Overwatch 2 Review: Can you teach an old game new tricks?

Blizzard has a lot going on. The company’s leadership is a toxic trash heap nightmare (hi Bobby Kotick!) and it’s only partially cleaned house. Its failure to deliver on the lofty promises of the Overwatch League makes the game’s scene, both competitive and casual, even less of a sure thing. And Microsoft is currently in the process of trying to buy parent company Activision Blizzard, an outcome that would further consolidate the gaming industry but might ultimately help save Blizzard from itself. In the midst of all of this, Blizzard released Overwatch 2, making a risky bet that lightly modernizing the aging multiplayer hit would be enough to keep it relevant in a new era of ubiquitous online gaming.

Overwatch 2 is technically a “sequel” to the cartoon hero-based team shooter, but you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing the same game that launched back in 2016. Some things are new. The core gameplay is now 5v5 instead of 6v6. There are three new heroes at launch (Kiriko, Junker Queen and Sojourn) with more on the way in later seasons. You can take these new heroes out for a spin on a handful of new maps — Toronto, New York City and Monte Carlo among them — and in a new reverse tug-of-war game mode where you fight it out to move a large jogging robot the furthest. There are also graphical improvements that will probably stand out more to people playing Overwatch 2 on PC and not to folks like me, playing casually on last-gen consoles (I know) or to anyone so overwhelmed by Blizzard’s telltale particle effects that they can’t even tell what’s happening half the time (also me).

The big question: Is it enough?

From lootboxes to a battle pass

Arguably the biggest change here, and the reason why, controversially, you can’t play on old Overwatch servers, is Overwatch 2’s shift to free-to-play. When the original Overwatch launched, Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode — and slightly later, Epic’s Battle Pass — hadn’t taken the world by storm yet. In the original Overwatch you’d play and level up, earning randomized loot boxes along the way or buying them if you really felt like it. Overwatch 2 adopts the seasonal battle pass model that competitors like Fortnite, Valorant and Apex Legends use, selling players a subscription for unlockable perks like skins and voice lines.

Controversially, I actually like the battle pass model in theory. Going free-to-play is great for casual players that dip in and out for a few months here and there or for anyone trying to convince friends to check out yet another new game. And the seasonal progression gives people who play casually a sense of progress, though arguable the loot boxes did this just as well.

So far in Overwatch 2, the battle pass doesn’t offer a ton to look forward to. One problem is that unlike a game like Fortnite where everyone can use every skin, there are 35 playable characters in Overwatch. With each stage of the battle pass only offering one skin and many players specializing in a single hero or a small rotation of them, the odds aren’t great that there’s even something juicy in there for everyone. The non-skin unlockables aren’t very exciting either and it’s weird that in the course of launching a brand new game (supposedly!) Blizzard didn’t think of cooler ways for players to visually customize their characters beyond souvenirs, which after playing for hours I still haven’t even noticed. Maybe some players are excited about the battle pass — and that’s great — but it’s clear Blizzard is just trying to drive everyone to buy skins in the shop. So far the broader player base doesn’t seem very happy about it, actively campaigning to persuade people to save their money so the company learns a lesson.

Overwatch 2’s shop offers a rotating selection of skins, but many of these once came for free through loot boxes, which were, all around, a much more fun experience. I only played Overwatch regularly for a handful of months years ago and I was surprised just how many skins I collected back then that now regularly retail for $20, which feels like way too much. Especially for stuff that you used to be able to earn by playing the game. The first Overwatch 2 Halloween event even has a special skin you can earn by watching streamers on Twitch, but the skin is… the same Winston werewolf Halloween skin that was in the game in late 2016. There’s obviously a lot of chaos at Activision Blizzard these days, but a lot of this comes across as phoned in, considering that the game is brand new. That said, the skin is very cute (werewolves!) and although I am truly awful at Winston I’ll be streaming Overwatch 2 because I don’t have it.

Overwatch 2 Sojourn

Image Credits: Blizzard

Three new heroes offer new ways to play

Overwatch’s characters have always been the heart of the game and the new game is no exception, introducing three new heroes: Sojourn, Junker Queen, and Kiriko.

The three female heroes — one tank, one DPS and one support — round out the cast in a nice way. It feels like a lot of thought went into Kiriko in particular, and she plays like a mix of Moira and Genji (or arguably Zenyatta), bringing some nice mobility options to the support position with the ability to fly across the map on cooldown to follow other players. The skill ceiling is obviously high here (she can heal and throw little daggers at the same time!) so there’s a lot of depth to what will be possible with Kiriko. Sojourn and Junker Queen also have fun kits and seem promising, with the former offering a very mobile power slide and Soldier 76-ish DPS and the latter introducing a damage-over-time tank with a cool Mortal Kombat-esque knife throw that pulls enemies right to you.

