I’m a couple of days late on this one, but if you didn’t know already, Microsoft surprised and upended the games industry by announcing a deal to buy ZeniMax Media. ZeniMax is the owner of Bethesda – the company behind such titles as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 76. The deal also includes id Software, developers of Doom and Doom Eternal, as well as several other associated companies, including the developers of The Evil Within, The Elder Scrolls Online, and the Wolfenstein series. Wow.
I’ve seen a lot of… interesting commentary to have come out of this acquisition, including people who seem to think this means there can be no more console-exclusive titles ever, and some overly-optimistic PlayStation fans still expecting their favourite Bethesda/ZeniMax titles to come out on that platform. A lot of the details of the deal and its fallout (pun intended) are still under wraps, but I think we can make some reasonable assumptions – and cut through some of the nonsense.
First off, let’s clear something up. Microsoft wouldn’t spend $7.5 billion on this company and its subsidiaries for no reason. There are unquestionably going to be changes as a result of this deal. There are several ways it could manifest, but if we look to recent history we can pick out a couple of examples. The Outer Worlds was late into its development when Microsoft purchased developer Obsidian. With the game already scheduled for release on PlayStation, Microsoft honoured that commitment and didn’t make any changes. Likewise when they bought Mojang, Minecraft didn’t become an Xbox/PC exclusive. Those games were either already released or releasing imminently, likely with deals and agreements already signed, so Microsoft kept to those agreements.
The titles people seem most concerned about are The Elder Scrolls VI, which was announced a couple of years ago but is still several years away, and the next game in the Fallout series. No announcement has been made of a new Fallout title, but the assumption is that there may be one in pre-production. As someone who worked in the games industry for a time, I really feel that no company in Microsoft’s position spends this much money not to have exclusive titles. Unless this is part of some longer-term strategy to force Sony to bring their exclusive titles to Microsoft’s Xbox and PC platforms – which it almost certainly isn’t – we can say goodbye to the idea of any upcoming games being multiplatform. Despite Microsoft’s statements that they don’t care what platform someone plays on, they obviously do or they wouldn’t be investing so heavily in the Xbox brand and in PC gaming.
The Elder Scrolls VI is far enough in the future that I’d argue it won’t affect the purchasing decisions of 99% of gamers in 2020/21. Even hardcore Elder Scrolls fans should feel confident buying a PlayStation 5 if they want to this Christmas, because the next game in the series is years away and there will be time to get a cheaper Xbox Series S later if necessary. But thinking strategically and thinking long-term, the reality is that if players want to guarantee access to upcoming titles in any of these franchises, they’ll need to look at Xbox. That could be in the form of a console or it could mean getting a PC capable of running newer games. Either way, right now there’s no guarantee any of these titles will come to PlayStation – and if I were advising Microsoft, I’d say they’re in a rock solid position to demand compromises from Sony if Sony want to make any of those games and franchises available on their new system.
As we gear up for the launch of the two new systems, it’s hard to see that many people who had been planning to get a PlayStation will be swayed by this move – at least not in the short-term. All titles which have already been released – including the likes of Doom Eternal, Fallout 4, etc. – will still be available on Sony’s systems. On PlayStation 5 specifically, upgraded and/or re-released versions of some games are coming, and backwards compatibility with PlayStation 4 will mean all current-gen titles will run on the new system. Also the upcoming Ghostwire: Tokyo and Deathloop, which have already been announced for PlayStation 5, seem certain to keep their console releases. So anyone looking ahead to the next year or two need not be too concerned. It’s the longer-term prospects that may worry some PlayStation gamers.
With this acquisition, Microsoft will be bringing all of Bethesda’s titles – including upcoming releases – to their Game Pass service. I wrote recently that Game Pass is already a pretty great deal, not to mention the cheapest way to get into current- and next-gen gaming. Add Bethesda’s titles into the mix and the value of the service goes up even more.
This is the real genius of the move. Exclusivity will certainly pull in some players, as those unwilling to miss out will have no choice but to buy into the Xbox ecosystem in some form. But Game Pass is Microsoft’s killer app right now; a subscription service offering players hundreds of games for a monthly fee instead of shelling out $70/£65 per title is not only in line with the way people consume other forms of entertainment (like music and television) but also feels like a good value proposition as we enter what could be a long-term spell of economic uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Game Pass is already available on Xbox and PC, and has been steadily growing its subscriber base. It doesn’t have the library that a service like Steam has, but I can absolutely foresee a time in the future – the near future – where Game Pass will be the platform of choice for many players, perhaps with Steam as a backup to buy occasional titles that aren’t available elsewhere. And once someone has signed up for Game Pass, Xbox Live, and started racking up achievements and making friends, they’re hooked into the ecosystem. It isn’t impossible to switch or leave, of course, but Microsoft will make staying as appealing as possible.
As far back as 2000/01 when Microsoft decided to jump head-first into the home console market, commentators were wondering when they’d start throwing their wallet around. A company with the resources of Microsoft is in a unique position to spend, and we’ve seen them do so several times. On the whole, for players mostly interested in single-player titles I can understand why this feels huge. It is. But at the same time, the deal to buy Mojang a few years back was probably more significant!
In summary, this is good news for PC and Xbox players, and anyone who’s a Game Pass subscriber or on the fence about the service. PlayStation players shouldn’t notice any major short-term ramifications, but if you desperately want to play an upcoming game like the sequel to Doom Eternal, Starfield, or The Elder Scrolls VI, I think you’re going to need a PC or an Xbox.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. The Xbox brand is the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.