Microsoft’s promises to keep Call of Duty game on PlayStation following the acquisition of Activision Blizzard caused a little bit of confusion within Bethesda, as company execs highlighted this double standard through email conversations.
In particular it was Bethesda’s then VP of global marketing and communications Pete Hines (now head of global publishing), who asked senior figures including Todd Howard, “Is the below not the opposite of what we were just asked (told) to do with our own titles? What’s the difference?”
Hines was more thinking about the public relations backlash that would be coming Bethesda’s way – specifically Todd Howard’s upcoming trip to DICE – and especially with Redfall and Starfield both having originally been privately intended for cross-platform release on PlayStation and Xbox, before being made exclusive – Indiana Jones is also now set to be Xbox exclusive. There wasn’t even any kind of PR wiggle room with timed exclusivity, as had been the case for Ghostwire: Tokyo and Deathloop, and the shift to Xbox exclusivity came after Microsoft had played coy and said that games would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
As spotted by Axios’ Stephen Totillo, the email, dated 2nd October 2022, came as Microsoft was trying to navigate the regulatory headwinds that their bid to acquire Activision Blizzard was facing. One of the key talking points has been that Call of Duty could be made an Xbox exclusive, something claimed by Sony in various forums and courts (but also something they privately never thought would happen), and this pushed Microsoft to make various pledges to keep the FPS franchise on PlayStation, to expand its reach to Nintendo consoles, and to sign all manner of game streaming service partnerships.
Despite these promises, Microsoft has been taken to court by the FTC in an attempt to block the proposed acquisition, and the trial is ongoing through to the middle of this week. The US regulator has tried to use the company’s past actions with the acquisition of Bethesda to try and show that they would act in the same way with Activision Blizzard’s games.
This…. has seemingly backfired a bit. Xbox CEO Phil Spencer testified under oath that they would not withdraw Call of Duty from PlayStation consoles, which led the FTC’s counsel to try and bait him into making similar promises for other Activision Blizzard titles, and to make other promises under oath for cloud-gaming platforms – this line of questioning got to the point that Judge Corley cut them short. Additionally, the former manager of Google Stadia, Dov Zimring, was brought onto the stand to state that Stadia’s failure was down to a lack of Call of Duty, but under cross-examination undercut the FTC’s angle that cloud-gaming be considered a separate market by saying that cloud gaming competes with console gaming.
Then with have Sony’s own documents and statements, with CEO Jim Ryan writing in an internal email that “[The acquisition is] not an Xbox exclusivity play at all… I’m pretty sure we will continue to see COD on PS for many years to come… I’m not complacent and I’d rather this hadn’t happened, but we’ll be OK, more than OK.”
There’s good reason for that opinion, since Spencer said during testimony that “Xbox has lost the console wars”. A part of that will have been that the Call of Duty marketing deal between Sony and Activision precluded Microsoft from advertising that COD was on Xbox, unless they were doing so via Xbox platforms. So yes to Xbox Wire blog posts and Xbox Dashboard adverts, but no taking out advertising on other sites, creating console bundles etc.
While acquiring Activision Blizzard will certainly help Xbox compete with PlayStation in some ways, it sucks for gamers in general that we’re seeing what feels like more and more games being put behind platform-specific walls, whether it’s through developer ownership, timed exclusivity or other kinds of deals.