"World of Warcraft" is returning to China this summer, its developer and local partner said Wednesday, more than a year after dismayed devotees saw the hugely popular video game and other titles pulled from the market in a contract dispute.

US-based game-maker Blizzard and China's NetEase said a new deal would see the sequential return of "World of Warcraft" (WoW) alongside first-person shooter "Overwatch" and spin-offs such as WoW card game "Hearthstone".

WoW's Chinese servers went offline in January 2023, prompting a wave of mourning and anger from millions of fans who poured years of their lives into building up their in-game points.

"I'm super excited, super happy about this return! I hope that the two companies will continue to cooperate, that they will win back old players and attract new ones," 25-year-old gamer Zhao Xuejia told AFP in Beijing.

"We were all waiting to find out who Blizzard was going to work with to be able to return to China. The fact that it's NetEase again is good, it's going to make things easier," another young man, Fu Tianze, said.

"I'm excited about getting my account back soon."

Chinese social media users were equally delighted, with "Blizzard announces return" and "NetEase and Blizzard remarry" the top trending searches on the Weibo platform.

"Today, our long-lost old friend returns, our most beloved game returns," gaming blogger "Scarlet Bunny" wrote in a Weibo post.

"Come back to life, my beloved!" another fan wrote.

- 'Thrilled to align' -

Massively popular worldwide, particularly in the 2000s, WoW is an online multiplayer role-playing game set in a fantasy Medieval world where good battles evil.

It is known for its immersive and addictive gameplay, and players can rack up hundreds of hours of game time.

Blizzard's games launched in China -- the world's largest gaming market -- in 2008, through collaboration with internet giant NetEase.

Under local law, foreign developers are required to partner with Chinese firms to enter the market.

After 14 years and acquiring millions of players in China, the two firms announced in November 2022 that contract renewal talks had failed to lead to an agreement.

After continuing discussions over the last year, though, the companies said in their Wednesday statement they were "thrilled to align on a path forward" and had struck "a renewed publishing deal".

"From Blizzard's point of view, China is a market that the company obviously can't ignore... If they re-open the servers, it's clear that that's going to bring a lot of players back," Tian Yiran, a 21-year-old gamer, told AFP.

Some long-time WoW players, though, remained bitter about the title's extended absence from China.

"The Chinese market is not Blizzard's living room where you come and leave as you want. Players are not playthings in Blizzard's hands that you take or abandon at will," one gamer wrote on Weibo, calling for a boycott.

Zeng Xiaofeng, China manager of gaming research firm Niko Partners, told AFP he believed fans in the country "would still have a lot of demand" for WoW despite the lengthy hiatus.

"Some of the gamers, when the games stopped operation, they still played the game... in other Asia servers," Zeng said, referring to versions of WoW available in other countries.

Zeng said while it was hard to "know the real story", it was likely that Microsoft's acquisition of Blizzard, which concluded last October, prompted a shift in strategy at the game publisher.

- Difficult years -

The news will be a welcome boost for NetEase, which like many of the country's tech giants has had a rough few years after a government crackdown on the industry.

Since 2021, children under 18 years old have only been allowed to play online between 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the school term.

Gamers are required to use their ID cards when registering to play online to ensure minors do not lie about their age.

Companies are also prohibited from offering gaming services to young people outside government-mandated hours.

An end to a freeze in gaming licences had raised hopes that the focus on the industry had subsided.

But then in December a set of draft guidelines aimed at limiting in-game purchases and preventing obsessive gaming behaviour sent shares in NetEase and its rivals tumbling.

Authorities backtracked a day later, announcing that the rules would be further revised, though it did not give details.

The draft rules were later removed from the regulator's website.