Of all the games Activision Blizzard owns, 26 different series are listed in the “our games” section of the website. Even excluding the mobile games coming through King, there are 17 of them. Some are small or dormant games, but there are huge titles like Overwatch, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Crash Bandicoot, and Sekiro in the mix. Still, the whole conversation was about a single series: Call of Duty. Xbox is being investigated whether the deal to own Activision Blizzard could constitute a monopoly, something Sony is keen to emphasize to either make the most of the deal for itself or call it off altogether. There are solid arguments on both sides, but what’s especially incredibly depressing is that Call of Duty is such a powerful force in our industry.
More than 100 pages of arguments are currently being put forward to the UK watchdog, acting as the first roadblock to the deal. Essentially, though, Xbox makes the (correct) argument that Sony sells better, that Sony makes games that are more acclaimed, and that Sony has long been the dominant force in the industry. Meanwhile, Sony makes the argument (also rightly so) that casual players aren’t motivated by review scores and that making Call of Duty exclusive would be a much bigger factor in casual buyer behavior than Metacritic ratings, and that Xbox should owns “makes PlayStation Nintendo”. Of course, Xbox isn’t saying it will make Call of Duty exclusive, and has even promised to sign a ten-year contract to do so, but Sony’s arguments seem to be winning nonetheless.
There is no need to choose sides in this. We don’t have to turn everything into sports. It’s fine to observe and come to an organic opinion based on the evidence, not the teams involved. Xbox likes to send the message that it’s customer-friendly, and Game Pass has put some money in its mouth, but it says it’s playing catch-up in both sales and prestige. We wouldn’t be getting Halo Infinite for free on day one with a cheap subscription if Xbox had the dominance that Sony has enjoyed lately. It didn’t buy Activision Blizzard to share it with the world. However, it might consider sharing Call of Duty a reasonable sacrifice to appease Sony and the various watchdogs, especially since it would monetize all in-game purchases on PlayStation and could offer exclusive Xbox players.
That, in turn, raises the question of Sony’s hypocrisy. Sony has long paid for special exclusive content in Call of Duty, in an effort to ensnare the same casual players Xbox accuses of stealing. It also just bought Bungie, the developers of Destiny (and the original Halo developers), and while Destiny isn’t going to be exclusive, Sony is commissioning Bungie to create exclusives in the future. That doesn’t mean I necessarily want the Xbox deal to go through – I think the whole takeover is bad news. I thought the day it was announced, and my point of view hasn’t changed. But I think it’s bad news because conglomerates stifle creativity and, despite huge cash reserves, often take fewer risks and act conservatively, meaning smaller, less profit-driven, more intimate and creative games are wiped out. It’s disheartening that this hasn’t been a factor for anyone – instead it’s a fistfight over who can take advantage of the war simulator.
Sony is taking a big risk by objecting to this as well. It is completely dependent on being able to sell Call of Duty. Sony is undoubtedly leading the way with its own prestigious studios pumping out God of War and The Last of Us, but Xbox is eager to catch up. If Call of Duty proves to be too big to buy and the Activision Blizzard deal falls through, Xbox will have $70 billion to spend and an appetite for acquisition. What now? The next likely stop might be Ubisoft, and Assassin’s Creed probably wouldn’t have the same pushback as Call of Duty. However, that deal would not cost $70 billion. Multiple acquisitions would lead to more scrutiny, but could Xbox go after Sony’s Japanese dominance by picking up Capcom, Atlus, Bandai Namco or the remnants of Square Enix after Embracer snatched up Western titles?
Again, I don’t want that to happen. I wouldn’t be happier with Xbox owning Activision than with Xbox owning Ubisoft and Atlus. I think too few companies own too many things. But Call of Duty is the biggest sticking point and shows how unsophisticated the soul of our industry is. I’m not naive about how much profit matters, but the endless battle over who gets to own the apolitical but also Oorah-USA military shooter is exhausting. The takeover could have much bigger ramifications, but none of them cost Sony money, so no one will care.
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