What Kind Of Culture Is Microsoft Buying In Activision Blizzard Acquisition Deal?

Microsoft's planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard is massive. But what defines an Activision or Blizzard studio these days?

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Microsoft announced plans to acquire Activision Blizzard today, making it the company's largest acquisition ever--not just in gaming, but across all industries. The proposed $70 billion deal will mean Microsoft owns the rights to some of the biggest franchises in gaming, including Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. But following Activision's stewardship of annualization and tumult over harassment, what kind of studio culture is Microsoft buying?

When Microsoft bought studios like Obsidian or Double Fine, it was easy to understand the types of expertise and culture the company was buying. As an elevator pitch, you could say that Obsidian is known for mechanically complex RPGs, and Double Fine is known for its quirky humor. You can understand right away how these fold into the Microsoft umbrella to complement and round out their existing corporate and creative structures.

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Microsoft's previously largest gaming acquisition, Bethesda, was similarly clear across its slate of studios. Purchasing Bethesda Game Studios netted Microsoft one of the industry's most renowned RPG studios, behind hits like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Owning Arkane gave Microsoft a critically acclaimed studio known for immersive sims. Buying Id Software meant it owned legacy shooter franchises like Doom and Wolfenstein.

By comparison, look at Activision's studios. What is the defining quality of an Infinity Ward or Beenox or Raven game? What makes their cultures unique and creatively interesting?

The answer to most of these is simply, "Call of Duty." Activision's all-in strategy on the franchise shooter has sapped its studios of some of their individuality. The franchise is reliably a high-production value roller coaster ride, but that's hardly unique to Call of Duty itself. What's worse, Activision has progressively directed Call of Duty to consume every studio, including ones that did once have their own sense of personality, such as Toys For Bob.

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Meanwhile, Blizzard, a studio so known for having its own unique culture that it inspired a devoted fanbase and its own annual convention, is undergoing a transformation independent of Microsoft's acquisition plans. Following an investigation and lawsuit from the state of California over a culture of abuse at Activision Blizzard, the Blizzard half of the company has been put under the spotlight. After J. Allen Brack left Blizzard in light of allegations that leadership was lax in addressing abuse and harassment, Blizzard named Mike Ybarra and Jen Oneal as co-leads. But in an ironic twist, Oneal soon left as well, saying she wasn't offered pay equal to her male co-lead until she threatened to resign.

Executives and employees alike have exited the company in recent months, some signaling in their departures that they felt the culture of abuse and harassment was too entrenched. Others have remained, attempting to improve Activision Blizzard and organizing under the hashtag "ABetterABK." Unquestionably, though, Blizzard is going through a seismic transformation, and it's hard to tell at this point what it will become. The studio was once described as tight-knit and familial, and it remains to be seen if it will still feel that way once all is said and done. That's not to mention the loss of talent and brain drain that may have occurred through various studio departures.

Microsoft's acquisition inserts another X-factor into this already tenuous situation. While Blizzard does not lack an identity in the way many of Activision's sub-studios do, it remains to be seen whether that identity will hold and how it will shift in light of everything else happening at the studio.

Activision Blizzard becoming part of the Xbox umbrella has massive benefits for Microsoft. It will own the rights to some of the biggest franchises in gaming. Microsoft certainly expects to make back its $70 billion investment and then some, even if it is bound to take some time. But franchises don't iterate on themselves, and studio acquisitions are also huge influxes of personnel.

Microsoft has generally had success acquiring studios and then giving them a certain degree of autonomy, and touting the diversity of its brands as a feather in the cap of Game Pass. With this massive move, studios like Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Toys For Bob, and Blizzard's various teams may be given more freedom to explore. Given the accusations of a toxic leadership culture at Activision Blizzard, Microsoft may also be able to assert more control and help resolve those concerns. This is arguably a responsibility for the company if it expects distinct voices and ideas to define each studio once again--a culture of creativity cannot emerge when one of toxicity runs rampant. More than most of Microsoft's acquisitions, studio culture is as big a consideration for the company as what games these new teams will be able to bring to the Xbox table.

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