Necessary aside: As a longtime WoW player, Blizzard’s approach to non-western cultures, particularly Asian cultures, has always felt a bit weird. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kiriko, the new Japanese support hero — she’s a young woman, a badass, and a literal ninja. Her short animated movie is extremely good. But it’s all expressed in a way that’s a bit over the top, culturally speaking: Kiriko’s ultimate channels a fox spirit that makes a path out of Torii gates and her healing takes the form of those little paper fortunes you get at shrines. Beyond Kiriko, the new Black female DPS hero is named “Sojourn” and it’s hard to imagine this doesn’t have something to do with American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, but she’s Canadian I guess?

Maybe this kind of representation is all okay in a game that for lack of a more nuanced theme is about “cartoon characters from various countries” but it’s worth talking about. Ultimately as a queer person I’m glad there are gay characters in the game, even if they’re revealed as an afterthought. Probably a lot of people feel a lot of different ways about this!

5v5 and other gameplay changes

The other biggest change and the most substantial one is that while Overwatch pitted teams of six against each other, the game is now 5v5: two supports, two DPS and a tank. If you’re queueing for certain roles in competitive mode and don’t senselessly embrace the chaos of open queue like me then that means you’ll be down a tank from what you’re used to.

The result is that the games feel faster and more like a team deathmatch in spite of the objectives. It’s very early days for a live service game that will last for years, but support players in particular seem to be more frustrated with the new style of play — there’s no second tank to help soak up damage and protect against flankers — and the short wait time for support reflects that.

Whether you’re a new player or a seasoned pro, you’ll be starting over in Overwatch 2’s competitive rankings. All players start at the bottom in bronze and can work their way up the skill tiers through some mysterious combination of wins and individual performance. Overwatch 2 now reevaluates your skill rating every 7 wins or 20 losses, instead of providing immediate feedback as you play. Personally, the every-seven-games system has helped me focus on going in with fresh eyes and a good mindset to quickly get my seven wins instead of overanalyzing what went wrong with each loss. As a casual player who didn’t even really play competitive mode back in the game’s dark ages, this feels fine to me, but I could see why making the system even more opaque would be frustrating to people focused on climbing up.

The post-game now experience consists of the play of the game (whatever the computer decides is a hero’s best moment), endorsements for players that you liked and a new stat block breaking down deaths, eliminations, damage and healing done. The scorecards highlighting individual play are gone and the new stat breakdown doesn’t single anyone out, for better or worse.

Blizzard also added a new ping system that lets you alert teammates about things like enemy players and your next moves and it’s generally a good option for people who don’t want to suffer through in-game chat with a mic, even if it seems like a lot of people haven’t quite figured it out yet. The icon showing players “on fire” after good runs is also MIA, though it sounds like that might be coming back.

Ultimately, the game is still fun. There’s still plenty of depth here but most of it is mechanical — getting comfortable with new heroes, learning their playstyles and tricks. But it’s not clear that Overwatch can survive another six years without going back to the drawing board with something totally fresh. I’m finding plenty to do but I haven’t played Overwatch in five years — five years that dedicated Overwatch players spent pushing the game to its full potential.

Overwatch 2 comp screen

Image Credits: Blizzard

Where do we go from here?

Blizzard can make up some ground with Overwatch 2, but it shouldn’t even be in this position. Seasonal releases and a forthcoming PVE mode that absolutely should have been in the game at launch will soften the blow of selling people the same game over again as a subscription, but for now people are just waiting around.

There’s such a thing as playing it too safe. Blizzard has a competitive scene to balance, but being stuck in the past isn’t going to help Overwatch 2 stay relevant against ascending competitors like Apex Legends, which people seem generally much more excited about these days. Can a game that’s barely changed since in six years last for another six? Personally, I’m playing a lot right now but I’m far from confident that will be the case in six or even three months. A few weeks from launch, the outlook isn’t great.

Even with concerns about balancing a game that hinges on calibrating 35 totally distinct playstyles across objective-based maps, it still feels like Blizzard could have done a lot more here. Fortnite only has weapons to worry about, but the game often changes on a visual level from season to season completely, making my experience of logging off for five years and hopping back into an identical experience impossible. Getting curious about fresh content in a game like Fortnite always inspires me to buy a battle pass, which is reliably full of fun stuff that feels rewarding.

There are plenty of cosmetic flourishes that could make Overwatch 2’s seasons feel more “seasonal” beyond the rote holiday stuff that’s been in the game since day one. Themed seasons à la Fortnite or even Destiny would at least give the game a little more variation for the casual players that Blizzard seems so keen on luring in with its free-to-play model. Even the refreshed menu is a soulless dull gray, a far cry from the colorful cast of characters at the heart of the game.

