Before today, “Project Boston” was unknown. It was Activision Blizzard King’s ambitious project to increase revenue from its mobile games by altering its association with Google. If things had turned out differently, it would have led Activision Blizzard to have its own app store on Android.
In late 2019, internal emails and documents revealed the company’s decision to pursue two intriguing parallel plans during the Epic v. Google trial.
The first plan was to establish its own mobile game store in partnership with Epic Games and Clash of Clans publisher Supercell, or independently, to bypass the Google Play Store. Users would download it from a website, sideload it onto their Android phone, and then be able to purchase, download, and update games like Candy Crush, Call of Duty Mobile, and Diablo Immortal.
In private emails with Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Activision Blizzard CFO Armin Zerza pitched it as the “Steam of Mobile” — a single place to buy mobile games with a unified payment system. Documents indicate the store would charge a transaction fee of 10 to 12 percent, lower than the 30 percent fee imposed by Google (and other gaming platforms).
If successful, the company had plans to pursue a similar strategy with the iPhone. The ultimate goal, as per the documents, was to release all of Activision, Blizzard, and King’s titles, and potentially third-party games, on Android initially, with Apple iOS to follow.
However, Activision Blizzard was prepared to abandon this entire plan if its second Project Boston idea proved successful. The company was concurrently negotiating with Google for a deal valued at over $100 million intended to provide better financial benefits across mobile, YouTube, advertising, media spend, and cloud.
In either scenario, Activision Blizzard aimed to increase its revenue compared to solely paying Google’s 30 percent fee.
In the December 2019 “Project Boston” document, it was evident that Activision Blizzard only intended to ultimately choose one of these two plans. The company emphasized in bold letters that if substantial savings were secured with Google, they would deprioritize the alternative plan to build their own mobile store.
If Activision Blizzard had pursued the “build own mobile store” path, it would have resulted in the creation of the store
Launch in 2019 or 2020 without creating much attention initially, the mobile store was initially planned as a small project within the company with a team of fewer than 70 people anticipated for the entire mobile store by 2021.
The plan was to introduce the storefront first without marketing or promotions, and the company aimed to produce a minimum viable product (MVP) in 2019. This would consist of a pilot program featuring only King games like Candy Crush. The initial launch was intended for the US and to be led by King developers.
The project also proposed involving up to five Activision and Blizzard developers, as well as up to three Battle.net developers, to expedite onboarding those brands’ games.
By 2020, the plan was to enhance the mobile app store by adding new capabilities throughout the year, such as multi-account support and push notifications, and extending the launch to more markets with expanded tools and support. The goal by 2021 was to establish an “ABK solution at scale” covering all the company’s mobile games and more.
However, the mobile app store never materialized due to Activision Blizzard’s deal with Google. Google signed a deal with Activision Blizzard worth more than $100 million, and according to Google partnerships boss Don Harrison, billions of dollars are now flowing between the two companies.
Epic has accused Google of effectively paying Activision Blizzard not to open its own competing app store with a deal known as Project Hug. This was part of Google’s efforts to combat the “contagion effect,” a term used by Google to describe its fear that a large percentage of top game developers would defect from Google Play, following Epic Games’ actions and subsequently affecting Google’s app store revenue.
The dispute in court revolves around whether Activision Blizzard genuinely intended to launch the app store. While Google believed there was a real threat, there are indications suggesting that it may have been an Activision Blizzard strategy for leverage all along.
For instance, one of the “goals” of Activision Blizzard’s store pilot program was to “put pressure on Google (ongoing negotiations).” Additionally, ABK’s CFO mentioned that a team of 45 to 70 employees seemed insufficient to execute such a project, as the company typically assigns hundreds of people for similar projects.
In his deposition, Zerza, a representative, indicated that the app store idea was merely at the early exploratory stage. The company decided not to pursue it as it was not financially attractive, and instead opted for the better deal offered by Google.
Ultimately, Activision Blizzard has reportedly continued to explore launching an app store since then. Today, Activision Blizzard is owned by Microsoft, potentially adding further complexity to the ongoing saga of mobile app stores.