When I heard that Microsoft was buying Activision/Blizzard/King, my first thought was “oh, I hope that means Heretic 2 comes to GOG soon.” My monkey brain went straight to the many, many games in the Activision back catalog that are no longer available to purchase and harder to play because of that. But is Microsoft buying Activision actually a good thing?
No. No, probably not.
Market consolidation is a bad thing for consumers. When MS buys Acti, they’re removing competition from the video game market. If three games come to Xbox (one from MS, one from Acti, and one from EA), but I can only afford one, I’m going to buy the one I perceive to be the best. With all three competing for my money, they’re each going to do their best to make a good game. My money allows the publisher I choose to buy a game from to fund future games and their continued existence. This is all super basic stuff.
If three games come out on Xbox, and MS is publishing two of the three, those two don’t have to compete against each other. They just have to be better than third. It doesn’t matter if I buy the MS or Acti game because the result is the same; MS gets my cash. I’ve gone from three choices to two, even if the illusion is that I have three choices.
It’s not a secret that Acti has a reportedly toxic work environment. Arguably, being purchased by MS could make swift and meaningful change in a way that leaving Acti independent would not. Once the purchase is complete, MS could rip and replace the leadership at Acti on a whim and show the door to abusers or those who don’t fall in line. But whether I have confidence in Acti’s ability to change their workplace or not is meaningless. If Acti remained independent, their reputation would catch up to them. Like Ubisoft, they could find themselves having a hard time retaining employees. If, over time, the lack of change results in poor revenue, the board at Acti would take action to preserve their business. This isn’t a problem that is solved by a buy-out, nor does the buy-out guarantee it will be fixed.
This buy-out could, and definitely will, result in more Acti games on Xbox Game Pass, a service I already pay for. I will get more games and that service will become more valuable. But that also didn’t require a buy-out. No one forced Acti games off of Game Pass; they chose not to participate. MS didn’t make the decision for them.
But will this get me Heretic 2 on GOG or any other digital distribution service? Maybe. MS probably has all the rights consolidated in their ownership for that particular game. That doesn’t mean they’ll do anything with them. That doesn’t mean the two companies couldn’t come to some sort of deal to republish Heretic 2 without a buy-out. That back catalog of Acti games could just remain in digital deep freeze forever. Given how many of those games are based on licensed properties, that seems pretty likely.
There are things to look forward to. Maybe MS lets Call of Duty escape the annual release cycle. Maybe MS lets studios like Raven Software be their own thing and not just support vehicles for Call of Duty. Maybe all of my favorite Acti games are re-released for modern platforms. But none of these things were impossible before the buy-out, just choices by Acti’s current leadership. That current leadership isn’t guaranteed to change with the buy-out.
Now there’s one less competitor in the video game market. If everything stays the course, I’m still not interested in what Acti makes. Now the financial impacts of that disinterest make less of an impact on that company.