Blizzard is preparing its Chinese players for the possibility that Alliance and Horde alike fear: no more World of Warcraft. While Blizzard mostly publishes its own games, its titles have been distributed in China by NetEase for 14 years, an arrangement that both companies announced would end this October. Blizzard's games are enormously popular in China, and the news immediately saw NetEase's share price take a dive, though the two will still work together on Diablo Immortal.
NetEase boss William Ding said at the time "there were material differences on key terms" and the company claimed to have been operating its Activision Blizzard properties at a loss. That may seem unbelievable when Activision Blizzard recently announced the NetEase agreement accounted for about 3% of its net revenues in the last financial year: $264 million (£223 million) in sales.
But NetEase's position does require one particular piece of context, which is that last year the Chinese government limited the time that children can spend online gaming to one hour on Fridays, weekends, and holidays. World of Warcraft is estimated to have three million players in China, mind, which is still an awful lot of potential one-hour sessions on the weekend.
All videogames require a Chinese publisher and government licences to operate in China, and the CCP is paying increasingly close attention to the content of overseas titles. All new sales of Blizzard games in the region have now ended and, while you'd think other Chinese publishers would be falling over themselves to get a slice of the pie, finding an alternative partner may prove a drawn-out process.
It's those players and their investment in the game that Blizzard is now looking at: getting a new publishing partner will be one thing, but transitioning players whose characters may end up frozen during a limbo period is also going to be key.
The general manager of the Warcraft series, John Hight, published a letter to Chinese players earlier this week saying Blizzard is "working hard to develop a function that will allow you to save your game characters, props, and progress" (thanks, CNN) and emphasising the company was still looking for a new distributor. Hight says Blizzard and NetEase are working together on a transition plan and will announce how players will be able to back up their progress in January 2023.
This is the same month that the NetEase WoW servers are to be shut down, so cutting it slightly fine there, and given the timetable it seems likely that WoW in China will go down: even if that turns out to be temporary.
The Blizzard titles that will no longer be available in China, unless the developer finds a new local partner, are Overwatch, Diablo 3, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Starcraft 2 and, god bless them, Heroes of the Storm.