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Diablo Immortal’s Chinese launch delayed at last moment

Is the controversial mobile gaming headed for regulatory hot waters in the market it was made for?

Artwork of the six character classes in Diablo: Immortal Blizzard Entertainment
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Diablo Immortal, Blizzard’s controversial mobile game entry in its famous action-RPG series, has had its release in China delayed just days before it was due to launch.

The launch had been set for June 23, but a post on June 19 by the game’s co-developer and local publisher NetEase said that it needed to make further “optimizations”, including support for more devices and network and performance improvements. This is despite the game having enjoyed an apparently technically smooth rollout in Western territories, Japan, and South Korea at the start of June.

A further update by Blizzard said the launch had been delayed to July 7. “We believe that our players will benefit from optimization that would make the download and playing experience much smoother,” it said, detailing a few changes that would be made. These include changes to the order in which mobile devices download data while you install and play, and optimizations to support the “very diverse” install base of Android phones in China. Players in the region will get a compensatory package of gear and crafting materials.

However, questions are bound to be asked about other potential reasons for this delay. Industry analyst Daniel Ahmad pointed out that the move comes a few days after Diablo Immortal’s account on China’s major social media platform, Weibo, was banned from making new posts. Weibo said the ban was for “violation of related laws and regulations.”

It’s reasonable to wonder if the game is headed for regulatory hot waters in China. Diablo Immortal has come under intense criticism for its monetization design, which some say is exploitative. There are reports that it would cost between $50,000 and $110,000 to fully max out a character via microtransactions. Streamer Quin69 spent $15,000 to acquire a single legendary gem with a 5-star rating (there are six legendary gem slots per character), before destroying it in protest. The game has not launched in the Netherlands or Belgium, where strict laws classify loot boxes in online games as gambling.

China is currently a tough regulatory environment for video games, where the government is actively campaigning against the games industry. A freeze on granting new licenses and restrictions on the time minors can spend on games have put many gaming companies out of business. China’s laws on loot boxes are not as strict as the Dutch and Belgian legislation, though — they just require drop rates to be disclosed, and place a cap on the number of daily purchases.

Diablo Immortal has, to a large extent, been designed with China in mind. This huge market is dominated by free-to-play mobile phone games, and Blizzard enlisted Chinese company NetEase as a co-developer to help it tailor Diablo’s core gameplay to these devices and this business model. It would be both ironic, and a serious blow to the game’s fortunes, if the game was denied release there.

Nevertheless, the signs are that Diablo Immortal is a big hit already. Data from Appmagic (via Pocket Gamer) suggests that it made $24 million in revenue in its first two weeks on mobiles — not counting its PC version. Blizzard claims it has been downloaded 10 million times, making it the biggest launch in the Diablo series’ history.