News broke yesterday of Activision Blizzard's acquisition of King Digital Entertainment, better known as the creators of Candy Crush Saga - the insanely popular match three game that continues to raise untold revenue with its heavy focus on monetization.
Mainstream commentators have called the $5.9 billion acquisition an odd fit. Outside of their focus on the bottomline, Activision Blizzard and King are very different companies. One is a successful mobile startup specializing in casual free-to-play games, the other is the very definition of triple-A. The biggest thing they have in common is Hearthstone - Blizzard's extremely successful free-to-play game.
So what does Activision Blizzard have planned for King Digital Entertainment? We have a few ideas, but let's quickly take a look at the best case scenario and the worst case scenario.
The Best Case Scenario
Love them or hate them, King Digital Entertainment has significant experience in the mobile market. Though derided as a one-hit wonder - roughly a third of their revenue comes from Candy Crush Saga - King still managed to exceed Wall Street's earnings expectations for Q3. Without Activision Blizzard they would have eventually had to reckon with the inevitable decline of Candy Crush, but they had enough solid hits behind them that they weren't due for a Zynga-like crash for a while.
In an ideal world, Activision Blizzard would use that expertise to build out their own mobile portfolio while still making good games. Blizzard in particular continues to put a heavy premium on quality. Though Hearthstone is monetized, it is it relatively easy to play without paying any money, which is something that cannot be said for Candy Crush Saga. It would be nice if some of that balance rubbed off on King.
The real best case scenario, though, is King being totally assimilated by Activision and becoming a backend developer, effectively taking them off the market as a game studios. Candy Crush needs to die so that we can all get on with our lives.
The Worst Case Scenario
The worst case scenario is that King Digital Entertainment infects the likes of Hearthstone with a particularly nasty strain of monetization. If Blizzard suddenly starts introducing lock boxes and elite cards that can only be accessed via packs to Hearthstone, we're in trouble.
As always, it goes without saying that Candy Crush is the absolute worst - the purest possible representation of everything that is wrong with free-to-play mobile games. It's a game that eschews anything even resembling fair design in favor of repeatedly tapping your brain's pleasure center with cute music and animations so that you're willing to plug in money when you inevitably run out of turns. It is a game wholly corrupted by its emphasis on monetization, and it has convinced a whole generation of consumers that such an approach is perfectly acceptable. If I could use the DeLorean to go back and erase one game from history, it would be that one.
What's scary is that Activision Blizzard and King have more in common than many would suppose. After all, Activision Blizzard is the publisher that took a feel-good hit in Guitar Hero and ran it straight into the ground, more or less killing the whole genre in the process. Activision Blizzard is the publisher that started the toys-to-life craze that is currently draining the life savings of parents around the world. If they can make their own Candy Crush, they will.
The Most Likely Scenario
Activision CEO Bobby Kotick more or less articulated their plans for King in a statement released after the acquisition: "With a combined global network of more than half a billion monthly active users, our potential to reach audiences around the world on the device of their choosing enables us to deliver great games to even bigger audiences than ever before."
In other words, this looks like a monopoly play for Activision. They're making a move to grab King to bolster their position in the mobile gaming market, which continues to grow. It's one more revenue stream among many.
And unlike Electronic Arts, Activision is smart enough to leave King alone and let them do their thing. According to the BBC, King will remain an independent unit operated by its chief executive Riccardo Zacconi, and that's unlikely to change unless Candy Crush dies and profits go into the tank.
In acquiring King, Activision Blizzard has made a smart, calculated move to expand its presence on mobile. In this case, though, good business is unlikely to equate to good game development.