Microsoft now officially owns ZeniMax Media, which includes Bethesda and a ton of other studios. So what's next? How will Microsoft leverage these studios and IP treasure troves to bolster its business?
On paper, the Microsoft x Bethesda buyout is a match made in heaven. The two companies have a mix of singleplayer and live-based games set in blockbuster IPs. They've been working together for almost two decades, stretching all the way back to the Morrowind days, and Bethesda's teams are innovative while Microsoft has significant game-making APIs, tools, and frameworks.
The business rationale is likewise appealing. Microsoft has spent years developing a cross-platform service infrastructure that binds PCs and consoles together, and set up a billion-dollar digital empire centered around a cohesive network. Now that the foundation is built, Microsoft needs content--a lot of content. That's why it bought Bethesda, who commands over 10 mega-hit franchises.
In this article, I'd like to highlight why Microsoft bought Bethesda, and what could be on the horizon for Xbox and PC gamers.
Microsoft's plans for exclusivity could be bold or conservative. Time has proven they are unpredictable (no one saw the huge acquisition coming) and it depends on how aggressive they want to be to tackle service retention and boost hardware sales. So far, Microsoft has focused on ecosystem development through cohesive services and networks, using Xbox LIVE, Game Pass, and Windows 10 as the glue that holds everything together.
Now with 23 studios making (and releasing) wholly-owned games, Microsoft has the content to power these services on a major first-party level.
Insofar as exclusivity, Microsoft has a lot of options here, and I think it'll be a three-pronged approach that includes:
- Full Exclusivity - This one's pretty straightforward. Some of Bethesda's games will be permanently kept off of PlayStation hardware. Microsoft gaming division head Phil Spencer already confirmed a few games will be PC/Xbox exclusive, but we don't know which ones.
- Timed-Exclusivity - During the PS4/Xbox One launch era, time exclusivity was a big deal. For Sony, it never stopped being a big deal. Epic Games is also snapping up timed exclusivity. Now with Bethesda's wholly-owned IPs in its arsenal, Microsoft could use timed exclusivity to A) keep games off of PlayStation and push users towards Xbox/PC ecosystem B) sell Game Pass subscriptions, and C) enjoy staggered sales when titles are made available on PlayStation hardware (Square Enix in particular likes doing this).
- Exclusive Features - This one could be interesting. I believe certain Bethesda games will have exclusive features or exclusive performance targets that aren't available on PlayStation hardware. This could extend to something like, say, extra in-game armor, quests, or other content, or even major next-gen console innovations like ray-traced visuals, higher frame rates, etc. Remember that Bethesda will now have direct first-hand access to Microsoft's internal DirectX 12 toolsets and infrastructures, which will allow them to iterate, build, and optimize their own internal engines specifically for Xbox hardware.
ZeniMax Media consists of 8 different studios, and all of them are pretty busy with a myriad of projects. Here's what each of them are working on:
- Bethesda Game Studios - Starfield, The Elder Scrolls VI
- id Software - Doom Eternal DLC, next Doom sequel
- ZeniMax Online Studios - Elder Scrolls Online, multiple new unannounced live game IPs
- Arkane - Deathloop, possible Prey sequel
- MachineGames - New Indiana Jones game with all-original storyline as well as Wolfenstein 3
- Tango Gameworks - Ghostwire: Tokyo
- Alpha Dog - Mobile games (Elder Scrolls Blades, Fallout Shelter)
- Roundhouse Studios (formerly Human Head Studios) - New unannounced project, possibly sequel to 2017's Prey with elements from cancelled Prey 2 sequel
This one is kind of shaky, but it could happen. Right now Bethesda Game Studios is pretty busy (the entirety of Bethesda/ZeniMax are busy, truth be told).
Still, though, we could see remasters and re-releases of beloved BGS favorites like Fallout 3, Oblivion, and even a next-gen release of Skyrim with higher-end enhancements and optimizations for the Series S/X. Integrated mod support would tie everything together in a neat package...but this is an iffy proposition.
Singleplayer, Multiplayer, Multi-platform, and Xbox Game Pass
ZeniMax's studios are working on a mix of singleplayer and multiplayer games that will cover the entire spectrum of gaming. We'll see live games with microtransactions, singleplayer-driven experiences like The Elder Scrolls VI, and multi-platform games that release on Xbox, PC, PlayStation, and possibly even the Switch.
This one is harder to predict, but I would say Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI will be primarily singleplayer games. There's some possibility of co-op--back in 2016, Todd Howard said both TESVI and Starfield were "big and crazy projects," and this could imply significant innovations and scope that go beyond singleplayer.
As for where these games will show up, whether or not singleplayer games will pop up on PlayStation, that's also hard to predict. History tells us that bigger franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Doom would be multi-platform, whereas newer, more experimental IPs like Starfield could stick to home base.
Multiplayer & Xbox Game Pass
The ZeniMax acquisition is a great way to supercharge Game Pass. All of the company's future games will release on Game Pass day and date, adding tremendous value to the service. Live games in particular should mess well with the subscription.
Ever since Elder Scrolls Online, ZeniMax has been chasing live services and has tried to adapt most of its biggest IPs into online-driven experiences. We've seen it with ESO, Fallout 76, and even Wolfenstein Youngblood, which had two-player online co-op with in-game purchases.
This trend will continue and Bethesda will learn a lot under Microsoft's tutelage.
Microsoft itself enjoys live services in its biggest games, and these online-driven experiences helped build its billion-dollar service empire. Services depend on active userbases continually spending time and money via long-term subscriptions or short-term purchases. Live games churn Game Pass retention while monetizing the engagement of these never-ending titles. In-game microtransactions are prevalent in Microsoft's heavy-hitters.
Under the Xbox Game Studios banner, Bethesda should reach its full potential in terms of live services, monetization, and online gaming. Various developers will learn how to properly adapt franchises and specific business models that not only maximize engagement, but complement Game Pass subscriptions.
In fact, that kind of synergy already exists. Bethesda's existing monetization infrastructure was a big reason why Microsoft bought the company; these business models fold perfect with Microsoft's service-first focus.
Just look at Elder Scrolls Online, which has piecemeal microtransactions as well as a whole separate $15/month subscription. ESO also has paid DLC and expansions that roll out regularly throughout the year.
Fallout 76 is in a similar boat, complete with in-game cosmetic purchases as well as seasonal boosts and a $100/year premium subscription.
As far as Game Pass is concerned, I think we'll see a few titles made specifically for Game Pass as well as multiplayer games cross over too. I don't think only singleplayer games will cross over to Game Pass by simple virtue of how the live service ecosystem works.
Having online-driven, multiplayer games on Game Pass is a great way to keep users playing and paying over long periods of time. The biggest concern is cementing players into the game and keeping their attention. As Fallout 76 proved, Bethesda has a lot to learn in this regard, so if they do pop over a new multiplayer game it'll need to be something big. Luckily they have ESO and Fallout 76 though.
Speaking of monetization, I'm kind of worried about the Creation Club...