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Does Hearthstone have a gambling problem in China, or is black PR to blame?

Does Hearthstone have a gambling problem in China, or is black PR to blame?

| November 15, 2013

Blizzard’s upcoming Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a hotly anticipated title around the world, but perhaps nowhere more than China, where Blizzard games tend to do particularly well and where the game’s freemium approach to monetization promises to be especially popular. The game, which is being distributed by Netease, has already gone into semi-public beta in China (click that link to learn how to get a key). But it sent a shockwave around that country’s gaming world when the game’s card store system was temporarily taken offline.

The actual reason for the outage, according to Netease, was just that the game is being optimized, but rumors quickly spread that the game had somehow run afoul of mainland China’s gambling regulations (gambling, online and off, is illegal in the PRC). The rumors spread fast enough, in fact, that Netease’s Zhang Dong (who’s in charge of the company’s collaborations with Blizzard) felt obligated to point out that this rumor is pretty ridiculous considering that there are already several other foreign digital TCG games (including Million Arthur) operating legally in China.

In fact, Zhang apparently went a step further, suggesting that the rumors were the world of malicious domestic competitors trying to slander Hearthstone in the run-up to the game’s official launch. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, it isn’t — at least, not necessarily. China’s tech and gaming industries are actually plagued by what are called “black PR” firms, companies that will do everything from censoring negative product comments for their clients to placing and spreading malicious rumors about clients’ competitors. Earlier this year, Chinese police uncovered a firm that was controlling hundreds of supposedly-legit Sina Weibo accounts and that had raked in millions in revenue. Could Blizzard, Netease, and Hearthstone be the victim of another such campaign?

It’s certainly possible, and perhaps even likely. As Zhang suggested, there are definitely domestic competitors out there with plenty to gain from giving Hearthstone a black eye, especially given that it is high-profile that it will probably draw more than a few TCG fans away from Chinese-developed games (and foreign-developed games operated by other Chinese publishers) when it goes public.

Of course, “Our competitors are making up lies!” is a pretty common claim whenever there’s any kind of negative rumor about a Chinese company. But in this case, given that Hearthstone has already been approved by China’s Ministry of Culture, it seems extremely unlikely the game’s temporary shop closing had anything to do with gambling regulations — if the game was suspected of somehow encouraging gambling, it would never have gotten MOC approval in the first place. Netease and Blizzard, it seems, may really be the victim of a competitor’s smear campaign, and one has to wonder: will it end here?

(via Tencent Games)

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