At the end of the day, if you want to cash in on players after you’ve said “aha here is our new game!” and given them the old game, you at least need to give people something to get excited about.

Overwatch 2 Review: Can you teach an old game new tricks? by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

Microsoft looks to build an Xbox mobile gaming store with Activision and King content

As the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigates Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, Microsoft recently revealed in its filings with the CMA that it plans to create a new “Xbox Mobile Platform” that will include mobile games by Activision and King.

“The transaction will improve Microsoft’s ability to create a next-generation game store that operates across a range of devices, including mobile, as a result of the addition of Activision Blizzard’s content. Building on Activision Blizzard’s existing communities of gamers, Xbox will seek to scale the Xbox Store to mobile, attracting gamers to a new Xbox Mobile Platform,” the company wrote in its filings.

Mobile games are some of the most popular downloads on app stores, so it’s no surprise that Microsoft wants to get in on the action. A graph on Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard acquisition site showed that the mobile gaming market was worth $85 billion in 2020.

Microsoft added in its filings with the CMA, “Mobile gaming revenues from the King division and titles such as ‘Call of Duty: Mobile,’ as well as ancillary revenue, represented more than half of Activision Blizzard’s revenues and in the first half of 2022.”

The deal with Activision Blizzard seems to be Microsoft’s answer for building out its mobile gaming presence and competing with rivals Google and Apple.

However, it’s not going to be easy to compete against the tech giants. A gaming study by data.ai and IDC found that, in the first quarter of 2022, consumers spent more than $1.6 billion per week on mobile games on both the App Store and Google Play store.

“Shifting consumers away from the Google Play Store and App Store on mobile devices will, however, require a major shift in consumer behavior. Microsoft hopes that by offering well-known and popular content, gamers will be more inclined to try something new,” Microsoft added.

In August, Sony’s PlayStation announced the acquisition of Savage Game Studios. Xbox’s competitor said that the mobile game developer would join its new PlayStation Studios Mobile Division to help with its mobile gaming efforts.

Another — admittedly smaller — competitor in the mobile gaming space is streaming giant Netflix. The company recently announced two new game studios in California and Finland. However, it’s struggling to attract gamers. A recent report showed that fewer than 1% of its subscribers play Netflix mobile games.

Microsoft looks to build an Xbox mobile gaming store with Activision and King content by Lauren Forristal originally published on TechCrunch

Activision Blizzard’s Johanna Faries highlights the company’s emerging ‘anti-tox’ strategy

At TechCrunch Disrupt today, Activision Blizzard General Manager Johanna Faries elaborated on the company’s plans to clean up some of the worst behavior in the franchise’s community, even as new lawsuits and allegations about its own culture continue to emerge.

Last month, Activision Blizzard released a formal code of conduct for the Call of Duty community, which encompasses its broad consumer player base and the competitive scene. While the policy is pretty basic — no harassment, hate or cheating — it’s something the company can point to when it enforces the rules.

“I’m happy to say, especially since you know the time that I’ve been in the chair, we’ve really raised the bar in terms of paying attention to ‘what does an anti-tox strategy need to look like? What does creating fair play environments, safe play environments look like?’” Faries said. “We just released for example — and it started in the beta — a first-ever franchise-wide code of conduct, which I know may sound like table stakes, and in many ways it probably is — but it’s here now.

Faries noted that Activision Blizzard has teams “focused 24/7” on anti-toxicity, weaving together automated machine learning solutions with human moderation. The goal is to make it easier for players to quickly report bad behavior but also to incentivize the kind of good behavior that should serve as a model for the community.

The crackdown on toxic behavior — which often disproportionately impacts marginalized players who still struggle for representation in streaming and gaming — goes hand in hand with weeding out players who cheat, according to Faries.

“So there’s more to come on this, but I was really proud to see in addition to Ricochet [anti-cheating tech] and a lot of our anti-cheat anti-hacking initiatives that we’ve rolled out as well… our anti-toxicity focus is one that is a masthead going into this upcoming launch and for years to come,” Faries said. “We’re putting the best systems in place to make sure that players have the tools, but also have again the incentives, to continue to raise the bar of what it means to play fair to play with respect for everyone to play with integrity.”

Over the weekend, Activision seemed to put its money where its mouth was, allegedly banning top competitor Doug “Censor” Martin from competing in the Fortune’s Keep tournament, citing his interactions with Call of Duty streamer Nadia Amine. Martin previously filmed a joke marriage proposal to the female player, who has faced a firestorm of sexism and baseless accusations that she’s somehow cheating at the game.

