Just a few days before it was due to release, Diablo Immortal (opens in new tab) has been delayed in China. According to a Reuters (opens in new tab) report, word of the delay came shortly after the official Diablo Immortal account on Chinese social network Weibo was suspended.
A reason for the account suspension wasn’t provided, but a Financial Times (opens in new tab) report points the finger at a post that made critical comments about “the bear,” which was apparently interpreted as a reference to Winnie the Pooh. Pooh Bear has for years been used to criticize or mock Chinese president Xi Jinping because of purported physical similarities (opens in new tab) between them, and it’s pretty clearly a sore point for Xi: China banned (opens in new tab) the 2018 release of the Disney film Christopher Robin, and a year later revoked the business license (opens in new tab) of the Chinese publisher of Devotion, a horror game that also contained an image of Pooh. The Weibo account of developer Red Candles (opens in new tab) was also shut down in that case, and the game was ultimately removed from Steam.
There’s not a direct connection cited between the Weibo account suspension and the game delay, but it would be an awfully big coincidence if the two events were completely unconnected. NetEase, which co-developed Diablo Immortal with Activision Blizzard, made no reference to the account on the Chinese Diablo Immortal website (Google translated (opens in new tab)), saying only that it wanted to make “optimization adjustments” ahead of launch, including support for “a wider range of models and devices,” and “experience, network, and performance optimizations.”
Another possible point of contention is Diablo Immortal’s free-to-play monetization, which has been very successful (opens in new tab) out of the gate but also the focus of strong criticism (opens in new tab) over its aggressive approach to in-game item sales. Free-to-play games are far more common and popular in China than they are in the West, but the past couple of years has seen the Chinese government crack down on gaming by imposing time limits (opens in new tab) and streaming restrictions (opens in new tab) for minors, and pausing approvals (opens in new tab) for new game releases for almost a year. NetEase may be reluctant to try its luck with a game perceived by many as predatory right now, especially if it’s already in the doghouse over the Winnie the Pooh business.
A new release date for Diablo Immortal in China hasn’t been set, but NetEase said in the delay announcement that it’s putting together a “thank-you package” with legendary equipment and materials as an apology for the delay. The package will be available to all players once the game goes live. I’ve reached out to Activision Blizzard for more information and will update if I receive a reply.