I don’t suppose any of us woke up Tuesday morning thinking Microsoft would announce its intent to acquire Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s most prolific – and occasionally infamous – video game publishers. It’s a move so preposterously unexpected – so ridiculously unrealistic – I needed to see the statement on Microsoft‘s site before I could even begin to comprehend it might be true.
It’s a bit like… well, it’s not quite like McDonald’s buying out Burger King – I suppose that equivalent would be Microsoft acquiring PlayStation itself – but it’s fucking close. You might only be vaguely familiar with the name Activision itself, but I suspect you’re better acquainted with its products, several of which it hoovered up via acquisitions itself not that long ago: Call of Duty. Candy Crush Saga. World of Warcraft. We’re talking hugely-successful and profitable series, many of which release new instalments and expansions on an annual basis, several of which are wholly associated not with Microsoft, but with its biggest competitors. It’s a massive deal – figuratively and literally (it cost £50billion) – for a company that is widely thought to have been losing the “console war” for the last two generations.
Let’s be honest, though. Most of us don’t give a shit about this stuff. The video games industry is a wonky machine comprising of developers, publishers, distributors, PR, and marketing, and I suspect most of the game-playing public don’t know the differences between them or even want to know, and that’s in no way a criticism. Few of us really know how the sausage is made when it comes to our favourite things, and that’s just dandy. Occasionally something will bubble up to the gaming public consciousness like an unflushable turd – microtransactions; loot boxes; outrageous accusations of discrimination and harassment – but for the most part, we live in blissful ignorance. Which is why news like this might not seem all that big of a deal at first blush.
I’ve talked about Activision’s current, ahem, issues before, so I won’t rehash it all again, but briefly, for those not in the know, the publisher has been thigh-deep in scandalous hot waters for some time now. Lawsuits have been filed not just by its own staff but the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission following multiple allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace misconduct. It’s a millstone around the neck of Activision’s upper management that it just cannot shake off, and it sent stock prices tumbling. More cynical minds than mine may wonder which tempted Microsoft first – Activision’s extensive portfolio or its flailing share prices.
For Microsoft fans, though, and those already with an Xbox Series X|S? What a bloody treat! Just like Xbox’s acquisition of Bethesda (for the now paltry sounding £5.6billion), we’ll likely see some Activision games become Xbox exclusives, which means – as “first-party” games developed by Microsoft’s own in-house studios – they’ll be available to play, from release day, for no extra charge to those already with an Xbox Game Pass subscription. We may also see Microsoft revive long-dormant franchises, such as Guitar Hero (YAY!). And while, sure, initially Microsoft may honour existing contracts with Sony‘s PlayStation 5 – again, as it did with Bethesda – I suspect it won’t be forever.
While Sony still reportedly sells more consoles than Microsoft – that is, when people can find them to buy, anyway – and offers stronger exclusives, I’ve always thought that the latter was playing the long game. Initiatives like the Xbox Series S, which offers affordable access to next-gen gaming, as well as its commitment to accessibility, its backwards compatibility program, and Xbox Game Pass – its “Netflix of gaming” subscription service – always sounded like winners to me regardless of the flashy differences between the PS5 and XSX’s tech.
But right now, Microsoft controls the fortunes of franchises like Minecraft, Halo, Gears of War, Psychonauts, Hellblade, Forza, The Evil Within, Fallout, Doom, State of Decay, and The Elder Scrolls Online, to name but a few. That’s a lot of games – games with long and storied back catalogues – and now we can add titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, and Warzone, too. If Activision Blizzard titles do go Xbox-only, how the hell can Sony scrounge up enough alternatives to plug the gaps on its virtual storefronts?
Both Sony and Microsoft have an equal appetite for buying up indie studios. But it really feels as though the latter’s motivations are firmly fixed on one single goal: Xbox Game Pass. Gamers now have the choice of forking out £60-70 quid to play the latest COD on PS5 every year… or get access, from day one, courtesy of an affordable(ish) monthly payment and a last-gen Xbox One or PC. It’s not rocket science, is it?
While it sounds like a good deal for gamers – well, those with an Xbox Game Pass sub, anyway – don’t forget that Microsoft has made plenty of missteps up to this point, acquiring and then closing fan-favourite studios, and completely overestimating the gaming public’s appetite for an “all-in-one entertainment system” last generation. Yes, Microsoft has made great strides in recent years – and its advances in gaming accessibility are alone something to champion – but even those of us with a Series X and a Game Pass sub should be cautious right now.
The sad truth is, no industry thrives or diversifies when competition is slashed to the bone. Yes, right now Xbox fans may be celebrating, but let there be no doubt: if the sale goes through, this will have a massive and lasting impact not only on Sony’s PS5 console, but the industry as a whole… and only time will tell if that will be a positive or negative one.
Vikki Blake is a video games journalist and regular contributor to NME.