Microsoft has today announced that it plans to acquire developer and publisher Activision Blizzard for a staggering deal worth $68.7bn. The move, which is expected to be completed by 2023, would see Microsoft become the world's third-largest gaming company by revenue. This is fantastic news for Microsoft - there's no doubt about that - but let's not sugarcoat things: it's anything but good news for consumers.
Having already hoovered up ZeniMax Media (parent company of Bethesda Softworks) last year, Microsoft will soon own huge series such as Call of Duty, Crash Bandicoot, Guitar Hero, Spyro The Dragon, and Tony Hawk - and that's just from the Activision side. On top of this, it'll acquire numerous Blizzard IPs like Diablo, Hearthstone, Overwatch, and Warcraft, to name just a few.
If you don't see this as a problem, that's fine. Maybe you've already committed yourself to Microsoft's Xbox platform for the foreseeable, but for anyone else, or any future console owners, this feels like a gun to the head. Jump on the Xbox train, or you may get left behind when we buy up your favourite titles.
“We’re investing deeply in world-class content, community, and the cloud to usher in a new era of gaming that puts players and creators first and makes gaming safe, inclusive, and accessible to all,” said Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO of Microsoft earlier today.
But is that really true? Can we honestly say that Microsoft is putting players first and making an experience that is accessible to all? Because ever since the Zenimax acquisition, all I've seen are numerous questions over whether titles such as Starfield, Fallout, Elder Scrolls, DOOM, and more will come to Sony consoles in the future. For months, getting a straight answer from developers has been all but impossible, with even Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer giving wishy-washy answers on the subject.
In the aftermath of today's news, Microsoft PR was asked by Axios gaming writer Stephen Totilo (former Kotaku editor-in-chief) if Activision Blizzard games will become Microsoft exclusives. The response, which neither confirmed nor denied the possibility, reads:
"[AB]’s games exist on a variety of platforms today, and we plan to continue supporting those communities moving forward. The acquisition is about increasing the availability of Activision Blizzard content across more platforms, including mobile."
Yet given Spencer's past comments about the Zenimax acquisition being rooted in "delivering great exclusive games for you [Xbox customers] that ship on platforms where Game Pass exists," it's hard to see a future where Activision Blizzard games don't become exclusive.
By now, it's probably clear that this latest acquisition doesn't sit right with this writer, and I was already deeply uncomfortable with the Zenimax news last year.
The idea that certain IPs - some of which have historically been available on a wide variety of platforms for years - might now be gated to just Microsoft doesn't seem at all in the spirit of "putting players first." Unless, of course, they mean to say Microsoft/Xbox players and no one else. No matter how personable we may find Xbox and its current leadership to be, buying up everything is inherently anti-consumer and flies in the face of these titles being "accessible to all."
For what it's worth, this isn't about PlayStation vs Xbox. The strange response from some quarters online that Sony must now 'retaliate' by buying the likes of Square-Enix, Ubisoft, or Take-Two is equally stupid, and would also be damaging if it were to happen. God forbid what will happen should (when?) PlayStation launch its own Game Pass alternative as is rumoured. Does a PlayStation equivalent of Game Pass even work if Microsoft continues to buy up the vast majority of publishers? Will Sony follow suit with its own acquisitions to bolster a similar PlayStation service? It's hard to see an outcome that benefits anyone other than the console makers themselves.
Admittedly, it's not as though exclusivity is something new. I remember buying a GameCube as a teen specifically because I wanted to play Resident Evil 4. But this isn't the same thing, or a one-off release to take into consideration. I had a choice back then: buy the console, play Resi 4, or don't buy it and don't play it. Some people might argue consumers still do have a choice to make. But that choice becomes increasingly more complex when one company is brick-by-brick hoarding some of the world's biggest third-party video game publishers and numerous titles once enjoyed by all console owners.
This latest generation of consoles is starting to feel like an arms race, with Microsoft arguably being more aggressive than Sony, and while the acquisitions are no doubt great for its business, the company is also exacerbating a growing divide between console owners. Not to mention creating even more expensive barriers to entry if certain publishers are suddenly locked to one console.
I wholeheartedly hope that Xbox has a genuine interest in making sure that certain titles continue to exist on all platforms, and not just locked behind its own hardware. If you thought video games were getting expensive before, wait until your favourite publisher suddenly sells up on a Tuesday afternoon and jumps ship to the £300+ console you don't own. Of course, these deals need to fund themselves somehow, and self-interest would suggest that in the long run, Microsoft might need to be not just 'the best place to play,' but in most instances, 'the only place to play,' assuming you want certain titles once enjoyed by all.