Brace yourself: it appears extremely likely that if Microsoft’s purchase of Activision-Blizzard becomes final, within a couple of years PlayStation gamers will never see another Call of Duty, Overwatch, Diablo, or Tony Hawk game, nor any potential Warcraft or StarCraft console games. Yes, Microsoft has so far declined to state that outright as of yet (based on Sony’s history, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have already done so if it had made such a purchase), but if we look at Microsoft’s history and its motives in throwing around tens of billions of dollars to acquire studios and entire publishers in recent years, the idea that it will continue to publish any major Activision-Blizzard games on the Xbox Series X’s main rival’s platform that it isn’t contractually obligated to runs contrary to all of it.
When Microsoft acquired Bethesda’s parent company ZeniMax in 2020, a shock was felt among gamers who had sunk countless hours into the PlayStation or Nintendo versions of games like Skyrim, Fallout, Wolfenstein, Doom, and more. On Twitter and in forums, fans were in denial: certainly, they said, Microsoft would continue to release upcoming games like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls 6 on PlayStation 5 – there’s too much money being left on the table otherwise.
Pressed on that topic, Xbox head Phil Spencer had hemmed and hawed about how Bethesda’s upcoming games would be “on other consoles on a case-by-case basis,” refusing to answer definitively for months whether or not Starfield, Bethesda’s first original game in decades, would be released on PlayStation. (Certainly some of that dance had to do with the legal complexity that comes with the process of swallowing a $7.5 billion-dollar corporation like a pelican gulps down a fish.)
This of course bred speculation: did this mean Microsoft was considering becoming a publisher without borders, no longer concerning itself with propping up the Xbox hardware with exclusives? It has dabbled in cross-platform publishing in the past; while Minecraft was already out on PlayStation 4 before Microsoft purchased Mojang for $2.5 billion in 2014, it’s been supported and updated for PlayStation 5 and even PSVR in the years since. We’ve even seen the spinoff Minecraft Dungeons launch on PlayStation and Switch alongside Xbox and PC, and Microsoft has allowed second-party exclusives like Ori and the Blind Forest and Will of the Wisps and Cuphead to be belatedly ported over to Switch (but not PlayStation). It wasn’t impossible.
It was never really going to happen.
But it was never really going to happen. Microsoft formally dashed those hopes last June when it announced Starfield’s November 11, 2022 release date with only the Xbox Series X/S and PC platforms listed. (It is still possible that we could see a PlayStation port in late 2023 or beyond, but Microsoft hasn’t given any indication of that.) It’s possible – likely, even, that Spencer’s “case-by-case” comment alluded to the fact that two upcoming Bethesda games, Deathloop and the still-to-come Ghostwire Tokyo, had pre-existing agreements with Sony to be released exclusively on the PlayStation 5 for one year, thus making them the exceptions to an all-Xbox-exclusive rule for Bethesda’s big games.
Let’s remember that Spencer seems to have a penchant for these clever turns of phrase; in November he responded to a question about Activision-Blizzard’s recent scandals by saying that Microsoft was “evaluating” the relationship between the two companies. In context, it suggested a distancing of ties; in hindsight, it seems clear he was evaluating Activision the way a fox evaluates a henhouse.
Spencer seems to have a penchant for these clever turns of phrase.
So when Spencer told PlayStation owners via Bloomberg after the acquisition was announced that, “It’s not our intent to pull communities away from that platform and we remained committed to that,” we have to look at all the angles for what that means. Note that he didn’t specifically promise to continue publishing upcoming games on PlayStation, which he could’ve if that’s what he truly meant. Because of that, he’s very likely referring to ongoing support for games that already exist on PlayStation, such as Call of Duty Warzone, and have active communities. Much like with The Elder Scrolls Online, Xbox isn’t going to pull the plug on them and tell them they have to switch platforms. But the larger Call of Duty community that spans an entire series? I fully expect them to be pulled away when new games launch exclusively on Xbox and PC.
Update: Minutes after publishing this story, Phil Spencer tweeted: “Had good calls this week with leaders at Sony. I confirmed our intent to honor all existing agreements upon acquisition of Activision Blizzard and our desire to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation. Sony is an important part of our industry, and we value our relationship.” Still, this could be read as referring to Call of Duty Warzone and ongoing support for existing Call of Duty games. “Keep Call of Duty on PlayStation” does not mean the same thing as “Publish new Call of Duty games on PlayStation.”
To understand why Microsoft is very unlikely to want big games that it owns to be released on platforms that it doesn’t, we only need to look at the motivations that drive a platform owner like Microsoft to create exclusive games. It isn’t, first and foremost, about generating profit by selling as many copies of that specific game as you can; to do that you need it to run on as many platforms as possible, which is how Activision-Blizzard and other third-party publishers like EA and Ubisoft currently operate. Exclusives, by contrast, inherently limit the number of potential customers by deliberately “excluding” certain platforms in order to make another look more attractive to gamers. In essence, the decision to make exclusive games means to sacrifice sales revenue to build something more important.
If Microsoft were interested in selling games on PS5 we would be clearing space on our SSDs for Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 right now.
If Microsoft were interested in the slightest in the revenue it could earn from selling big-name games on the PlayStation 5 we would be desperately clearing space on our 667GB SSDs for Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 right now. But we’re not, and we’re not going to be doing that for Starfield, either, because no matter how many millions of copies those huge games would likely sell on PlayStation consoles, that’s short-term thinking. Microsoft is thinking long-term: it’s looking to reverse the trends of the PS4-Xbox One generation that saw Sony jump out to a dramatic lead, driven in large part by a series of acclaimed exclusives that Xbox had few answers to. It has set out to use the resources of one of the world’s wealthiest companies to become a mega-publisher that cranks out big exclusive after big exclusive. Between that and the unrivaled value proposition offered by a $15-per-month subscription to Game Pass Ultimate giving you immediate access to every Microsoft-published game – which comes with the ability to stream Xbox games directly to mobile devices, PCs, and (soon) smart TVs without even buying a console – Microsoft has created a very real path to usurping Sony’s lead.
Getting you and everyone you know into its ecosystem is where the real money – profits on a scale that could move the needle even for a giant like Microsoft – will come from. So if you ask yourself whether it makes sense for Microsoft to publish any of its most attractive and very expensive blockbuster games on other platforms when that is the goal, the answer is a resounding no. It won’t happen overnight, of course – just like with the Bethesda purchase, Activision doubtlessly has a fair number of agreements in place to deliver certain upcoming games on Sony and Nintendo platforms, and it would be a surprise if that doesn’t include this year’s Call of Duty game, which would have been in development for a couple of years by this point. Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 could very well be in this category as well. But the moment those agreements are fulfilled, Microsoft has no incentive to renew them.
Dan Stapleton is IGN’s Executive Editor of Reviews. Follow him on Twitter to find out why he isn’t streaming tonight.