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Blizzard released the controversial Diablo Immortal in most of the world two weeks ago, but the Chinese launch was slated for June 23rd — emphasis on “was.” In an odd statement, Activision-Blizzard announced it would have to postpone the release to make additional optimizations. However, this update comes as the company’s account on the popular Weibo social network was banned, allegedly for making statements critical of the Chinese government.
Diablo Immortal looks and plays like a Diablo game, but it was designed from the ground up with the help of Chinese game developer NetEase. As a free-to-play game, Diablo Immortal comes packed with in-app purchases, allowing players to spend big bucks to get the most powerful gear. As a result, Blizzard reported $24 million in revenue from the game in the first two weeks, and that’s without the extremely lucrative Chinese market.
According to Blizzard (Chinese), it delayed the launch because it wants to make the experience better, improve character models, and so on. To make up for the delay, Blizzard promises bundles of in-game resources and legendary items when the game does launch. However, this statement rings hollow for me. Diablo Immortal might be a microtransaction hellscape, but it works very well. Why would Blizzard need to optimize it for China so urgently that it delays the launch?
Kotaku has pointed to an alternative explanation tied to the official Blizzard Weibo account, which is a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. A screenshot being shared online shows a Blizzard post reading “Why hasn’t the bear stepped down?” or “What do you think about the bear?” The exact connotation is apparently difficult to translate, but many have taken this as a reference to Winnie the Pooh, which is bizarrely banned in China. Online communities have used President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to the cartoon bear as a way to criticize the regime, and Xi is not a fan of the comparison.
There’s also the potential that government regulators don’t like the monetization scheme. China has long exercised extraordinary control over gaming, recently decreeing that children could only play three hours per week. Regulators also regularly demand changes to the content of games before they will approve them for release in China. Even Epic couldn’t make a hugely popular game like Fornite viable in China.
Whatever the cause of the delay, it’s probably not as simple as last-minute optimizations. The delay caused NetEase to lose about 10 percent of its value on the Hong Kong stock market Monday. That’s a hefty price to pay if you just want to clean up some character models.