Following the disastrous announcement of Diablo: Immortal at BlizzCon 2018, players were somewhat relieved to learn that Diablo 4 is finally in development. Recently here at TheGamer, we discussed how the failure of the Real Money Auction House (RMAH) was a catalyst that shifted how Diablo 3 was developed, and subsequently abandoned long before its original vision was fulfilled. This included the cancellation of a second expansion called The King of the North, and the rumor of a cancelled Druid class.
While fans of the series are probably happy to hear that the next sequel is in the works, taking a good, hard look at how Blizzard has monetized its games for the long-term leaves little doubt that Diablo 4 will be anything but a constant cash grab. This is not pessimism towards the company or the series, but instead, an objective consideration of Blizzard’s other games, and how their games-as-a-service design manage to pull in revenue in a way that Diablo 3 could not.
All Current Blizzard Games Have A Constant Buy-In To Remain Relevant
Hearthstone has three expansions a year, and what appears to be the same number of solo adventures following about a month after each release. Each brings 135 new cards that must be acquired to remain competitive, and a way to be involved as a free-to-play user. Unless, of course, you want the premium class skins. In that case, one needs to purchase the $79.99 USD pre-order.
It may be a matter of opinion for some that say Hearthstone is a friendly game for free-to-play players, but this writer has to agree with James “Firebat” Kostesich, the first World Champion of the game and currently one of the best in the Grandmasters Tour.
World of Warcraft is in a unique position to have a monthly subscription still serve as a viable model after failing so many other MMOs. Their expansions also demand purchase and serves to literally gate characters in old content and ten levels lower.
Overwatch is perhaps the least demanding of a consumer’s cash as it only has a single purchase point to access the game, but then has the benefit of loot boxes for the many cosmetic skins created for events scattered throughout the year. With that said, the esports push in the Overwatch League (OWL) likely keeps it relevant enough to justify additional development.
Blizzard’s current business model is to create games that demand an infusion of cash from their consumers for them to remain relevant in the content of the game, to for the company to justify its developmental resources. Take a brief look at the 2018 earnings below. See a pattern here? All of these games, including those of Activision, and Candy Crush, are always bringing in constant revenue.
So, what would Diablo 4 need to do to keep pace and be a game that can go the distance?
Monetizing Diablo 4 To Satisfy Blizzard’s Long-Term Thirst
When Diablo 3 launched, the RMAH would have meant that players would always be buying and selling items, with Blizzard taking a constant cut of the cash. With that failure out the door, we need to consider how else Diablo 4 could bring in revenue at a pace that would keep its development assured. One option is another RMAH, but that would imply Blizzard has learned nothing from the first attempt. Unlikely, but we should not count it out completely.
The more probable idea is to split the game into episodes, similar to what was done with Starcraft II over its long development and release. Alternatively, the game could go the route of World of Warcraft, which is to say that Blizzard could release expansions more frequently, perhaps every year or so. These would provide not only a small amount of new content, but also an all-important level cap increase to gate progression for existing players unless they buy in.
Cosmetic items are also an obvious place where Blizzard could be making money. It's honestly rather surprising to see that so much is given away freely in Diablo 3, including wings, pets, pendants, and more.
Finally, Blizzard could also release new classes at halfway points between each expansion. They could start with a basic set of five classes, much like the release of Diablo 3, and then add our old favorites again, including the Necromancer, Druid, Paladin/Crusader, Amazon, and whatever other fan-favorite classes would ensure another purchase. Unlike expansions, these would not be mandatory, but few would pass up a new class in their favorite game!
Most Fans Would Buy In, Because That's How Blizzard Games Work Today
This writer does not agree or appreciate the notion of any of the above ideas for how to monetize Diablo 4 in the long term, but it is absolutely in line with how Blizzard treats all their games. Seeing how successful Hearthstone, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft are, consumers have clearly accepted this as the status quo.
Time will tell how much longer Blizzard can keep this up, since the gaming market is saturated with quality titles ranging from Indie developers to AAA games. As time goes in, it is difficult to justify such ongoing costs when the delivered product too closely resembles old content.
Reading the above ideas about Diablo 4 may come off as pessimistic, but again, the point is to consider how a design for the next game would look with a revenue model that would satisfy Blizzard’s expectations, and that of its shareholders. Gone are the days of putting out a game with a single DLC pack and calling it a day. Blizzard, and many others, seek to produce games as a service, and Diablo 3 simply did not cut it. Let us cross our fingers and hope for the best, that Diablo 4 both meets our expectations and Blizzard’s - though it’s hard to imagine such an ideal landing spot for the next game.