After gobbling up Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, and more, Microsoft has just become the future owner of Call of Duty, Diablo, Overwatch, and Warcraft. Xbox boss Phil Spencer’s consolidation of game studios is starting to look a bit like the film industry freeze that led to Disney’s simultaneous takeover of Marvel, Star Wars and Avatar. James Cameron, his crown jewel.
For now, I’d put my feelings about Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard somewhere on par with the discovery that Purina Dog Chow and Cheerios are both made by Nestlé: a slight unease that turns into resignation. It’s true that Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel movies feel basically the same, but is that a consequence of Disney ownership, or a consequence of them being the kind of massive mass-market phenomena that only a mass market company like Disney could own? It’s hard to worry that Spencer is somehow violating the sanctity of Call of Duty and Overwatch in a way that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick wouldn’t. Would Cheerios be better if General Mills made them?
The amount of PC gaming heritage and game development power that Microsoft now possesses presents some concern. There’s a danger that decisions from the top at Microsoft will now be so overrepresented in PC gaming that they push it in directions we won’t necessarily like, subtly homogenizing the whole scene. What kind of post-release monetization schemes will Microsoft prefer, for example? Will he have a different attitude about WoW addons?
Again, though, I don’t want to overreact. It’s not like Activision Blizzard is on a lunar course right now. I don’t think even World of Warcraft diehards would claim it’s in its prime, and Call of Duty’s big hit Warzone was a second attempt (after Blackout’s Battle Royale mode Blackout Ops 4) to follow a trend someone else started years earlier. Nobody knows what the next big thing is, and against competitors like Riot, Epic, EA, newcomers like Amazon, which now has its own hit MMO in New World, and indie developers and modders who will continue to offer wildly new and exciting concepts, Microsoft is going to have to manage its acquisition well to make it worth the $69 billion it’s paying.
Which finally brings me to my point: what makes PC gaming special – the reason it has a name in the age of cross-platform everything – is that it takes place on an open platform, where anyone can publish software without approval or license. It’s what makes it different from Xbox, PlayStation or iPhone games, and what ensures that revolutions can always brew in the shadow of mass-market giants like Microsoft – weird and surprising games and trends that surprise everybody.
The newest of these is still Battle Royale, which started as a mod on one of the most open and flexible PC games: Arma. (And there was also a Minecraft mod, for the record.) It’s a safe bet that the next genre phenomenon will be born from fertile ground like this, where experimentation and free distribution are possible. It’s not just battle royale: many of the world’s other biggest games, genres and esports started out as mods.
What’s really important to me, then, is not who owns Blizzard, but that the PC remains an open platform. Microsoft also happens to own the operating system that most PC gamers use, so, okay, I guess it makes sense to be a bit worried about its growing power, especially since Microsoft has been known to threaten the openness of Windows in the past.
Valve boss Gabe Newell, himself a former Microsoft employee, called Windows 8 “a disaster for everyone in the PC space” because it mimicked aspects of Apple’s closed iOS ecosystem. Valve’s relationship with Microsoft has improved since then, but that hasn’t stopped Gabe and his company from building an ark on which to pile Steam’s library if needed: Linux-based SteamOS, which will feature on the new handheld. Steam Deck.
Today, Microsoft seems to have abandoned its old vision of PC gaming on Windows as something to be restricted and controlled, like with Games for Windows Live, another famous disaster, or the UWP architecture. Instead, Spencer focused on games: making them, buying them, and selling access to them for $10 a month on Game Pass, which now has 25 million subscribers.
It’s really hard to say no to Game Pass, even if it seems like a bad omen for our already diminishing sense of game ownership, and it gets a little harder to resist with every studio Microsoft adds to its collection. I worry about a future in which “Xbox” becomes a totally unified console and PC experience that ignores all the special qualities of our favorite platform. Microsoft at least adjusted Game Pass recently to make certain game files accessible for modding, but I’m not terribly optimistic about its deep love for that aspect of PC gaming culture.
The rise of subscription services in general (EA has one, Ubisoft has one) poses other chilling questions: If subscriptions become the norm, how will developers get paid? By the number of people who launch their game? By hours played? What could this do to game design? What will this mean for niche indie developers?
Even Spencer doesn’t see buying pay-per-view games going away, so I’m taking a bit of a head start here, but the massive adoption of the “Netflix for games” model at the expense of others represents a “soft” way PC openness could be threatened, and that’s a popular view. Google also wants to be Netflix for games, although it was too hard on cloud streaming too soon, and unlike Microsoft, doesn’t have a stack of games to offer. Netflix would also love to be Netflix for Games, which is fair enough, although it will take some time to build a library of games that matters as well.
The big story for me is that everyone wants a piece of PC gaming, including every publisher complaining about piracy in 2010. Even Sony has realized that the future of gaming isn’t a more powerful box in which stuff the vocals of Nolan North and Troy Baker. Open platforms like Windows, Linux, and Android are where the big experiments are happening right now.
I don’t know which of these experiences has a future – cloud streaming, subscriptions, VR, AR, Steam Deck, regular video games like the ones Microsoft just bought, Tim Sweeney’s Plasma Ball – but I’m still watching for anything that might encroaching on the openness that defines PC gaming for me. At the moment, I don’t think a somewhat creaky games company being taken over by a slightly older, more powerful software company is too much of a concern. Who said Call of Duty would even matter 10 years from now? It doesn’t seem like a given.
I could be wrong. It’s hard to predict what’s next, especially with all those NFT emails cluttering my inbox. I may have missed something important, but the worst case scenario is that if Microsoft or anyone else finds a way to shut down PC gaming as we know it to the point that it doesn’t isn’t really about PC gaming anymore, we’ll have to look for it elsewhere. On Linux with Gabe, maybe, or on TI-89 graphing calculators. I’m sure we’ll find a way.