An essay on why the upcoming war of acquisition could spell the end for originality and creative freedom within the gaming industry
The Acquisition War is brewing.
With every month that passes, we are seeing more and more examples of big corporations in the gaming industry gobbling up previously independent videogame development studios. Whilst these development may initially seem exciting to those engaged in the console war, it could end up having a detrimental effect on the gaming industry as a whole.
The intervals between these acquisition plans being announced is also seemingly decreasing with every new deal that is announced. At the time of writing, we are only a month into 2022 and already we have seen the announcement of three significant deals across the gaming marketplace. This is leading many industry analysts to predict that an all-out acquisition war is imminent. Rather than wondering whether or not more consolidation is on the horizon, the discussion has now become; who will be next?
Before we break down the implications of the deals announced in 2022 thus far, we need to look back to see where this trend began.
The year is 2017. The idea of a war of acquisition is non-existent, although it is abundantly clear to anyone remotely interested in gaming that Microsoft are dead last in the first-party IP race. Both Sony and Nintendo are cakewalking the console war and it is obvious that serious course correction is needed in order for the Xbox console to survive. By the end of 2017, Lionhead and Press Play studios are both shut down, two of Xbox’s internal teams.
E3 2018 rolls around and all eyes are on the Microsoft conference. The new consoles are expected to drop in a couple of short years and yet, it doesn’t seem like there is much to look forward to from Microsoft on the software front. Platinum Games’ long-in-development new exclusive IP Scalebound has been cancelled and all hope seems lost.
Then, Phil Spencer walks out onto the E3 stage and concerned Xbox gamers are able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Xbox announce that they have managed to broker five deals to acquire some extremely talented studios; Undead Labs, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games and The Initiative.
This was one of the first major public displays which signalled that the Xbox ship was being steered away from the oncoming rocks. It felt like the company was vindicating the gamers across the globe who had invested their hard-earned cash into this console. The only opinions being voiced online were those of positivity, thanking Microsoft for showing resilience and persistence in the face of near-certain defeat. As of February the following year, Xbox Game Studios had a total of 13 studios under its banner.
Fast forwarding a little to September 2020, just a couple of months before the current-generation consoles were released, Microsoft drop the bombshell that they have struck a deal to acquire Zenimax Media. This meant that Microsoft would now own studios such as; Bethesda, id Software, Arkane Studios and Tango Gameworks.
This would also inevitably mean that the future of franchises such as Fallout, Doom, Dishonored, Wolfenstein, Deathloop, Starfield and Elder Scrolls would be questionable for those on Sony platforms. With hotly anticipated titles such as Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI coming in hot, Playstation gamers were becoming concerned that they may not get to experience them.
That said, outside of some anxious Playstation fans, the gaming community seemed to welcome this announcement. The hype of Xbox and PC gamers was fuelled by the news and personally, I applauded the power move being taken by a company who were on the brink of an embarrassing loss just a couple of years prior.
By March 2021, the deal was finalised and Microsoft had officially acquired Zenimax Media. In June of the same year, a trailer for Starfield was dropped confirming that the title would be exclusive to PC and Xbox consoles and a release date of the 11th of November 2022 was given.
In November 2021, Phil Spencer revealed in an interview with CQ, that he believed the Xbox ecosystem was the best place for all of the franchises in the studio’s repertoire, including The Elder Scrolls VI. This all but confirmed that the next title in the Elder Scrolls franchise would be exclusive to Xbox.
“It’s not about punishing any other platform, like I fundamentally believe all of the platforms can continue to grow,” Spencer told GQ. “But in order to be on Xbox, I want us to be able to bring the full complete package of what we have. And that would be true when I think about Elder Scrolls VI. That would be true when I think about any of our franchises.”Phil Spencer
We are almost up to date, however there is still a lot to cover. This is because January 2022 was a record month in terms of mergers and acquisitions across the videogame industry. If The Acquisition War was The Bible, then this period would be Genesis.
The first deal of the month took place on the 10th of January and saw Take-Two announce that they would be acquiring mobile development studio Zynga for $12.7 billion dollars. At the time, it marked the largest acquisition deal in the history of the gaming industry.
It didn’t take long at all for this record to be shattered.
Just over a week later, on the 18th of January, it was announced that Microsoft struck a deal to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion dollars. This meant that Microsoft had just added some highly sought-after IP to their roster, such as; Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, Call of Duty and Candy Crush.
The deal is expected to be finalised sometime in 2023, though it has since been revealed that FTC will be reviewing the momentous deal before it gets the green light to go ahead.
As if that wasn’t enough, just a couple of days ago on January 31st, Sony announced that they had made a deal to acquire Destiny developers, Bungie for $3.6 billion dollars. Although, it was confirmed that the Desiny franchise will continue to be available for players on other platforms besides Playstation to experience.
