World of Warcraft, one of the largest online games in history, has gone offline in China after a public fallout between developer Blizzard and publisher NetEase.
The country’s estimated three million players lost access to the game on Monday 23 January, and had to download their character data in the hopes the game’s servers will return.
The move also impacts Blizzard’s other titles, including Overwatch, Hearthstone, and Starcraft, all of which went offline at the same time.
Warcraft was initially given permission to launch in the notoriously restrictive Chinese gaming market in 2005. Since 2008, Blizzard’s servers have been managed in China by NetEase, a publisher which also operates bespoke versions of a number of other Western games such as Minecraft.
The handoff between NetEase and Warcraft’s former operator was the first time the game was shut down in the region, although this was only for a few months due to technical troubles.
In November last year, Blizzard announced that its deal with NetEase would end, after having renewed it in 2019.
A source close to Blizzard claimed that the disagreement was linked to NetEase demanding structural changes that would impact the US firm’s control over its intellectual property (IP).
NetEase disputed this, stating that “any usage and licensing of Blizzard’s IP were done in accordance with contract terms and with Blizzard’s consent and approval”.
According to reports, Blizzard sought to renew its contract with NetEase for six more months, in order to avoid a disruption in game services. NetEase refused the deal citing unfair treatment, as Blizzard offered other companies three-year deals.
The Chinese publisher has since disbanded the team responsible for Blizzard games in the region, even going so far as to demolish their Blizzard offices and dismantling an Orc statue live on stream.
A NetEase spokesperson said: “We want to clarify that we have never sought to obtain control of IP from Activision Blizzard – that is an unfounded accusation.
“The way we had hoped to continue working with Activision Blizzard would have been no different than how other companies partner in our industry to license and operate online games.”
Blizzard is now seeking a new partner in China to distribute its games.