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Home News Pushing Buttons: Why the Microsoft-Activision Blizzard merger is a battle over the direction of video games

Pushing Buttons: Why the Microsoft-Activision Blizzard merger is a battle over the direction of video games

Photo by Pablo Arenas on Unsplash

All corporations are entitled brats. For decades, US- and UK-driven neoliberalism has empowered them to consider themselves legally equivalent to actual people, and deserving of privilege, ostensibly because they create wealth and jobs. They are used to holding sway over governments and authorities and when things don’t go their way, they throw a tantrum about it, in this case by threatening to withhold investment in the UK unless they get what they want.

Activision’s statement sounds downright retaliatory: “The report’s conclusions are a disservice to UK citizens, who face increasingly dire economic prospects. We will reassess our growth plans for the UK. Global innovators large and small will take note that – despite all its rhetoric – the UK is clearly closed for business.”

Microsoft president Brad Smith struck a similar tone, sounding absolutely furious. “It does more than shake our confidence in the future of the opportunity to grow a technology business in Britain than we’ve ever confronted before … People are shocked, people are disappointed, and people’s confidence in technology in the UK has been severely shaken. There’s a clear message here – the European Union is a more attractive place to start a business than the United Kingdom.”

I find this very amusing, because Smith (pictured above) is talking about a $70bn acquisition of one of the biggest companies in video games by one of the biggest companies in tech, not some plucky upstart. It’s about as far from starting a business as it is possible to get. And as a UK government spokesperson pointed out in response to Activision and Microsoft’s attacks, our tech sector is hardly ailing compared to Europe’s. Neither is our gaming sector. In this context, Microsoft and Activision’s words come across as empty, petty threats.

Right now, gaming mostly works as it has for decades: you buy a console, you buy games to play on it – whether physically or digitally. But it seems very likely that in the future, we will pay a subscription and play games on any screen available to us, with all the computational power offloaded onto servers far, far away, rather than a box under the TV. The end of home consoles. This has been technically possible for a while, but so far nobody has made it work as a business. (RIP, OnLive and Google Stadia.) But Microsoft has the best chance yet. Cloud gaming already works on Xbox – if you’re a Game Pass subscriber, you can play games without downloading them right now. The CMA’s conclusion is that owning Activision’s games would make Microsoft too powerful in this emerging market, which in another five-to-10 years could well be the dominant way that we play games.

Despite the setback, this deal may yet still go through. Microsoft and Activision can appeal, and they will (for more detail on the business side of things read Alex Hern’s TechScape newsletter from yesterday). While it’s still not in the clear with US or EU regulators, if one of those regulatory authorities approves the purchase, the others might feel more pressure to follow suit (although Japan doing just that didn’t sway the CMA).

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who writes for the Guardian, I am anti-corporate by instinct, and suspicious of attempts by any big tech companies to buy success in the video games world. This is a creative industry as much as a tech one, and history has repeatedly proven that corporate influence on the arts is rarely positive. Just look at the current writers’ strike in the US. My primary concern lies with the people working on games at these companies’ studios, and how their lives and creativity might be positively or negatively impacted by such a merger. But a deal this big has wider implications, too.

Despite decades in video games, the Xbox has never taken a lasting lead over Sony’s PlayStation; Xbox still does not have the consistent quality and instantly recognisable games that Sony and Nintendo have. This acquisition solves both of those problems for Xbox, and gives it an instant huge presence in the extremely profitable world of mobile games. With those problems solved, the CMA is right to be concerned about how Microsoft could then warp the future of games in ways that are difficult to foresee.

EA and Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Survivor came out last week, and our critic Rick Lane called it the best Star Wars game in 20 years. “It’s everything you want from a Star Wars adventure and a blockbuster video game: visually spectacular, mechanically sophisticated and riotously entertaining,” he wrote. The appeal for me is not so much the Jedi set-dressing as it is the adventurous combination of player-directed planetary exploration, flexible lightsaber combat and acrobatic wall-climbing – basically, I’m searching for the ideal combination of Tomb Raider and Metroid Prime, and if that arrives in the form of a Star Wars game, I’m here for it.

Available on: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S/X, PC
Approximate playtime:
25+ hours

Keza MacDonald’s weekly look at the world of gaming

after newsletter promotion

A warning for fellow Zelda fans: Tears of the Kingdom (pictured above) has lamentably leaked ahead of its 12 May release. Do your best to avoid the footage and information doing the rounds if you want the game to remain unspoiled.

I was rather moved by this Kotaku article on memorialising pets in Pokémon. The human-pet bond is perhaps the type of love that games capture best.

Alas, critical darling developer Arkane’s latest game is a bit of a stinker. Redfall, a multiplayer game about battling vampires on a Massachusets island, is sitting alongside Forspoken as one of the worst-reviewed big-budget games of the year, and when even games journalists don’t like an Arkane game, you know it’s not great. Redfall comes across as a clash between vision and execution: someone decided that Arkane had to make a multiplayer game, but what they’ve created never quite works – and perhaps, in the end, they were forced to release what they had.

Two hours with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom – a world of possibilities

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor review – the best Star Wars game in 20 years

Marvel Snap is the most positive addiction I’ve ever had | Dominik Diamond

This week’s question comes from reader Kenny:

Remasters, remakes and rereleases are indeed an excellent way to experience gaming’s classics, without the sometimes painful technical limitations that their developers were originally working with (and without scouring eBay for ancient pieces of gaming technology). (The Dark Souls: Remastered from 2018 is pictured above.)

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