World of Warcraft May Go Dark in China

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World of Warcraft

Blizzard's World of Warcraft could be headed for a good ol' fashioned plug-pulling in China, thanks to simmering government infighting gone wild. A Chinese regulation body has ordered NetEase, a Chinese internet company that hosts World of Warcraft in China, to disconnect the game after rejecting NetEase's application to operate Activision Blizzard's The Burning Crusade, the popular MMORPG's second expansion.

But wait: Wasn't The Burning Crusade already released in China two years ago, back in September 2007?

It was. In fact World of Warcraft had been operated by Shanghai-based The9--the MMORPG launched in China in June 2005--but Blizzard transitioned the license to NetEase in April 2009 as part of a three-year deal. Except it's not that simple, apparently: Relaunching an MMO in China requires governmental authorization, and NetEase doesn't have it...yet.

The reason for the latest rejection? No one knows precisely, but it seems China's General Administration of Press and Publication and its Ministry of Culture are locked in mortal combat over which body has the power--and purview--to issue these sorts of regulatory dictums. Blizzard has already made numerous changes to the game to appease Chinese regulators, stripping out things like visual references to blood and bones.

According to The Wall Street Journal, GAPP allowed NetEase to begin testing World of Warcraft in July so long as the company didn't engage in financial transactions with players or process new accounts. NetEase complied until September 19, at which point it began accepting money and processing new accounts, presumably due to authorization delays exacerbated by the regulatory wrangle between GAPP and the Ministry of Culture.

GAPP unsurprisingly says NetEase's actions are illegal. In response, the Ministry of Culture says GAPP would violate government stipulations if it attempts to enforce the regulatory rebuff.

Who's going to win? No one knows, but no one's blinking. Even the central government can't seem to decide. China’s State Commission Office for Public Sector Reform says GAPP is responsible for pre-approval of online game publication, but once an online game goes live, responsibility shifts to the Ministry of Culture.

World of Warcraft went live in China four years ago. Its move from The9 to NetEase amounts to a literal technicality. It would seem, at first blush then, that the Ministry of Culture has authority here, though if China considers individual expansion packs to be discrete applications, well...

Yeah, I know. What a mess.

Sound like an episode of a reality TV show, "When Bureaucrats Attack"?

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