The Scourge of Consolidation in Gaming

Yesterday, the gaming world was shook by news of more mergers and acquisitions coming for beloved titles.

In a surprise move, the New York Times announced they had purchased the popular word game Wordle for an undisclosed 7-digit sum…wait, you’re telling me there was a bigger acquisition yesterday? Than Wordle? Are you sure?

Okay, I guess that’s bigger.

So Sony bought Bungie, which means that Microsoft now has the company with the rights to the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro IPs while Sony owns the original developers of Halo. Somewhere, 19-year old me is very confused. The deal is pretty straightforward – Sony coughs up $3.6 billion, Bungie is a Sony studio. The slide above deals with the major points I will discuss today, because I don’t have a lot to say about Destiny, as someone who got tired of the first game taking longer in loading screens than I would often be able to spend playing content and I only own the second game as a freebie from Blizzcon 2018, prior to Bungie sprinting away from Activision-Blizzard.

On the good side? Bungie is made, theoretically, and will have the funding necessary to chase after whatever new projects they desire. The commitment is that Destiny remains multiplatform and that Bungie is the entity controlling the creative vision and publishing of the game, with no cut-corners on now-competing hardware platforms.

So this all sounds pretty decent, right? Bungie gets a payday and some financial security to make future games, and Sony gets a news cycle after Microsoft ate the headlines up for their acquisition of ATVI (although both deals were in the works for months, so this is not a counter-response nor could it be, realistically).

Well, it isn’t all roses.

The buzzword coming out of this news is “consolidation” and it is an interesting and terrifying prospect in the broader gaming ecosystem. As Microsoft and Sony alike continue to gobble up ever-larger acquisition targets, removing independent, multiplatform publishers and developers from the gaming space, the big looming possibility is platform locks and exclusivity coming to ruin things.

The slide provided above looks reassuring on some level, right? It makes big promises of independence and a great, shared Destiny experience. However, such a thing is needed in the broader context of gaming M&A business, as Microsoft’s purchase of ZeniMax, parent company of Bethesda, was promised to not push Bethesda titles exclusively to Xbox/PC, and yet Starfield, an upcoming Bethesda title, has been confirmed to be Xbox/PC exclusive. While we haven’t had an official platform announcement for The Elder Scrolls 6, there is a non-zero chance that it ends up being exclusive as well – that prospect has been downplayed publicly, but not denied.

Into this space leaps Bungie, with a statement that is full of promises, but also note the very-clear and narrow wording. “Destiny” remains committed as a multiplatform experience for all, but no future Bungie titles outside that franchise are mentioned. Obviously, Bungie tends to be pretty laser-focused on a single franchise at a time – past their early history, with games like Oni (which I owned on PS2!), they were basically House Halo for a decade before becoming the Destiny Developers, and that franchise has been out for nearly 10 years now too, so it leads one to wonder what comes next.

Sony does have a track record of doing multiplatform stuff that has been bolstered in recent years, as this year’s MLB The Show is seeing a first-ever release on Nintendo Switch alongside a second-ever release on Xbox platforms, and Sony’s first-party titles have been seeing massively-delayed releases on PC, with the recent PC release of God of War, the previous release of Horizon Zero Dawn, and the constant teasing of Bloodborne on PC (it’s got a Steam DB entry, but Sony has remained hush-hush on it). In that regard, I do think there’s less to worry about there.

But consolidation still poses a threat to us as consumers, and that is something we should be aware of and watching for. Today, we all dream of what Blizzard might do under fresh, better-received leadership, but Microsoft is a juggernaut and the Bethesda deal absolutely shows that if they see a net benefit to locking a title like Call of Duty to their platform, they will do it. We should expect the same of Sony, as while Destiny is committed in this statement to remaining multiplatform, Bungie’s future is (hopefully) not a single game iterated upon until death and so anything outside the Destiny brand could potentially be platform-locked. Hell, even Destiny could at some point in the future – a slide promising something isn’t binding and Sony could very well change their minds at any point in the future.

For me, the biggest threat of consolidation outside of locking players on a specific console out is a stifling of creativity. AAA game dev isn’t exactly a bastion of fine art, but independence does allow a certain measure of risk-taking and creative cultivation. It’s a lot easier to play with new gameplay ideas and themes when you’re not Internal Studio 12A at Microsoft trying to fill an action game hole in the lineup for the next holiday season. AAA is absolutely cookie cutter a lot of the time, and consolidation just means that you have more studios stuck in a niche they are ordered to fill, with less ability to step outside of that to be creative. Bungie’s older games weren’t always great – I mentioned Oni because I remember being very excited for it (I was 15 and anime hot chick protagonist was all I needed to know) and then playing it was like grey sludge, just nothing about it really landed with me and I maybe put like 4 hours into it before putting it away forever. But Bungie has a groove now, and there’s a real risk of losing any potential development of that so they can be the Destiny studio, or make a series of great, if similar, first-person shooters in space with various constraining mechanics. By being under the heel of various large entities prior to Sony, Bungie already kind of is creatively constrained – Halo is good and so is Destiny, but they feel like very similar boxes to be locked into. I want to see what Bungie would produce if they were free to do so, and I fear what an acquisition will do to their ability to provide that, no matter the promise of independent decision-making.

In the US right now, we have 10 major corporations that make most of the brands you see in food, where any differentiation is largely for show. Very little changes unless they want it to, because they control the whole market – you don’t typically see one company make a new category of their own without seeing mirrored moves from the other 9, as happened with the plant-based/vegan substitutes market – such items were nowhere, and then they were everywhere in short order based on demand. What I fear in gaming with consolidation is that we’ll see a worse version of that – where Sony locks stuff to Playstation alone for their own benefit, Microsoft locks their games to Xbox and PC, and where we’re in a race to the bottom where both platform holders are pushing owned studios to make games around competitive need instead of artistic merit or interest. Sure, you could argue that AAA game development tends towards that anyways, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong, but there is a certain amount of freedom to be had from not also needing to get a platform holder to reach their goals.

Of course, all of this is speculative, but there’s little reason to believe that we as players benefit from consolidation, as the majority of people do not own all the available consoles and thus are stuck with whatever they can get. Microsoft sealing away Bethesda stuff is bad, Microsoft potentially doing the same with Activision-Blizzard stuff is bad, and Sony potentially doing the same with Bungie games is bad. A merged future where games are on a single side of the console divide is a bad outcome, and there aren’t that many independent AAA publishers left alone – EA, Take 2, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bandai Namco, and Sega, off the top of my head. While a buying spree seems unlikely, it also isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, and that alone is awful.

For now, I can only look at the Sony deal with Bungie and see a portent of doom especially alongside the ATVI buyout by Microsoft, but only time will truly tell.


One thought on “The Scourge of Consolidation in Gaming

  1. I have to wonder if all of these moves might be short circuited by Amazon being more aggressive. If, say, Amazon buys EA and then pumps unlimited dollars into gaming that relies not upon a platform but a mountain of server farms (like, say, AWS) to send data to any device out there, things could get very interesting real fast.

    Liked by 1 person

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