Sony Group Corp.’s PlayStation division is planning a new subscription service to compete with rival Microsoft Corp.’s popular Xbox Game Pass, according to people familiar with Sony’s plans and documents reviewed by Bloomberg.
The service, code-named Spartacus, will allow PlayStation owners to pay a monthly fee for access to a catalog of modern and classic games, said the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press about the plans. The offering will likely be available on the smash hit PlayStation 4, which has sold more than 116 million units, and its elusive successor, the PlayStation 5, which launched more than a year ago but is still difficult to buy due to supply chain issues.
Microsoft buys Activision Blizzard: with the video game industry under new management, what's going to change? – The Conversation AU
In 1979, a group of disgruntled Atari employees decided to quit and create their own company. Activision was the world’s first “third-party” game development company, producing and publishing titles for other companies’ platforms.
Fast-forward 43 years and the company that is now Activision Blizzard has been bought by one of the major platform owners in the industry, Microsoft, for a blistering US$68.7 billion dollars (around A$95.6 billion) – the largest sale in the history of the video game industry.
This sale is also massive in terms of the game franchises Microsoft now has control over; it now owns blockbuster franchises such as Call of Duty, Diablo, Starcraft, Candy Crush and World of Warcraft. And tens of millions of fans of these titles will now be wondering: what does this change in ownership mean for them?
Big dollar acquisitions aren’t new in the video game industry. Activision Blizzard itself became one of the largest video game companies in 2008, when Activision merged with Blizzard in a US$18.9 billion dollar deal. Microsoft and Sony regularly buy successful pre-existing development studios to take over their intellectual properties (IP) and make them available exclusively on their platforms.
But Microsoft has become particularly aggressive in its approach. In the last decade alone it has made a number of high-profile purchases, including Minecraft developer Mojang in 2014 for US$2.5 billion, and Elder Scrolls and Doom publisher ZeniMax in 2020 for US$7.5 billion. With the Activision Blizzard acquisition, Microsoft is now the third-largest company in the industry, behind TenCent and Sony.
This is all part of Microsoft’s current video game business strategy, which is less about selling game products and more about increasing subscriptions to its Game Pass service. Similar to services like Netflix and Spotify, Game Pass gives subscribers access to a massive digital catalogue of games in exchange for a monthly fee.
In its announcement of the Activision Blizzard purchase, Microsoft also boasted Game Pass has surpassed 25 million users. With each user paying US$16 a month, that’s about US$400 million (or A$556 million) in monthly revenue.
With Activision Blizzard, Microsoft now owns a huge new range of franchises it can make available through Game Pass, attracting even more users.
If it wanted, Microsoft might even make these franchises only available through Game Pass, forcing customers away from other consoles like PlayStation and distribution platforms like Steam. In other words, it could pull consumers into its own exclusive sphere.
This is now a common strategy. Now, through subscription-based digital platforms, we have all stopped being owners of product and instead have become renters.
This is also true of individual video games. Call of Duty, Hearthstone, Fortnite (and many others) are no longer games that players purchase once, but are instead their own ecosystems in which players are encouraged to continuously spend money on battle passes, cosmetics and access to new content.
Meanwhile, the companies that own these titles can constantly farm new data from their millions of players, further increasing their company value.
With the purchase of Activision Blizzard, Microsoft has effectively purchased a city of existing renters in the player ecosystems of Call of Duty, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and many other titles.
That’s tens of millions of players already committed to closed ecosystems, including many in the difficult-to-penetrate Chinese market playing Blizzard titles Hearthstone and World of Warcraft. All of these players can be farmed for more personal data and more rent.
So what does it mean for players and developers?
In the short term, probably not a whole lot.
Over the coming years, however, Microsoft might decide to keep more of these newly acquired franchises for its own platforms. For a PC player, this might simply mean having to transition away from Steam to the Microsoft Game Store if they want to access the franchises: an inconvenience, but hardly a radical change.
For PlayStation and Mac players, the situation could be more dire, and they might find themselves having to purchase a PC or an Xbox if they want to play new entries to these franchises in the future.
