Microsoft now says that it has “committed to Sony” that “Call of Duty and other popular Activision titles” will be “available on PlayStation beyond the existing agreement and into the future so that Sony fans can continue to enjoy the games they love.” The Xbox maker also says it is “interested in taking similar steps to support Nintendo’s successful platform” following its planned $68.7 billion purchase of the mega-publisher.
The announcement comes as part of a blog post outlining a number of “Open App Store principles” Microsoft says are explicitly designed “to address Microsoft’s growing role and responsibility as we start the process of seeking regulatory approval in capitals around the world for our acquisition of Activision Blizzard.”
The bit about distributing Activision titles to non-Xbox consoles “beyond the existing agreement” is especially relevant here. In the days after Microsoft announced its plans to purchase Activision, statements regarding console exclusivity plans from Activision, Sony, and Microsoft focused on language like “honor[ing] all existing commitments” and “abid[ing] by contractual agreements” and “honor[ing] all existing agreements,” respectively. Late last month, Bloomberg reported that those existing agreements only covered the next three Call of Duty games planned for release through 2024.
The new statement is much clearer that Microsoft plans to allow Activision titles on multiple console platforms even once those previous agreements run out. Yet there is still some wiggle room surrounding which specific “popular Activision titles” (and even which Call of Duty titles) will be allowed on competing consoles. Bloomberg also reported that Microsoft “plans to keep making some of Activision’s games for PlayStation consoles but will also keep some content exclusive to Xbox” with little clarity on how big each group of games would be.
It’s also important to remember that Microsoft is making these statements as regulators around the world examine the antitrust implications of Microsoft’s massive purchase, which won’t be finalized for months. Previously, Microsoft and Bethesda hinted at non-exclusive Bethesda titles before that purchase was finalized last March, only to confirm Xbox console exclusivity for the studio’s major games shortly afterward.
On the other hand, Microsoft might not want to similarly limit the reach of Activision’s biggest franchises to its own walled garden. Call of Duty: Warzone alone reportedly brings in millions of dollars a day thanks to a base of over 100 million players, many of whom play on PlayStation. That value could be worth more to the company than the added value that exclusivity would bring to Xbox and Game Pass.
Keeping the console closed
Aside from specific questions regarding Activision, Microsoft also announced a new set of “Open App Store principles” it says will “encourage more innovation and investment in content creation and fewer constraints on distribution.” These include a reiteration of policies announced last summer letting developers on its Windows App Store choose outside payment processors for in-app payments. That’s a pretty apparent jab at Apple’s continuing legal issues surrounding similar third-party payments on the iOS App Store.
But Microsoft’s blog post also makes it clear that these “open” principles regarding payments won’t apply to the Xbox console store, which it differentiates from those on “PCs, mobile phones and other general purpose computing devices.” Legislation seeking to regulate and open up digital App Stores “is not being written for specialized computing devices, like gaming consoles, for good reasons,” Microsoft writes. “Gaming consoles, specifically, are sold to gamers at a loss to establish a robust and viable ecosystem for game developers. The costs are recovered later through revenue earned in the dedicated console store.”
That language echoes similar arguments Epic Games made in explaining why it was fine with the 30 percent fees charged by console platforms, even as it took legal action against similar fees charged on Apple’s iOS.
“There’s a rationale for [the 30-percent fee] on console where there’s enormous investment in hardware, often sold below cost, and marketing campaigns in broad partnership with publishers,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney told GamesIndustry.biz in 2018. “But on open platforms, 30 percent is disproportionate to the cost of the services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service.”
While Microsoft says it is “committed to closing the gap” on these principles for the Xbox store “over time,” there’s little by way of specifics for how that might happen. For now, it seems, Microsoft will continue to argue that being fully “open” is fine when it comes to computers and phones but totally unworkable when it comes to game consoles.