After months of inevitability, Microsoft officially acquired ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks. One of the biggest acquisitions in gaming. Bethesda is a long heralded game developer known for bringing to life fantastic RPGs. There’s a fanatical fanbase behind Bethesda games and most gamers find themselves gravitating to at least one of Bethesda’s RPG entries.
That’s not even to mention the incredible critical success of games that aren’t quite as well known outside of the gaming community like Dishonored and Wolfenstein. Bethesda is one of the most prolific and successful third-party developers in the gaming space, but their titles haven’t always been perfect, often far from it.
Likely their most successful games of all time, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, launched with a number of bugs, ranging from annoying to game-breaking. And there’s a pattern that can be discerned. Known for their sprawling open-world games, Bethesda games are expected to lack a certain amount of final polish, written off because of the breadth of content available in them. There are simply so many things going on that not every edge case can be tested, especially when the game is released across every major platform available. The trend continued throughout the inventive Fallout series, coming to a head with the infamous release of Fallout 76 (which has since recovered quite elegantly). These RPGs for which the company is broadly known, are also those that garner the most amount of scrutiny, especially as tolerance for broken games has dramatically reduced. And given that the era of being awestruck with the openness of games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim diminished in the PS3/Xbox 360 era and reduced greatly in the PS4/Xbox One era, the technical issues facing many of these games started to feel like the only thing continuing to hold them back, but the tolerance for any bugs has continued to drop.
Microsoft’s acquisition of the company may be exactly what they need. By adding the vast number of resources available at Microsoft, Bethesda will be able to make use of a greater number of testers to ensure that their games end up more polished than they otherwise would if they continued to be published independently.
Could Bethesda Games Exclusively Release on Xbox?
Beyond the potential for improvement that Microsoft resources could provide to Bethesda, there’s the ever-present and quite important question of exclusivity. If Microsoft is buying Bethesda, what would their incentive be to release their games on their primary rival: the PlayStation. Five years ago I would have thought that there wasn’t a chance of Microsoft releasing their games anywhere other than on Microsoft machines, but there’s one detail that complicates things: Game Pass. Microsoft’s heavy push for making Game Pass the best, most affordable way to play games might end up making the games that result of the Bethesda acquisition more broadly available than they otherwise would be. Their marketing strategy is no longer “buy here instead of there”, making the push for exclusivity vital, but rather, it’s “buy here, it’s cheaper, easier, and the game will run far better”. Since midway through the Xbox One lifecycle and the release of the powerful Xbox One X, Microsoft has been pumping up its prowess at being the best place to play third-party games, having the smoothest performance. If Microsoft can realize their dreams of offering games on Xbox consoles, PCs, and via xCloud, the likelihood of a PlayStation release seems more reasonable. If consumers see that they could pay $15/month for Game Pass versus $70 for the same standalone game, perhaps they would see the value of Game Pass and switch ecosystems. This way Microsoft benefits from purchases by the PlayStation userbase while also converting a portion of its users to Microsoft. Even if this only happens for tentpole releases like The Elder Scrolls or Fallout, the buzz could be enough to convert some users.
But if we pull ourselves out from the collaborative clouds and look at the situation a little more realistically, there’s a very good chance that these games only get released on Xbox consoles and PCs. The temptation of offering games exclusively on Microsoft systems could be a strategy that holds out and proves to be more than lucrative for Microsoft in their acquisition of Bethesda. And for many PlayStation owners, this is nothing other than a huge disappointment. A big portion of console owners only have the resources to own a single gaming machine, and exclusivity can be devastating for them. And especially for PlayStation owners who have had the luxury of being on the better side of exclusivity for a while, as they continue to enjoy more and more exclusive games, they watched Xbox struggle to release quality titles in their marquee series. This deal is a shock to the system for PlayStation who has, for the last generation, been the undisputed champion of games. The best games are released on PlayStation, and a handful of the best are exclusively released on PlayStation. This is Xbox’s first big step to get consumers sucked back into their ecosystem and Bethesda is a great choice. With any luck, they’ll be able to polish some of the shortcomings of typical Bethesda releases and create an even better company than the incredible brand that already stood. They’ll be able to pour the resources into marketing some of the best, least played games of the last generations to help them get the attention that they deserve. And they may even convince some PlayStation owners to open a Microsoft account and give Game Pass a go.
And this all goes without even mentioning Bethesda’s unofficial response to arguably the best narrative-driven action series in Uncharted: Indiana Jones. Acquiring the IP for one of the most adored action movies of a generation will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. And its exclusivity (or potential lack thereof) will surely be a topic of conversation.
It’s hard to believe that Microsoft would allow Bethesda to make its games available on multiple platforms, the development cost saved by reducing the number of platforms alone is enticing. But it’s also on the heels of Microsoft’s impressive innovation in making Game Pass a really strong offering for gamers, and not making it exclusive to the boxes that they produce. Although Game Pass also appearing on PCs keeps it in the Microsoft family, it represents a shift in the industry where Microsoft wants gamers to play its games on its platform (Game Pass), but doesn’t mind what machine runs it. The future is an interesting one for Microsoft and the Bethesda acquisition is the first big test of how we get to see Microsoft’s strategy for the games that they release on their platforms, and how tightly they hold on to them.