In 2014, Microsoft purchased Minecraft’s developer Mojang for what appeared, on the time, an eye-popping determine: $2.5bn (£1.8bn). It was the primary in a collection of bullish video-game studio acquisitions by the tech large, whose video games division has been led by government Phil Spencer, a long-time advocate for video video games inside Microsoft and the broader enterprise world, for the previous eight years. Extra studios adopted, for undisclosed quantities: beloved Californian comedy-game artists Double Superb, UK studio Ninja Principle, RPG specialists Obsidian Leisure. It appeared that below Spencer’s management, Microsoft was cementing its dedication to the Xbox console and the video-games enterprise by investing in what makes video games nice: the individuals who make them.
Then got here 2020’s deal to amass Zenimax (and with it Bethesda), for a correctly astonishing $7.5bn. This was completely different. This wasn’t the Xbox division buying studios to make video games for its consoles. This was a whole writer, with a number of completely different studios and an entire portfolio of widespread sport collection. At this level Microsoft’s spending began to appear to be a monopoly transfer – a bid to stitch up the market by closing off vastly widespread video games behind Microsoft’s personal consoles and companies. When it was confirmed that Bethesda’s forthcoming video games, together with this 12 months’s area role-playing epic Starfield and the subsequent fantasy Elder Scrolls sport, can be unique to Xbox and Microsoft Recreation Move, I began to wonder if Microsoft’s acknowledged goal to make video video games extra extensively obtainable to everybody was lining up with its actions out there.
However Zenimax is nothing in contrast with this week’s information that Microsoft is shopping for Activision Blizzard, for practically $70bn. This newest acquisition – the most important in video-game historical past by some margin, greater than 17 instances what Disney paid for Marvel – exhibits past doubt that Microsoft is extraordinarily dedicated to dominating the video-game market, now and sooner or later. Its primary competitor Sony has an distinctive secure of gifted builders making video games for its PlayStation 5 console – the most recent of which, Insomniac Games, was purchased in 2019 for “simply” $299m. Although Microsoft hasn’t launched actual gross sales numbers for its newer Xbox consoles, it is extensively thought that the PlayStation has outsold them by a major margin.
However with out Name of Responsibility, only one of many huge video games properties that Microsoft now owns, PlayStation is left much more reliant by itself studios to create video games that individuals wish to play. If all of Activision Blizzard’s video games quickly grow to be Xbox and PC unique, as Bethesda’s now are, it’s going to rework the console market, creating much more of a monopolistic surroundings. Proper now, with Nintendo, there are solely three large gamers in video games consoles. Do we actually need that to grow to be two, or one? What would that imply for video games, and the individuals who make and play them? It’s potential that studios shall be largely left alone to create what they need, and that the inventive range of video games gained’t be affected too badly. However one firm then lotions off a big proportion of all of the earnings.
This is sufficient by itself to trigger an enormous stir in gaming, however it’s additionally solely a slim slice of what this deal means. When it goes by way of, Microsoft may also personal King, creators of Sweet Crush and several other extra of the preferred cell video games on this planet. It would personal World of Warcraft, one of the oldest and most beloved digital worlds. It places one firm in cost of an infinite slice of individuals’s leisure money and time, the world over. Going by Phil Spencer’s previous feedback, Sony and PlayStation aren’t the one competitors Microsoft is excited about – it’s all video games, all of the digital locations the place individuals spend their money and time, from Fortnite to Roblox. This is why the phrase “metaverse” is being thrown round by executives. It’s about greater than Xbox v PlayStation.
What Microsoft needs is to be the place everybody goes to play video games, of all types. Via its Recreation Move service it has laid the foundations for it to grow to be the Netflix of gaming, the hub for all content material. However the place Netflix has moneyed rivals in Disney, Apple and Amazon, no different firm in gaming can compete with Microsoft. Even Nintendo, the longest working and best-resourced firm in gaming, doesn’t have $70bn to throw round. (Its whole battle chest quantities to $9bn.) What’s taking place right here is akin to what occurs when oil billionaires rock as much as the Premier League, purchase a workforce, and pack it with the perfect gamers. It is not a degree taking part in discipline.
Tech firms have, traditionally, by no means been in a position to purchase their option to success within the video-game trade. Amazon has failed. Google has failed. Apple has solely ever dipped a pinky into the waters. Microsoft itself has made a number of large errors on this entrance up to now, shopping for up builders equivalent to Lionhead solely to shutter them later. The very fact is that video games are usually not tech merchandise; they don’t seem to be telephones, which get incrementally higher annually, or software program, or companies. They’re leisure; they’re artwork. Know-how is what permits video games, what creates them, however it is not what they’re.
Microsoft sees video games as content material. It appears not a lot desirous about creating video games – or promoting consoles – as proudly owning the place and the way we play them.