Microsoft acquiring Activision Blizzard has rocked the gaming industry, with a $68.7 billion deal that gives Xbox free reign over Call of Duty, Warcraft, Overwatch, and more of the best-selling video game franchises. The question is, will this spark a whole new war of exclusivity?
The way we play Activision's biggest titles will change in the near future, and it's fascinating to think that one day, we may not have to drop $60 to pick up the next installment in the Call of Duty franchise. Instead, the next Black Ops or Modern Warfare entry will pop up on Xbox Game Pass for anyone who can spare at least $1 for a first-time subscription.
Xbox Game Pass now has more than 25 million subscribers, and that figure is due in no small part to Halo Infinite — a long-time Xbox exclusive. Call of Duty, however, is a different beast. Not only has it been a multi-platform franchise since it first graced consoles back in 2004 with Call of Duty: Finest Hour, but it has been heavily associated with the other head honcho on the block: Sony's PlayStation.
Regardless of what Microsoft decides to do with its newfound list of famous franchises after the acquisition is signed off (reportedly on June 30, 2023), Xbox will have a major stake in the way we access our favorite games — and Call of Duty is on the frontline.
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Call of Duty sells
I've previously talked about the state of Call of Duty, claiming that recent entries haven't felt like anything special. The release of Vanguard proved this, but there's a reason CoD shares a similar annual release structure with Apple's popular iPhones, and it's because each entry sells.
Market research company NBD released its annual chart of the best-selling games of 2021 in the U.S., and Call of Duty: Vanguard came out on top. Not only is this impressive seeing how Vanguard was only released in November, but the second-highest selling game of the year went to Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Take a look at 2020's sales, and you'll find Cold War took the top spot, with 2019's Call of Duty Modern Warfare taking second place. This has been an ongoing trend for years.
In the U.K. (via GamesIndustry.biz), sales are similar, but FIFA 2022 was named the best-selling game of the year, with Vanguard coming in second place. Keep in mind, Vanguard had seen a 36.1% decline in sales when compared to 2020's Cold War, and it was still the second-highest selling game in the U.K. and No.1 in the U.S.
A more interesting figure from NBD is PlayStation's top seller. You guessed it: Vanguard. What's more, Black Ops Cold War still took third place. Having Xbox own one of PlayStation's biggest breadwinners is unnerving, especially since Sony has gone out of its way to form a relationship with the Call of Duty franchise over the years.
Head over to the official Call of Duty website and you'll find a special section all about the advantages of playing any entry on PlayStation. From exclusive benefits such as Battle Pass bundle bonuses to early access to the beta, PlayStation players have always had a variety of bonuses, and the adaptive triggers on the PS5's DualSense controllers are the icing on the cake.
Now, PlayStation may not have access to provide these privileges, with Xbox becoming the home for all things CoD. Microsoft will see a considerable amount of pennies if it decides to do what PlayStation presumably fears: make Call of Duty exclusive on Xbox. If all entries, new and old, make their way to Xbox Game Pass, subscriber numbers are more than likely to go through the roof.
While the acquisition has put the gaming industry on tenterhooks, CEO of Microsoft Gaming Phil Spencer has given us a good indication of what the future holds.
In an interview with The Verge back in 2020, Spencer felt strongly about the notion of console wars. He stated that the "biggest competitor we have is apathy over the products and services, games that we build," not the competition between Sony and Nintendo.
"The tribalism in the industry, if there was anything that would ever drive me out of the industry, it’s actually that," Spender said. "There is a core that just really hates the other consumer product. Man, that’s just so off-putting to me... To me, it’s one of the worst things about our industry.”
It's hardly news that the battle between PS5, Xbox Series X, and the Nintendo Switch hasn't been about the systems. Rather, it's the different games that are available on each platform. Spencer wants to make games accessible to everyone everywhere, and Xbox Game Pass, along with its Xbox Cloud Gaming service, makes this possible thanks to an extensive library of games.
