Yesterday, Microsoft shook the world with the revelation it is spending almost $70 billion dollars to acquire Activision Blizzard for its new Microsoft Gaming division. The acquisition presents a whole lot of opportunity, but also, a whole lot of questions.
For the average consumer, Activision Blizzard represents decades of beloved universes, from Warcraft to Call of Duty. All too often, we forget those games and franchises are made by passionate humans, who pour their talent, skills, and lives into building these titles. Whether it's customer support staff, marketing teams, server engineers, artists, programmers, and beyond — the frontline staff bears the brunt of all the recent scandals, complaints, and pressure from Activision's management layer and shareholders. And they've had a hell of a few years.
Scandals, the legacy of maltreatment, CEO Robert Kotick's absurd compensation packages, company-wide unfair pay, and arbitrary layoffs — Microsoft has a hell of a lot to prove to a team that really, really deserves a reprieve. This is a call on Microsoft to prove they will do right by everyone involved at Activision Blizzard (when, and if the deal closes), whose legacy extends to joy and relaxation for hundreds of millions over the years.
A beloved legacy to protect
I don't need to describe the size of some of these franchises; Crash Bandicoot, Call of Duty, Warcraft, Overwatch, Starcraft, Diablo, and dozens more, dating back decades. Activision, Blizzard, and King serve millions upon millions of gamers across console, PC, and mobile, with mountains of legacy IP that Microsoft could revive and adapt for future audiences. Skylanders, Guitar Hero, Hexen, Singularity are among the new properties truly beyond what Xbox had before.
Many of Activision Blizzard's core franchises are sorely under-represented and under-appreciated, however. Starcraft has languished out of the spotlight for a while, neglected and forgotten. The Warcraft III "remake" was an unmitigated disaster, too, with reports that Activision cut corners and rushed the release to meet a quarterly report, rather than build a good game.
Microsoft has more recently shown itself to be willing to prioritize quality over quarterlies, however. They delayed Halo Infinite for an entire year, missing the Xbox console launch window, to ensure it met expectations. Microsoft is also vastly expanding and growing some of its older core acquisitions, with studios like Undead Labs, inXile entertainment, Ninja Theory, and The Coalition ballooning in headcount.
The fact Microsoft was willing to drop a truly insane $70 billion on Activision signals they're all-in on gaming, and nickel-and-diming games and, more crucially, staff and studios, is hopefully something that will stay with Activision as a bad memory.
As part of Microsoft, the creativity of Activision Blizzard is somewhat shielded from shareholders. Microsoft's share price typically hinges on cloud growth and business-to-business deals, with Xbox largely left to its own devices. Naturally, the only metric Microsoft cares about with regards to growth is Xbox Game Pass and monthly active users in its gaming sector. You can't acquire Xbox Game Pass subscribers without a diverse portfolio of high-quality games and positive sentiment, particularly on PC, where competition from Steam and other storefronts presents higher resistance to converting Xbox console players to Game Pass subscribers.
Microsoft has a real opportunity to let Activision Blizzard return its focus entirely to making high-quality games, casting off some of the shareholder-baiting mechanics like forced time gating and systems to inflate monthly active user (MAU) and engagement in the short term. Blizzard especially was formerly a studio known wholly for quality, and while they had a recent win with Vicarious Visions' Diablo II remake, Warcraft III Reforged, WoW: Shadowlands, the slow decay of Overwatch, and the effective death of Starcraft leaves a sour taste.
For gamers, Microsoft should move fast to prove it will serve these franchises well — quality, value, and players first — over the corner-cutting practices. For devs, Microsoft should show it will give them the resources and time they need to realize their ambitions.
Freedom, and integration without layoffs
Indeed, Microsoft has generally painted the picture that it takes a hands-off approach to its studios. Mojang and Minecraft is a good example, where Microsoft has, by and large, kept the game running as is, allowing Mojang to set its own priorities while keeping Minecraft growing with large and relatively frequent updates. As I outlined above, we can only hope that Microsoft's leadership will grant Activision Blizzard teams the freedom to build games, rather than money printing machines, but there are other things to consider outside of game development itself.
