Sigh. So today’s column is one that I really didn’t have an urgent desire to write, but then we started talking about the various bad takes we’ve seen floating around in the wake of Microsoft buying Activision-Blizzard. And folks, let’s not mince words, these takes are just plain bad. They’re coming from various places, some optimistic, some pessimistic, but all of them bespeak a certain degree of non-understanding of the video game market and the place Blizzard holds within it. They’re nonsense.
And now I’m going to explain why all of these bad takes are, in fact, bad takes. To be fair, I think some of these come from either a genuine place of good faith or a genuine concern for the fate of favored games, so I don’t want it to sound as if I’m dunking on everyone who has these particular takes. They’re not generally malicious. They’re just… well, wrong, and it’s useful to unpack why they’re wrong. So, in no particular order…
1. They made this deal to get World of Warcraft on Xbox
Let’s make something very clear here, and this will inform several of these takes: In all likelihood, if there was any one thing that this deal was meant to get, it’s Call of Duty. World of Warcraft is, by that standard, functionally a nice little gumball that Microsoft gets along with everything else. They’re happy to have it, but if there was one thing the company was after, it wasn’t that.
That having been said, I definitely agree with the people who say that WoW on Xbox is a plausible and reasonable potential outcome; it’s just not what motivated the deal in the first place. It’s a nice thing to have, but it was definitely not the driving force behind the acquisition. As with many such deals, I don’t honestly think that there was one specific property that Microsoft was chasing, but just a general dominance by acquisition and Activision-Blizzard got cheap enough thanks to recent scandals that it looked like a coup.
2. Microsoft will fix all of Activision-Blizzard’s culture problems
Ah, yes, because Microsoft has never had any sexual harassment problems.
To a certain extent I can see where this is coming from; odds are good if not absolute that some of the worst examples of corporate leadership are likely to be gone with a diamond-studded spun platinum parachute because the world is a hellscape and corporate bad actors rarely face consequences. That alone will probably have a knock-on effect that winds up making this future Blizzard a better place for workers than it has been and is now. And similarly, I don’t think that Phil Spencer was being disingenuous when he said that he wasn’t happy about the scope of scandals coming out of Activision-Blizzard.
But the cultural rot is deep within these companies, and the scope of it is probably still not altogether known at this point. Microsoft wanted this company and its properties. Microsoft did not throw down billions of dollars to clean house but to get a gaming company full of coveted IPs at a discount price and hopefully benefit from some image rehabilitation right there. The “good guy Microsoft” narrative is honestly just benefitting Microsoft at this point.
3. Microsoft will shut down The Elder Scrolls Online to focus on WoW
This one just makes no sense.
Yes, Microsoft will ultimately own The Elder Scrolls Online and World of Warcraft, which is two out of the big five MMOs. But even if we assume that someone really cares about that MMORPG market (it’s possible), why would Microsoft want to cut its ownership of the biggest games in the field down from 40% to 25%? Why would it voluntarily give up part of its dominance? It works out better for the company if you have the perception of two options that both wind up funneling money the same way; it’d be like Daybreak being upset at people leaving EverQuest II to go play Lord of the Rings Online. It just doesn’t make sense.
4. Microsoft will shut down WoW to focus on The Elder Scrolls Online
This one makes as little sense as the version with the names swapped, with the added benefit of nonsense that Microsoft would spend billions of dollars just to kill a competitor it can now control and profit from.
5. Everything will go into maintenance mode because of this
I think this is tied to a misperception we’ll get to in a couple of entries, but the reality is that it’s still nonsense because, again, Microsoft just spent billions of dollars to acquire this company. It has no reason to shut things down if it can continue making money from them. Think about it logically: If Activision-Blizzard were making money before now (and it was), why would Microsoft spend a lot of money just to stop it making money?
No, the only reason to shut something down is if it’s not making money. And for that… well, keep reading.
6. This is all to make a Microsoft-owned MMO
Yes, because when you already own two of the five most successful MMOs on the market, what you really want to do is make a new game in the hopes of controlling the market you already have a bigger slice of than anyone else. Never mind that Microsoft has shown little to no interest in actually getting into the MMO market over the years; by this point I think it’s more than content to just buy its way into the winner’s circle, so to speak.
Note that this is distinct from wanting resources to go toward further projects like World of Warcraft 2; that’s a discussion for another day. But Microsoft doesn’t need to worry about getting Blizzard to make an MMO based on an IP it owns. That’s already the point of this deal.
7. WoW is a dinosaur that’s been losing Blizzard money for years
Ahaha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.
Look, it’s a true fact that WoW has consistently been losing subscribers over the past few years. That is not the same as losing money. Indeed, part of the reason that Blizzard stopped reporting on its subscribers is because it was still managing to make money despite dwindling players, and it didn’t want to make it look like it was losing people even as profits remained steady.
Has it become less profitable? Yeah, probably. But it’s not losing money, and I think this misperception is where people start expecting that the game will be shifted into maintenance mode. This is not a case where the game is a money pit that Blizzard kept running out of some sense of obligation; it’s a profitable title that’s been in decline because of design issues. That’s what the financial reports keep saying.
8. Overwatch 2/Diablo IV will be canceled
On this particular point, I want to cut a fine line. It’s definitely possible for these titles to be on the chopping block… but it’s not going to be because of the Microsoft acquisition. Indeed, having these things in the pipeline probably makes the studio look more appealing rather than less. This is something that investors are looking forward to because they’re big new releases, so why would Microsoft shut them down just because they’re taking a while? If anything, Microsoft will want to make the process go faster, not just can it for the heck of it.
9. WoW is going to be shut down
Again, this one just doesn’t make sense. While I seriously doubt that Microsoft had looked at WoW as the main prize of this particular acquisition, it would take a truly shocking amount of poor decision-making to acquire a company and then immediately shut down a part that is making consistent money. Microsoft might want it to make more money – indeed, I think that’s downright likely – but it’s not going to get that by making the game make no money.
Then again, given the past couple of years of WoW, I get the sense that lots of fans are just expecting a shutdown at this point and are theorizing about it no matter what happens. So it’s less a Microsoft bugbear and more an ongoing playerbase issue.
10. This is going to mark Microsoft buying more MMO companies
Sorry, folks, but I think I’ve made it clear by this point that I don’t think Microsoft looked at this as buying an MMO company any more than when it bought ZeniMax. It was buying a successful company that happened to have an MMO. If the company cared about that, there were much cheaper options to get into the MMO game, even if it wanted something in the MMO winner’s circle specifically. (Look at that rumor about buying Square-Enix, for example.)
Don’t get me wrong, I understand this one. It’s nice to think about Daybreak games in the hands of anyone other than Daybreak, for example. I just don’t see it as a realistic outcome.