As recently as last weekend, it seemed relatively certain that the next games in significant franchises like Doom, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dishonored, and The Evil Within would come to the PlayStation 5 (and maybe even to the Nintendo Switch). That certainty went out the window yesterday, though, when Microsoft announced that it would spend $7.5 billion to acquire major publisher Bethesda Softworks. Still, there is some hope for Bethesda fans who do not want to play on Xbox, PC, or Microsoft’s xCloud streaming. Future Bethesda titles will still be considered for multi-platform release “on a case-by-case basis,” Microsoft head of Xbox Phil Spencer said in an interview with Bloomberg News Monday morning. Thus far, there are only a few clues as to which games might qualify for either side of that “case-by-case” line. Spencer confirmed to Bloomberg that Bethesda would honor all existing commitments for non-Xbox releases. That means games like Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo, which has been heavily promoted as PS5 console exclusives, will remain so for their planned releases next year. There’s also little chance that previously released Bethesda games will be pulled from the PlayStation Store or the Nintendo eShop (always a remote possibility, but possible if Microsoft tried to press its newly acquired advantage).
Zenimax Online Studios also tweeted a promise this morning that The Elder Scrolls Online “will continue to be supported exactly as it was, and we fully expect it to keep growing and thriving on each of the platforms that are currently supported.” That is good news for current players on the PS4. Still, the careful wording might suggest problems for players hoping for a PlayStation 5 upgrade in the coming months.
Beyond that, we are left guessing what Microsoft may decide for other current Bethesda franchises. But looking at Microsoft’s history of acquisitions and exclusives gives some hints at what we might expect going forward.
Microsoft’s case to make Bethesda’s games exclusive to Xbox consoles (with potential PC versions alongside) is simple: fans of those games are more likely to buy an Xbox Series S or X (and subscribe to Xbox Game Pass) to play them. More people buying Microsoft hardware means a bigger addressable audience for future Xbox games. In turn, that attracts more developers to make games for the console, which attracts even more console sales—and so on in a virtuous cycle.
Therefore, console makers have funded exclusive game development since well before Super Mario Bros. hit the Nintendo Entertainment System. It is the reason why Microsoft’s internal studios like Turn 10, World’s Edge, The Coalition, and 343 Industries do not make franchises like Forza, Age of Empires, Gears of War, and Halo for the PlayStation 5. There have been some exceptions to this general rule regarding Microsoft’s recent external acquisitions, though. For instance, Microsoft subsidiary inXile released a version of Wasteland 3 for the PlayStation 4 just last month. Last year, Microsoft subsidiary Obsidian released The Outer Worlds for PS4 as well. Looking to the future, Psychonauts 2 is still planned for a PS4 release despite Microsoft’s 2019 purchase of developer Double Fine. These exceptions have one significant similarity, though: the games in question were already well into development when Microsoft purchased the studio. Just as Bethesda will honor its current commitments, Microsoft did not force these studios to change their plans as a requirement for being bought. However, as we advance, these newly acquired members of Xbox Game Studios will focus on Microsoft platforms. Obsidian’s next game, Grounded, launched in early access exclusively on Xbox One in July, for instance. The studio’s next game, Avowed, is planned as an Xbox Series S/X exclusive. The story is the same for other recent acquisitions. Ninja Theory may have made games for PlayStation before becoming part of Microsoft in 2018. Still, Bleeding Edge was an Xbox exclusive in March, and the upcoming Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II will be as well. What does this mean for Bethesda’s current longterm projects? Games like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI were announced in 2018. Still, Bethesda has not publicly made any multi-platform commitments for those titles. Both projects are probably early enough in the development process that Microsoft could insist on Xbox exclusivity if it wished.
What about Minecraft?
Those hopeful for Microsoft taking a loose hand with Bethesda exclusivity can point to the example the company set with Minecraft. After spending $2.5 billion for developer Mojang in 2014, Microsoft could have taken strict control of the Minecraft franchise, forcing players into Xbox or Windows ecosystems to enjoy updates (or even wholly overhauled sequels) the ultra-popular game. Instead, Microsoft continued to publish and support versions (and spin-offs) of the hit game for every platform imaginable, from iOS to the Wii U and beyond. The argument goes that Microsoft realized that Minecraft was worth more to the company as a multi-platform hit than as an exclusive, luring players to its platforms. Similarly, Microsoft might decide that Bethesda’s famous (though less popular than Minecraft) franchises are more valuable as multi-platform sales behemoths than as reasons to buy an Xbox Series S/X.
Meanwhile, players might still be attracted to Xbox for cheap and easy subscription access to these Bethesda games via Game Pass. But there is some reason to think Minecraft is unique in its role among Microsoft’s gaming properties. By the time Microsoft bought Mojang in 2014, the game was practically a platform unto itself, with tens of millions of regular players connected through a cross-platform ecosystem of server-based worlds. Some of those players have invested hundreds or thousands of hours into those persistent, living worlds. Forcing those players to abandon their platform of choice to continue with the worlds they have built and are still enjoying could have felt heavy-handed. Some Minecraft players might have given up on the game; others who grudgingly came along for the ride could harbor ill will toward Microsoft.
More than that, though, Minecraft is the kind of online-focused game that benefits from having as broad a player base as possible (in part because it makes a lot of money through in-game purchases on the Minecraft Marketplace). Forcing players onto Microsoft platforms would mean fewer players overall, which would mean more occasional creations to gawk at and multiplayer servers to join. That, in turn, would make the game less appealing as a whole and less of an overall draw to Microsoft’s ecosystem for those willing to make the trip. This probably helps explain why a persistent online game like Elder Scrolls Online is getting a pass for multi-platform access. Bethesda’s living world of Fallout 76 also seems likely to remain available on PlayStation consoles. For Bethesda’s single-player-focused franchises, though, the value proposition is different. New sequels to these games mark an easy transition point where individual players can jump to a new platform. That is a less demanding move than shutting down an active game experience that players on other platforms currently enjoy. PlayStation owners who have long enjoyed Bethesda games might resent choosing between these titles and their preferred platform. But that is only a problem for Microsoft if a critical mass of those players decides they like the PlayStation ecosystem more than they like Doom, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and so on.
A third way?
Another option, of course, is timed exclusivity. Microsoft could make Bethesda’s games available only on Xbox consoles for a year, say, ensuring that early adopters need a Series S/X to keep up with the latest and most significant releases. Then it could release the games on PlayStation 5 and Switch to rake in extra money from an expanded audience. There is some precedent for this with other former Microsoft exclusives. Games like Cuphead and the Ori series made the jump to other consoles after a timed exclusivity period on Xbox. Before that, games like Rising of the Tomb Raider and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds were only available on Xbox One before leaping the PS4. In all those cases, though, the games came from a studio not owned by Microsoft. Microsoft likely made a one-time payment to secure a period of exclusivity for those games without taking anything like a controlling stake in the developer. Extending that timed exclusivity idea to wholly owned subsidiaries within Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios would be a new frontier for Microsoft. And it might be one that the company is willing to explore to capture the existing multi-console audience that Bethesda’s most popular games enjoy. Simultaneously, though, the idea of Microsoft paying $7.5 billion only to become the publisher behind a host of primary PlayStation 5 titles seems a little odd. But consumer behavior will likely help determine how Microsoft makes these “case-by-case” multi-platform decisions in the future.