Gaming

Is Microsoft's Activision Blizzard acquisition really about the metaverse?

Microsoft calls it a metaverse move, which is already 2022's most overused term.

A sequel to Overwatch has been in the works, although delays were announced last fall.
Activision Blizzard

Waking up on a Tuesday morning to hear that Microsoft was snapping up yet another massive game publisher is a disorienting way to start the week. That the publisher is Activision Blizzard, and the deal is worth over $67 billion, is even more so. But Microsoft doesn't just seem to be calling this a win for its Xbox and subscription-based Game Pass service. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also considers it a metaverse move.

The official press release reads, in part: "This acquisition will accelerate the growth in Microsoft's gaming business across mobile, PC, console and cloud and will provide building blocks for the metaverse."

Now, hold on. Ever since Facebook renamed itself last fall to Meta, the metaverse has become an ever-accelerating overhyped catchphrase -- for everything. So, too, has a big wave of "gaming is a metaverse" takes. (And, for sure, games are already where many people live their virtual lives.)

Is this move to acquire Activision, which won't be complete until at least June 2023, a metaverse move? Or is it more of what already has been happening in gaming, in content, everywhere? It's easy to scream at the "metaverse" label for this move: I am, too. But there's also something going on, underneath, that seems to suggest what's playing out.

Massively (mobile) multiplayer worlds?

Most future visions of metaverses, including Facebook's, reach for some sort of large-scale, everybody-is-there shared universe. Sure, that's the internet, but everyone's not always in the same place at the same time. I tried dropping into Microsoft's VR-hosted virtual Burning Man, Altspace, over the last two years and it showed me that the number of people being together at once still hits a limit before people get funneled to other parallel instances. Second Life's founder, Philip Rosedale, told me that's a big part of what he's still trying to solve for his years-old proto-metaverse. 

Activision Blizzard's biggest games, the ones being celebrated in the news, are all massive, multiplayer and mostly esports-focused. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Starcraft, Overwatch: they're connected, competitive platforms. Epic calls Fortnite a metaverse. Microsoft already has one metaverse in Minecraft, another in Altspace VR. 

Aside from some future world of possible VR/AR headsets, Microsoft also seems to be targeting a very real immediate landscape of competitive mobile gaming. "When we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won't be a single, centralized metaverse and there shouldn't be," Nadella said, in a conference call to investors. "We need to support many metaverse platforms, as well as a robust ecosystem of content, commerce and applications. In gaming, we see the metaverse as a collection of communities and individual identities anchored in strong content franchises, accessible on every device."

Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Gaming, pointed particularly to phones on that same call. "Our vision of the metaverse is based on intersecting global communities rooted in strong franchises. A big part of that is the fact that mobile is the biggest category of gaming, and it's an area where we have not had a major presence before."

Is a metaverse a larger collection of connected devices that includes phones? Or is that also just where gaming is already headed anyway?

Are subscription services doorways to the metaverse?

I'm actually asking this seriously. With all the subscriptions trickling into my life everywhere -- fitness, TV, storage, gaming, music -- it makes me wonder if that's not basically the entry ticket into the future of whatever the biggest companies in tech want the metaverse to be.

As Apple has its multitiered subscription model across music, games, movies and fitness, so Disney has its Hulu-ESPN package, and Microsoft has Game Pass (and 365). Meta's recent fitness app moves suggest subscriptions could be more in play for VR, a move that Vive already made years ago.

I think more about Game Pass than anything else when I think about Activision and Microsoft. Phil Spencer's comments about mobile also caught my attention. If subscribing to services is how we connect to things, then is that the part that becomes most important when a new wave of VR and AR headsets (and who knows what else) eventually get here?

Microsoft's been throwing efforts at VR and AR for years now, and yet the Xbox still doesn't even have VR headset support. Activision, Blizzard and the Xbox really don't have anything to do with VR or AR right now, although VR and AR don't necessarily have to be involved in someone's business conception of a metaverse. It makes me wonder if grabbing all the popular content is the strategy everyone's pursuing in the meantime, or if this has always been the game, for as long as I can remember.

Read moreXbox Game Pass Ultimate is the best content deal in gaming right now

Is Microsoft locking up the content? Will everyone?

The other part of the acquisition that seems concerning is the way companies all seem to be swallowing other companies lately. Disney ate Marvel, Star Wars and 21st Century Fox. Microsoft already has Bethesda (and before that, Minecraft). Sony's acquired many of its biggest game studios, including Insomniac. Meta has bought up lots of the biggest VR game developers, including some dabbling in fitness. It's getting hard to keep track.

The idea of the metaverse pitched by everyone keeps promising to be open, cross-platform. At the same time, moves like picking up Activision suggest a few big companies owning the roads to the games or movies or other content we'd be streaming, or playing, or putting on whatever device we'd be using. (Laptop? Game console? Phone? VR headset? Glasses?)

Every time it seems like some company tries to absorb the Thing People Are Doing, or The Thing People Are Watching, though, people seem to find a way of doing other things. And then those things get absorbed, over time. And then new things emerge. Maybe this is the endless Circle of Content. Or maybe, as metaverse promises seem to suggest an internet that umbrellas out to even more corners of a connected world, everyone's trying to grab up pieces for it all over again.