I had a different post planned for today, but then Microsoft dropped a bombshell that will no doubt reverberate through fandoms for decades to come:
They bought Activision-Blizzard for 68.7 billion dollars. That’s billion, with a ‘b’. Aside from the stupid amounts of money involved, this buy-out (to be completed by the end of Microsoft’s 2023 year, according to Bobby Kotick himself, as seen here) has wide-ranging effects on the game industry, some negative, some positive.
But mostly negative.
Let’s start with the obvious: in July 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision-Blizzard detailing behaviour that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dilbert cartoon. Or maybe in something Garth Ennis. You can read the whole sordid mess here.
Now, I dropped out of the Blizzard fandom a long time ago (and I was never much of an Activision fan; all the games of theirs I liked were developed by different studios and merely published by Activision. Most of them were screwed over, too), and all this did was convince me that was the right decision. And horrify me, of course.
But, clearly, Activision-Blizzard’s scandal had greater effects on the wider industry. Players like Nintendo of America’s Doug Bowser, Playstation’s Jim Ryan and Xbox’s own Phil Spencer all expressed horror and revulsion at Activision-Blizzard’s actions and committed to reevaluating their relationship with the toxic company. Those responses can be read here: Bowser, Ryan and Spencer. Of course, little did we know that one of these gentlemen had both the resources and chutzpah to… correct Activision-Blizzard, forcibly if they had to.
A-B wasn’t idle while their world burned down around them, of course. They released one of the most mealy-mouthed, butt-covering statements I’ve ever read, and my Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau. You can read it here, near the bottom. But this attempt at damage control, woefully inadequate in any circumstance, was undermined by accusations by The Wall Street Journal:
Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision-Blizzard, knew all about his company’s corrupt, sexist culture and did nothing about it for decades.
For what it’s worth, I believe WSJ. Rot starts from the top, and Bobby Kotick has been at the top of A-B for a long time. There is no way he didn’t know about his company’s awful behaviour, and was likely involved in some of it.
Although a walk-out was probably planned for a while, the allegations in WSJ were definitely the trigger. And can you blame them? Management has been abusing video game employees for a long time, with crunch being the current buzzword but only the tip of the iceberg. That alone would be enough to stage a walkout, but the particular abuses of A-B was the dump truck of straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now, something that confused every observer on the planet was why did A-B’s board of directors keep Bobby Kotick on? Kotick was a disease, single-handedly driving the company’s stock down with his arrogance and stupidity?
Last week, Phil Spencer provided the answer.
Phil Spencer, Warchief of Xbox
Phil Spencer is a snake. A cunning, patient predator with long-term plans, he has swiftly overturned Xbox’s reputation from the disaster that was Xbox One. He did it by mostly pretending to be a good guy, saying all the things gamers want to hear and downplaying the Console War’s toxicity.
Last week, Spencer revealed his true colours.
Oh, I don’t think Spencer is entirely insincere. But his primary motivation is definitely expanding Microsoft’s market share against competitors like Sony, Amazon and Google. That’s why he went after Activision-Blizzard; to grab IP’s like Call of Duty out from under Sony.
And so as long as Spencer was negotiating for A-B, the board wasn’t going to dump Kotick. For practical purposes, if nothing else: ditching your chief negotiator in the middle of high stake negotiations is a daft thing to do. Plus, Kotick was about to make them all rich (although, funny enough, Kotick was allegedly opposed to the buy-out).
WSJ figures Kotick will be out as soon as the deal closes, and that makes a lot of sense. He’s already made all his cronies rich, he’s made himself richer, and he’s old and close to retirement anyway. Plus, I don’t think Spencer likes Kotick much. The two men have very different styles and goals: Spencer, while undeniably a villain in the overall video game space, is hell bent on building a more inclusive, less toxic gaming space. It’s just, you know, he does it by buying everybody else out.
Kotick, on the other hand, is indirectly culpable for the suicide of one of his employees.
Technically, strictly speaking, Microsoft buying A-B isn’t monopolization. It’s something called ‘vertical integration’, as explained here. And, I gotta say, ‘vertical integration’ sounds a lot like monopolization to me.
And whatever you want to call it, ‘vertical integration’, ‘corporate consolidation’ or monopolization, it’s incredibly unhealthy for the video game industry. As more and more IP’s fall into fewer and fewer hands, competition and artistic drive will dry up. Unionization efforts, probably a necessity for the industry to survive at this point, will start running into serious complications as large and powerful companies like Microsoft union bust.
Now, me, I’m a Nintendo player. Oh sure, I play some games on PC (Warhammer 3 in a month!), but I play Nintendo games. I’ve been playing Nintendo games since the SNES, and it is with Nintendo I’ll stay until I die or Nintendo goes bankrupt. All other consoles are, to me, side consoles.
So this acquisition doesn’t hurt me much, personally. But I fear a future where, in order to survive, Nintendo is forced to buy up as many third-party developers as it can. I fear a future where the only choices in gaming are Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft; no truly third-party developers left.
Phil Spencer is okay with that future; I’m not.