Some are also worried ongoing giant mergers will stifle creativity and innovation across the video game industry. But this is unlikely since the bulk of the revenue generated by the industry has always been concentrated in a relatively small number of risk-adverse companies.
In her book Global Games, researcher Aphra Kerr estimated that in 2015, the top ten video game companies accounted for 49% of the entire industry’s revenue. In spite of this concentration of capital, the creativity and innovation that produces new genres almost always emerges at the periphery, in much smaller, independent groups working with far fewer resources.
The explosion of new and diverse genres we’ve seen over the past decade occurred, in large part, because independent creators are now able to access far more powerful tools, such as game engines Unity and Unreal, and greater audiences through digital marketplaces, such as Steam or Xbox Game Pass.
The situation is far from ideal, but the companies that control most of the capital in the video game industry – and the companies that are the most innovative – have rarely been the same. So this latest acquisition is unlikely to stifle creativity.
But there’s more at stake in this historic sale. Activision Blizzard is facing accusations and lawsuits of harassment, abuse and sexism across its offices, and CEO Bobby Kotick has been under intense pressure to resign for months. Kotick is now set to walk away from the company with US$400 million; the allegations of a toxic workplace are now Microsoft’s responsibility to clean up.
Perhaps this is the important question coming out of the recent sale: not which piece of hardware will have access to which games, but whether Microsoft will take responsibility for improving the work culture and working conditions for game developers? We’ll have to wait and see.
Raven Software ends QA strike action in light of unionisation – Eurogamer.net
“Appreciate all the community support throughout the strike!”
Raven Software’s QA team has ended its strike action.
As Matt helpfully summarised for us a couple of days back, the strike began when around a third of the QA team was laid off back in December. The firings – coming after a five-week period of overtime and anticipated end-of-year crunch – occurred despite Activision allegedly promising the team it was working on a pay restructure to increase wages.
Now quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard’s Wisconsin-based Raven Software studio have announced their intention to form a worker’s union, however, the ABK Workers Alliance collective has announced plans to end the strike “pending the recognition of our union”.
“Pending the recognition of our union, the Raven QA strike has ended. Unused strike funds are being stored for future organising/strike efforts,” ABK Workers Alliance announced on Twitter earlier today.
“We’ll post or retweet any GW[A] updates here. Appreciate all the community support throughout the strike!”
Pending the recognition of our union, the Raven QA strike has ended. Unused strike funds are being stored for future organizing/strike efforts.
We’ll post or retweet any GWU updates here. Appreciate all the community support throughout the strike!
— ABetterABK ? ABK Workers Alliance (@ABetterABK) January 23, 2022
Activision Blizzard appeared to downplay the significance of news of unionisation, saying it was “carefully reviewing the request for voluntary recognition from the CWA, which seeks to organise around three dozen of the company’s nearly 10,000 employees”.
Earlier this week Microsoft dropped the bombshell news it was purchasing the beleaguered Activision Blizzard for $70BN. In response, the ABK Worker’s Alliance called the acquisition “surprising”, but said it did not change its goals. “[We] remain committed to fighting for workplace improvements and the rights of our employees regardless of who is financially in control”, it insisted in a statement.
The Microsoft-Activision acquisition targets Google and Meta more than Sony – Android Central
Microsoft claims its recent Activision Blizzard acquisition is about more than just gaming: it will “provide building blocks for the metaverse.” So while everyone initially freaked out about Game Pass exclusives and whether Call of Duty will remain on the PS5 (it will), most people didn’t notice that Microsoft’s ambitions go well beyond the traditional console wars with Sony and Nintendo.
When I first read the announcement, I’ll admit I groaned a bit. Since Facebook announced its own Metaverse plans last year, it’s been the go-to buzzword for tons of companies. Particularly at CES, where companies claimed they were building it without any basis in reality. It’s become hard to take any metaverse plans seriously when no one can agree on what, exactly, it is.
Sometimes, IPs matter more than products.
