NeoGAFs Kent Brockman
What Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard acquisition and Sony's Bungie acquisition says about a console war that never existed.
The notion of a “console war” is outdated, and has been for years now. What began as a silly rivalry between fans of different game systems secretly jealous of the games they couldn’t play has been a significant element fueling games community toxicity for 25 years. Because of that, one might think Microsoft’s bold intended acquisition of Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion is cause for vitriol – no more Call of Duty on PlayStation consoles? – and proof that the conflict is still raging. In truth it’s the signal that it’s over, and the real fight has been revealed.
Activision Blizzard's largest game series is Call of Duty. Microsoft's acquisition nets them one of the most popular FPS' of all time, with annual releases that almost always top the charts. It also includes Call of Duty: Warzone, the incredibly popular free-to-play battle royale.
A classic Activision IP, Crash Bandicoot is once again a hot property thanks to its recent revival. The N. Sane Trilogy and Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled remastered helped bring the series back, and the more recent Crash Bandicoot 4 has cemented it as an important Activision series.
While dormant for some time, Activision's Tony Hawk series resurfaced in 2020 with the release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2, a remaster of the first two games. Its success means that Tony Hawk could well be an important series for Xbox.
Similar to Crash Bandicoot, Spyro is another classic Activision series that was dormant for quite some years. The Reignited Trilogy remasters proved highly successful, though, opening the door for more Spyro. In addition, Activision also owns the Spyro spin-off franchise Skylanders.
Guitar Hero hasn't been seen since 2015's Guitar Hero Live, but there's still a community that adores the once-dominant music rhythm series. Any potential revival is now in Xbox's hands.
Activision Blizzard also owns King, the mobile developer behind Candy Crush. An absolute powerhouse in the mobile gaming space, the Candy Crush games are played by millions of people across the world.
Ultimately, nobody “won.” You could argue that perhaps all of us did, because the drive to secure increasingly impressive games pushed the capabilities of multiple generations of PlayStations and Xboxes, but there was never going to be an all-conquering singular console. The notion was always preposterous, and leaders like Microsoft’s Phil Spencer have been saying so for years. Back in 2018, Spencer called toxicity in gaming a threat, and noted in 2020 that “console tribalism” was “one of the worst things about our industry. “We’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “The biggest competitor we have is apathy over the products and services, games that we build.”
The staggering sum that Microsoft is paying for Activision Blizzard is the boldest signal yet that content is the future of gaming. Until recently Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo had focused on owning their entire console ecosystems. They make the boxes you play on, and they exert control over the games that get made for those boxes. The model dates back decades. Atari did it, Nintendo did it, Sega did it – because it worked.
Over the next few years, though, the box under your TV will become irrelevant. With faster networks and increasingly powerful technology, singular custom gaming hardware is already less important if you just want access to games. Sure, if you want the best possible experience they’ll still be consequential – just as Blu-Ray players can provide a better experience than streaming movies – but for the vast majority of people, all that matters is convenience and access. So, if any device – like your phone or tablet, or the TV in your living room – can provide access to a gigantic library of games through a built-in app with a subscription service like Game Pass, the most important thing is stuffing that service with lots and lots of really good games. We can cynically point at failures like Google’s atrocious Stadia user experience or Amazon’s half-assed Luna service as proof that this idea is “bad” – but underneath the layers of licensing bullshit and incomprehensible payment plans, the fundamental problem with both of those (and others) has been that the game selection sucks. Game Pass does not have that issue.
Microsoft has been setting the stage for all of this for years, and has been escalating its moves accordingly. The $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda parent ZeniMax back in September 2020 was arguably its first really big move, but it has been positioning things for a while. Spencer recently called subscription services "an inevitability" in response to news of Sony’s exploration of a Game Pass like service. The Activision Blizzard acquisition – regardless of the associated regulatory and management challenges – is about getting some of the most-played games in the world on Game Pass and the Xbox Cloud Gaming service. It’s about monthly subscription fees, not selling you an Xbox. If you’re playing Call of Duty on a PC or a smart TV or a PlayStation, it ultimately doesn’t matter to Microsoft as long as you’re paying it monthly for the privilege, as 25 million of us already are. As Spencer told Bloomberg, “I’ll just say to players out there who are playing Activision Blizzard games on Sony’s platform: It’s not our intent to pull communities away from that platform and we remain committed to that.”
The “content war” that lies ahead will no doubt see more consolidation, more mergers and acquisitions. While it’s unlikely we’ll see many deals as big as Activision Blizzard, it seems inevitable that some treasured brands will merge or get gobbled up. While some fans are speculating that Sony’s edge could be defined as being a boutique publisher that focuses only on the very best games (God of War, Horizon, Last of Us) a unique advantage that it has is its connection to the Japanese market – something Microsoft has never been able to crack. It seems feasible that if it is indeed serious about competing with Game Pass and Xbox Cloud Gaming, rather than focus on charging for a small number of high quality games it would beef up its catalog with acquisitions. If you indulge a hypothetical scenario where Sony absorbs a Japanese publisher like Konami or Capcom you can see the possibilities. While this would be significant under the old “exclusive games sell consoles” model, it becomes even more so when you factor in back catalog exclusivity and the prospect of refreshing precious franchises on a paid service that runs on anything. Just as Disney+ uses Star Wars and Marvel to keep you paying monthly, the promise of rebooted Metal Gear, Silent Hill, Resident Evil or Dino Crisis games would do the same trick.
If this truly is the path ahead, just as we’ve seen on streaming services for movies and TV – the challenge for all game makers will be about visibility more than ever. How do you stand out against Call of Duty when the subscription service itself owns Call of Duty? For gamers, the challenge will echo that of other entertainment: how many services are we going to have to pay for every month?
The next few years will see the three dominant publishers -- Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo -- focus on being content and service providers more than hardware manufacturers, and we’ll undoubtedly see some hardware alliances with consumer electronics giants that ensure games are playable on TVs and other devices. This is just the beginning.