One thing that often bugs me about Xbox and Microsoft, in general, is the quality of its customer service. Microsoft used to have a large customer service department, that has gradually been replaced with bots and even "Xbox Ambassador" volunteers, which I think is absurd for a company as large and rich as it is. For all its faults, Activision Blizzard, particularly Blizzard, has some of the best customer service teams in the entire industry in my view.
Blizzard's "GM" game masters are fully paid staff and often do their jobs with flair and humor while helping players in World of Warcraft and other titles. Blizzard has a world-class cinematics modeling team too, alongside a huge internal merchandise operation. Pre-pandemic, Blizzard also spent a huge portion of its income celebrating its games with the BlizzCon expos. Activision also has a huge hand in esports — a sector Microsoft historically has shown ambivalence toward.
I can't help but worry about some of the teams at Activision Blizzard outside of Microsoft's typical wheelhouse. The last thing anyone watching this unfold wants to see is mass layoffs. And believe me, Microsoft, I think I can speak for the entire gaming world to say we will not forgive you if we see large-scale layoffs in some of the lesser-known and under-appreciated departments. Integrate them, do not cut them.
Prove you'll do the right thing, Microsoft
The world is watching right now, Microsoft. It's not the same when you purchase an AI company like Nuance or a dev platform like Github, or a work-oriented social network like LinkedIn. Activision Blizzard games come with a vast legacy of emotional attachment, admiration, and fandom dating back decades. Gamers and fans of these franchises have been desperate by and large for a leadership change at Activision for years, and many seem cautiously optimistic given Phil Spencer's leadership at Xbox, and the value being driven by Xbox Game Pass.
As big as the legacy of positive emotions is for Activision Blizzard, there's a legacy of scandal and maltreatment in recent years, too. Reports have discussed arbitrary layoffs, unfair pay, and at worst, sexual abuse taking place in and around the company and its high-profile staff. Activision's leadership has been accused of turning a blind eye to this for years, and while CEO Robert Kotick continues to search for scapegoats to save his own skin, employees on the front line suffered.
Bobby, tell everyone about the random projects for OW1 you all would shove on us, the team would do OT for only them to get cancelled and for months of OW2 dev to have been lost. Or how almost entire teams are turning over and citing you as the reason. Don't be shy. https://t.co/3ksVMMaCwfBobby, tell everyone about the random projects for OW1 you all would shove on us, the team would do OT for only them to get cancelled and for months of OW2 dev to have been lost. Or how almost entire teams are turning over and citing you as the reason. Don't be shy. https://t.co/3ksVMMaCwf— Tracy Kennedy 💙✊ (@dogspinster) January 19, 2022January 19, 2022
Robert Kotick had the gall to blame Diablo IV and Overwatch 2 delays for Activision Blizzard's declining stock, deflecting responsibility for his leadership. Parting with Robert and the rest of Activision's legacy leadership team should be Phil Spencer's first move once (and if) this deal closes in the coming year. It'll help to turn and page for Activision, and hopefully, lead to a renaissance for the entire studio.
Activision Blizzard will hopefully be able to return its focus entirely on building quality games, shielded from shareholder pressure, as the new Microsoft Gaming group focuses entirely on Xbox Game Pass, cloud, and quality, over arbitrary quarterly goals.
The world is watching, Microsoft. There's a huge opportunity to prove to a gaming world, that still sees Microsoft as an evil malevolent corporate presence, that things can be different.
Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!
If any company will I believe Microsoft will.
