Microsoft decided to get a head start on what may end up the biggest gaming news of the year with today's announcement that the Xbox platform holder is acquiring Activision Blizzard for around $70 billion.
That means that the big green brand known for the chrome and gun-steel fantasies of Gears of War and Halo now owns cuddly former Sony exclusives like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, not to mention Call of Duty, Diablo, and dozens of other big names you haven't thought about in years.
Dollars and sense — On paper, the idea that Microsoft would drop the gross domestic product of a mid-sized country on acquiring one of the biggest (and most scandal-plagued) gaming corporations in the universe is a bit surprising. However, when you consider the long-term trajectories of the two companies, the deal makes an unfortunate kind of sense — the kind of sense that reifies what may be a grim future for the video game industry as a whole.
Over the past six months, Activision Blizzard stock price slipped from around $100 in June to a low of $60 just a few weeks ago in December. (After news of this deal broke, it rebounded.) A labor misconduct lawsuit filed by a California state regulatory agency led to a veritable rockslide of scandals for the company, revealing it to be a toxic workplace of the first order. A chronicle of mismanagement ensued, complete with walkouts, quiet settlements, controversial layoffs, and calls for CEO Bobby Kotick to resign.
What we've wrought — Given this recent history, it's tempting to say that Microsoft has swooped in and capitalized on a weak moment for one of the titans of the gaming industry. From another perspective, however, you might even call it a bailout — especially since it seems that Kotick will manage the company through the transition, and then ride into the sunset on a horse made entirely of money. (Or perhaps he'll stay on as CEO of Activision Blizzard; it's not clear yet.)
Overall, the deal boils down to simple priorities: Microsoft is trying to build the Netflix of gaming in the form of Xbox Game Pass, and Activision Blizzard has a lot of big names to shore up the library. Over the past few years, the top-end of gaming has become more and more dominated by major platform holders, with the Fortnite-powered juggernaut Epic Games buying up studios to compete with the likes of Steam. And let's not forget that Microsoft bought Bethesda last year, so the company has clearly been in a hungry mood recently.
Exclusivity never went away — This deal should be understood as the apotheosis of almost every existing trend at the top end of the gaming space: away from traditional games ownership, towards subscription services; away from all games for all platforms, and towards exclusivity; and most of all, away from competition, and towards conglomeration.
The fact that Microsoft executives and journalists alike are calling the deal a "bet on the metaverse" just shows how companies feel the need to shove buzzwords into any big deal in order to justify the high price tag. There's very little here that points to some bold new future vision for gaming where we're all wearing VR headsets and "jacking in" to Microsoft Powerpoint to make our dumb slideshows for our 9 to 5. The concept of a "Netflix for gaming" is decades-old at this point, and Microsoft is just the first company with deep enough pockets (and a bold enough plan) to make it viable. It's hardly novel.
Welcome to the retroverse — Instead, this newly-formed video game Death Star is the exact gaming future that the analysts of 2015 would have predicted. The only truly surprising thing about this deal — other than the sheer mind-bending scale of it — is how far Activision Blizzard fell in just six months to make such an acquisition possible.
For those of us who want an excuse to revisit the nostalgic bosom of Crash Bandicoot: Warped and the inevitable Blinx the Time Sweeper reboot for one low monthly fee, this is convenient news. For the rest of us, it's exactly the video game hell we've expected to inhabit for quite a while now — but at least we might get a good Smash Bros. clone out of it.