We’re Missing The Point With Xbox Buying Nintendo

We’re Missing The Point With Xbox Buying Nintendo

Leaked documents reveal Microsoft discussed buying Nintendo, but it says far more about the Activision deal than it does about Pokemon on Xbox

The Xbox-Activision-Blizzard merger is already one of the most historic moments in video game history. It feels like quite a bit more than a ‘moment’ when we’re living in the midst of drawn out court cases and appeals, but whatever way the final chips fall on this deal, they will forever shape our industry. It will either open the doors for companies to swell larger and larger, devouring independent pools of talent and creativity in their path, or will set limits with precedent on how big a gaming corporation can be. This week, we saw another slice of history as the biggest leak gaming has ever known sprung from the FTC’s evidence.

The FTC denies any fault here, while Xbox has responded via Phil Spencer only to confirm that the information is true (as verified evidence in a court of law, there was little room for anything else), but that Microsoft is constantly monitoring and changing its release schedule. While all the evidence is legally true – as in, these are real emails and internal documents – that doesn’t mean they’re factually true – as in, the release dates and planned games will likely not all come to fruition. The documents in question are so old that they claimed The Elder Scrolls 6 will launch next year, when Bethesda recently told us it was only just in serious development and would need at least another five.

Video games are fun and exciting, and most people who work in video games agree. We certainly aren’t in it for the love and affection we get from our audience. So when we find out that a new Doom, a new Dishonored, a remake of Fallout 3, and a remake of Oblivion are in development, it’s natural that this becomes the discussion point. But there is a bigger story in play here that requires a more mature approach, and it’s disappointing that, again, we have been found wanting. Just as we bicker over review scores, deeming eight out of ten fair and seven out of ten the greatest atrocity in pixelated history, we have picked our horses in this race and will continue to cheer for it even as it marauds into the stands to attack the spectators.

Uriel Septim imparting his final words in Oblivion the video game

The biggest story was not that there are new games on the horizon, nor the mid-gen refresh, the handheld Xbox, or the target date for the next generation. Without a doubt the biggest reveal was that prior to Activision, Microsoft considered buying both Nintendo and Valve. And if you thought this debacle was messy when it was the Xbox and PlayStation fanboys going at each other, you ain’t seen nothing ’til the Nintendo kids get involved.

There have been a few reactions to this news. Mostly, it has been a mix of ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have Mario and Zelda on Xbox?’ to ‘Xbox stinks, keep ’em away from Mario and Zelda!’. Into the equation, some have argued these secret internal emails, that were never supposed to be seen by the public, were just Phil Spencer blowing smoke about how great Xbox is and not a serious suggestion. But this is not about the games themselves at all, and I consider this discussion to have been very real.

Mario jumps in Cascade Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey

There has been a lot of debate around why exactly Xbox bought Activision-Blizzard. The obvious truth is that this company makes a lot of money and, after several high-profile scandals, was available at a cut-price. It has been held up in court over concerns around Call of Duty (itself an embarrassing piece of close-up magic that distracts from the concerns of worker welfare if one company suddenly owns a vast chunk of the market) and cloud streaming, while Sony’s emails show it feels this is a play for the mobile market via King. The truth, I suspect, is that it’s both and neither at once. How they make the money doesn’t matter, all that matters is the result; this is a move Microsoft can afford that will make it money.

Like Bethesda, it may aid its standing with consumers, level the playing field with Sony’s prestige exclusives, and help build out its gaming catalogue, but mostly it makes money and comes with people who are experts at what they do who can be put onto whatever projects Microsoft deems best. Xbox didn’t want Nintendo for Mario or Zelda or Pokemon, it wanted the experts on its staff and the money Nintendo rakes in. Ditto Valve. This seems to confirm that Activision-Blizzard was bought simply because it was available, not because of any great plan, and that in turn suggests there may be cuts and layoffs once it is complete. Buying a company this huge with no plan in place will likely mean parts are eventually deemed surplus to requirements.

The closest thing to a plan is Spencer’s emails saying Nintendo’s future “lies off its own hardware”, the only remark with real substance, and one that is likely incorrect. While there’s no fire yet, we have enough smoke to drown in – a Switch 2 is coming, possibly as soon as next year. Princess Peach: Showtime in March 2024 is the furthest release date for a new game, with the remake of Luigi’s Mansion 2 following in summer. After that, nothing. If the Switch 2 has the power of at least the Xbox One and PS4, then it might put to bed the idea that Nintendo needs to leave its consoles behind.

But the Switch has outsold every competitor this gen or last, and has a string of critically acclaimed commercial successes that (with the exception of Pokemon) are hailed as technical marvels and the result of development teams given the luxury of time. Nintendo has its problems, but it is not in need of a saviour.

Link riding horseback across a field in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Even with all of these emails, we will never truly know how close Xbox came to attempting to buy Nintendo or Valve, if others were in the pipeline, and exactly how opportunistic Activision-Blizzard’s acquisition was. But this sprayshot strategy suggests the plan was to buy something, anything, and make that work. It implies, if not desperation, then at least cash burning a hole in Xbox’s pockets. That Xbox can buy Activision-Blizzard and disrupt the market’s stability and threaten workers’ leverage overnight is worrying. To think it might have been an impulse buy is even worse.

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