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What if Call of Duty was awful, Microsoft’s latest Activision acquisition defense needs to ask

You know, that’s possible—Microsoft claims it has already happened.

Call of Duty is a major concern in Microsoft’s proposed takeover of Activision Blizzard (opens in a new tab). Concerns about Microsoft using the series as a weapon against PlayStation by making it exclusive to Xbox systems have been raised by both Sony and regulatory agencies. Microsoft has stated numerous times that it will not do this, but in a previous answer to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, the company also made the point that it might not matter in the future because nothing lasts forever.

There indeed aren’t many video game games as famous and dependable as Call of Duty. Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, it has been around for about 20 years now (the first Call of Duty was released in 2003). Sony’s trepidation at the thought of losing access to millions of game sales (and millions more microtransactions) each year is understandable. What if Call of Duty was bad, though? Then exclusivity wouldn’t matter to anyone, right?

Microsoft stated in its response to the CMA that “although Call of Duty is one of several popular franchises, its success over time is not guaranteed” (opens in new tab). Every release has a bearing on how relevant it is to players.
This dynamic is exemplified by the performance of Call of Duty: Vanguard, which was released last year and received strong criticism from both the trade press and gamers, leading to much lower sales than indicated by the internal papers referenced by the CMA.

Of course, Vanguard isn’t the only Call of Duty game to fall short in recent years. Infinite Warfare, which has been launched in 2016, barely sold half as many copies as Black Ops 3 did the year before.

In reaction, the CMA stated that even when individual titles fall short of expectations, the Call of Duty series as a whole still maintains “persistent high revenues and player engagement” adding that “players who did not enjoy Vanguard probably stuck with prior CoD games rather than switching to another game.”

Microsoft addressed this by citing Activision’s 10Q report for the quarter ending June 30, 2022, which revealed a general fall in Call of Duty sales in the months after Vanguard’s release: In compared to the three months ending June 30, 2021, “average MAUs [monthly active users] declined by 47 million or 12% for the three months ended June 30, 2022… largely owing to reduced average MAUs for Activision, led by the Call of Duty franchise.”

Activision’s monthly player base has reduced, according to the 10Q filing, although Microsoft did not include Crash Bandicoot: On the Run! in its response. In the filing, Activision said that “we think that overall trends in the number of MAUs can be a useful performance statistic, [but] period-to-period volatility may not be indicative of longer-term patterns,” yet the story omitted this statement. Take that any way you want.

Even if Microsoft may be overblowing the case, the following viewpoint is plausible: Even though popular videogame brands like Madden NFL, which has been around since the 1980s, are incredibly durable, nothing lasts forever, so it’s feasible that eventually, gamers may grow tired of the yearly variations of the same simple military shooters. Is it likely to happen shortly? I would have to answer no, and a significant portion of Microsoft’s response in this CMA filing (related to Call of Duty) continues to rely on the purpose of making decisions that withdrawing Call of Duty from PlayStation systems would not be in Microsoft’s best interests.

But what’s interesting, let’s face it, enjoyable is that one day, Call of Duty might be so terrible that Sony wouldn’t even want it.

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