Activision Blizzard has announced that they will be suspending the Hearthstone game service in China on January 23 next year.

In a press release this evening, Activision Blizzard has confirmed that the operating agreement with NetEase in China to run Blizzard's game services is soon expiring and they have not yet come to an agreement to renew. This comes after the Q3 financial earnings call that took place last week where it was stated that they were in discussions about the operating agreements and that China contributed approximately 3% of Activision Blizzard's consolidated revenue in 2021.

The following applies to the Chinese servers for Hearthstone:

  • New sales are being suspended in the coming days.
  • March of the Lich King will still release later this year.

Blizzard's president, Mike Ybarra, states that they are looking for alternatives to bring their games back to China.

What Does This Mean for Chinese Players?

Blizzard has not yet confirmed anything but we can take a few guesses.

The absolute worst case scenario would be that Blizzard is unable to find a partner to operate their games in the country and those servers would no longer be available to players, which means losing your digital goods. This is, obviously, not a good way forward and unlikely considering Blizzard has indicated they want to continue operating in the country as they see "substantial long-term growth opportunities" available. If you were to delete your player's items and cards overnight, you're going to catch some serious flak.

Because of that, I'd be willing to wager when services come back under a new provider, players will be keeping their data and can continue where they left off.

With Hearthstone's expansion launching on December 6, 2022,  that gives players in China, at most, 48 days to enjoy March of the Lich King before services are suspended.

Outside Access to China

With the way China restricts access to outside corporations, having an operating partner in the country for your games is important for success. Blizzard has been using NetEase since 2008, when World of Warcraft was brought to the country, and has used them as a partner for their entire catalog of games after the success WoW saw in the country.

What makes launching a game in China fun is how the government controls the majority of the media. Games, being an important part of media, have regulatory oversight and have to play by the rules to be allowed to be released. One of the more recent rules is that younger players, under 18, are restricted in how much time they are allowed to play games. Children are only allowed to play on public holidays, and Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, one hour per day from 8 pm to 9 pm.

Requiring developers focus time on limiting access to their games and incorporating government identities into their titles aside, some games self-censor themselves to improve their chances of being approved for release in the country. Blizzard has done exactly this with Hearthstone. Some art in the game has been censored to cover up blood and bones, changes which are only seen in the Chinese version of the game. Although there are games in China that include these types of assets, theories online say that editing this type of content out can lead to a quicker review process from the governing bodies.

We can see The Skeleton Knight has different artwork based on the region.

Although earlier cards in Hearthstone received different art in the region, leaving their original art intact, some art has been adjusted to be "less undead" and it shows up on both servers. We can look at Lord Godfrey's art which comes from a card of the same name from the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game which has clearly had his ribcage removed for Hearthstone:

Lord Godfrey Card Image 

Having a partner in the country that can help a company like Blizzard navigate the system for a successful launch is incredibly important. That and it isn't easy for foreign businesses to operate in the country to begin with, especially as policies have become more strict in recent times.

Playing Hearthstone in China on Non-Chinese Servers

One option players in China will have should Hearthstone be down for some amount of time while Blizzard figures out their transition process is simply playing in another region. This is easier said than done though due to the way the Chinese internet works. The "Great Firewall" blocks access to outside services and requires VPNs to get around. VPNs can be unreliable though as they get shut down for skirting censorship, and always has a chance of seeing players getting in trouble with the government.

Hopefully, Blizzard is able to reach an agreement with new service provider and Hearthstone's China transition will be a smooth one.

What About Those Cool Chinese Hearthstone Tools?

We've posted about some of China's special tools previously, with their special client that has allowed Chinese players to participate in tournaments, something players in the Western world have been asking Blizzard for since the game hadn't even released yet. NetEase also hosted a fun card back competition almost 2 years ago, and we've seen winning card backs show up in the real game! What an honor!

No announcements have been made about what's going to happen to those tools, including that client addon that let you open all your card packs instantly. Though that has been somewhat improved by being able to hold down your space bar a few months ago.

Now, if only those damn Runestones had never been invented to evade Chinese loot box rules, though we do have them to thank for exposing the odds of card packs.

Press Release

Quote From Activision Blizzard

IRVINE, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Nov. 16, 2022– Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. announced today that it will be suspending most Blizzard game services in mainland China due to the expiration of the current licensing agreements with NetEase, Inc. on January 23, 2023. This includes World of Warcraft®Hearthstone®Warcraft® III: ReforgedOverwatch®, the StarCraft® series, Diablo III®, and Heroes of the Storm®Diablo Immortal® co-development and publishing is covered under a separate agreement between the two companies.

Blizzard Entertainment has had licensing agreements with NetEase since 2008, covering the publication of these Blizzard titles in China. The two parties have not reached a deal to renew the agreements that is consistent with Blizzard’s operating principles and commitments to players and employees, and the agreements are set to expire in January 2023.

We will suspend new sales in the coming days and Chinese players will be receiving details of how this will work soon. Upcoming releases for World of Warcraft: DragonflightHearthstone: March of the Lich King, and season 2 of Overwatch 2 will proceed later this year.

“We’re immensely grateful for the passion our Chinese community has shown throughout the nearly 20 years we’ve been bringing our games to China through NetEase and other partners,” said Mike Ybarra, president, Blizzard Entertainment. “Their enthusiasm and creativity inspire us, and we are looking for alternatives to bring our games back to players in the future.”

Q3 2022 Earnings Call

Quote From Activision Blizzard

Currently, we have licensing agreements with a third party covering the publication of several Blizzard titles in China. These agreements, which contributed approximately 3% of Activision Blizzard's consolidated net revenues in 2021, expire in January 2023. We are in discussions regarding the renewal of these agreements, but a mutually-satisfactory deal may not be reached. We continue to see substantial long-term growth opportunities for our business in the country. The co-development and publishing of Diablo Immortal is covered by a separate long-term agreement.