It's not all green lights for World of Warcraft operations in China after all. Regulators have ordered new operator NetEase to halt Blizzard's MMO and stop allowing new accounts, claiming "gross violations" of rules -- and highlighting a rift between two different government groups in the region.
The transfer of WoW's Chinese operations from The9 to NetEase meant two months' downtime and a long closed beta for the game during the past summer, as it underwent a new round of regulatory approvals and content edits. China's Ministry of Culture approved the game's relaunch in September, having taken over some of the relevant regulatory responsibilities.
But many regulatory responsibilities are still the domain of China's General Administration of Press and Publication, which has now halted NetEase's application to run the game and demanded it cease WoW operations. The conflict appears to be part of an ongoing power struggle between GAPP and the Ministry of Culture over who controls online content. The GAPP has reportedly been displeased that the game's relaunch was approved without its input.
Analysts told Reuters that Chinese regulators have become increasingly concerned over "undesirable content" in online games. Among the edits made to WoW to allow its launch in China were the replacement of bone piles with sandbags, and a color change of enemy blood from red to a vague black mist.
The lack of specific age ratings for games in the country makes showing bones or the undead a gray area -- especially in light of a Chinese media controversy that occurred over a WoW subway advertisement that included undead characters.
The Chinese government is also cracking down in particular on foreign investments in its burgeoning online game industry, which is expected to grow 30 to 40 percent to $4 billion this year. GAPP has stated that foreign companies "cannot control or participate in domestic game-operating businesses indirectly through another investment company, signed agreements or by supplying technical support."
GAPP has also said that "foreign companies are neither allowed to covertly control or be involved in domestic gaming operations by means of joint networks for user registration, account supervision or game card systems." Such a declaration could pose a major threat not only to the future of NetEase's WoW partnership with Blizzard, but to the aims of numerous Western companies aiming to operate their games in China's high-growth online industry.
Conflicts over online games are unlikely to affect the existing game operations of other major companies in China, such as Tencent and Shanda, because they're believed to already be in compliance with regulations.
In an official statement, NetEase claims it's seen the GAPP's website statement of notification that it's returning NetEase's approval application, and its suspension instructions, but claims it's yet to receive official notification and will query the request to a higher level.
"GAPP also notes in its statement that it is evaluating whether to impose administrative penalties on Shanghai EaseNet," says the company's statement. "As of the time of this press release, neither NetEase nor Shanghai EaseNet has been officially notified of GAPP's determination."
"NetEase and Shanghai EaseNet believe that they are in full compliance with applicable PRC laws and are currently seeking clarification from the relevant governmental authorities regarding this statement by GAPP. NetEase will provide further updates on the statement by GAPP as appropriate."
[UPDATE: The Chinese Ministry Of Culture has held a press conference [Chinese language link] disputing GAPP's statements, following the latest developments in the saga.
The Ministry Of Culture is claiming that GAPP has violated a higher-level State Council provision on the approval process for online games. It appears that a ruling by the State Council at some point in the future will decide the controversy.]