‘Diablo Immortal’ Proves Microtransaction Model Is Gaming’s Moneymaker

‘Diablo Immortal’ Proves Microtransaction Model Is
Photo Illustration: VIP+: Adobe Stock; Blizzard

During a slow month for major console titles, much of June’s gaming discourse has been defined by feelings of betrayal levied against Blizzard Entertainment for “Diablo Immortal.”

Launched on mobile devices and in open beta for PC on June 2, Blizzard’s free-to-play, massively multiplayer online installment in its long-running action RPG series has drawn significant ire from fans upset at the degree to which microtransactions, aka in-game monetization, accompany the regular gameplay experience.

While the game’s principal designer stated microtransactions “never circumvent core gameplay,” players of “Diablo Immortal” still flocked to review aggregators to tank its score, resulting in its iOS version sporting a 0.4 user rating far below the 68 achieved from critic reviews on Metacritic.

One might think Blizzard addressing the backlash is a necessity, but the microtransaction model appears to have prevailed already.

Mobile estimates from AppMagic pin “Diablo Immortal” as having net $24 million from in-game spending within its first two weeks of launch. This is impressive, as launch-week data shared with VIP+ from digital intelligence and performance metrics firm Sensor Tower shows that AppMagic’s two-week consumer spend estimate is in the ballpark of what “Call of Duty Mobile” made in its first week, despite global launch-week installs of the Activision title being nearly nine times that of “Diablo Immortal.”

As strong as backlash against microtransactions is, in-game monetization is the foundation of mobile games. The sector continues to comprise half of the global games industry in 2022, a year that’s expected to see the overall market surpass $200 million for the first time, per Newzoo.

But as effective as microtransactions are for mobile, bringing them into the more traditional console space has been trickier and is a big aspect of what compels some gamers to openly resist their presence altogether.

EA learned this the hard way with multiplatform game “Star Wars: Battlefront II.” The 2017 sequel to the commercially successful 2015 “Battlefront” reboot, developed by EA’s DICE studio under an exclusive “Star Wars” license from Lucasfilm Games, was met with criticism over its microtransaction model that was harsh enough for EA to suspend microtransactions altogether just before its release.

By the time EA began to tease a revised plan for microtransactions to return to the game as purely optional cosmetic items, as opposed to more controversial loot boxes, the damage had already been done. The game was a million copies short of hitting EA’s projected goal of 10 million and well under the 14 million sold by its predecessor. While 2019’s single-player “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” from developer Respawn did well enough as a single-player game with no microtransactions and now has a sequel set for 2023, the publisher’s exclusive “Star Wars” license was not renewed.

Regardless, EA learned its lesson and now benefits greatly from in-game purchases across its games.

EA’s fiscal year ending March 31 saw 71% of its overall revenue come from live services and “other” sources, as opposed to full-game sales. Live services are games that continue to be updated frequently beyond their initial release, a model that defines popular games under the EA Sports banner, such as “Madden NFL 22,” “FIFA 22” and “F1 22,” the last of which releases July 1. In addition to EA Sports seeing success from microtransactions, EA made strong pushes into mobile in recent years by acquiring multiple studios, including its $2.1 billion purchase of Glu Mobile in 2021.

The interest in mobile as a means of achieving and maintaining lucrative and steady revenue from microtransactions is in turn defining EA’s direct competitors.

Activision Blizzard’s control of “Candy Crush” publisher King and success in expanding its “Call of Duty” franchise as both a live service via “Warzone” and mobile game made in partnership with Tencent are big aspects of what made it a lucrative acquisition target for Xbox parent Microsoft. Likewise, publishing group Take-Two in May completed its $12.7 billion acquisition of mobile company Zynga, even though the company was already pulling in 65% of its revenue from in-game spending thanks to Rockstar’s online version of the mega-popular “Grand Theft Auto” franchise, primarily.

Acquiring valuable mobile assets is certainly an easier way to grow revenue from microtransactions than building live services from the ground up, which French publisher Ubisoft is still trying to do via upcoming titles like “XDefiant” and “Assassin’s Creed Infinity.”

Ubisoft saw just over a third of its net bookings come from microtransactions in its latest fiscal year, with CEO Yves Guillemot announcing this week he would forego roughly a third of his annual compensation for the new fiscal year due to Ubisoft’s failure to hit its own financial targets, per Axios. In its last earnings release, the company said it expects its free-to-play live services in development to be a “meaningful driver” of in-game monetization for its fiscal 2023.

Even Sony Interactive Entertainment, whose share of microtransaction sales is lower than other companies due to its additional hardware and subscription business, is just as eager to bring microtransaction revenue up.

SIE studio Naughty Dog, known for highly successful single-player franchises like “Uncharted” and “The Last of Us,” announced during June’s Summer Game Fest livestream that its live-service title in development is “as big as any of [its] single-player games,” on top of SIE’s ongoing commitment to several other live-service titles and Sony’s pending acquisition of “Destiny 2” steward Bungie.

As much as some gamers have made a show of their morose reception to microtransactions, it’s clear this revenue model will continue to drive the industry forward.