Microsoft has confirmed its plan to bring Call of Duty to Xbox Game Pass should it successfully acquire Activision Blizzard, but UK regulators think it could do more harm than good.
Speaking about Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard in a blog post (opens in new tab), Xbox boss Phil Spencer clarified the tech giant’s ambitions. He said Microsoft wants to put Activison’s major gaming series on Xbox Game Pass, pitching the move as a win for players.
“We intend to make Activision Blizzard’s much-loved library of games – including Overwatch, Diablo and Call of Duty – available in Game Pass and to grow those gaming communities,” said Spencer. “By delivering even more value to players, we hope to continue growing Game Pass, extending its appeal to mobile phones and any connected device.”
Microsoft had committed to bringing “as many Activision Blizzard games as [it could]” to Game Pass in its initial acquisition announcement (opens in new tab). Spencer’s statement confirms the scope of that idea, and goes further to suggest that bringing Activision’s games into the Game Pass ecosystem will improve player choice.
“Subscription services like Game Pass make gaming more affordable and help players from all over the world find their next favorite game,” said Spencer. “Game Pass empowers developers to bring more games to more players, not fewer.”
He also reiterated Microsoft’s commitment “to making the same version of Call of Duty available on PlayStation on the same day the game launches elsewhere”. Fans have worried that Microsoft will make the series exclusive to Xbox consoles, as it did with Starfield after acquiring Bethesda last year.
But Spencer doesn’t specify whether other, less commercially important Activation games will receive the same cross-platform treatment. While Diablo, Overwatch, and other IPs could be made available on Xbox Game Pass, that doesn’t preclude the possibility they’ll be kept off PlayStation consoles.
A hard sell
Call of Duty’s potential move to Game Pass has stirred much excitement among fans of the FPS series. Should it go ahead, subscribers would be able to dip into the mammoth franchise at their leisure, and possibly play each new entry in the series at launch, on Game Pass, at no extra cost.
But Spencer’s comments about improving player choice follow a report (opens in new tab) by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – a state body responsible for regulating markets – that raises serious concerns. It suggests the buyout could be detrimental to the industry and consumers.
“The CMA is concerned that having full control over this powerful catalog, especially in light of Microsoft’s already strong position in gaming consoles, operating systems, and cloud infrastructure, could result in Microsoft harming consumers by impairing Sony’s – Microsoft’s closest gaming rival – ability to compete.”
The merger is particularly worrying, it said, in light of Microsoft’s impressive reach across the gaming and tech industries. The company already has a major stake in the console gaming market with the Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One, a firm grip of the nascent gaming streaming field through Xbox Cloud Gaming, and dominates PC operating systems with Windows 10 and 11.
That combination of assets gives Microsoft a major advantage over potential rivals – especially in the streaming space. It can stream games to Windows PCs without having to pay expensive licensing fees, design new games and services using its existing heavyweight studios, and take advantage of the huge playerbase already locked into the Xbox console ecosystem. It reckons Microsoft has “an unparalleled advantage over current and potential cloud gaming service providers”.
“This could result in increased concentration in cloud gaming services or the market ‘tipping’ to Microsoft, and ultimately deny consumers the benefits of competition between new and emerging providers vying to succeed in cloud gaming,” the CMA said.
Despite Microsoft’s assurances, the regulator also raised concerns over Call of Duty’s Xbox exclusivity. While Microsoft might choose to keep the series cross-platform, it could impose other, more subtle access restrictions on other systems. Microsoft could well delay the release of Call of Duty content on PlayStation consoles, or impose higher pricing structures for games sold on Sony’s systems. That’ll hurt Sony’s profit margins, but is also bad news for PlayStation players who don’t want to buy into the Xbox ecosystem.
That’s to say nothing of the other major Activision Blizzard games Microsoft stands to acquire. Overwatch 2 will be free to play, and is set to launch on October 4 across Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. While Spencer says it would move over to Game Pass, it’s unclear what that would really mean for an existing multi-platform game.
It could be a while yet before the deal is finalized and those kinks are worked out. The CMA will begin a fresh “in-depth Phase 2 investigation” off the back of its findings, while regulators in the US and other countries are yet to release any assessment, let alone give the deal their approval.