The latest counter-arguments from Microsoft and Sony over the proposed Activision Blizzard acquisition have been published in the UK.
Many of the arguments presented to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are the same as before, with PlayStation discussing the impact of what might happen if Call of Duty becomes exclusive to Xbox — whether that’s the Xbox console, the Game Pass subscription service or Xbox Game Streaming.
Meanwhile, in its own 111-page response, Microsoft argues that these concerns are overstated, and that Call of Duty is neither ‘special’ or ‘unique’.
Notably Sony disagreed with Microsoft’s previous claim that even if all PlayStation’s monthly active users who play Call of Duty left PlayStation, PlayStation would still have significantly more MAUs than Xbox. Sony said in reply:
“This does not accord with [our] data. In 2021, there were, on average, [redacted] million MAUs of Call of Duty (and [redacted] million accounts that played Call of Duty during the year). Based on these figures, if the [redacted] million MAUs switched to Xbox, PlayStation would be left with far fewer MAUs than Xbox.”
Microsoft argues that PlayStation has around 60 million monthly users, more than double that of Xbox. It observes that Xbox is a viable competitor to PlayStation despite this fact, and therefore PlayStation would be, too.
But Sony believes the network effect of losing Call of Duty would hinder the company’s ability to invest in new games, which in turn would give Microsoft an even bigger advantage in the future.
“The loss of [Call of Duty] users would severely diminish SIE’s ability to invest in future hardware and technologies”
“The loss of all or a significant proportion of these users, together with their associated revenues and profits, would severely diminish SIE’s ability and incentive to invest in future hardware innovation and gaming technologies,” it said.
However, Microsoft insists Call of Duty is neither special or unique.
“Call of Duty does not drive spend on PlayStation and accounts for only [redacted]% of Sony’s digital revenues worldwide. In 2022, Call of Duty gamers spent essentially the same time on Xbox as FIFA, Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, NBK 2K, and Rocket League gamers. Importantly, they also spent around the same proportion of time playing other franchises. This is inconsistent with Call of Duty having a greater ability to drive consumption of non-Call of Duty content on consoles than other popular franchises.”
Sony, however, feels those comparisons are not like-for-like. It points to Call of Duty’s ‘relentless’ release cycle with multiple studios working on multiple projects. It argues the game is unique because of its ‘popularity, loyalty and the enormous resources Activision commits to developing the franchise’, with an estimated budget of $300m per game.
Xbox also argued that both Nintendo and Steam have been able to compete, despite not having Call of Duty content on their platforms.
In terms of the Nintendo argument, Sony counters that the Japanese company has a different business model and audience. And that suggesting that PlayStation should adopt a similar approach is a sign of Microsoft trying to force it away from its current market.
“Microsoft wants PlayStation to become like Nintendo, so it would be less close and less effective competitor to Xbox,” Sony claims.
However, Microsoft says it does view Nintendo as a competitor, and even highlighted the recent release of Bayonetta 3 to counter the idea that Nintendo is a family-orientated business.
Elsewhere, Sony responded to Microsoft’s previous criticism that its statements have been “self-serving”. Sony responded that its statements “reflect genuine and evidenced concerns about a Tech Titan buying up irreplaceable content at incontestable prices.”
Yet Microsoft reiterates its stance that Call of Duty isn’t irreplaceable. It says that the next console generation isn’t until 2028, at the earliest, and that Sony would have plenty of time to react: “If Sony were indeed worried about a hypothetical withholding of Activision content, it would have at the very least six years to prepare a competitive response in time for the launch of the next generation of console.”
But Sony says creating a competitor to Call of Duty is simply unrealistic. It uses EA and Battlefield as proof of the challenge of competing with Call of Duty. EA has for many years tried to compete with Call of Duty, Sony says, but as of August 2021 Battlefield has sold 88.7 million units compared with Call of duty’s 400 million copies.
“If Sony [is worried about losing] Activision content, it would have at least six years to prepare a response in time for the next generation”
One key point of the argument is on games subscriptions. Microsoft insists that game subscriptions are not a market, but simply a means of payment, and should not be a factor in the CMA’s decision.
“Developers and publishers view multi-game subscription services as just one monetization model for gaming content. Similarly, gamers see subscription services as one of the many ways in which gaming content is paid for.”
Sony disagrees. It says that subscriptions are an alternative to the ‘buy to play’ model, which in turn can influence consumers’ choice on which hardware or cloud service they use, particularly if the subscription service in question (Game Pass) is only available via Microsoft’s own platforms.
Microsoft also points out that PlayStation Plus is the biggest games subscription service, with almost double the number of Game Pass subscribers — a feat it has achieved without Call of Duty. However, Sony observes that this isn’t a fair comparison, and that Game Pass has far more subscribers compared with the higher PlayStation Plus tiers (which includes the type of content equivalent to Game Pass).
In terms of cloud streaming, Sony discusses Microsoft’s ‘structural advantage’ in terms of its cloud abilities, due to its Azure cloud service and its Windows PC business. It quotes the company’s previous comments about how it views Google and Amazon as its main competitors, due to those companies’ cloud abilities. Yet Sony doesn’t believe this is true, and points to Google’s recent closure of its Stadia cloud streaming platform, and Amazon’s on-going struggle to gain traction in this space.
Yet Microsoft counters this by revealing that its cloud service currently doesn’t use Azure, and it isn’t accessible via Windows, either. It also claims that Call of Duty is not a particularly good game for streaming services.
“Minimising latency is critical to the gamer experience and high latency can have a significant detrimental effect on the quality of gameplay, particularly for competitive multiplayer gameplay – a central element of the appeal of Call of Duty”
In the end, the arguments remain primarily the same as before. Microsoft says that its main objective is to build a business on mobile and compete more strongly with Apple and Google. It plays down the importance of Call of Duty on console, reiterates it has no intention of taking the series away from PlayStation, and that even if it did, PlayStation would remain market leader.
But Sony believes otherwise. It doesn’t trust Xbox’s claims around Call of Duty, citing previous studio acquisitions, and points at its past behaviour in other industries as proof of its desire to foreclose businesses. It also says that making Call of Duty exclusive to Game Pass and its streaming service would significantly hinder competition, and its ability to invest in new games.
It’s now up the CMA, and other regulators, to weigh up the arguments and decide whether the deal should or shouldn’t move forward.