In a tweet, Martin said that Activision “blocked him from competing” in the tournament over harassing Amine, though Activision Blizzard hasn’t yet confirmed the claim. If the company did indeed dole out an event ban over directing unwanted attention at a fellow player, it would track with its new emphasis on cleaning up behavior in the notoriously toxic Call of Duty scene.

Activision Blizzard’s Johanna Faries highlights the company’s emerging ‘anti-tox’ strategy by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

Activision Blizzard is once again being sued for sexual harassment

For over a year, Activision Blizzard employees have protested against the company’s poor handling of ongoing sexual harassment allegations. Now, an anonymous Jane Doe has filed yet another lawsuit against the gaming giant for sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual battery, among other complaints.

“For years, Activision Blizzard’s open ‘frat boy’ environment fostered rampant sexism, harassment and discrimination with 700 reported incidents occurring under CEO Robert Kotick’s watch,” the lawsuit explains. “The sexual misconduct was often committed by executives and in the presence of HR.” A report from the Wall Street Journal last year found that the CEO knew for years about rampant sexual harassment at the company, but failed to act.

In this case, the plaintiff alleges that a former product manager Miguel Vega sexually harassed her in the workplace for years; she says that he non-consensually groped and tried to kiss her at work, verbally abused her, and insinuated that if she gave in to his sexual advances, she would get a raise.

Doe first met Vega at a game night in 2009 or 2010. “They soon formed a virtual friendship and she regrettably sent him compromising photos of herself,” the lawsuit says. By 2011, Doe met her future husband and her relationship with Vega ceased, but she reconnected with him upon seeking work at Activision Blizzard in 2016.

The plaintiff told a manager about Vega’s behavior in 2017, but he didn’t face consequences. Later, he began threatening to leak the intimate photos that she sent him over a decade earlier. By August 2021 — a month after California regulators sued the company for gender-based harassment and discrimination — the plaintiff brought her concerns to HR once again.

“On August 23, 2021, despite Mr. Vega’s threat of revenge pornography, Ms. Doe mustered the courage to report Mr. Vega’s sexual harassment to manager Christopher Bruens. Mr. Bruens relayed her report to HR. Very shortly after, Mr. Vega left a voicemail for Ms. Doe in a poor attempt to mitigate the harm he caused her. On September 1, 2021, Activision Blizzard terminated Mr. Vega,” the lawsuit says.

Now, Doe is attempting to hold Activision Blizzard accountable for cultivating a hostile work environment and failing to protect her from sexual harassment. She is requesting a jury trial, seeking compensation for damages, medical expenses, legal fees and lost earnings.

Lisa Bloom, the lawyer defending the plaintiff, tweeted that her firm represents eight women who claim that they experienced sexual harassment at Activision Blizzard.

Activision Blizzard has not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment. In a statement to Kotaku, spokesperson Rich George said, “We take all employee concerns seriously. When the plaintiff reported her concerns, we immediately opened an investigation, and Mr. Vega was terminated within 10 days. We have no tolerance for this kind of misconduct.”

Microsoft plans to purchase the gaming giant for $68.7 billion, pending regulatory approval. If the deal goes through, Kotick is expected to step down as CEO.

Activision Blizzard is once again being sued for sexual harassment by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

Overwatch 2 launch marred by ongoing DDoS attacks

One of the biggest games of the year is off to a rocky start, to say the least. Overwatch 2 — the follow-up to 2016’s colorful multiplayer shooter — is cut from the same cloth, extending the life of Blizzard’s mega hit without reinventing the wheel outright.

But ever since Overwatch 2 went live on Tuesday, it’s been beset by problems, including a DDoS attack that cratered launch day play. “Unfortunately we are experiencing a mass DDoS attack on our servers,” Blizzard Entertainment President Mike Ybarra confirmed yesterday on Twitter.

Even players who managed to get into the servers had problems, including getting dropped from matches and other kinds of launch day instability that made playing challenging if not impossible.

Blizzard’s Overwatch Game Director Aaron Keller issued an update on Twitter Wednesday, but things weren’t looking much better. According to Keller, a second DDoS attack is in the works and servers still aren’t stable.

We haven’t played the Overwatch sequel yet here at TechCrunch, but once the issues get settled out we’ll dive into it properly and see how the revamped game feels. Overwatch 2 will hit the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, the Nintendo Switch and PC and will offer cross-play so you can team up with friends no matter what platform they’re on. A smooth multiplayer experience has always been one of the things Blizzard does best and Overwatch historically is no exception.