The Acquisition War is heating up and we are finally up to date.
The point of reiterating all of that information was to exemplify just how much the frequency of these huge buyout deals has increased over the last few years. This trend shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, as has been reiterated by multiple analysts across the gaming industry.
Senior analyst for the Middle East, North Africa and Asia at market intelligence company Niko Partners; Daniel Ahmad, had this to say about the sheer amount of money that changed hands between major players in the videogame market in January 2022:
“These three deals alone surpass the 2021 M&A deal value of $85bn, which had already been an annual record.”Daniel Ahmad
This is a fascinating statistic to consider and really epitomises the exponential growth of the acquisition of videogame development studios. He went on to say that he does not see any reason that we won’t continue to see deals of this nature and magnitude be announced;
“Technology and media companies in particular are viewing the game publisher and developer companies to have valuable IP, talent and content. This leads us to consider not ‘Will there be another acquisition?’ but rather ‘Who is next?'”Daniel Ahmad
So the question now is; will this have a negative effect on the videogame market as a whole?
As much as I appreciated the boldness of Microsoft purchasing Zenimax back in 2020, I was quietly concerned that the deal could set a precedent for an all-out acquisition war to take place within the gaming industry.
And as of right now, two years on from that deal being announced publicly and numerous acquisitions later, it looks as though those concerns are coming closer and closer to fruition. Specifically, the sheer enormity of the Activision Blizzard deal comes across as a dire escalation of Microsoft’s previously laid plans. An escalation that could potentially mark a serious turning point in the wider videogame industry, bringing with it negative consequences for both consumers and smaller developers alike.
Thus far, the gaming audience’s reaction to the acquisition has been somewhat mixed. This uncertain reaction actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the factors involved in the deal. First off; Activision Blizzard’s sheer enormity is nothing less than daunting, meaning that this purchase represents more than just money and clout. When you consider that this single deal outweighs all of Microsoft’s previous videogame acquisitions combined, you realise that this deal also sends a message to the rest of the industry.
Secondly, there is of course the black cloud which still hangs over Activision Blizzard due to the ongoing multitude of sexual harassment investigations within the studio. This isn’t something that can just be swept under the rug because some big company happened to buy out the studio and nor should it be. That black mark against the company name will rightfully remain until justice is served.
We have mentioned Microsoft’s past acquisitions and it should be noted that all of those other deals went down a treat with the Xbox audience. Which means that this is in fact the first time that Microsoft have received an inconsistent response to news of an acquisition, rather than a purely positive response. This is mainly due to the fact that this is more than merely a standard transaction between two companies, it is in fact the most obvious signal yet that we are headed into the jaws of the era of consolidation within the videogame industry.
At this point, I probably sound like somewhat of a cynical doomsayer, just putting a negative spin on this situation for the sake of it. Allow me to tell you why an acquisition war could spell disaster for gaming fans and game developers alike.
The first reason that the idea of consolidation within the gaming industry bothers me so much is based on prior experience. Are you able to give an example of better quality titles emerging as a direct result of a massive merger or acquisition? I am genuinely asking as whilst I can not think of one and I would like to be proven wrong given the current forecast.
The second reason is to do with console exclusivity. Exclusivity is something that I have written about in the past and it is a concept that I do have an innate issue with. This is because I believe that all creative stories should be available to experience by everyone, regardless of which console you happen to own. That said, I also understand that exclusives are a necessary evil within the marketplace and help to push competition and creativity.
Exclusivity deals have been the main source of competition within the games industry for years at this point. Those lucrative pacts in turn, allow independent studios to champion their titles without needing to feel an obligation to any particular platform holder.
The comments made by Phil Spencer in the wake of the deal being announced make it pretty obvious that Xbox are aiming to make a number of their franchises exclusive to Microsoft devices. Once this $69 billion dollar deal is finalised Activision Blizzard games will qualify as Microsoft franchises and a future of exclusivity could be on the cards for them.
“Activision Blizzard games are enjoyed on a variety of platforms and we plan to continue to support those communities moving forward.”Phil Spencer
At first glance, that comment may read as a relief, alleviating concerns that franchises like Call Of Duty will only be available to players on Xbox or PC. That is until you compare it to the initial messaging from Todd Howard in the aftermath of the Zenimax acquisition regarding Elder Scrolls VI, a title that we now know will be a Microsoft exclusive.
“I would agree that is hard to imagine, [despite the power Microsoft now has over Bethesda, it could restrict The Elder Scrolls 6, for example, to its own platforms.]”Todd Howard
As an independent third-party studio, Activision Blizzard have always had the power to negotiate with platform holders in order to get their titles onto the consoles that they want their games to be available on. Barring some minor console-exclusive DLC, generally speaking over the years, this practice has helped Activision Blizzard to ensure that their games can reach millions of players across multiple platforms.