This seems like some pretty ridiculous grandstanding that won't come to pass. The "we will not forgive you if there are layoffs" is something that I don't think you, or much of anyone, will stand by. Will you quit your job and stop using Microsoft news to earn your income if they fire 100 or 1,000 people deemed to be superfluous? I doubt it. This is the same Microsoft behind Halo Infinite. We've heard numerous reports that the game was heavily influenced by contractors who had hard caps of 18 months on the job, causing a lot of problems with institutional knowledge loss. Microsoft actively worked to avoid taking on full-time, long-term workers to make the game because it probably saved them money. It's something they have likely done across a LOT of their business for a long time. After the Nokia acquisition, they cut a boatload of those jobs. What makes now special or different from how they've operated for decades? I know there are horrible scandals surrounding the work atmosphere of Activision-Blizzard these days. That does not, in my opinion, mean that their employees deserve a better work environment in Microsoft than anyone currently employed at the company. If these are the standards you have for Microsoft's acquired staff, then it should be the same standard by which you judge them know. Microsoft hasn't been that kind of benevolent in the past (go look at all of the studios they shut down during the XB1 era) and tell me how you've not written them off for that but feel this is some kind of special case that deserves a different perspective.
never said i'd stop using msft products.. it's almost impossible. but we'll call them out for ill-treatment. ntaurally there may be redundancies, but i would hope they're well compensated and only fully necessary. i dont wanna see them cut MGL without giving it a good try, and i dont wanna see them cut customer service, like they have on xbox/surface side. luckily, per a call today kotick had with employees (which happened after i wrote this), he emphasized that should some departments be closed, people will be offered internal alternative positions. msft is expanding ALL of its internal studios right now, and all of its teams. everybody deserves a better work environment all the time. nobody is suggesting they need special treatment. msft has high satisfaction rating in general, so i am hopeful. this is about accountability. xbox one era is totally, totally different to now. phil wasn't leading, myerson was, and budgets were low. xbox was being run on a shoestring. the situation has changed, so it requires a different perspective. that's how linear time works.
I mean, you definitely don't "speak for the entire gaming world." They'll buy and play these titles whether or not there are any layoffs, and the streaming service will continue to grow. Announcing your delusions of grandeur to the world is more of a Twitter thing.
Exactly. Gamers might grumble a bit. But if it means getting the latest expansion- they will still buy it.
Business is business. Talented staff can always find work. UK has 1M job vacancies. People who want to work, simply can.
Most of these protests are temporary at best and often don't work, except in a few cases. It's because people won't part with the convenience of the product use or don't fully understand the extent of a company's diverse portfolio and revenue stream and wouldn't be able to even if they were willing to part with the convenience. The problem is also that the alternative products (competitors) aren't better (looking at Amazon's anti-union stance, Google's privacy issues, Apple's "eat your cake and have it too" issues with China and privacy vs ROW, as well as manufacturing labor practice questions in SEA.
Well said Jez. I have confidence Phil Spencer et al will do right by the hardworking staff at ABK. However, like everyone they also do need to hold accountable. No one gets special treatment. like yourself I do have concerns about customer service. After all Microsoft did literally can all their retail outlets. As opposed to keeping staff on furlough. Which they could have use for PR and drive indirect advertising via social media campaigns. This also would have gone a long way in alleviating concerns many have - that Microsoft is still the same Microsoft from years gone by. At the same time generating higher workforce satisfaction within Microsoft resulting in more productive staff. But, nope the bean counters had their way.
I get the “gaming family” mentality. But it’s still a business. There will be synergistic reductions obviously. But at least the culture (you would
Think) will improve. It will be a mixed bag.
Activision treated their employees so bad that the bar is extremely low for Microsoft. This will be an easy win for Microsoft.
I believe MS will do right by the game developers and those working directly on products (not just games). However, for generic workers like HR, IT, payroll, finance, etc. There could be cuts as they integrate them into using Microsofts systems. That would only (unfortunately) make since.
Says the moron who can’t write a decent sentence nor spell. You should be laid off of whatever job you do. I doubt you do it well.
What in the Britney Spears took it to name calling like that? Lol Firings are almost always the right move when there is an acquisition like this because there is bound to be some restructuring and redundancy when integrating a company into a much larger one.
"I think I can speak for the entire gaming world to say we will not forgive you if we see large-scale layoffs" Wow. What hubris! That statement is bananas.
You can't really think that. I must be from a parallel universe interacting with a different 'gaming world' over the past four decades than you.
The communty seems to not have changed much at all since my Ultima Online days lol.
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