Anyone who’s played Overwatch — like, ahem, myself for hundreds of hours way back in winter of 2016 — will see a few notable changes in its successor. For one, teams are now comprised of five heroes instead of six, changing up team compositions. New heroes and quality of life features are also on the way, including the controversial choice to make Overwatch 2 free-to-play. Of course, free-to-play is a double-edged sword — you don’t have to fork over a monthly sub fee or anything to play the game, but you can be sure Blizzard will be luring players to pay for a Fortnite-like battle pass that gates off some characters, cool perks and cosmetics (that we won’t want to want but we will).

We’ll reserve judgement on all of that until we actually have a chance to dive into Fortnite’s colorful hero-driven battlefields, dusted with just a touch of narrative here and there.  These games last for ages — Overwatch itself made it a solid six years.  Some launch day chaos isn’t ideal for Blizzard (particularly given its own messy corporate chaos) but there’s plenty of time to get everything smoothed out for one of the most iconic multiplayer and esports titles of the generation.

Overwatch 2 launch marred by ongoing DDoS attacks by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

Activision Blizzard illegally withheld raises from unionizing workers, labor board finds

Gaming giant Activision Blizzard unlawfully retaliated against workers at Raven Software who formed a union, the National Labor Relations Board found.

The quality assurance (QA) department at subsidiary Raven Software, who mostly work on “Call of Duty,” announced that they would form a union in January. Activision Blizzard sought to block the union, reasoning that the union only comprises the 28-employee QA department, while as a whole, Raven Software has around 230 employees. Regardless, the Raven Software QA testers, who operate under the name Game Workers Alliance (GWA), made history in May when their union vote passed 19-3. Now, the GWA is the first officially recognized union at a major U.S. gaming company.

While the GWA was in the process of unionizing, Activision Blizzard converted about 1,100 QA contractors to full-time staffers and increased the minimum wage to $20 per hour. But workers at Raven Software, who are among the lowest paid in the studio, were denied these wage increases. Activision Blizzard claimed that, due to laws under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the company wasn’t allowed to change the pay rate of its employees in the midst of a union effort. The Communication Workers of America, which represents the union, said that this was a disingenuous attempt at union busting.

Now, the NLRB has officially ruled in the union’s favor, declaring that it was illegal for Activision Blizzard to withhold wages. The consequences of this finding will weigh into negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement between the GWA and Activision Blizzard. Despite formally winning union recognition, it can often take new unions over a year before coming to a contractual agreement with management.

“Despite their best efforts, Activision’s constant attempts to undermine its workers’ and impede our union election have failed. We’re glad the NLRB recognized that Activision acted illegally when they unequally enforced policies by withholding company-wide benefits and wage increases from Raven workers for organizing,” the GWA said in an emailed statement.

An Activision Blizzard spokesperson emailed a statement to TechCrunch:

“Due to legal obligations under the NLRA requiring employers not to grant wage increases while an election was pending, we could not institute new pay initiatives at Raven because they would be brand new kinds of compensation changes, which had not been planned beforehand. This rule that employers should not grant these kinds of wage increases has been the law for many years.”

Activision Blizzard is also facing scrutiny from the NLRB for the solicitation of grievances. Prior to the union vote, COO Daniel Alegre offered to fly to Wisconsin, where Raven Software is based, to speak with workers about their complaints. But this practice is barred by the NLRA, since it can lead to coercion.

“This is not an accurate portrayal of events,” the company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Although Raven QA was offered a non-mandatory opportunity to meet with Activision Blizzard leadership during an on-site visit, because some of the QA testers had previously requested a discussion with management, at no point was this framed as an opportunity to specifically address grievances. Furthermore, the offer was never taken, and no meeting ever occurred.”

It’s been a rough few years for Activision Blizzard, even though Microsoft plans to buy the company for a whopping $68.7 billion. Following a two-year investigation, the state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard last summer, alleging that the company fostered a “‘frat boy’ workplace culture” and is “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” Also, CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly knew for years about sexual misconduct and rape allegations at his company, but he did not act on that knowledge. Kotick has been rumored to step down amid ongoing SEC investigations and sexual harassment scandals in his company, but that may not happen until after the Microsoft acquisition closes in 2023, if at all.

Activision Blizzard illegally withheld raises from unionizing workers, labor board finds by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

Game on for UK’s deeper antitrust probe of Microsoft-Activision

The UK’s competition watchdog has confirmed it will move to an in-depth investigation of the Microsoft-Activision $68.7BN gaming mega-deal, a couple of weeks after it signalled concerns about the proposed acquisition.

Earlier this month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was worried Microsoft could harm rivals in the gaming industry by restricting access to popular Activision titles.

It also expressed concerns about the impact on development of the more nascent cloud-gaming market.

