from the not-blizzard-anymore dept.
The Federal Trade Commission has announced that it intends to sue to block Microsoft from acquiring Activision. Regulators are making the argument that Microsoft is doing this to use its control of game catalogs to make more and more games exclusive to the XBox in an effort to gain market share from its competitors, which is a violation of anti-trust law.
In a complaint issued today, the FTC pointed to Microsoft's record of acquiring and using valuable gaming content to suppress competition from rival consoles, including its acquisition of ZeniMax, parent company of Bethesda Softworks (a well-known game developer). Microsoft decided to make several of Bethesda's titles including Starfield and Redfall Microsoft exclusives despite assurances it had given to European antitrust authorities that it had no incentive to withhold games from rival consoles.
"Microsoft has already shown that it can and will withhold content from its gaming rivals," said Holly Vedova, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition. "Today we seek to stop Microsoft from gaining control over a leading independent game studio and using it to harm competition in multiple dynamic and fast-growing gaming markets."
Microsoft's Xbox Series S and Series X are one of only two types of high performance video game consoles. Importantly, Microsoft also offers a leading video game content subscription service called Xbox Game Pass, as well as a cutting-edge cloud-based video game streaming service, according to the complaint.
Activision is one of only a very small number of top video game developers in the world that create and publish high-quality video games for multiple devices, including video game consoles, PCs, and mobile devices. It produces some of the most iconic and popular video game titles, including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch, and has millions of monthly active users around the world, according to the FTC's complaint. Activision currently has a strategy of offering its games on many devices regardless of producer.
But that could change if the deal is allowed to proceed. With control over Activision's blockbuster franchises, Microsoft would have both the means and motive to harm competition by manipulating Activision's pricing, degrading Activision's game quality or player experience on rival consoles and gaming services, changing the terms and timing of access to Activision's content, or withholding content from competitors entirely, resulting in harm to consumers.
UK government blocks Microsoft's proposed Activision purchase
In its long-awaited final report, the United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority said that Microsoft's proposed $69 billion acquisition of Activision would "result in a substantial lessening of competition" (SLC) in the supply of cloud-gaming services in the UK. As such, the regulator said that "the only effective remedy to this SLC and its adverse consequences is to prohibit the Merger."
The final report cites Microsoft's "strong position" in the cloud-gaming sector, where the company has an estimated 60 to 70 percent market share that makes it "already much stronger than its rivals." After purchasing Activision, the CMA says Microsoft "would find it commercially beneficial to make Activision's titles exclusive to its own cloud gaming service."
Microsoft has in recent months signed deals with Nvidia and smaller cloud-gaming providers in an attempt to "mak[e] even more clear to regulators that our acquisition of Activision Blizzard will make Call of Duty available on far more devices than before," as Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith said in a statement last month. But the CMA said these kinds of cloud-gaming deals—which Microsoft submitted to the CMA as a proposed remedy for any anticompetitive effects of the merger—were "limited to cloud gaming providers with specific business models" and thus not sufficient to address the regulator's concerns.
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For months now, Microsoft has sworn up and down that it has no interest in making Call of Duty exclusive to the Xbox if and when its proposed $69 billion Activision acquisition is approved. But as the FTC's request for an injunction stopping that acquisition heads toward opening arguments this week, the federal regulator cites one piece of what it calls "powerful evidence" that it can't trust Microsoft's assurances. In short, as the FTC puts it, "Microsoft's actions following its 2021 acquisition of ZeniMax speak louder than Defendants' words."
Rather than focusing on what it calls a "strained analogy" to ZeniMax, Microsoft would prefer the court look at Microsoft's purchase of Minecraft-maker Mojang, which has continued to publish the game on a variety of platforms after becoming part of Microsoft. This is a better analogy for Call of Duty, Microsoft writes, because Minecraft was similarly "an existing, multi-player, cross-platform franchise like COD."
Call of Duty is unlike Minecraft, the FTC argues, in part because Minecraft is available in largely the same form on mobile phones, tablets, and the Switch. "Even if Microsoft took Minecraft off of rival consoles and subscription and cloud gaming services, it would still be available for play on many other devices. The context for Call of Duty is very different."
Regardless, the FTC also argues that this manufactured categorization doesn't matter, because Microsoft's exclusivity decision applied to "all future ZeniMax games." While Microsoft said in 2021 that "some" future Bethesda games would be Xbox exclusives, no Bethesda non-exclusives have been announced since then.
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