It’s Depressing How Important Call Of Duty Is To Gaming
Across all of the games Activision Blizzard owns, there are 26 different series listed in the 'our games' section of the website. Even if you discount the mobile games that come via King, there are 17. Some are minor or dormant games, but there are huge titles like Overwatch, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Crash Bandicoot, and Sekiro in the mix. Yet the entire conversation has been around a single series: Call of Duty. Xbox is under scrutiny that the deal to own Activision Blizzard might comprise a monopoly, something Sony is keen to stress to either get the best out of the deal for itself or call it off completely. There are solid arguments on both sides, but mostly it's incredibly depressing that Call of Duty is such a powerful force in our industry.
There are over 100 pages of arguments being put forward to the UK watchdog at the moment, who are acting as the first roadblock to the deal. In essence though, Xbox is making the argument (correctly) that Sony outsells it, Sony makes games that are more critically acclaimed, and Sony has long been the dominant force in the industry. Meanwhile, Sony is making the argument (also correctly) that casual players aren't motivated by review scores and that making Call of Duty exclusive would be a much larger factor in casual buyers' behaviour than Metacritic ratings, and that Xbox owning Call of Duty “turns PlayStation into Nintendo”. Of course, Xbox isn’t saying it will make Call of Duty exclusive, and has even pledged to signing a ten-year contract to that effect, but Sony's arguments appear to be winning nonetheless.
There is no need to pick a side in this. We don't need 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 put out a message that it is consumer friendly, and Game Pass has put some money where its mouth is, but by its own admission it is playing catch up in both sales and prestige. We would not be getting Halo Infinite day one for free with a cheap subscription if Xbox had the dominance Sony has enjoyed recently. It did not buy Activision Blizzard to share it with the world. However, it may consider sharing Call of Duty a reasonable sacrifice to appease Sony and the various watchdogs, especially as it would make money off all the in-game purchases on PlayStation, and would be able to offer Xbox players exclusives.
That, in turn, raises the issue of Sony's hypocrisy. Sony has long paid for special exclusive content in Call of Duty, trying to ensnare the same casual players it accuses Xbox of trying to steal. It has also just bought Bungie, the developers of Destiny (and the original Halo devs), and while Destiny won't be going exclusive, Sony is tasking Bungie with making exclusives in the future. That doesn't mean I necessarily want the Xbox deal to go through – I think the whole acquisition is bad news. I thought that the day it was announced, and my position has not changed. But I think it's bad news because conglomerates suffocate 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 has not been a factor to anybody – instead it's a fist fight over who can profit from the war simulator.
Sony is taking a major risk by objecting to this as well. It is banking entirely on being able to sell Call of Duty. Sony is undoubtedly in the lead with its own prestige studios pumping out the likes of God of War and The Last of Us, but Xbox is keen to catch up. If Call of Duty proves too big to be bought and the Activision Blizzard deal falls through, Xbox is left with $70 billion to spend and an appetite for acquisition. What next? The next likely stop may be Ubisoft, and Assassin's Creed would probably not have the same pushback as Call of Duty. That deal would not cost $70 billion, however. Multiple acquisitions would lead to more scrutiny, but could Xbox go after Sony's Japanese dominance by scooping up Capcom, Atlus, Bandai Namco, or the remains of Square Enix after Embracer pecked away the Western titles?
Again, I do not want that to happen. I would be no happier with Xbox owning Activision than I would Xbox owning Ubisoft and Atlus. I think too few companies own too many things. But Call of Duty being the major sticking point reveals how artless the soul of our industry is. I'm not naive to how much profit matters, but the endless fighting over who gets to own the apolitical-but-also-oorah-usa military shooter is exhausting. The acquisition could have far greater ramifications, but none of them cost Sony money, so nobody's going to care.
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