Sometime in the summer of 2023, Microsoft will finish its acquisition of Activision Blizzard King (ABK). With that, Microsoft will take on over 15 new development teams, 9,500 employees, and over 35 intellectual properties. Something that stands out to me is the lack of developed IP in the company’s 40-year history in games. As a creative company, it is unbelievable how few original characters, worlds, and lore the company has failed to develop. What IP ABK does have is not in great shape. Let’s dig into what went wrong after all of these years.
Here are the IPs that Microsoft will acquire once the deal with ABK is complete:
- Call of Duty
- Candy Crush
- Crash Bandicoot
- DJ Hero
- Empire Earth
- Gabriel Knight
- Geometry Wars
- Guitar Hero
- Heroes of the Storm
- Interstate ’76
- King’s Quest
- Laura Bow Mysteries
- The Lost Vikings
- Police Quest
- Quest for Glory
- Soldier of Fortune
- Space Quest
- Spyro the Dragon
- Tenchu (Only publishing rights to first three games)
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
- True Crime
- Vigilante 8
- World of Warcraft
Looking at the list, you will notice some of the most important franchises in video game history. Games like World of Warcraft, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Crash Bandicoot, Guitar Hero, Diablo, Call of Duty, and Starcraft. These IPs are going to propel Microsoft into a plateau we have never seen before. Undoubtedly, there are IPs included here that made this acquisition worthwhile.
Although after 40 years of creating games, it is unbelievable ABK has this small collection of meaningful IPs. In all this time, Activision has failed to secure the full rights to over 85% of the nearly 900 games it has published. It spent too many years making games for Marvel, Dreamworks, and Cabela’s. In today’s world where companies like Disney treat their properties like currency, the industry needs to take note. Developing new worlds and characters will be paramount to long-term growth.
So What Went Wrong
Nearly every decade you will find something Activision did to squander away any opportunity to develop IP. In the 1980s Activision developed the iconic game Pitfall! it still owns today. While Microsoft has already committed to Indiana Jones, there is something here for them to lean into if they ever want their own Uncharted. Outside of that, you will find a slew of Activision Atari games with names like Boxing, Starmaster, Sky Jinks, Dolphin, Robot Tank, and H.E.R.O. A collection of IPs that failed to make it past the marketing passage of the ’90s.
After a 15 year period, Activision shifted into publishing licensed games. Games like Predator, Ghostbusters, and The Three Stooges. In addition to porting popular arcade games to Atari in select regions. Games like Rampage, Double Dragon, and After Burner found second homes thanks to Activision. Along the way, Activision never worked to secure the rights to many of the games they published. Something to think about the next time a publisher forces a developer to give up their IP in exchange for funding.
More Of The Same Old Activision
In the 1990s, Activision doubled down on its efforts to publish licensed games. After Bobby Kotick took over, they released a series of MechWarrior games. Even after their licensing deal ended, Kotick and Activision found a way to continue releasing games under the MechWarrior 2 name. Following that, of the 133 games, Activision published between 1989 and 1999 nearly 25% of them were tied to a movie, TV show, or sport.
Along with Activision going full Hollywood in the 90s, they continued to publish games on specific platforms, in specific regions. A perfect example of this would be the 1995 PC release of Earthworm Jim Special Edition. Likewise, the international release of Dreamcast’s launch title Blue Stinger. There are countless other examples during this period where Activision worked as an intermediary with another publisher. It is hard to believe these deals paid well, yet there sure were a lot of them.
The Early 2000s Activision
I will always remember the early 2000s as an era where some of the worst licensed games were released. Before the days of Batman Arkham, many licensed games acted as marketing tools for movies. Activision was at the front line championing the shovelware. Games like Blade II, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and The Bee Movie are just a few among dozens.
Many of the decisions Activision made came from spreadsheets instead of scouts. Scouts that could have combed the globe looking for the next up-and-coming developer or the next ambitions game. This penny-wise, pound-foolish mentality is what forced Activision to go out and acquire Bungie and Blizzard instead of making great games in-house.
ABK Headed In The Wrong Direction Today
Presently, the ABK we know today is creating a whole new mess for itself when it comes to developing new IPs. In the months following the sexual harassment allegations, ABK has consolidated its teams to focus on what works. It has placed a new effort to ensure its most popular games can release regular content. This change comes at the cost of quantity. Forget about the new IP, Activision is only working on Call of Duty, never mind games like Crash or Spyro. Meanwhile, Blizzard is doing everything it can to fix WoW. As well as trying to finish Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2.
Problems With The IP They Do Have
When looking at the IP they do have, there is not a lot you can do with games like Blur, TimeShift, Skylanders, and Laura Bow Mysteries. When excluding games like this you begin to narrow down the usable IP Microsoft can work with. Arguably the number of useful licenses is somewhere near 15.
Most notably among the problems would be the Tenchu games. Activision published the international release of the first three Tenchu games. You will note on the list of games, ABK owns the rights to the first three games. ABK does not own the Tenchu franchise itself. It is unclear if Microsoft would need legal help with developer FromSoftware to re-release the first three games. Even if that is not the case, they may not want to upset the applecart following the release of Elden Ring. For now, the Tenchu IP could be useless.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is another predicament of its own. Classic Tony Hawk games are tied up in music rights. Not to be forgotten, the Tony Hawk name itself belongs to the famous skater. We will find out soon if Tony Hawk’s: Pro Skater 1 + 2 has a licensing deal that fits Game Pass. Royalties may be paid out to Tony Hawk and the musical acts by units sold. The Game Pass subscription model may not work for the 2020 remaster. Likewise, new deals would need to be made with Tony Hawk as well as the musical acts for future games.
World of Warcraft and Diablo have problems of their own. Both franchises have bleeding player bases dating back to the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Many WoW players have moved on to other games like Final Fantasy 14, New World, and Destiny 2. As for Diablo, if the upcoming embattled Diablo 4 does release, it may come to PlayStation. With that, it may be another 10 years before Microsoft can make use of the franchise. The same will be true for Overwatch, which has found itself in the middle of a three-year delay on its upcoming sequel.
A Warning To The Industry To Take More Risks
Looking back, the mess Activision has made with its IP over 40 years should be a reminder to Sony, Ubisoft, EA, and Microsoft. In the long term, it would not be beneficial for Sony to become the official home of Marvel, and then churn out 40 Horizon games. Likewise, someone needs to tell Ubisoft, not every game needs to be under the Tom Clancy or Assassin’s Creed name. Finally, what would EA look like if the NFL took its deal off the table? AAA publishers need to look at what ABK has done here and stay far away.