Let’s all chill for a moment about Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard
Earlier this week, Microsoft took the gaming world by storm with its announcement that it’s purchasing Activision Blizzard for a whopping $68.7 billion USD (about $86.3 billion CAD).
With that being the biggest-ever acquisition in the gaming space by far, there were, naturally, many discussions that came about surrounding the purchase.
Today is a historic moment. We are excited to announce that the world-renowned franchises and talented people at @ATVI_AB will be joining Team Xbox!
Full announcement details here: https://t.co/RwF0QgXVwE pic.twitter.com/jIXuYCcndG
— Xbox (@Xbox) January 18, 2022
But there have also been so many wild takes to various extremes that I can’t help but say: let’s not jump to conclusions.
For context, Microsoft itself says it doesn’t expect the deal to close until “fiscal year 2023,” which could be as much as 18 months from now. That’s also assuming the acquisition does get approved, but analysts so far expect it will. Until then, both Microsoft and Activision Blizzard will continue to operate independently.
In any event, we have at least a year, if not more, for anything to even remotely begin to happen. Therefore, it’s too early to really speak definitively on anything. Here are some common topics I’ve seen come up and why we should maybe just have a little more of a measured response for the time being.
Note: I’m largely not going to link to specific comments I’ve seen as I don’t want to put individual people on blast.
The biggest question, which has the most direct impact on consumers, is whether Activision Blizzard games will become Xbox and PC only. Some PlayStation fans think this means the end of Call of Duty and other franchises on Sony consoles.
Had good calls this week with leaders at Sony. I confirmed our intent to honor all existing agreements upon acquisition of Activision Blizzard and our desire to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation. Sony is an important part of our industry, and we value our relationship.
— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) January 20, 2022
So far, though, all we know is that Phil Spencer — the longtime Xbox boss and newly appointed “Microsoft Gaming CEO” — said the company will “honor all existing agreements upon acquisition of Activision Blizzard and our desire to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation.” As I broke down in a news story, this is a carefully worded statement that could mean any number of things:
-Some Call of Duty titles (like Warzone) remain on PlayStation while others become exclusive
-“Existing agreements” (of which we, the public, don’t know the specifics) means we only get one or two (or however many) more CODs on PlayStation before the series shifts to Xbox/PC only
-The series becomes full Xbox/PC exclusive (a “desire” for something potentially 18-plus months, at least, isn’t a guarantee)
We also don’t know what this means for other Activision Blizzard franchises, like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Overwatch or Diablo (I’m not counting franchises that have historically only been on PC to begin with, like World of Warcraft or Starcraft). According to Bloomberg, Microsoft’s plan is to make some franchises exclusive while others remain multiplatform, but no further details were provided. We also haven’t even yet seen Microsoft’s full long-term plans for Bethesda — so far, only two new IPs, Redfall and Starfield, have been confirmed to be Xbox/PC exclusive.
Therefore, no matter which way you swing it, we don’t know for sure re: Activision Blizzard games. PlayStation gamers being wary of losing Call of Duty is totally understandable, but there’s no reason to be doom and gloom just yet. For now, this year’s inevitable new Call of Duty, which is rumoured to be a sequel to 2019’s Modern Warfare, will still come to PlayStation. All previous modern CoDs, including the ever-popular Warzone, also remain playable. Eighteen months (at minimum; likely even longer for anything to actually change) is a long time, so just enjoy your Call of Duty games for the time being, PlayStation fans.
The future of Xbox | Powered by incredible Xbox first-party teams at Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda and Activision Blizzard.
A first-party studios force surreal to look at. pic.twitter.com/mvXvtMQB2c
— Klobrille (@klobrille) January 18, 2022
Even if the titles do go full exclusive, as people some have argued, the definition of that term has changed over time. I’ve seen people take issue with Spencer previously saying “I find it completely counter to what gaming is about” to lock games to single platforms. They’ve argued he’s hypocritical considering he’s buying up all these studios and making games like Starfield “exclusive.” But that’s taking his comments out of context. He went on to say that “gaming is bigger than any one device,” and that’s consistent, so far, with Microsoft’s approach.
Traditionally, an “exclusive” has been a game that is only available on one console (and maybePC) but isn’t playable on other platforms. Look at what Xbox has done with games like Halo for years, or even, more recently, PlayStation with such titles as God of War. This means that you have to drop hundreds of dollars on a specific piece of hardware. But Xbox has been adopting a more platform-agnostic approach as of late, which de-emphasizes the need for a particular system.
“Some have argued this suddenly alleviates Xbox’s first-party output, which has struggled in recent years compared to PlayStation and Nintendo.”
In addition to Xbox and PC, all first-party Xbox titles are coming to mobile devices via the cloud, and Microsoft plans to expand that offering to TVs (via streaming sticks and smart TV apps) and other devices. This means that PlayStation (or even Nintendo) gamers wouldn’t need to buy an Xbox or PC. Sure, the best experience would still be to play a game on native hardware — no question. A fast-paced shooter like Call of Duty definitely wouldn’t be stellar on cloud services as we currently know them; the technology still needs to improve. But to act like such a scenario is “taking games away from PlayStation” isn’t entirely reasonable since a Game Pass subscription provides a lower-cost and multiplatform option. This isn’t the same as, say, Street Fighter V never coming to any console besides PlayStation. Game Pass is Microsoft’s platform, not one specific device.
In the end, we don’t know how it will go with Activision Blizzard games, but as you can see, there’s a bit of nuance to the notion of “exclusivity.”
Consolidations are good/bad
This is a particularly weird one.
I’ve seen some people, particularly Xbox fans, praise the acquisition. While memes of Phil Spencer wielding an Infinity Gauntlet à la Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War can be amusing, there are people saying this means Xbox has “won the console war” (never mind that the console wars are, as always, an incredibly dumb and pointless fanboy conflict).
