With the announcement coming just months prior to the release of next-gen consoles, the move strengthens the prospective lineup of Microsoft’s new Series X console and raised questions about the future of Bethesda games on the PlayStation 5. Phil Spencer, head of Xbox Studios, confirmed to Bloomberg that Bethesda’s upcoming titles will arrive on other platforms on a “case-by-case basis.” In the immediate future, two games published by Bethesda — the time-bending shooter “Deathloop” and horror game “Ghostwire: Tokyo” — will still arrive for PlayStation 5 as timed exclusives, as originally planned.
While it appears at least some Bethesda games will still be coming to PlayStation in the future, it doesn’t mean Sony won’t feel any impact. In order to bring games from the ZeniMax family to PlayStation, it will have to go through Microsoft, who can set the terms. That could mean periods of exclusivity for Xbox on some games, perhaps with some made playable first as part of Xbox Game Pass, before coming to PlayStation at a later date. Or, if Sony balks at the terms or Microsoft wants to keep one of its new properties all to itself to boost console purchases or its subscription service, Microsoft could decide to invoke exclusivity. For now though, it seems the company favors multi-platform availability for its acquired properties.
“When we think about strategy, whether it’s in gaming or any other part of Microsoft, each layer has to stand on its own for what it brings," CEO Satya Nadella told Bloomberg Monday. "When we talk about our content, we want our content to be broadly available.”
The proposed acquisition includes not just Bethesda Game Studios, but also id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango GameWorks, Alpha Dog and Roudhouse studios. This brings the total amount of in-house Xbox studios up to 23. Microsoft announced it would be taking a hands-off approach toward Bethesda, leaving its leadership unchanged.
The partnership may be comparable to Microsoft’s $2.5 billion acquisition of Mojang, the makers of “Minecraft,” in 2014. That move bolstered the property with more resources, and notably, didn’t restrict that game or subsequent “Minecraft” titles to Microsoft platforms.
Bethesda head Todd Howard also mentioned in a blog post that the acquisition allows his studio to take advantage of new Series X technology. This is similar to how Insomniac, a first-party Sony studio, was an early adopter of the PS5 dev kit to create games like “Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart,” that use the powerful SSD for lightning-quick load times. Howard says the Microsoft technology is being used to create titles like the upcoming space-themed RPG “Starfield” and “The Elder Scrolls VI.”
Likely the biggest and most obvious impact is for Game Pass, Microsoft’s game subscription service. Xbox head Phil Spencer promises Bethesda’s future games will be added to Xbox Game Pass the same day they launch on Xbox or PC in a Monday news release. This could suggest the merger is less about exclusives, and more about driving subscriptions for Game Pass.
Game Pass has quickly become one of the best deals in gaming. The Xbox subscription service is often coined as the “Netflix” of games: for a monthly fee, users access hundreds of games at no extra cost. The service has over 15 million subscribers (it had a huge, 50 percent boost in subscribers as of April 2020), and it’s one of the “hottest growth areas in gaming spend,” according to video game industry analyst Mat Piscatella.
The move is also notable for the resources Microsoft is committing to gaming. The company has completed several billion-dollar acquisitions before, such as its purchase of LinkedIn for $26 billion. This latest move is the company’s most expensive acquisition in the gaming space; in the broader industry, only Tencent’s $8.6 billion acquisition of “Clash of Clans” maker Supercell in 2016 exceeds Microsoft’s purchase of ZeniMax in scale.
The Bethesda acquisition is an exciting move for Xbox, especially for adopters of Series X (preorders go live on Sep. 22). Exactly how it all shakes out, though, and what it means for future Bethesda games like “Starfield” and “Elder Scrolls VI,” remains to be seen; instead, what’s more curious is how Microsoft will make use of these new properties. For example, with Obsidian and Bethesda now sister studios, it’s possible to see those teams join forces again like they did for “Fallout New Vegas,” Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier suggests. The path forward is changing fast, with next gen around the corner, and Microsoft is positioning itself favorably with Bethesda in tow.