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‘Diablo Immortal’ aims to be a breakthrough hit for AAA mobile games

Wyatt Cheng, principal game designer at Blizzard Entertainment. (Washington Post illustration; Blizzard Entertainment)

In 2018, longtime Blizzard game designer Wyatt Cheng announced “Diablo Immortal” for mobile devices. A testy audience booed, displeased with the decision at the time to not release the game on PC. “Do you guys not have phones?” Cheng, who is the game director on “Immortal,” shot back.

The moment became immortalized in memes and mockery, much of which was rooted in failed audience expectations: Fans attending BlizzCon 2018 were hoping for “Diablo 4” news. But it also came from a lingering stigma around mobile games in the West, where adoption of smartphones as a gaming platform has been slower than in the rest of the world.

Since then, “Diablo Immortal” has boosted its reputation, as alpha and beta tests proved the game was a full-throated, classic Diablo experience. (It helped that Blizzard decided to bring the game to PC.) The Diablo series is one of the most influential in modern game design, popularizing gameplay loops that center acquiring randomized “loot” to make your role-playing character more powerful. “Diablo 2,” which was recently remastered, cemented this loop, while “Diablo 3,” which Cheng also worked on, streamlined and evolved it.

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While the 2018 moment was tough for Cheng and the team, he said it only strengthened their resolve to prove “Immortal” a game worthy of the Diablo series, as its free-to-play launch on mobile brings the franchise to its biggest potential audience yet. The game releases June 2.

Cheng’s enthusiasm for the project was palpable in a recent interview. “I do believe ‘Diablo Immortal’ is going to change a lot of people’s minds on what they think of as a mobile game,” Cheng told The Washington Post. “That was one of our goals since the beginning. Let’s elevate the standards for what people can expect from a mobile game.”

According to Global Industry Analysts Inc., the worldwide mobile gaming market is expected to reach $139.5 billion by 2026. Currently, China leads that market, although it is saturated across Asia.

“I have three kids and they’re all teenagers and they don’t make the same distinction between console, PC or mobile,” Cheng said. “They love gaming on all sorts of different platforms.”

The game will see a simultaneous launch on PC with full keyboard-and-mouse and controller support, as well as cross progression and cross play with mobile enabled at launch. This decision came from the beta test when gaming content creators expressed they would need to emulate the game to showcase it on their streams, said Rod Fergusson, general manager of the Diablo franchise.

“The idea of not having native support for PC and content creators didn’t feel great,” he said. Work quickly began to bring parity from mobile to PC, making sure the game operates exactly the same way with user interfaces and control schemes outfitted for the desk warriors. Ultimately, the questions from 2018 around why the game should even exist morphed into fans asking when the game was launching — and begging for a PC port.

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“Diablo Immortal” will also feature a variety of quality of life features to befit any potential play style for a mobile player, principal game designer Joe Grubb said.

“If you are logging in and wanting to have that quick 3 to 5 minute jump into a dungeon, a lot of thinking went into like, okay, where were you? Where do we want you to be? Do you need to be near a social hub?” Grubb said. “When you log into Westmarch, our major social city, there are portals right there within the city for the elder rifts and the challenge rifts.”

The average play time for sessions, Grubb said, was actually much longer, around 45 minutes, and repeated throughout the day. That’s when the team knew it was hitting a nice balance between quick play sessions and runs long enough to justify parking in front of a PC.

The game will be essentially a live service. This means the team has plans for a multitude of free updates, said executive producer Peiwen Yao.

“The updates will include dungeons, storyline quests, bosses, gameplay features and new classes,” she said, adding that she couldn’t specify what those plans are yet.

Cheng said he remains confident in the vision to bring the Diablo series to mobile. On paper, the idea makes sense, especially since there are a countless number of Diablo clones available on smartphones. The mainstream and historical comfort the Diablo brand name brings to the genre is a powerful factor in its favor.

“Just because it’s on a small device or screen doesn’t mean it’s a small project,” Cheng said, adding that it’s the studio’s most ambitious Diablo project yet. “The team and effort and resources are just as large for ‘Immortal’ as they’ve been for ‘Diablo 3’ and ‘Diablo 4.’”

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