Microsoft's Activision acquisition finally gives it a mobile gaming foothold

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Xcloud Monster Train
Xbox Game Pass Cloud Xcloud Monster Train (Image credit: Windows Central)

When Microsoft recently announced plans to buy Activision Blizzard, online gaming communities were instantly flooded with discussions and debates about what it would mean for blockbuster flagship titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and more. These franchises are some of the biggest in the entire industry, and depending on what Microsoft chooses to do with them, there's a lot that can change. Will World of Warcraft come to Xbox consoles? Is Call of Duty going Xbox exclusive? Ultimately, only time will tell.

As huge as these games are, though, there's an even bigger element of Microsoft's $68.7 billion acquisition that not enough people are talking about — what it means for mobile gaming, and how Microsoft will instantly become a force to be reckoned with in that space if the deal closes in 2023.

Mobile gaming is bigger than many think

Source: Newzoo (Image credit: Source: Newzoo)

While many "hardcore" gamers who play on consoles or PC often laugh off mobile gaming and consider it less valid, the truth is that it's a part of the industry that isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, according to Newzoo, 59% of the $180 billion in revenue that the gaming industry brought in over the course of 2021 came from mobile games. That's a staggering amount of money for just one platform, and it puts into perspective just how big mobile gaming is.

Compared to the hundreds of millions of gamers who use consoles like the Xbox Series X|S or the PS5, there are billions of people who play mobile games globally. And between the widespread availability and abundance of smartphones and the fact that most games on mobile are free to play with microtransactions, it's easy to see why; it's the most accessible way to play games by an immeasurably wide margin.

It's an extremely lucrative market, but Microsoft has struggled to succeed in it for a variety of different reasons. That's where mobile game developer and publisher King, as well as its parent company Activision, come in.

Microsoft is getting much-needed help

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central Minecraft Earth failed due to its poor marketing and aggressive paywalls. (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

Over the last several years, Microsoft has made several attempts to break into the mobile space. The mobile version of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition and Fallout Shelter have both done well, but releases like Gears Pop!, Forza Street, and Minecraft Earth were generally disliked due to their lackluster gameplay mechanics. The games also had overly aggressive paywalls and microtransactions too, which made it difficult to enjoy the game as a free-to-play player and even forced players to spend real-world money to make meaningful progress in some cases. The old Halo: Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike games fared better, but failed to truly succeed due to their initial exclusivity to Windows Phone and $4.99 upfront asking price.

By acquiring King and Activision, Microsoft is finally getting what it needs to compete in the mobile space.

Microsoft also marketed all of the aforementioned mobile games terribly, which was undoubtedly a factor in its struggle to keep dedicated and growing playerbases. Mobile game developers spend millions of dollars to make sure that players see their apps in advertisements, and because Microsoft wasn't willing to do the same, the only people who knew about games like Gears Pop! and Forza Street were folks who were already part of Microsoft's core Xbox following.

By acquiring King and Activision, Microsoft is finally getting what it needs to compete in the mobile space: developers and publishers who know how to both make and effectively advertise mobile games with satisfying gameplay loops and a good balance of free-to-play features and paid ones. Games like Candy Crush, Farm Heroes, and Bubble Witch have proven so popular that King made $652 million in revenue during the third quarter of 2021, and Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty Mobile has also remained a dominant title since its launch in 2019. Diablo Immortal, an upcoming mobile game version of Activision Blizzard's beloved action roleplaying series, has also been received positively during beta tests. Assuming the acquisition deal goes through, things are looking very good for Microsoft's future in this market.

Don't forget about Game Pass and cloud gaming

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Of course, we can't forget about the impact that Microsoft's growing mobile presence will have on its gargantuan subscription-based gaming service, Xbox Game Pass. Will we see a special mobile branch of Game Pass that includes recurring rewards in the studio's mobile games? Will that branch of Game Pass also include access to Xbox Cloud Gaming, which gives players the ability to stream high-profile titles to their smartphones? We won't know for sure until Microsoft makes its plans publicly known, but there's no way that it isn't looking to bring Game Pass to the mobile market in some way.

