It was cute at first. When Xbox head Phil Spencer took the stage at E3 2018 and announced the acquisition of  that he believed the Xbox ecosystem was the best place for all of the franchises in the studio’s repertoire, including The Elder Scrolls VI. He all but confirmed it would be exclusive to Xbox.

“It’s not about punishing any other platform, like I fundamentally believe all of the platforms can continue to grow,” Spencer told GQ. “But in order to be on Xbox, I want us to be able to bring the full complete package of what we have. And that would be true when I think about Elder Scrolls VI. That would be true when I think about any of our franchises.”

Starfield, Bethesda’s sci-fi RPG built for the ninth console generation, will definitely be exclusive to Xbox Series X/S and PC, skipping PS5 entirely. Spencer’s comments make it clear that Xbox is eyeing exclusivity for its franchises, and after today’s $69 billion deal goes through, that’s going to include Activision Blizzard games.

Microsoft

Activision Blizzard is the largest third-party publisher in gaming, and it’s the owner of massive franchises including Call of Duty, Overwatch, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Candy Crush. As a third-party studio, Activision Blizzard has been able to negotiate with the main platform holders to get its software on the consoles and devices it wants. This doesn’t always equate to same-day launches or in-game item equity, but generally speaking, this position has helped ensure Activision Blizzard games reach as many players on as many platforms as possible. Exclusivity agreements and distribution deals are the main source of competition in the industry at this point, allowing outside developers to advocate for their games without feeling beholden to any console owner in particular.

When a platform holder becomes the largest publisher in gaming, it flips the script completely. It jams the script into a shredder, burns the scraps to ash, condenses the ash into stone, and then throws that to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Let’s take Call of Duty, a series with predictable annual installments, for example. Over the years, Activision has shifted allegiances between Microsoft and Sony, offering early access and exclusive game modes to Xbox platforms, then PlayStation, and mixing it up along the way. Among all the backroom talks, bad blood and better offers, it’s always been up to Activision to cut the best deal for Call of Duty, console holders be damned.

After the acquisition, that negotiation looks entirely different, if it even exists at all. As the owner of Call of Duty, Microsoft can tell Sony to screw off, keeping one of the industry’s biggest franchises exclusive to Xbox platforms.

This likely won’t happen right away, but it’s certainly a possibility down the line. In his blog post about the acquisition, Xbox’s Spencer didn’t address Sony or Nintendo platforms specifically, but he alluded to the possibility of cross-platform support for Activision Blizzard’s franchises. 

“Activision Blizzard games are enjoyed on a variety of platforms and we plan to continue to support those communities moving forward,” he said, without detailing what he meant by “platforms” or “support.” Keep in mind, this was the messaging around Elder Scrolls VI at first, too.

Microsoft isn’t the only company in the midst of a studio-hoarding spree: Sony picked up its 13th internal studio, Housemarque, in June 2021, while Tencent is chugging along with ownership of Riot Games, financial stakes in a handful of massive studios, and the purchase of LittleBigPlanet 3 developer Sumo Group in July 2021. Even Valve has scooped up a handful of independent creators in recent years, including the team behind Firewatch and some members of Kerbal Space Program.

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Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard simply feels like the final push into a new era for the video game industry: consolidation.

While exclusivity deals may be the short-term concern, this trend has a longer and more tragic tail. It’s highly likely that there will be more acquisitions by Microsoft, Sony and other major names in gaming, and these deals and subsequent companies will only get bigger with time. With just a few massive studios controlling a huge chunk of the software pipeline, it could instill a sense of homogeneity among new titles, killing innovation as each developer attempts to conform to the corporate environment around them, actively or subconsciously.

Even with “creative freedom” built into their contracts, the acquired studios will all use the same QA process, funding arrangement, marketing plan, management structure and editing cycle; they’ll have the same bosses and face the same oversight. And when all new products are the result of a singular perspective, they’re bound to feel familiar. Stale, even. Boring.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard is an escalation of the exclusivity scheme, and it represents a new way of doing business. Now and for years to come, consolidation is the name of the game.

Maybe one day we’ll get Consolidation 2: Blow It All Up And Make Everything Indie Again, but that one might have trouble finding a publisher.