Microsoft made a big push to break down barriers between consoles, allowing for cross-platform support for one of its biggest titles, Minecraft, back in 2019 (via IGN). The Xbox empire continues to grow, with Activision games only adding onto the already impressive Game Pass titles after the Bethesda merger.
With this in mind, it may not be a matter of Call of Duty being an Xbox exclusive, but rather it being more accessible to the gaming masses. Plus, we know that Spencer currently wants to support the established communities that play on select platforms:
"The fantastic franchises across Activision Blizzard will also accelerate our plans for Cloud Gaming, 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," said Spencer. "Activision Blizzard games are enjoyed on a variety of platforms and we plan to continue to support those communities moving forward."
This lets us know that PlayStation won't see its final days of Call of Duty anytime soon, but you can bet many gamers will flock to a gaming service that can be played on virtually anything with a screen to get the latest entry. Surely, PlayStation will take a hit with its best-selling franchise on the platform being potentially available as part of Game Pass.
Sony has responded to Microsoft's $68.7 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard, stating that the PlayStation giant expects that Microsoft will abide by contractual agreements.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Sony states: "We expect that Microsoft will abide by contractual agreements and continue to ensure Activision games are multiplatform.” This indicates that there is still some breathing room for Sony's PlayStation to have access to Activision games, but it also means Microsoft could go ahead and make these gaming franchises Xbox exclusives.
Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the two legendary PlayStation icons that will now be making their way to Xbox: Crash Bandicoot and Spyro. These guys haven't been exclusive for a while, and aren't the money makers that Call of Duty is. Still, this raises questions on how Xbox will handle these iconic franchises, and while they may not go exclusive, they may as well be if Xbox has the right to offer exclusive bonuses in the same vein as Deathloop's timed exclusivity on PS5.
"But if Call of Duty won't become an Xbox exclusive, how will it reap the rewards?" That's a question that's up in the air. IGN's Brian Altano and Mark Medina weighed in on the possibilities Xbox can take, and it's likely the gaming giant will take the same route as it did with Halo Infinite.
Halo Infinite's multiplayer is free-to-play, and it's essentially separate from the main game seeing how it came out before the campaign's official launch. With Call of Duty, we may see each entries' campaign being made available via Game Pass. Here's the kicker: future campaigns may be exclusive to Xbox, while the multiplayer aspect, like Warzone, will stay cross-platform.
There's also the possibility that Call of Duty will become available first on Xbox platforms, with other platforms like PlayStation gettings its version at a later date. Or, Call of Duty will be made available on all platforms at once. Whatever the case, PlayStation will be losing out, as Game Pass won't need to charge a staggering $60 with each new entry.
At the moment, it's all speculation, and we won't know how Xbox will handle owning one of the best-selling game franchises of all time until 2023. Content exclusivity is fast becoming the real war the gaming industry is facing, and we know it works because Nintendo has Mario — the best-selling franchise of all time. With Call of Duty — and let's not forget World of Warcraft, Candy Crush, Tony Hawk, Diablo, Overwatch, Spyro, Hearthstone, Guitar Hero, Crash Bandicoot, StarCraft — under its belt, Xbox will no doubt shake up the games industry.
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Darragh Murphy is fascinated by all things bizarre, which usually leads to assorted coverage varying from washing machines designed for AirPods to the mischievous world of cyberattacks. Whether it's connecting Scar from The Lion King to two-factor authentication or turning his love for gadgets into a fabricated rap battle from 8 Mile, he believes there’s always a quirky spin to be made. With a Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from The University of Sheffield, along with short stints at Kerrang! and Exposed Magazine, Darragh started his career writing about the tech industry at Time Out Dubai and ShortList Dubai, covering everything from the latest iPhone models and Huawei laptops to massive Esports events in the Middle East. Now, he can be found proudly diving into gaming, gadgets, and letting readers know the joys of docking stations for Laptop Mag.