Speaking of Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft may also make use of Activision and King's expertise to improve the cloud gaming user experience on mobile. As my colleague Jez Corden has written about many times before, many cloud games (including the best Xbox games available) are difficult or downright impossible to play due to the fact that their UI elements are too small and will often clash with the touch controls overlay. If the talent from King is able to adapt cloud gaming titles to be more mobile-friendly, Microsoft's Xbox Cloud Gaming initiative — and by extension, Game Pass — will be even more attractive than it already is.

Final thoughts

While it's understandable that most are focusing on the big blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty that Microsoft gets its hands on with its Activision Blizzard acquisition plan, the value of seasoned mobile developers and publishers like King and Activision itself shouldn't be overlooked.

By bringing them under its wing, Microsoft has finally found a way to establish a foothold in the mobile gaming space. And between the potential for future best-selling mobile games, the strong possibility of a mobile-focused version of Xbox Game Pass, and the opportunity to make the Xbox Cloud Gaming experience better than ever on mobile, Microsoft will have everything it needs to succeed in the mobile market.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

  • This is quite boring and meaningless, in terms of what it makes Microsoft. Their last 5 years have amounted to "buy successful studios because our in-house capabilities haven't looked good." Yeah, Microsoft's a "player in mobile," to the extent that they bought a company that did the work. I'm not at all convinced it is a lock to translate to anything new or special within their existing teams. I wouldn't say that Microsoft's gaming purchases thus far have shown tendencies to integrate into existing franchises, or vice versa. I don't expect this to go much beyond "Microsoft owns Candy Crush and CoD Mobile." It's more of just a direct addition to their bottom line than something where Microsoft's proven to integrate things well and make the Xbox ecosystem better as a whole for it. These companies have managed to stay pretty weel segregated from one another.
  • Yeah, I agree. King alone makes over 2 billion a year, couple that with the PC/Console side of things and I'd say Actuvision Blizzard pulls in a fairly decent amount each year.
  • Before writing off the mobile side of tbe deal, try asking the folks at KING what they might do with access to MS IPs, deep pockets, and internet ad channels. For that matter, Windows 11 will run Android apps and games. Not a trivial market for King.
    Or how about King doing XBOX and PC ports of their games? Peoole keep forgetting that MS doesn't justbuy studios, add them to their catalog, and forget about them.
    No. MS helps their acquisitions grow their teams, offer support by other developers (internal and *external*) bigger budgets. For example, MS has usability labs and QA testing units, and are building a support studio specialized on Unreal Engine 5 open to all their developers and the OS and DirectX are available for consults and spe ial code. Above all, they offer the freedom to experiment and exercise their creativity (with purpose): Obsidian is a recognized master of RPG but who would expect them to do a quirky survival game like GROUNDED? Or how about NINJA THEORY? Yes, they probably would have been able to do some version of Hellblade2 as a standalone; but Project Mara? Bleeding Edge? Insight Project? Nope. None of those are guaranted sellers but all are guaranteed funding. If even one succeeds, though, we'll get a very different game than a standalone studio could ever dream of doing. MS is drowning in cash but instead of sitting on it or playing it safe, they're swinging for the fences.
    And in the process, they're forcing competitors to try to keep up, do things they're not comfortable with.
    They're rocking the boat, which doesn't sit well with tbe fat/dumb/lazy old school types.
    Tough luck.
  • Who would play King games on Xbox? Even games like CoD mobile are only successful because they are on phones where that's the best there is, the vast majority of "AAA" mobile games when brought to consoles get terrible reviews because when there is not the "Damm! look how cool it is to play a game like this on my phone" people realize how bad they actually are. There are exceptions like Genshin Impact, but those are very few and even then Genshin Impact also launched on PC and PS4. And King doesn't even make "AAA" mobile games, so I really don't know how that would be a desirable thing, porting those trash mobile games to Windows makes sense though.
