need new content, but making that is far cheaper than making a new game.

So there we have the mobile game dilemma. For something that has been almost derogatorily named as casual gaming, raises the potential of making a lot of money. Free games don't mean no profit and that potential profit in this frowned upon segment is that Blizzard is trying to reach palms sweating.

But, it is, of course, just potential.