“The CMA has referred the anticipated acquisition by Microsoft Corporation of Activision Blizzard, Inc. for an in-depth investigation, on the basis that, on the information currently available to it, it is or may be the case that this Merger may be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition within a market or markets in the United Kingdom,” the regulator wrote in an update on the case today.

It also confirmed the (four) individuals appointed to the inquiry group. The so-called phase 2 CMA investigation will involve this independent panel examining concerns raised by the preliminary probe — a detailed assessment that could take months or even over half a year.

Other regulators reviewing the Microsoft-Activision acquisition include the U.S.’ FTC.

Despite close regulatory attention to the proposed mega-deal, Activision suggested earlier this month that it still expects the acquisition to close in mid 2023. While Microsoft expressed willingness to work with regulators to allay their concerns.

Game on for UK’s deeper antitrust probe of Microsoft-Activision by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch

What Is The Candy Crush Saga’s Product Manager’s Secret To Success?

The secret to keeping a product fresh is to always be reinventing it
The secret to keeping a product fresh is to always be reinventing it
Image Credit: Albert Hsieh

Who wouldn’t want to be the product manager for a hugely popular mobile video game? The Candy Crush Sage product managers have had an amazing run for the past eight years as their product burst upon the scene and then just continued to grow in popularity. However, it’s been a really long time, when measured in video game years, and they still seem to be very popular. What is the secret to success for these product managers?

The Secret To Candy Crush’s Success

Let’s face it, it’s been a long time since “Candy Crush Saga” landed in app stores, driving people to spend their spare time matching clusters of jelly beans, gumdrops and other food items. The market has not stood still. There have been many other hits in the “match three” puzzle category since then. However, somewhat oddly “Candy Crush Saga” is still wildly popular. If you need numbers, then it is on track to gross nearly $1 billion in sales of digital goods alone for 2020, just as it did in 2019. That would look good on anyone’s product manager resume.

So where did this juggernaut of a game come from? “Candy Crush Saga” was created by the European game maker King Digital Entertainment. This company was acquired by Activision Blizzard for $5.9 billion in February 2016. The product managers at King Digital enjoyed an advantage early on because mobile games were still somewhat of a novelty when it made its debut in 2012. Competition for downloads was minimal compared with today, enabling the game to develop a strong player base from the start.

That’s all fine and good. However, how has Candy Crush remained relevant over the past eight years? The game and some product development definition spinoffs like “Candy Crush Soda Saga” have remained atop mobile-app revenue charts for many years. One of the keys to the product managers success is that they obsess over player feedback. But there’s more to their story of success.

Secrets To Long Term Product Success

The product managers at King Digital release approximately 45 new levels for their game per week. This means that there are currently more than 7,800. They don’t repeat levels, because that would be boring. Key to their success is that every level also has to be challenging enough that people feel like it’s fun to conquer. Although the company is in business to make money, their design ethic is that they want people to be able to play every level without monetizing. The majority of their players have never paid them anything. But the free-to-play economy does bring scale, so the percentages of people who they do monetize are attractive.

A key to the way that the product managers have been able to keep their game a success for so long is by gathering useful player feedback. They are able to do this in lots of different ways. One way is a community forum where they get tens of thousands of comments a month. The product managers read every post. It’s a great way to understand the sentiment of the community. Reviews on the app stores are also full of customer commentary. The product managers take the time to look through each one of them. Some are great and reinforcing, some can be difficult for them to read.

Another thing they do is they host quite a few events with customers at their offices around the world. Customers are invited in and then put in front of developers, marketing people and management. The customers give amazing suggestions and insights. The product managers also take the time to interact with their younger players. This allows them to feel like a kid again. If the product managers can continue to innovate, they won’t have the expectation the game will go away. With the talent they have and the culture being player-focused, they’ll always have great ideas. The product managers are in year eight and they’re just getting started.

What All Of This Means For You

The product mangers for the mobile video game “Candy Crush” know that they have a hit on their hands. In fact, they’ve had a hit on their hands for the past eight years. The fact that their video game has been able to remain popular for that long is amazing. In order to create a game that is popular in the first place and then to keep it popular shows that they know what their product manager job description wants them to do. What is the secret to Candy Crush’s long term success?

Candy Crush is very popular. There has been a lot of competition, but the game is still bringing in a great deal of money. Candy Crush was bought by the game company Activision Blizzard. Their original success came from the fact that when they started, they had little completion. The product managers have always been very interested in customer feedback. They are always introducing new levels each week. They can make money from their players, but they don’t force them to pay to play. The product managers gather feedback from customers in a number of different ways. The product managers also host events where customers are provided with opportunities to meet with the development team.

