Axios Gaming

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Stephen here. I only wrote five items last time, so you're getting seven today.

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Today’s edition is 1,288 words, 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Call of Duty union push

Illustration of a gaming controller with different fist icons on the buttons.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Efforts to organize workers in the U.S. video game industry advanced today as quality assurance staffers at Call of Duty studio Raven Software say they intend to form a union.

Why it matters: Their group, the Game Workers Alliance, would be the first union at a major American video game maker, one that is set to become part of Microsoft should the tech giant’s planned $69 billion acquisition of Raven parent Activision go through.

  • QA workers at Raven have been on strike since December to protest Activision’s decision to drop a dozen QA contractors.
  • 34 members of the QA staff voted to form GWA in affiliation with the Communication Workers of America.
  • The union won’t be official unless Activision voluntarily recognizes it or the group is certified through an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

The big picture: The multi-billion-dollar global game industry, which employs tens of thousands of workers, is largely non-unionized, with some exceptions mainly in Europe.

  • For years, challenging work conditions, including workplace misconduct, crunched development cycles and limited project-to-project job security have sparked developers' interest in unionizing.
  • Scandals at Activision Blizzard last year led some workers there to begin unionization efforts, a process that is adjacent to the QA-focused GWA effort.
  • In December, North American indie studio Vodeo unionized with support from management.

Details: In a tweeted list of its principles, GWA said it will focus on solidarity, sustainability, equity and diversity.

  • “We strive to foster work environments where Quality Assurance Testers are respected and compensated for our essential role in the development process,“ the group writes.
  • GWA also signaled that it will push for “realistic” development timelines, saying abbreviated ones are unhealthy for workers and hurt game quality.

What they’re saying: “Activision Blizzard is carefully reviewing the request for voluntary recognition from the CWA, which seeks to organize around three dozen of the company’s nearly 10,000 employees,” a company spokesperson said.

2. Decoding a tweet

Screenshot of a Tweet about Call of Duty that is quoted in the article below
Screenshot: Twitter

Gamers and games media are scrutinizing a 46-word tweet from Microsoft gaming CEO Phil Spencer to see if it indicates that new releases of Activision flagship franchise Call of Duty will continue to come to PlayStation, should Microsoft successfully buy Activision.

Why it matters: If Call of Duty leaves Sony’s platforms, millions of players would have to seek the game on PC or Xbox, devices they may not own.

The tweet: “Had good calls this week with leaders at Sony. I confirmed our intent to honor all existing agreements upon acquisition of Activision Blizzard and our desire to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation. Sony is an important part of our industry, and we value our relationship.”

  • For the half-full crowd, that’s Spencer saying that PlayStation players will keep getting new Call of Duty games.
  • For the skeptics, “desire” doesn’t equal a guarantee.

The intrigue: Microsoft has taken different approaches with multi-billion-dollar gaming acquisitions.

  • It has kept Mojang’s Minecraft on myriad platforms, including those of rivals Sony and Nintendo.
  • But last year it announced Bethesda’s highly anticipated Starfield just for PC and Xbox, despite the studio’s previous hits also going to PlayStation.

Between the lines: Call of Duty has long been a dominant franchise, but it’s in the middle of a transformation that makes its long-term status unclear.

  • In 2020, Activision supplemented its annual CoD releases with a perpetually updated free-to-play battle royale game Warzone and the Tencent-made Call of Duty Mobile.
  • Demand is high enough to rank 2021’s and 2020’s annual Call of Duty games as the two best-selling games in the U.S. in the past year, according to the NPD group.
  • But bugs have infuriated players (and emboldened critics of company management), leading to this week’s postponement of new content for the main CoD releases.

Warning signs: Demand for Call of Duty appears to have softened across the board.

  • Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has himself signaled that November's Call of Duty Vanguard is underperforming.
  • Industry tracker YipitData notes that in-game bookings (transactions) for Call of Duty games' post-release seasons, usually good money-makers for Activision, tend to decline by the third or fourth season each year. They say it is “troubling” that booking for the first post-release season of Vanguard are tracking lower than late seasons of prior games.
  • The mobile CoD is having issues, too. Its revenue exceeded $500 million last year, according to SensorTower analyst Dennis Yeh, but the game’s launch in China, which had boosted performance early last year “has quickly tapered off.”

3. Epic’s Apple appeal

Fortnite-maker Epic Games has begun making its case that a California judge who largely ruled for Apple in last year’s tussle of tech titans actually got it wrong. 

Driving the news: Yesterday, Epic filed a 91-page brief to the U.S, court of appeals, as it hopes for a reversal that would force Apple to open up iOS to competing app stores (like Epic’s) and support third-party payment options. 

  • “The district court issued an opinion finding every fact necessary to establish that Apple is a monopolist,” an Epic lawyer said in a filing.

Between the lines: The brief’s highly technical arguments involve pushback about which aspects of antitrust law apply.

  • Epic also argues that the lower court judge proved that Apple could run its app store in less restrictive ways and still achieve its stated iOS goals of a secure and safe marketplace. 

What they’re saying: Apple disagrees, of course.

  • “We remain committed to ensuring the App Store is a safe and trusted marketplace for consumers that supports a talented developer community and we are confident that the rulings challenged by Epic will be affirmed on appeal,” an Apple rep tells Axios.

4. The week ahead

Video game screenshot of two white men viewed from behind, looking out over a valley
Uncharted 4. Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 22 & 23

Monday, Jan. 24

  • Hidden Deep (PC), an Aliens-style horror game, is released in early access.

Tuesday, Jan. 25

Wednesday, Jan. 26

  • Not much happening.

Thursday, Jan. 27

  • Luminous Avenger iX 2 (PC, consoles), a new game from prolific 2D action game studio Inti Creates, is released.

Friday, Jan. 28

5. Need to know

🤔 Blizzard management has posted an outline of actions it has taken to address misconduct and improve workplace culture.

⚡️ In a detailed report, Roblox says its 73-hour outage back in October was due to two unforeseen back-end failures.

🟥 Netflix says it plans to expand its “portfolio of games across both casual and core gaming genres” this year as it seeks to figure out which kinds of games its audience values.

6. Worthy of your attention

PlayStation Creator Kutaragi Snubs Metaverse and VR Headsets [Takashi Mochizuki and Yuki Furukawa, Bloomberg]

“Being in the real world is very important, but the metaverse is about making quasi-real in the virtual world, and I can’t see the point of doing it,” the 71-year-old entrepreneur told Bloomberg News in an interview. “You would rather be a polished avatar instead of your real self? That’s essentially no different from anonymous messageboard sites.”

7. It still looks great

Video game screenshot of people walking through a street in 18th century Paris
Screenshot: Ubisoft

Let’s end with a screenshot, one I captured this week while dipping back into 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity.

  • I like AC games but disliked Unity when I reviewed it. The graphics were impressive, but the mission design – what you do in the game – was too repetitious and bland for my taste.
  • I recently found it a little easier to appreciate. Its dense revolutionary-era Paris looks splendid, holding up graphically the way few games with realistic art styles do after a 7+ year gap. (There are still some bugs involving civilians floating around, but you get used to it.)
  • Mission design still feels just so-so, though protagonist Arno is more satisfying to control if you study this essential fan-made 2018 movement and tactics tutorial video.

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🐦 Find us on Twitter: @megan_nicolett / @stephentotilo.

Wondering if next week will start with another multi-billion-dollar gaming merger. Why stop the streak at two?