PIXEL BURN – The $5.9 Billion Call of Candy Crush

In which Matt avoids going into a diabetic coma.
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Hello you scruffy looking nerf-herders. My name’s Matt and this is Pixel Burn, where I take a snarky look at the week’s gaming news.

Starting with the absolutely mind-boggling news this week that Activision; cold soulless peddler of yearly Call of Duty sequels, have gone and bought mobile gaming company King Digital Entertainment, mercenary dispenser of Candy Crush and other mind-rotting mobile opiates for housewives and the permanently unemployed. Which as news goes is a bit like Skeletor announcing he’s gone and bought Team Rocket from Pokemon. Except you could probably buy Team Rocket for the price of a fish & chip supper, given how useless they are, whereas buying King in its entirety has cost Activision a whopping $5.9 billion DOLLARS.

HOW MUCH?!

Five-Point-Nine Billion Dollars.

FIVE-POINT-NINE BILLION DOLLARS!? That’s more than the Gross Domestic Product of the Kingdom of Bhutan!

A constitutional monarchy sandwiched between India and Tibet, whose head of state is called “The Dragon King.”

Compare and contrast that to the $4 billion Disney paid for Marvel. Not forgetting of course the $4 billion-plus-change they paid for Lucasfilm, and the comparatively modest $2.5 billion dollars that Microsoft paid for Minecraft.

As huge as those purchases were, they at least made some sort of obvious sense. Owning Lucasfilm gets you all of Star Wars, owning Marvel gives you over seven decades of comic book history, and Minecraft is still trucking along with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

King on the other hand haven’t been doing so hot. They’ve still been making money, but the amount of money they’re making has been dwindling. In their third quarter financial results for this year King reported a 28% drop in profits to “only” $165 million, blamed it on what they call the “continuing maturation” of Candy Crush Saga. That being corporate speak for “our biggest cash cow is getting old and starting to shrivel up.” King’s shares have also never risen above the asking price of $22.50 set at the company’s Initial Public Offering, or IPO, in March of last year. In fact the company’s share price actually dropped to $19 on its first day of public trading – something of a rarity for tech companies – as analysts, investors and other businessy-types all concurred that King was an over-valued one-trick pony.

So with this in mind, and from an outside perspective, Activision’s decision seems to make about as much sense as buying a race horse on its way to the glue factory.

People with more knowledge of these sorts of businessy things have also chimed in with similar opinions. People such as Piers Harding-Rolls, whose name sounds like something The Queen might eat for elevenses, at business analyst company IHS, who described the King acquisition as having “obvious short term benefits but less-tangible longer-term opportunities.” Meanwhile the comparitively less-posh sounding Rob Fahey at Gamesindustry.biz summed it up as simply “Wrong Price, Poor Fit.”

Yet Activision CEO and games industry folk devil Bobby Kotick remains rather upbeat about the purchase. Speaking at a post-earnings conference call at Activision He adquarters, he said:

“We have the largest library of intellectual properties in games that exists from any company. There are tens and tens of millions of players who have experienced those franchises. With mobile, we now have the opportunity to reach new players in 196 countries around the world and take a lot of that great content that we built over 35 years and create new content [which] will leverage that content against this new opportunity.”

Still, even if Candy Crush is looking more ropey than a hangman’s noose, King do have other franchises, and if anyone knows how to grow a franchise and milk it until its tits fall off, it’s Activision. This purchase not only expands Activision’s business portfolio, which will make its shareholders happier than an arms dealer in Somalia, it also gets them a ready-made mobile gaming division. Incidentally this purchase also by default makes Activision the world’s biggest mobile games publisher, as well as one of the world’s biggest console publishers.

Buying King has also saved Activision a bunch of cash. $3.6 billion of the sum Activision paid for King was held in offshore accounts, and “repatriating” that money would’ve cost around $1 billion dollars in taxes. The remaining $2.3 billion was financed by loans taken out at a crazy low rate of interest. Which basically, through the witchcraft of modern economics, means Activision actually bought King for much LESS than the must publicised $5.9 billion dollar price tag.

But enough business talk bollocks. What does this all mean for Johnny and Janey Gamer? Well, there’s all manner of dark devilish tricks Activision could learn from King and apply to the console games you know and grudgingly tolerate. You thought paying for new dance emotes in Destiny was bad? Oh you poor sweet summer child, you ain’t seen nothing yet. With King under its belt Activision can devise all new wicked ways to bleed your wallet dry one nickel at a time. In short, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unholy union outside of shipping Cruella De Vil with Mumm-Ra the Ever Living.

This Devil’s Bargain is not entirely set in stone just yet however. The acquisition is still subject to a vote by King’s shareholders, and it must also be approved by the High Court of Ireland, where King is based. It also has to be double-checked by various antitrust authorities in Europe and the US to make sure it isn’t uncompetitive. Once those hoops have all been jumped through King will officially be the property of Activision-Blizzard.

Yep, as much as people try to keep the two companies separate in their fragile little minds, they are technically one and the same. It is, after all, why they’re called Activision-Blizzard. In fact the success of Hearthstone is what finally convinced a reluctantBobby Kotick to invest in mobile gaming. So thanks Blizzard.

Speaking of Blizzard, Blizzcon happened this week in Anaheim, California. The semi-annual celebration of all things Blizzard games-related kicked off on Friday and finished on Saturday, and for what was only a two day event managed to cram in a hell of a lot of stuff. Far too much for me to go into too much detail here, so I’ll stick to some of the biggest items.

