So, that Diablo Immortal reveal wasn’t the best PR move for Blizzard, huh? People got aggressive and rowdy against the company known for its PC games. The backlash is understandable, but it’s not stopping Blizzard from boldly announcing a more mobile future for all of its IPs. Despite the company’s diehard PC fanbase, it looks like mobile games are going to be a part of Blizzard’s DNA. Immortal might not be the most promising example but hear me out: I believe these mobile games can serve to enhance their PC counterparts, even for the hardcore crowd. It’s all a matter of target audience.
Immortal is targeted to a wider, casual audience. The group of people who would play a Diablo mobile game might not coincide with those who grind Greater Rifts to eke out that extra 0.3 percent damage on Bane of the Trapped. A lot of that rift boils down to how similar the games are. The hardcore player would look at Immortal and think, “Why play an inferior version of Diablo III?” However, we can’t say all the unannounced Blizzard mobile games will alienate their built-in core demographics. It’s all a matter of what these mobile games will look like. And there are many approaches Blizzard can take to develop a good game, especially in the current mobile atmosphere.
We live in the best and worst time for phone games. There’s a surplus of garbage on the market, many of which include predatory microtransactions. But at the same time, there are many titles that are passable or even successful. Alto’s Adventure, Monument Valley, and (gasp) Hearthstone are consistently praised as wonderful mobile titles, even if the latter could be construed as a microtransaction trap.
Hearthstone happens to work as a mobile game because its interface can easily be transferred from PC to mobile. Thus, the game is nearly identical across both platforms and benefits from that. Other Blizzard games, like Diablo, require more complex inputs that don’t translate well to mobile. Emulating it the way Immortal is trying to will only serve to create a lighter, inferior version of the original. And with a vocal majority of Blizzard’s audience likely being PC power users, most might forego the game entirely and just play Diablo III.
Making watered-down carbon copies of its franchises will serve to estrange the Blizzard audience. At the risk of sounding like an entitled gamer, I’d love to see Blizzard tread new ground in its mobile games. These titles should serve as supplements, expanding their universes. I don’t want to see hollow versions of World of Warcraft and Overwatch. Rather than invoking the spirit of their PC counterparts, these games should stand on their own to support the Battle.net roster. And I have a suggestion that could be a step in the right direction.
A genre of mobile games that sees growing success, likely due to its unique approach to the platform, is "found phone" games. These games essentially simulate another person’s phone. It’s up to the player to dig through the messages, pictures and phone calls to figure out a mystery, usually related to the original owner’s disappearance. Popular titles in that market, like Sara is Missing and A Normal Lost Phone, define the genre.
What I’d like to propose is this wild concept: a found phone game set in the Overwatch universe. It’s a great playground for new stories because of where its lore stands. It spans across decades to explain every characters’ background, but it’s also vague enough to have various holes in its history. Now buckle up, because we’re about to take a deep dive into some Overwatch lore.
The Omnic Crisis is the perfect backdrop for an emotional exploration through the phone of someone who died at the mechanical hands of a Bastion unit. A young Sombra is the one who gets ahold of this phone. While examining the phone, the Omnics launch a worldwide cyberattack on phone networks. Sombra has to constantly fight hacking attempts, sparking her early interest in cyber espionage that defines her today.
Let’s take another approach. After Jack Morrison’s (Soldier: 76) faked death, the other Overwatch members recover what they can, including his phone (or the universe’s futuristic version of a phone). Winston keeps the phone in his lab at Watchpoint: Gibraltar, as a memento. Reaper, who failed to get a list of all the Overwatch operatives, learns that Morrison’s phone is still out there. He asks Sombra to remotely hack into the phone to find a list of operatives. Winston, with the help of Athena, gets on the phone to fight the hacking attempts and in the process, explores the files on the phone.
Players would get a lot more insight into Morrison’s relationships with other operatives during and beyond the Omnic Crisis. We’d see his deteriorating friendship with Reyes (Reaper) firsthand. We’d see his rapport with other members of Overwatch, like Tracer, Reinhardt or Mercy. It’s a unique approach to fleshing out the characters and universe that would only add to the lore. While the Overwatch development team loves to create in-depth backgrounds for its characters, we don’t see much interplay between them outside of cinematics and some in-game voice lines. The gameplay of a hero shooter isn’t conducive to narrative exposition, but perhaps a supplemental phone game could fill that gap.
Admittedly, Overwatch is the Blizzard title I’m most familiar with, hence the in-depth pitch. Unfortunately, whether Blizzard will take a more narrative approach with any of its mobile titles is fairly unlikely. People tend to forget that Activision is part of the equation. It’s easier to sell loot boxes and premium currency with a stripped-down version of Diablo. It’s easy to sell booster packs with Hearthstone on mobile.
Turning a narrative mobile title into an ongoing service with microtransactions isn’t easy to imagine (although I’m sure if it ever existed, Activision would be one of the companies leading the charge). It’s a bleak way to look at the industry, but it’s regrettably realistic to expect these unannounced mobile games to be laden with ways to milk consumers. I’d love to be proved wrong.