It’s a little less than a year since BlizzCon 2018 went wrong. To cap off the opening ceremony for its annual fan event, Blizzard unveiled a new smartphone game called Diablo Immortal, co-developed with Chinese company NetEase. Fans from Blizzard’s Western, PC gaming heartlands weren’t slow to voice their displeasure online – or, embarrassingly, at the event itself, during Q&A sessions with developers. This wasn’t the Diablo game they wanted. It wasn’t for them.
The unveiling was a PR disaster – a predictable and avoidable PR disaster – at a difficult time. Much loved, player-focused founder Mike Morhaime had just stepped aside as president. A few months later, the studio would make widespread layoffs in tandem with – or as some suspected, dictated by – its more commercially ruthless merger partner Activision. Fans’ sense of entitlement went hand-in-hand with a not unfounded anxiety that their favourite developer might be losing the plot.
Since then, Blizzard made the most of a surge of nostalgic goodwill around the launch of World of Warcraft Classic – a literal fan service – and laid careful plans for a charm offensive at this year’s BlizzCon. If the event went well, it would put Blizzard’s reputation with players back on track.