Some have argued this suddenly alleviates Xbox’s first-party output, which has struggled in recent years compared to PlayStation and Nintendo.
Do you care about Activision-Blizzard staff getting a much-needed change in leadership? Would you prefer Zuckerberg or Bezos? Or do you want to preserve the status quo with Kotick in charge forever?
This is the best outcome in our current economic system.
— Jez (@JezCorden) January 20, 2022
Windows Central‘s Jez Corden even started a bit of Twitter “discourse” with the baffling take that “game journalists” who are critical of the acquisition have a “bias.” His rationale was that they get “huge” editor salaries on top of free games, so they’re out of touch with the value of Activision Blizzard titles coming to Game Pass for consumers. Beyond many game journalists pointing out that they’re not, in fact, anywhere near as highly paid as Corden erroneously stated, it’s just a bad-faith argument.
It’s completely rational to be apprehensive about any billion-dollar corporation, especially one making an acquisition this staggeringly big. Expressing such skepticism doesn’t mean you’re biased; if anything, the person writing for the Microsoft-focused site is more likely to be guilty of that. There definitely are valid concerns about monopolistic business practices. For reference, Disney bought Fox in 2019 for $71.3 billion USD (nearly the same sum that Activision Blizzard is being purchased for), following major acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm. While the company isn’t a monopoly by legal definitions, its stranglehold on much of what dominates pop-culture is undeniably problematic.
“Regardless of whether you ultimately think Xbox will eventually be a positive or negative force of change for Activision Blizzard, the fact remains that there’s much to be done now.”
In a similar vein, it’s not unreasonable to look at Microsoft owning such juggernauts as Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls as being somewhat concerning. One indie developer even shared an interesting thread about how the increasing push for subscription services like Game Pass puts press on “everyone, devs, publishers, and platforms, toward putting games straight into those programs.” Could Game Pass, as bolstered by heavy hitters like Call of Duty, make it ultimately more difficult for devs to find success? Who’s to say now, but it’s possible.
As an indie game dev I’m really worried about all the industry consolidation. Currently the only guarantee of success for a game is subscriptions, which pushes everyone, devs, publishers, and platforms, toward putting games straight into those programs.
— brandon sheffield (@necrosofty) January 18, 2022
Conversely, people in my own Twitter feed basically said this is a dark time for the gaming industry and that they lost all respect for the otherwise generally well-liked Phil Spencer. That, like Corden’s statement, feels drastic. The deal was just announced — we have no idea what this actually means for Activision Blizzard or Xbox as a whole. Again, we haven’t even fully seen what Xbox is going to do with Bethesda, let alone Activision Blizzard. We don’t know whether Microsoft will make any more acquisitions, either.
I don’t fault anyone for taking an inherently optimistic or pessimistic stance, but at least consider that there’s some nuance here.
Improving Activision Blizzard
And finally, the most important element with respect to the people who actually make Activision Blizzard games is how Microsoft ends up handling the company’s allegedly toxic workplace culture.
For the uninitiated, a quick recap is that the company is facing lawsuits related to allegations of widespread workplace misconduct. These include, but are not limited to, sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring practices and other forms of abuse. CEO Bobby Kotick also stands accused not only of being aware of these issues, but someone who actively tried to keep them quiet. He’s since faced numerous calls to resign. Many employees have spoken up about these issues and walked out from the company, while some at Warzone developer Raven have even begun to form a union amid sudden terminations of quality assurance workers.
Now, I’ve seen some people blast Spencer for last year condemning Activision Blizzard amid the allegations and later saying Microsoft was reevaluating its relationship with the publisher. And for sure, the optics aren’t ideal. Likewise, some have said this gives Kotick a “golden parachute” to leave the company — which he reportedly is expected to do post-acquisition — with a huge payout. That also isn’t ideal — he shouldn’t be rewarded after all of this.
But it’s also impossible to say what would have happened had this deal not been reached. Would Kotick have remained in power longer? Who knows. Likewise, it’s difficult to speculate on how Microsoft might impact Activision Blizzard since, once again, it won’t have the full power to do so for many, many months. Talking about what Microsoft may start to do in 2023 or even 2024 doesn’t help ActiBlizz developers now, in 2022. For what it’s worth, Activision Blizzard developers have reportedly expressed mixed feelings — particularly optimism over Xbox’s generally well-regarded work culture but anger over how Kotick is likely to make off). That mostly seems like a conversation for another time.
In the interim, though, it seems more prudent to continue to stand with Activision Blizzard employees in their ongoing efforts. Continue to hold Activision Blizzard accountable, especially when leadership puts out posts promising to “rebuild your trust.” Support ABetterABK, a group representing the employees at the company, either through donations or even just solidarity on social media. Hell, even just show some love to some of the devs who are no doubt feeling all kinds of emotions right now.
Regardless of whether you ultimately think Xbox will eventually be a positive or negative force of change for Activision Blizzard, the fact remains that there’s much to be done now.
In the end, we have no idea what to really expect once Xbox officially acquires Activision Blizzard. And that’s okay. For now, it’s good to have discussions about it.
However, I think the perfect note to close all of this on is a tweet from Bloomberg‘s Jason Schreier, which I couldn’t agree with more.
“One of the many awful things about Gamer tribalism is how it reduces news to wins or losses, good or bad.”
That’s very true — a lot of people have made this news out to be either The Best or The Worst Thing Ever.
But, as he points out, it’s usually not so black-and-white.
“This week’s industry-shaking acquisition will have both positive and negative effects that won’t be fully understood for years,” said Schreier. “It’s OK to have complicated feelings about it!”
That, ultimately, should be the current big takeaway out of all this.