Things begin to change when one of the platform holders suddenly also becomes one the largest publishers across the gaming landscape. All of a sudden, the table is tilted, the game seems rigged and the script is completely flipped and thrown out.
In order to illustrate why this is the case, let’s take the example of Call Of Duty; a hugely successful FPS owned by Activision, released every year in annual instalments and up until now, available to play on any given platform.
The COD franchise is 19 years old at the time of writing and during its tenure as the premium FPS war game, Activision have shifted their loyalty between Microsoft and Sony. One year, Xbox players would get the early access online maps and the next, it would be Playstation gamers getting to experience an exclusive skin or game mode.
Regardless of what has been going on in the wider, ‘console war,’ or in the industry as a whole, Activision have always retained the right to distribute their game in whatever way they see fit. They had the power to choose which side would benefit most from the fruits of their labour, without any pettiness or bad blood clouding their judgement.
Following on from this most recent Microsoft acquisition, this negotiation may as well be non-existent. As the now proud owner of the biggest war shooter franchise in the world, why the hell would Microsoft allow Sony players any benefits in terms of bonus content? Hell, if they so wished, they could tell Sony to screw off altogether and simply keep the franchise exclusive to Xbox and Windows systems.
And this is only one franchise we are discussing. When you combine all of the bonus DLC that will inevitably be stripped from other huge cross-platform franchises, (if they indeed remain available across multiple platforms,) it is a staggering amount of content lost to the aqcuisition war.
Of course, Microsoft are far from the only company guilty of shepherding in this studio-hoarding war of acquisition. Across 2021, Sony picked up a total of five new first party studios; Housemarque, Nixxes, Firesprite, Bluepoint and Valkyrie Entertainment. As mentioned earlier, they added their 17th internal studio in January 2022 when they purchased Bungie.
Although many have questioned why Sony shelled out a whopping $3.6 billion dollars to takeover a studio who have one single known IP to their name, it starts to make a bit more sense when you consider that Sony don’t really have any first-party FPS titles under their belt.
In my previous entry in the A Gander @ Gaming series, dropped on the week prior to the Playstation Showcase event, I wrote about how Sony needed to give us a reason to hunt down a PS5 in the form of appealing exclusive games. Although the Showcase did bring with it a few attractive-looking exclusive titles, a few more of those wouldn’t go amiss. Hopefully, Bungie will be able to produce that for the Japanese platform holder.
The original rumour was that Sony were looking to purchase EA, meaning that they would have acquired a plethora of franchises. The Bungie purchase, – whilst still significant, – is not on the same scale, as Bungie is only one studio with a single major IP to its name.
Although Sony’s purchase of Bungie pales in comparison to Microsoft acquiring Activision Blizzard, the two deals together combine to manifest what feels like a major push into an era of significant consolidation within the videogame marketplace. I would bet my house on the fact that that we will see more acquisitions from Microsoft, Sony and other major names in gaming before too long and the scale of these deals and the size of the companies involved will likely only become more significant over time.
In the short-term, the most likely casualty of this upcoming acquisition war will likely be the death of major exclusivity deals on consoles. That said, the long-term effects could be even more unsettling. If a small amount of massive studios are able to control a sizeable amount of the development pipeline, it could bring about a certain amount of sameness across the market. This would likely kill off any originality and innovation left in the industry, as even the non first-party developers would likely also conform to the greedy, corporate, money-making formula surrounding them.
Even though the big corporations and platform holder will still inevitably tout; “creative freedom amongst their respective teams,” in all likelihood, statements like this will in fact become nothing more than buzzwords used to garner higher sales.
How can there ever be true “creative freedom,” within various acquired studios, when all of them will use the same QA testing procedures, similar budget agreements, indistinguishable marketing strategies and a near-identical management style?
Regardless of how often we are told that these are studios ran independently from one another, we know that the truth is that they are all ran by the same bosses with the same goals in mind; turn a profit. This sole perspective can result in nothing else other than a repetitive, stale, unoriginal output.
This most recent slew of acquisitions signifies an escalation of the exclusivity game-plan and will bring about a new style of how business is conducted within the industry. For better or worse, you can guarantee that for the entirety of the next generation of gaming, consolidation will be key to getting a leg up on your competitor.
What do you make of the situation regarding the upcoming acquisition war? Are you as pessimistic as I am, or do you hold out some hope that creativity and originality will stick around? Who do you think will be the next company to be gobbled up? Do you think there is a chance that the acquisition war won’t be as game-changing as we are anticipating?
Let us know down in the comments section below and if you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the imminent war of acquisition within the gaming industry, be sure to check out my piece on the dangers of putting blind faith into a game you know very little about here.
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