The dispute over the future of a Microsoft-owned Call of Duty has taken on a little bit of a mano a mano sheen as a recent comment by Xbox boss Phil Spencer has brought PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan trucking out to "set the record straight."
One of the big sticking points in Microsoft's proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard is the Call of Duty series, one of the biggest games on the planet. It's been multi-platform from the start (the original 2004 release even had an N-Gage version developed by Nokia), and in recent years—going at least as far back as 2018 (opens in new tab)—PlayStation owners have actually had an edge over the rest of us in terms of getting (opens in new tab)early access to COD beta tests. But Sony has expressed understandable concerns that Microsoft could end up making Call of Duty an Xbox exclusive if it gains control of the series.
Microsoft has repeatedly dismissed those concerns (opens in new tab), most recently in a statement sent to The Verge (opens in new tab) in which Spencer said Microsoft sent a formal offer to Sony in January "to guarantee Call of Duty on PlayStation, with feature and content parity, for at least several more years beyond the current Sony contract." The offer went "well beyond typical gaming industry agreements," Spencer said at the time.
That sounds reasonable enough, but Spencer's counterpart had some harsh words for the specifics of Microsoft's proposition, and he clearly wasn't happy that Spencer was airing their laundry in public either.
"I hadn’t intended to comment on what I understood to be a private business discussion, but I feel the need to set the record straight because Phil Spencer brought this into the public forum," Ryan told GamesIndustry (opens in new tab).
"Microsoft has only offered for Call of Duty to remain on PlayStation for three years after the current agreement between Activision and Sony ends. After almost 20 years of Call of Duty on PlayStation, their proposal was inadequate on many levels and failed to take account of the impact on our gamers. We want to guarantee PlayStation gamers continue to have the highest quality Call of Duty experience, and Microsoft’s proposal undermines this principle."
"Inadequate on many levels" is about as scathing as gaming industry corporate speech gets, especially words intended for public consumption, but what's especially notable is the timing. GamesIndustry is a UK-based publication and Ryan's comment comes less than a week after the UK's Competition and Markets Authority recommended an in-depth investigation (opens in new tab) into Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard. The CMA noted Call of Duty multiple times in its summary of its initial inquiry (opens in new tab), saying that its investigation "pointed towards [Activision Blizzard's] content, especially Call of Duty, as being important and capable of making a material difference to the success of rivals’ gaming platforms."
"The CMA believes the Merger could allow Microsoft to make [Activision Blizzard] content, including Call of Duty, exclusive to Xbox or Game Pass, or otherwise degrade its rivals’ access to [Activision Blizzard] content, such as by delaying releases or imposing licensing price increases," the summary states.
"PlayStation currently has a larger share of the console gaming market than Xbox, but the CMA considers that Call of Duty is sufficiently important that losing access to it (or losing access on competitive terms) could significantly impact Sony’s revenues and user base. This impact is likely to be felt especially at the launch of the next generation of consoles, where gamers make fresh decisions about which console to buy. The CMA believes that the Merger could, therefore, significantly weaken Microsoft’s closest rival, to the detriment of overall competition in console gaming."
Microsoft and Activision Blizzard were given five working days to submit proposals to address the CMA's concerns and that window hasn't closed yet, so it's possible that approval will be given without the follow-up inquiry—and even if it proceeds, there's no guarantee that the acquisition won't be granted approval anyway.
In the meantime, though, Sony seems inclined to make the whole thing as much of a pain in the ass for Microsoft as possible, probably not to derail the process but simply to extract a better deal from Microsoft—which in turn could mollify the CMA's concerns about the likelihood of future Call of Duty exclusivity. Just business, in other words, despite the outwardly personal appearance of the dispute—and hopefully Jim and Phil can get together for some friendly beers and burgers when it's all over.
Call of Duty's future on PC, to be clear, by all expectations will remain intact and unaffected by this activity, as Microsoft continues to see Xbox and PC practically as an extension of one another (opens in new tab), thankfully.