What’s clear is that Microsoft “absolutely plans” to adapt its IPs from traditional gaming to a “full 3D world”, as CEO Satya Nadella told Bloomberg last year. The VR/AR technology may not be ready for an immersive Micro-verse, but Nadella has spent his CEO tenure hoarding IPs like Minecraft, Elder Scrolls, and now World of Warcraft. All of which could easily spin out into separate corners of a Ready Player One-esque playground down the road.
Sony will be just fine with its Playstation Studios exclusives; as Microsoft itself said in its press release, even this acquisition leaves it trailing Sony and Tencent in annual revenue. And Microsoft stands to make a fortune off of PS5 gamers playing Call of Duty, so why rock the boat?
Instead, I believe the Microsoft-Activision acquisition will matter more in the future mixed-reality wars with Google, Meta, Sony, and Apple. Microsoft isn’t as big a name in the VR/AR space, but it’s playing the long game by recognizing that sometimes, IPs matter more than products.
A Microsoft-Meta acquisition war, with the FTC as the arbiter
The HP Reverb G2 running on Microsoft’s OSSource: Windows Central
On the surface, Meta and Microsoft get along well enough, with Microsoft recently agreeing to bring Teams to Quest 2 headsets. But behind the scenes, they’re fighting for the same resources and market share.
Talent-wise, Microsoft recently lost 100 Hololens employees, with much of its talent transferring directly to Meta. The same goes for Apple, which lost about 100 engineers to Meta and began giving $180K bonuses to its AR/VR engineers so they’ll stay. Meta is actively plucking the best and brightest from its competitors.
Then you have to look at Meta’s rabid acquisitions of popular VR hardware and software developers, including Beat Games (Beat Saber), BigBox VR (Population: One), and Supernatural — the latter’s $400 million acquisition leading to an FTC antitrust investigation. It even bought a VR lens startup originally bankrolled by Valve, which triggered another lawsuit.
Meta is doing everything it can to entrench itself as the VR/AR authority and thwart other rivals from stepping up. Bloomberg even claims Activision shopped itself to Meta as a potential buyer first before going to Microsoft, which would have certainly fast-tracked a Call of Duty VR game on the Quest 2. But Facebook’s privacy issues, combined with Activision’s toxic workplace issues and the FTC’s increased scrutiny, ensured it was never likely to happen without causing a mess.
Instead, it’s Microsoft who will continue to shore up its gaming monopoly, just as Congress pushes a major tech antitrust law. The Activision Blizzard deal flies in the face of that, and President Biden’s FTC could certainly choose to step in, as analyst Gene Munster recently suggested to CNBC.
Whatever happens legally, this deal will give Microsoft even more popular AAA exclusives to push, while Meta still primarily relies on talented indie developers for its success. If Microsoft can translate CoD, Overwatch, or Diablo into compelling hybrid-VR experiences as Sony will with its PS5 VR games, that could fling it forward on the path to metaverse success. And that’s not even counting Minecraft, Halo, its new Bethesda IPs, and the rest of its current assets.
Microsoft can’t push its “metaverse” if no one uses its VR platform.
The problem is that I’m not convinced Microsoft can pull off Nadella’s metaverse ambitions. Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) headsets like the HP Reverb 2 prove that the company is taking the software side of VR seriously, but a glance at the most recent SteamVR hardware survey shows only about 5.5% of users have a WMR headset. And SteamVR doesn’t come close to the adoption numbers of the standalone Quest 2.
That’s where Microsoft needs to improve for this deal to matter. In my mind, it has two paths to higher adoption, and neither involves wired VR. Either its PC-dependant headsets need to connect wirelessly, or it needs to release a standalone Windows device like the rumored Valve Deckard headset, one that attracts more than just Windows users.
If Microsoft ever wants VR Game Pass to succeed, all-in-one VR is the way to go. For that, it will likely have to rely on the cloud.
