Microsoft’s purchase of troubled video game company Activision Blizzard for a record $68.7 billion has antitrust regulators looking at the situation with raised eyebrows. This week, the tech giant gave a response to the situation. It said that Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty games will continue to come out on both the PlayStation and Xbox consoles. Also, Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service will stream games like Overwatch and Diablo to other devices, including phones.
Microsoft’s regulator-appeasing claims
This last point, which Microsoft has stressed over and over again, hides an inconvenient truth: Game Pass is itself a platform that lets users download and play a rotating selection of hundreds of games for a low monthly price. Microsoft isn’t doing something nice for other people by putting it everywhere. Instead, it’s getting ready to win the next console war, which will be about apps and services rather than specific devices. (This is what a U.K. regulator said in a decision that came out Thursday and was the first real public challenge to Microsoft’s planned purchase.)
In short, Microsoft is making games like Netflix. It’s a good thing that it’s everywhere.
In a post that came out Thursday, Phil Spencer, the boss of Xbox, talked about the “principled path” the company is taking as it buys Activision Blizzard. Spencer said that, despite worries that “this deal might take franchises like Call of Duty away from the places where people play them now,” Microsoft plans to do the opposite. Even though “Starfield” and other games from Microsoft’s growing number of studios will be Xbox-only, he saw Game Pass as a way to level the playing field.
Appeasing claims about Game Pass
“Game Pass gives developers the ability to bring more games to more players, not fewer,” Spencer wrote. “We want to add Activision Blizzard’s most popular games, like Overwatch, Diablo, and Call of Duty, to Game Pass and help those communities grow. By giving players more value, we hope to keep Game Pass growing and make it more appealing on mobile phones and any other connected device.
From the outside, this seems like a good way to prevent competition. How is Microsoft limiting access if you can play games on so many different kinds of devices? But this is just a lie, and it should be seen that way. Microsoft is putting forward a very competitive move—getting what is essentially a Trojan horse for its platform and ecosystem onto as many devices as possible—as something that will level the playing field.
It’s a bold claim that’s almost too good to be true. If the console wars were fought the same way as in the past, Microsoft’s point of view would make sense: In the past, almost all proprietary devices and hardware were used to define a platform in the business world. But in this generation, companies like Microsoft have grown to include services and live games that can be played on mobile, PC, and even smart TVs. Everyone, including Sony, knows that the game has changed, which is why it started its own subscription service, PlayStation Plus, earlier this year and bought Bungie, the company that made “Destiny 2,” so it could offer more live services.
Microsoft has a clear plan for the future:
Keep building what is essentially the Netflix of games by filling Game Pass with original content and adding to it with the game studios it has bought over the past few years. This won’t make video games all digital right away, but Microsoft could follow Netflix’s lead in the not-too-distant future by establishing (temporary) dominance in the service space and repeatedly raising subscription prices in ways that are inconvenient, annoying, and turn off users. Also, Game Pass makes sure that some games can only be played on Microsoft’s terms. This means it could have the same problems that plague similar services, like booms for creators followed by busts or rights expiring and content suddenly disappearing.
The Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA, is a UK government agency that is looking into Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard. One of its main concerns is that Game Pass could tip the scales in a subscription market that is still in its “infancy.” This makes Microsoft’s response here even stranger. Microsoft, on the other hand, says that this is the best thing for the industry.
“For all the players and game developers out there,” Spencer wrote, “you are still at the center of everything we do, and we will continue to listen to your feedback and do everything we can to grow this industry we all love.”
But no matter how you look at it, Microsoft is always acting in its own best interests. At best, players, developers, and the industry as a whole come second.
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