Candy Crush was a game that caught on with its customers when it was first introduced. The product managers have been able to keep it interesting by adding new content. Their willingness to listen to what their customers are telling them and then then work it into the game has helped to keep their customer base and to grow it. If they are able to continue to keep doing what they are currently doing, then this is a game that should be around for quite some time.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that the Candy Crush product managers should use their existing game to introduce new games to their customers?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If you take a moment to think about it, U.S. tech product managers have actually had it pretty easy. They operate with few restrictions about what they do and the products that they create just seem to collect more and more data about their users. However, this may be all about to change. What’s interesting is that the change is not happening in the U.S. – it’s happening in the EU. These changes may affect everything that these tech product managers do.

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UK dials up scrutiny of Microsoft’s $68.7BN Activision deal over antitrust concerns

Microsoft’s $68.7 billion all-cash deal to bag gaming giant Activision Blizzard faces closer antitrust scrutiny in the UK where the country’s market watchdog has just announced it will move to an in-depth investigation — unless the pair submit suitable proposals to address its concerns in the next few days.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) opened a formal probe of the acquisition in July, soliciting feedback on whether or not to move to a deeper so-called Phase 2 investigation. It’s now decided the deal does merit closer attention — taking a view that it could substantially lessen competition in gaming consoles, multi-game subscription services, and cloud gaming services.

Microsoft and Activision have five working days to submit remedies to the CMA to stave off this deeper probe (which would involve an independent panel of experts being appointed to dig into concerns unearthed during the Phase 1 investigation).

Commenting in a statement, Sorcha O’Carroll, senior director of mergers at the CMA, said:

“Following our Phase 1 investigation, we are concerned that Microsoft could use its control over popular games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft post-merger to harm rivals, including recent and future rivals in multi-game subscription services and cloud gaming.

“If our current concerns are not addressed, we plan to explore this deal in an in-depth Phase 2 investigation to reach a decision that works in the interests of UK gamers and businesses.”

The CMA said it’s concerned that if Microsoft, owner of the Xbox brand, buys Activision Blizzard, a maker of very popular console, PC and mobile games, it could harm console rivals (“including recent and future entrants”) — by refusing them access to the Activision’s games or by providing access on much worse terms.

Popular franchises Activision develops include Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. It also owns the mobile game Candy Crush, among other well-thumbed titles.

The CMA believes the Merger could allow Microsoft to make ABK [Activision Blizzard] content, including Call of Duty, exclusive to Xbox or Game Pass, or otherwise degrade its rivals’ access to ABK content, such as by delaying releases or imposing licensing price increases,” the regulator writes notes in a summary of its decision, noting this is known as an ‘input foreclosure’ concern, (i.e. where a firm uses its control of an important input to harm its rivals).

The CMA goes on to include its assessment that Sony would be the main Microsoft rival likely to be affected in the short to medium term. 

Additionally, the regulator said it has received evidence about the potential impact of combining Activision Blizzard with Microsoft’s broader ecosystem. “Microsoft already has a leading gaming console (Xbox), a leading cloud platform (Azure), and the leading PC operating system (Windows OS), all of which could be important to its success in cloud gaming,” it writes in a press release. “The CMA is concerned that Microsoft could leverage Activision Blizzard’s games together with Microsoft’s strength across console, cloud, and PC operating systems to damage competition in the nascent market for cloud gaming services.”

On cloud gaming, the CMA summarizes its concerns thusly:

“Microsoft already has a combination of assets that is difficult for other cloud gaming service providers to match. By having a large and well-distributed cloud infrastructure, Microsoft will be able to host games on its servers on preferential terms and reach gamers throughout the world without having to pay a fee to third- party cloud platforms. By having Windows, the OS where the vast majority of PC games are played, Microsoft can stream games to Windows PCs without having to pay an expensive Windows licensing fee and may be able to design and test games made for Windows more effectively than rivals. And by having an existing console ecosystem, Microsoft has an existing user base of gamers to which it can promote its cloud gaming services, as well as a range of popular games that it can offer.

“The Merger would, therefore, bring together the company in a uniquely strong position to offer cloud gaming services with one of the industry’s strongest gaming catalogues. The CMA is concerned that, by leveraging ABK’s content and Microsoft’s wider ecosystem, Microsoft will have an unparalleled advantage over current and potential cloud gaming service providers. This could result in increased concentration in cloud gaming services or the market ‘tipping’ to Microsoft, and ultimately deny consumers the benefits of competition between new and emerging providers vying to succeed in cloud gaming. The CMA recognises that, if Microsoft were to significantly increase its market power in cloud gaming services, this could have knock-on effects on independent game developers and publishers who compete against Microsoft’s own gaming portfolio, and who could be disadvantaged in a number of ways, such as by having to pay higher fees or by being demoted on Microsoft’s gaming ecosystem.”