Stadia is more of a problem for Microsoft than you’d think
U.S. soldiers wearing the Microsoft HololensSource: Microsoft
Google and Microsoft are two VR/AR companies whose track records inspire more pessimism than optimism. Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens inspired some incredible hype that has since fizzled over the past six-ish years of expensive Enterprise editions.
Microsoft’s most recent $22 billion Hololens contract with the U.S. Army shows where its true priorities lie. Why focus on Call of Duty for teens when you can get more money for actual advanced warfare? Allegedly, the team is stretched thin supporting this contract, which doesn’t leave much room for anything else. As for Google, it has spent far more time on smartphone AR but hasn’t done anything that exciting with it in years.
In this context, the Google Project Iris leak left us intrigued but wary of further disappointment. It’s a new AR/VR headset designed like a “pair of ski goggles” that’ll “remotely render some graphics and beam them into the headset via an internet connection.” In other words, it’ll likely use the power of Stadia cloud computing for a standalone design when it launches in 2024.
When it comes to cloud computing for gaming, Google and Microsoft are the two leading players, giving them a significant edge for portable AR. Whether either can execute this advantage effectively is another question entirely.
Source: Android Central
Stadia had a rough 2021, mainly thanks to Google’s shuttering of its games studio but also due to the lack of exclusives. But it’s still technologically quite impressive and has a loyal cult following. Google has begun licensing it out to third parties like AT&T for their own cloud gaming purposes. It works, even if Google hasn’t supported it with major gaming acquisitions.
The problem, of course, is that if you weigh Stadia against Xbox Game Pass Cloud gaming, Microsoft wins. Xbox’s hundreds of 1st- and 3rd-party options for $15/month, or Stadia Pro’s 30-or-so free games that are mostly older AAAs or cute indie games for $10/month? It’s no contest.
Add in Microsoft’s monopolistic spending habits bringing even more titles onto Game Pass, and Stadia as a service can’t keep up. But Stadia as a processing power source for VR/AR, backed by all of Google’s beloved apps and experience with ARCore and Google Daydream? That very well could lead to something special. Assuming, of course, Google doesn’t underfund and kill Project Iris like it kills so many of its promising projects…like Daydream.
Source: Windows Central
Microsoft has enough exclusive IPs to fill a pool and dive into Scrooge McDuck-style, and its Azure expertise has turned xCloud into a perfectly serviceable platform (even if it can’t handle Halo Infinite perfectly). But with its Hololens team tied up in the army business and no new VR/AR headset in sight, it’s not clear if Microsoft will be able to take advantage of these resources for years.
Suppose Google leverages its Android and VR knowledge into an exciting mixed-reality device with great apps and reliable Stadia support running over 5G networks, while Microsoft dawdles with PC VR and $3,000 AR headsets. In that case, Xbox VR/AR may have trouble getting off the ground until Google and the rest have already gained a foothold.
The acquisitions war to come
Source: Windows Central
My colleague Jerry Hildenbrand argued that consumers chose the Apple-Google duopoly in the mobile space, making it impossible for competitors like the Windows Phone (RIP) to succeed regardless of how good the software was. Why? Because developers stuck to the Apple and Google Play app stores, so people felt left out with any other device.
Microsoft has the killer apps this time. Now it just needs the killer hardware.
So when it comes to VR/AR, these behemoth IP acquisitions may end up mattering just as much as how well the hardware works. No small third-party VR device will succeed, no matter how cheap or innovative, if parents know that Minecraft VR for the kids or Call of Duty: Warzone for their teens is only available on a Microsoft headset. Or, if AR devices become more ubiquitous for productivity, people will absolutely care whether it supports Google Workspace or Microsoft Office 365 apps.
So in the ensuing years it takes for VR and AR to reach their full potential, Microsoft, Sony, Meta, Google, Apple, and a few other rivals will keep rushing to acquire as many assets as possible. Gaming IPs, promising startups, and mixed-reality hardware will all be up for grabs. Unless the FTC or EU steps in and forces these companies to stop.
We’ll see in a few years whether it’s hardware or software advantages that give companies the edge in their monopolistic metaverse wars.
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