World Of Warcraft among top games going offline in China - forcing millions of players to say goodbye

World Of Warcraft, one of the most seminal online games in history, is set to go offline today in China.

Millions of players will be forced to bid an emotional goodbye to their fantastical characters as a very public fallout between developer Blizzard and publisher NetEase brings a 14-year deal to an end.

Warcraft, which first released in North America in 2004, was initially given permission to launch in the notoriously restrictive Chinese gaming market back in 2005.

Since 2008, Blizzard's massively multiplayer title has had its servers managed in China by NetEase, which also operates bespoke versions of a few other popular Western games like Minecraft.

Blizzard - which is owned by Activision Blizzard, the gaming giant Microsoft is trying to buy in a record $69bn (£56bn) takeover deal - first announced its deal with NetEase would end last November.

It impacts not just Warcraft, which has an estimated three million players in China, but Blizzard's other hits like multiplayer shooter Overwatch, card game Hearthstone, and sci-fi strategy title Starcraft.

Ugly dispute goes public

NetEase's president of global investment, Simon Zhu, said he had spent "10,000 hours" playing those games in a damning statement about the break-up.

"One day, when what has happened behind the scene could be told, developers and gamers will have a whole new level of understanding of how much damage a jerk can make," he wrote on LinkedIn.

NetEase rejected an offer earlier this month to extend the agreement by six months, describing the proposal as "commercially illogical" and accusing Blizzard of "seeking a divorce but still remaining attached".

Citing a person close to Blizzard, Reuters news agency reported that the dispute was down to NetEase wanting structural changes that would impact the US firm's control over its intellectual property (IP).

NetEase insisted "any usage and licensing of Blizzard's IP were done in accordance with contract terms and with Blizzard's consent and approval" throughout the 14-year agreement.

"We want to clarify that we have never sought to obtain control of IP from Activision Blizzard - that is an unfounded accusation," a NetEase spokesperson told Sky News.

They added: "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."

The companies had previously renewed their initial 2008 deal in 2019.

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Players invited to put characters on ice

Ahead of the deal ending on Monday, Blizzard took the unusual step of allowing their Chinese Warcraft players to download their characters and progress, which for some will span thousands upon thousands of hours.

Their data will be able to uploaded back into the game if Blizzard finds a new distribution partner in China, which remains one of the world's most lucrative markets despite restrictions imposed by the government.

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NetEase's rise to becoming China's second-largest gaming company has been driven largely by its partnership with Blizzard, but its own titles now account for more than 60% of its revenue.

The country's industry leader is Tencent, which - as well as making its own games - owns US gaming giant Riot, the firm behind League Of Legends; and holds stakes in major Western developers like Fortnite maker Epic and Assassin's Creed creators Ubisoft.