Microsoft’s war chest is a dynamo. With revenues that rival the GDP of a small nation, it’s got enough cash on hand to buy whatever it wants. When it does, it just acquires another money-making machine. Its latest gadget? Video game company Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft announced yesterday it was buying for a staggering $68.7 billion—more than the $26.2 billion it paid for LinkedIn in 2016, almost 10 times the $7.5 billion it paid for Bethesda’s parent ZeniMax Media last year. Microsoft now owns Call of Duty and Halo; it owns The Elder Scrolls and World of Warcraft. It owns Candy Crush. It also owns Diablo, Overwatch, Spyro, Hearthstone, Guitar Hero, Crash Bandicoot, and StarCraft. Its chest is full—but not with machines.
It’s tempting to view the acquisition as the latest shot fired in the console wars, a ploy to use Activision Blizzard’s deep catalog to sell Xboxes. But that would be shortsighted. If anything, the deal shows that Microsoft is far more concerned with acquiring gamers—it’ll gain 400 million monthly active players as part of the deal—than with moving units. “The fantastic franchises across Activision Blizzard will also accelerate our plans for Cloud Gaming,” the company said in a statement announcing the deal, “allowing more people in more places around the world to participate in the Xbox community using phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices you already own.” This is Microsoft’s move to a post-console world. It’s not about getting you to buy a gadget; it’s about luring you into an ecosystem.
When discussing online video game services like Stadia, Sony’s PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming, insiders often reach for the same descriptor: X is “Netflix for games.” The goal of each service is to become a player’s go-to hub, month after month. Indeed, Phil Spencer, who, with the acquisition will be anointed CEO of Microsoft Gaming, uses this comparison often. “You and I might watch Netflix. I don’t know where you watch it, where I watch it, but we can have conversations about the shows we watch,” he told WIRED in 2020. “I want gaming to evolve to that same level.”
This is telling, particularly because of just how much it belies Spencer’s seeming indifference to where people play Microsoft titles. That in itself is a repudiation of the console wars, which have historically been tied to Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony’s alluringly shaped plastic boxes. These “walled gardens” Spencer said, are a “1990s construct” that he’d like to see dismantled. Microsoft’s new ownership of Candy Crush fits into this vision, giving the company an immediate presence in mobile gaming that transcends discussions of Xbox Series X.
“They’re not getting out of consoles, but they’re trying to reduce the degree to which they’re tethered to the Xbox,” says Joost van Dreunen, a New York University business professor and author of One Up, a book on the global games business. “That’s just going to be one of the entry points into their ecosystem.”
The goal here is one streamlined service—Activision Blizzard’s back catalog is the carrot for attracting users into that space. It could take 12 to 18 months for the deal to close, but when it does, Microsoft “will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s catalog,” Spencer said in the company’s announcement of the acquisition. “They clearly see gaming as an entry point that leads to a much broader universe,” says van Dreunen. “The Game Pass service has benefited greatly from this.”