“World of Warcraft: Dragonflight,” the highly anticipated expansion to the popular multiplayer “World of Warcraft” series, will launch Nov. 28. But gamers in China may only be able to play it for two months before losing access altogether.
The game’s developer, Blizzard, announced Nov. 17 that its longtime partnership with Chinese distributor NetEase would be ending Jan. 23; the end of that partnership will cut off gamers based in mainland China from popular Blizzard titles such as “Overwatch” and “World of Warcraft.” A studio head from “World of Warcraft” told The Washington Post that the team wasn’t informed of the NetEase deal ending beforehand.
“In terms of this topic, I think you have pretty much all the news that we have at this point,” John Hight, general manager of the Warcraft franchise at Blizzard, told The Washington Post. “We’ve had to let our players know that the deal was suspending. … We can’t operate in China without a partner so for the time being, that’s the case.”
“World of Warcraft” enjoys a large playerbase in China, and Hight noted that the developer was exploring options on how to ensure continued access for Chinese fans.
“We are working different angles to figure out how and how quickly we could get service again to our Chinese players,” said Hight.
In an internal Blizzard email viewed by The Post, Blizzard president Mike Ybarra wrote that the company plans to suspend sales for its titles in the near future as Blizzard progressively shutters its game operations in China. Blizzard has not yet announced any plans to partner with another distributor for China.
China has been a lucrative market for “World of Warcraft.” Blizzard’s partnership with NetEase earned Activision Blizzard (the holding company of which Blizzard is a subsidiary) $264 million in 2021, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Historically, the Chinese version of the game has been altered to tone down depictions of skeletons and death to court approval from Chinese censors. One change, which covered up the exposed bones on the models for the playable undead race, was so popular among Western players that Blizzard added the ability to cover up undead bones in “World of Warcraft: Shadowlands” as a cosmetic option for all regional copies of the game.
In marketing campaigns aimed at Chinese audiences, Blizzard has partnered with McDonald’s to make “World of Warcraft” themed McDonald’s restaurants in China, created a limited edition mah-jongg set for “World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria” and made “World of Warcraft” themed mooncakes.
The end of the Blizzard and NetEase deal marks the end of a 14 year partnership. In Ybarra’s internal email, the Blizzard president said that the company declined to renew its partnership with NetEase over a difference in “commitment to players, employees and operating principles.” In a press release, NetEase wrote that it worked hard to maintain its partnership with Blizzard but ultimately couldn’t reach an accord due to “material differences on key terms.”
NetEase’s president of partnership Simon Zhu lamented the end of the Blizzard partnership in a LinkedIn post.
“One day, when what has happened behind the scene could be told, developers and gamers will have a whole new level understanding of how much damage a jerk can make,” Zhu wrote in his post.
This is not the first time that “World of Warcraft” has encountered hurdles in China. 2009’s “World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King” (the franchise’s most popular expansion, which saw the game’s subscriber count peak at over 12 million) was delayed in China for over a year, initially because of a policy review between China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body. The9, Blizzard’s distributor for “World of Warcraft” in China at the time, suffered a disastrous drop in revenue as a result. That same year, Blizzard began its partnership with NetEase.
“It’s painful for us to not be operating there,” Hight said. “And I’m hopeful for our ability to get them back into Azeroth.”