“The CMA considers that these concerns warrant an in-depth Phase 2 investigation. Microsoft and Activision Blizzard now have 5 working days to submit proposals to address the CMA’s concerns. If suitable proposals are not submitted, the deal will be referred for a Phase 2 investigation,” the regulator adds in its press release.

Microsoft was contacted for comment on the development. A Company spokesperson sent this statement, attributed to Brad Smith, its president and vice chair:

“We’re ready to work with the CMA on next steps and address any of its concerns. Sony, as the industry leader, says it is worried about Call of Duty, but we’ve said we are committed to making the same game available on the same day on both Xbox and PlayStation. We want people to have more access to games, not less.”

The tech giant also pointed to a blog post Microsoft Gaming’s CEO, Phil Spencer, has published today — so it’s not wasting any time in pulling out the PR big guns — in which he sets out a vision of “gaming for everyone, everywhere”; touting a “choice” strategy that he says will see Microsoft making much loved Activision titles available via its Netflix-like gaming subscription offering, Game Pass, “to grow those gaming communities”.

“We’ve heard that this deal might take franchises like Call of Duty away from the places where people currently play them. That’s why, as we’ve said before, we are committed to making the same version of Call of Duty available on PlayStation on the same day the game launches elsewhere,” Spencer goes on. “We will continue to enable people to play with each other across platforms and across devices. We know players benefit from this approach because we’ve done it with Minecraft, which continues to be available on multiple platforms and has expanded to even more since Mojang joined Microsoft in 2014.

“As we extend our gaming storefront across new devices and platforms, we will make sure that we do so in a manner that protects the ability of developers to choose how to distribute their games.”

Also today, Activision’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, has posted an open letter to employees in which he reiterates that the firm’s leadership team expects oversight of the acquisition to be a “long process” — but also suggests a “likely” closing date for the deal of mid 2023.

“With the number of government approvals required, we still believe the deal is most likely to close in Microsoft’s fiscal year ending June of next year. We are fortunate to have already received approvals from a couple of countries, and the process with all of the regulators is generally moving along as we expected,” he writes. “This week we heard from the United Kingdom, where we have more employees than anywhere except North America. We have entered the second phase of our review there, and we will continue to fully cooperate with the regulators there, and everywhere approvals are required.”

“As our industry continues to see numerous companies investing aggressively in gaming, including many of the world’s largest technology and media companies, government regulators are taking appropriate and deliberate steps to better understand our industry and the growing competition from around the world,” Kotick adds.

Other regulators considering the Microsoft-Activision acquisition include the US’ FTC.

Key issues you should consider before signing an international merger deal

Despite the war in Ukraine, accelerating inflation and increasing interest rates, the technology sector has still seen M&A happening in the United States. In the first half of 2022, large tech M&A transactions included Microsoft acquiring Activision Blizzard for $69 billion, Google buying Mandiant for $5.4 billion, and Elon Musk bidding for Twitter for $44 billion.

Private equity was also active in the tech sector, with Thoma Bravo purchasing SailPoint for $6.9 billion and Vista Equity Partners acquiring Citrix for $13 billion. Cross-border tech M&A included Deutsche Telekom’s acquisition deal with SoftBank Group and T-Mobile U.S. for $2.4 billion and Siemens acquiring Brightly Software for $1.8 billion.

European and Asian companies can compete effectively against both U.S. companies and private equity by offering greater target management responsibility post-transaction, flexible transaction structures and global distribution of the target’s products sold with the acquirer’s sales team. By understanding the key issues in cross-border tech M&A, an international acquirer can close a successful transaction and achieve its commercial objectives in the United States.

Acquisition criteria

Management teams, boards and shareholders have had time to adjust to the drop in valuations and will be more amenable to an acquisition at a reasonable price.

Prior to approaching targets, it is important to establish detailed acquisition criteria.

Acquisition criteria can include the subsector, product set, revenue, profitability and customer profile. It should also include more intangible aspects, such as vision, culture and strategy. Management team strength is also important, particularly if the international acquirer is following the private equity playbook and acquiring a platform company with the intention of acquiring smaller add-on companies later. Finally, practical criteria should be considered, such as geographical location — if the international acquirer is in Paris, a flight to the East Coast is much shorter than a flight to California.

Target research

Once the acquisition criteria are established, in-depth target research is required. This research should include target financing, capital structure, leadership and industry reputation. Research should include databases such as Capital IQ, PitchBook and Crunchbase, as well as confidential discussions with industry leaders at other companies in the subsector and industry trade groups. This industry insider knowledge can be very powerful.

Acquirer’s presentation