Effects on competition in the console and cloud gaming markets
Many people in the games industry expected the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to approve Microsoft’s proposed takeover of the games business, Activision Blizzard. However, in its final report published on 26 April, the CMA stated that the takeover would result in a substantial lessening of competition (SLC) in the supply of cloud gaming services in the UK. It rejected a behavioural remedy proposed by Microsoft and concluded that the merger should be prohibited.
When analysing the potential impact of this merger, the CMA focused on the following three issues:
- How important is the availability of Activision Blizzard’s games for the competitiveness of Microsoft’s rivals in the console and cloud gaming market? If, following the merger, Microsoft used its control over Activision Blizzard to restrict the availability of the games, would this significantly harm the competitiveness of their rivals?
- If restricting the availability of the games did harm its rivals, would it be profitable for Microsoft to do so? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The major benefit for Microsoft is the additional sales this generates as consumers switch to its products to gain access to Activision’s games. The major cost is the forgone sales of the games to their rivals in the console and cloud gaming market.
- If it is profitable for Microsoft to limit the availability of the games, would this policy lead to a substantial lessening of competition (SLC) in the console and cloud gaming market? To answer this question the CMA compared the level of competition that would be most likely to occur if the merger were to proceed with the level if the deal were prohibited? In other words, it needed to identify the counterfactual.
In response to the first issue, the CMA judged that restricting access to Activision Blizzard’s games post-merger would significantly harm the competitiveness of Microsoft’s rivals in both the console and cloud gaming markets. However, its judgment on the second issue differed between the two markets. Why was this? One key issue was the difference in the relative market power of Microsoft in cloud vs console gaming.
One common indicator used to analyse the market position of a business relative to its rivals is market share. Using data on revenues generated from the sales of hardware, associated games and subscription services, console gaming market shares in the UK for 2021 were as follows:
- Sony (PlayStation): 40% – 50%
- Microsoft (xBox): 30% – 40%
- Nintendo (Switch): 10% – 20%
Given the important market position of the PlayStation, limiting the ability of its users to purchase Activision games would result in Microsoft forgoing significant sales and revenue. Detailed analysis of the data by the CMA, indicated that the costs outweighed the benefits and so Microsoft did not have a commercial incentive to limit the availability of the games in this market. Therefore, the CMA concluded that the merger would not result in a SLC in the console gaming market. This finding was discussed in more detail in a blog on this website in March 2023.
The CMA judged that Microsoft had a much stronger position in the market for cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming services
Cloud gaming offers consumers a new way of playing graphically complex games. In this sector of the market, the games run on remote servers/data centres and then stream over the internet to the user’s device. The great advantage with this approach is that it enables consumers to play games on less powerful hardware devices such as smartphones, tablets, smart televisions, and standard PCs. Although the market is currently quite small it, has grown significantly over the past couple of years. Some people argue that it has the potential to make a dramatic change to the gaming market in the same way that businesses such as Netflix and Spotify have transformed the film, TV, and music industries.
It is more difficult to judge the relative market position of firms in a new and dynamic market, where things can change very quickly. The use of market share data is less informative but can still offer some insights. To estimate market shares in cloud gaming, the CMA used data on the number of monthly active users (MAUs). The figures for paid services in the UK for 2022 were as follows:
- xCloud (Microsoft): 70% – 80%
- PlayStation Cloud Gaming (Sony): 20% – 30%
- Boosteroid: 0 – 5%
- Nvidia GFN: 0 – 5%
Data suggest that Microsoft has a much stronger position in this market than in console gaming. There is also evidence that its market position is becoming more dominant. The same market shares for xCloud and PlayStation Gaming in 2021 were 40% – 50% and 50% – 60% respectively.
Given some of the limitations of using market-share data in a new and dynamic market, the CMA analysed other information about the sector to assess Microsoft’s market position. The investigation identified three key factors that could give Microsoft a significant cost advantage over its rivals: cloud infrastructure, the Windows operating system and access to a wide variety of games.
- Infrastructure: Microsoft’s ownership of Azure, a major cloud computing platform, could give it a significant cost advantage over its rivals in the future. A rival firm would need to develop it own cloud infrastructure or purchase these services from a third-party supplier.
- The Windows operating system: Given that far more games are developed for Windows as opposed to other operating systems, using Windows on a cloud infrastructure system gives a supplier access to large number of games. As it already owns Windows, Microsoft will be able to supply the operating system to its own cloud gaming service at little additional cost whereas its rivals will have to pay a license fee.
- Access to a wide range of games: Microsoft already owns twenty-four development studios that produce some very successful games such as Minecraft and Halo. It also has commercial relationships with other third-party developers who produce games for the Xbox console. This gives Microsoft another advantage over many of its rivals.
Given this evidence on Microsoft’s strong market position, the CMA concluded that the benefits to the company of restricting the availability of the games in the cloud gaming market outweighed the costs.
If Microsoft has commercial incentives to restrict the availability of Activision’s games, would this strategy lead to a SLC in the market for cloud gaming? To answer this question, the CMA had to identify the counterfactual: i.e. the most likely outcome in the market if the merger did not proceed. Following detailed analysis of the evidence, the competition authority concluded that Activision was likely to make its games available to different cloud gaming services if the deal did not take place.
Given Microsoft’s (a) strong market position and (b) limited number of relatively small competitors in cloud gaming, the CMA concluded that Microsoft’s commercial incentive to restrict the availability games would lead to a SLC compared to the counterfactual.
Martin Coleman, the chair of the independent panel of experts who conducted the CMA’s investigation, stated that:
Microsoft already enjoys a powerful position and head start over other competitors in cloud gaming and this deal would strengthen that advantage giving it the ability to undermine new and innovative competitors.
In response to these competition concerns, Microsoft offered to supply Activision games to certain cloud gaming services for a 10-year period. However, the CMA concluded that this behavioural remedy was not enough to address the competition issues raised by the merger and recommended that the deal be prohibited.
Microsoft’s immediate response was to appeal the decision to the Competition Appeal Tribunal.
The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating the impact of the deal in the USA while the European Commission has just completed its investigation in the European Union. On 15 May, the EC announced that Microsoft’s behavioural remedy did fully address the competition concerns identified during its investigation. Therefore, the merger was approved on condition that Microsoft fully implemented the actions outlined in the remedy.
It will be interesting to read the recommendations of the FTC when the final results of its investigation are published later this year.
CMA and EC press releases
- Discuss the barriers to entry that exist in both the console and cloud gaming markets.
- Outline some of the issues when trying to calculate market shares in cloud gaming.
- What is meaning of the term ‘input foreclosure’? How is this relevant to the Microsoft/Activision case?
- What is the difference between a behavioural and a structural remedy? In what circumstances is a behavioural remedy most likely to be effective?
- Discuss some of the potential limitations with the behavioural remedy proposed by Microsoft.
- Explain why Microsoft’s position in the downstream market for cloud gaming is likely to influence incentives it faces to restrict the availability of Activision’s games post-merger.