Starting with the brand spanking new cinematic trailer for the latest World of Warcraft expansion, World of Warcraft: Legion, which looked as lovely as Blizzard cinematic trailers always do. I haven’t followed the lore of World of Warcraft since Wrath of the Lich King however, so I’m a tad clueless about what’s going on here. From what I can tell The Burning Legion from “The Burning Crusade” expansion are back, there’s a new quest area called the Sunken Isles that was last seen in Wacraft 3, and there’s a new cross-faction player class in the form of Demon Hunters.

Blizzard also unveiled some new characters for Overwatch, it’s cartoony Team Fortress 2-inspired first-person shooter that’s currently in beta. Joining the roster alongside Reaper, Bastion and other faces familiar to those jammy enough to have received a beta invite are Mei, who has an range of Ice-based powers, D.VA: a pro Starcraft 2 player with her own mech for some reason, and Genji: for people who’ve always wanted to be Gray Fox from Metal Gear Solid.

As well as new characters Overwatch now has a confirmed release date of sorts, that being “on or before” June 21st, 2016. Blizzard also confirmed that Overwatch is coming to PS4 and Xbox One. Whereas the basic PC version will “only” cost $40, PS4 and Xbox One owners eager to rocket-jump into the world of Overwatch will have to shell out $60 for the “Origins edition”: because that’s the only version of the game coming consoles. Although for that extra twenty smackers you get some character skins for Overwatch along with a bunch of other goodies for other Blizzard games, such as new profile portraits for Starcraft 2, new card-backs for Hearthstone, a baby Winston pet for World of Warcraft, a Tracer hero for Heroes of the Storm and Mercy wings for Diablo 3.

Which all sounds good until you remember only one of those other games is actually out on consoles, that being Diablo 3. Meaning all those other rewards are about as much use to Xbox One and PS4 players as a chocolate shed on the surface of Venus.

On the bright side the items will probably come in the form of codes, which enterprising console owners can then sell to PC-owning World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone and Starcraft 2 players for mad cash. For people who want to clutter up their house, bedsit or cardboard box under a bridge with more-tactile gaming knicknacks, there’s also a $130 collector’s edition that comes with a statue. Because apparently people can’t get enough of the bloody things for some reason.

Finally there was the exclusive trailer for the Warcraft movie directed by Duncan Jones, director of the critically acclaimed sci-fi film “Moon”, son of David Bowie and self-proclaimed massive gamer.

I was somewhat hesitant to watch this trailer for the simple reason that videogame movies are generally fucking awful. And I say that as someone who actually enjoyed the Mortal Kombat movie.

Mortal Kombat was fucking rubbish of course but it was entertaining rubbish, and I’m down with almost any film, no matter how awful, so long as it’s at least entertaining. Hence why I’ve managed to sit through Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic disaster-piece “The Room” at least six times, whereas you couldn’t pay me enough to watch season 2 of True Detective again.

Anyway, Warcraft: The Movie. Much to my surprise it takes place during the time period of the first Warcraft game, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, released way back in 1994. A simpler time when Orcs were big green bloodthirsty bastards come to pillage and conquer, and not angst-ridden, honour-bound poet warriors justifying their military expansionism with some guff about finding a land of their own.

For hardcore Warcraft lore-nerds there are nods to more recent Warcraft games, which will no doubt thrill them right to the bone yet could confuse regular, non-gaming cinema audiences. Particularly things like why the future orc warchief and shaman Thrall here is green even though both his parents are brown.

Yes yes, I know it’s because Thrall’s skin was contaminated by the ambient fel-magics of the new orc warlock class led by Gul’Dan and the Shadow Council, under the demonic influence of the Burning Legion, which had usurped orcish society’s previous nature-friendly shamanistic traditions. Try explaining that to someone who not only watches Adam Sandler movies, but also genuinely enjoys them.

Scoff all you like, but that’s precisely the sort of crowd this movie needs to attract if it wants to make back it’s budget. Which is an absolutely stonking- Shit, how much was it again?

One Hundred Million Dollars.

100 Million dollars! That’s over three times the Gross Domestic Product of Tuvalu!

A Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawai, and whose head of state is plain old Queen Elizabeth II. Which I’m sure you’ll agree doesn’t sound anywhere near as cool as “The Dragon King of Bhutan.”

Which brings me to the CGI, which isn’t terrible but is somewhat jarring. Personally I think the movie would’ve looked better if it were done entirely in CG, in the style of Blizzard’s game cinematics, with both orcs AND humans rendered in Warcraft’s distinct exaggerated visual style. Here the contrast between the all-too-real human actors, and the CGI-enhanced actors playing the Orcs, is wedged a bit too firmly in the uncanny valley for my tastes.

The Warcraft movie is due for release in Summer 2016, for those of you excited enough by the trailer to want to go and see it. Personally what I’ve seen here doesn’t really grab me. Maybe I’m just getting old, or I’ve been burned one-too-many times by terrible movie adaptations of games. Or perhaps I’ve just moved on from needing to see videogames validated in old media.

And that’s always been the biggest problem with videogame movie adaptations, hasn’t it? Why go and pay to sit in a cinema for two hours when you can just play the game it’s based on instead? Why do we still have this need to see videogames represented in old media, in a way that goes against what makes games so much more immersive as a medium: their interactivity and sense of agency?

But that’s just me. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the Warcraft movie – or any other videogame movie adaptation for that matter – in the comments below.

That’s all for this episode of Pixel Burn. If you still liked it then please let me know by clicking the button down below, and let your friends, family and Robert “Moneyball” Kotick know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable.

Meanwhile for those of you who were expecting an episode about Payday 2’s microtransactions: don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. That’s still in the process of being done and should hopefully be with you sooner rather than later. In the meantime until next week – or the next episode rather, as always – barring illness – you can go now.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.