  • "Who would Play King games on Xbox?" Women and especially games like Candy Crush. Mind you, I'm not sure Microsoft plans to port these games to Xbox. I'm just saying there is a market. Also, phone games ported to console primarily have problems with bad monetization and not adapting the phone controls well enough. If Microsoft planned to port these over (again, not saying they would), it's within their power to adjust those things accordingly.
  • Do you really think anyone would actually play Candy Crush on their Xbox? I don't believe that for a second. And nah, mobile games fail on consoles because they are just bad from the get go, it's not about controls and the bad monetization is a part of why they are bad.
  • You're new to console gaming aren't you?
    Otherwise you'd know MS, in the 360 days, had Bejeweled, Uno, and a dozen other casual games from Popcap alone: In fact, both the 360 and XB1 shipped with Hexic for free, Tetris has long been available, Uno was a top seller, and the 360 did extremely well with Settlers of Catan and severzl other tabletop game adaptations. My brother was adicted to UNO, a griend to FEEDING FTENZY. Me, I put in a couple months on CATAN and BEJEWELED. One reason the 360 dominated its generation was the scope of its game catalog which had everything from PacMan to Uno to Monopoly to Kameo to Loderunner to Halo and Gears to everything in between. Theyhad something to like for every taste and budget. The same is true of Gamepass.
    Contrary to pony myths XBOX has never been just a "shooter console". The big difference, once the Activision deal closes is the casual games won't be just third party; MS will have a robust lineup of cas ual first party games.
  • I'm a gamer since the PS2 days and even played some PS1 games on there. Ask why most of those types of games aren't on console anymore. They aren't because they were a failed attempt to get the super casuals to buy those games, those super casuals don't want to use consoles.
  • But they are.
    Not all because licenses expire but if you look carefully you'll find a few.
    That there aren't more is another failing of the previous XBOX chief.
    I note you said PS2, not OG XBOX. Explains a lot: XBOX audiences are different from Sony's.
  • Candy Crush is a casual puzzle game and casual players make up the majority of console players. It's just a version of Bejeweled with desserts and stuff. Puzzle games do just fine on both console and mobile when the controls are well done. Also, while I generally don't play mobile games because I prefer a controller, there are some that are quite good that are ruined by the monetization. Again, you asked who would play it and you got an answer, perhaps you should have led with your belief that only your personal tastes in games matter across all consoles and demographics and I would have saved my time answering you. C'est la vie.
  • There's different tiers of casuals, people that just play FIFA are certainly casuals, but people that just play Candy Crush type of games are the Super Casuals. If I'm wrong then why did they stop bringing mobile games to consoles? And back then mobile games were better, where's Plants vs Zombies 2? Where's Candy Crush? Where's Asphalt 8? If people wanted them on console then for sure they would still release them there, but they don't and they don't because they aren't successful. It's just that why would you play Asphalt when there's Forza? And why would you play Candy Crush with worse imputs, when you can play it on phones?
  • A Gamepass for mobile is an obvious move. On Android. (iOS? Cold day in the matto grosso.)
    A version of the XBOX cloud app for android with access to a library of curated paid and free to play games for a few bucks a month. Doable and better than charging for cloud gaming alone. Beyond that, KING will likely get a mandate to mine all the MS IP at will.
    And maybe teach/assist other studios on touch GUIs and gameplay. Maybe Joining the MS/SEGA cloud native game development project. If the deal clears MS will have more than just a foothold in mobile.
  • You do realize Google already offers a monthly subscription for games on mobile, right?
  • So does Apple.
    And Amazon offers many games for free.
    MS doesn't.
    That's a market they haven't been able to address without a solid first party catalog. Do note I said the hypothetical Gamepass for android would include *cloud*. Without PC or Console. Different creature. At some point they'll also need a standalone GamePass for TV and Web. The whole point of cloud is to lower gaming access cost so why charge for PC/Console download capability to people that can't use it? MS doesn't charge for cloud alone because it isn't reliable enough. For now. That won't be true forever.
  • meh king games are not interesting to play
  • Yup.
    Only $2.5Billion a year interesting.
    And Take2 is shelling out $12B for ZINGA because their games are boring, too...
    Different people have different tastes but everybody will pay to play what *they* like.