In announcing its intention to acquire ZeniMax Media for 7.5 billion dollars, Xbox just changed the shape of the video game industry. In the last two weeks alone, Microsoft has unveiled the Xbox Series S, detailed the Xbox Series X pre-order plans, launched its cloud gaming initiative as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate alongside a historic partnership with EA to bring EA Play into the fold. But this new revelation is without question the biggest and most important of them all.
This ZeniMax deal includes publisher Bethesda Softworks, along with Arkane Studios, Alpha Dog, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, MachineGames, Roundhouse, Tango Gameworks, and ZeniMax Online. These are development studios responsible for the likes of Doom, Dishonored, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, The Evil Within, Wolfenstein, Quake (and so, so many more). All eight of ZeniMax Media's development studios will live under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella, taking Microsoft's creative studio teams from 15 to 23. This is a monumental deal, one that shakes at the very foundations of the industry and puts the Xbox Series X in a new light. But how will it impact you and the games that you want to play?
What will happen to Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo?
This isn't the first time that Microsoft has made a move like this. The company has acquired seven studios in the last two years to bolster its first-party output and, back in 2014, it acquired Minecraft creator Mojang for $2.5 billion. Although this is of course, on a different level entirely. Having spent a generation listening to claims from the community that the Xbox One had no games, the Xbox division has responded in the firmest manner imaginable.
Does this mean all eight of ZeniMax's studios are about to begin creating Xbox exclusives? Not necessarily, and definitely not in the immediate future. It's been noted that Microsoft expects this acquisition to close in the second half of 2021. That's a year that includes the releases of Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo – two games that are already locked into partnership deals with Sony to launch as timed exclusives for PS5.
That isn't likely to change. While there's nothing to say that Arkane and Tango Gameworks won't create exclusives for the Xbox ecosystem in the future, Microsoft's recent history would suggest that it is more than happy to let its recently acquired studios conclude their business before turning their attention to new first-party releases. You need only look at Double Fine, Obsidian, and InXile. Double Fine continues its work on Psychonauts 2, a multi-platform game set for release later this year. Obsidian not only completed work on multi-platform release of The Outer Worlds, but was able to push production through for DLC before turning its attention to Grounded and Avowed. inXile recently released Wasteland 3, a game that (much like each of the aforementioned) was delayed so that it could make use of the additional support and resources provided by Microsoft to make the best game possible, regardless of what platform it was due to land on.
What I'm saying is that it will be business as usual for the foreseeable future. Fallout 76 and The Elder Scrolls Online players aren't suddenly going to find themselves losing access to the game on PS4 – although we might finally get a little wiggle room on cross-platform multiplayer, which would be welcomed. Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo aren't about to disappear from the upcoming PS5 games lineup. As for games in the early stages of development across the group? Well, it sounds like Bethesda is still going to be in full control of how its key franchises are published and distributed...
Will Elder Scrolls 6 be an Xbox Series X exclusive?
The bigger question, of course, is what this will mean for two of the most anticipated games of the next-generation: Starfield and The Elder Scrolls 6. While Microsoft would be within its rights to make both of these games exclusive to Xbox, it sounds as if Bethesda is going to have even more freedom within Microsoft than Mojang does. You need only look at a statement from Pete Hines to get a sense of this. Bethesda's VP of PR and marketing says: "But the key point is we're still Bethesda. We're still working on the same games we were yesterday, made by the same studios we've worked with for years, and those games will be published by us."
That last point is key. If Bethesda Softworks (the publishing wing of ZeniMax) still has the latitude to publish games, even with the studios it is used to working with sitting under the Xbox Games Studios umbrella, there's a pretty good chance that Microsoft will want to see these marquee games arriving on other platforms – such as PS5 and Switch – to maximise profits, not to mention awareness of services such as Game Pass. This has worked out fine for Mojang in the past, with Minecraft still supported and updated on multiple platforms, not to mention the release of Minecraft Dungeons for Xbox One, PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch earlier this year.
It would appear that Microsoft has invested in this ZeniMax ecosystem not for exclusives, but for what it will bring to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. There are now over 15 million people subscribed to the service and that is only going to grow in lockstep with the strength of the library. Microsoft has already confirmed that it "will be adding Bethesda's iconic franchises to Xbox Game Pass", so that could include everything from original Xbox's Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind to more recent titles like Doom Eternal, creating a lineup with an envious amount of quality contained within it.
The company also announced that it has "intent to bring Bethesda's future games into Xbox Game Pass the same day they launch on Xbox or PC", which includes titles like Starfield, the space epic that's still years away from release. What this means for Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo, when their six month windows of exclusivity expire, it's difficult to say – but it wouldn't be out of the realms of possibility to expect these games to immediately weave into Game Pass.
That's the strength of the deal. It puts Microsoft in a position to allow all of these amazing games like The Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield to release on PS5 and Xbox Series X simultaneously, positioning Xbox as the key way to play. Why? Because it'll cost $69.99/ £69.99 on one of those platforms, and on the other it'll be available as part of a 14.99/£10.99 month subscription service alongside hundreds of other next-gen games, not to mention the discounts provided by EA Play. It's an impossibly enticing proposition, not to mention a huge boon for the marketing wing of Microsoft in the months and years ahead.
Phil Spencer and Todd Howard want to expand play, not restrict it
It's also worth looking at what Phil Spencer has to say for himself. As he discussed this landmark deal, the head of Xbox reaffirmed his open and inclusive approach to the upcoming generation. He describes a plan that has been many years in the making that enters its next phase with the release of Xbox Series X and Series S on November 10.
He explains that: "A plan that is the fulfilment of a promise, to you the Xbox player, to deliver the most performant, immersive and compatible next-generation gaming experiences, and the freedom to play blockbuster games with your friends, anytime, anywhere. Today is a landmark step in our journey together and I'm incredibly energized by what this step means for Xbox."
"The freedom to play blockbuster games with your friends, anytime, anywhere" is the sentence you ought to pay attention to. Because it just so happens to be the one that is echoed by Bethesda Game Studios' creative director and executive producer, Todd Howard. "Like our original partnership, this one is about more than one system or one screen," he says, reflecting on the company's relationship with Microsoft since 1999.
"We share a deep belief in the fundamental power of games, in their ability to connect, empower, and bring joy. And a belief we should bring that to everyone - regardless of who you are, where you live, or what you play on. Regardless of the screen size, the controller, or your ability to even use one."
As far as Microsoft is concerned, the consoles wars are over. What comes now is the dismantling of barriers to play. If Elder Scrolls 6 or Starfield launched exclusively on Xbox wouldn't that be in direct opposition of that ideal? I'd say so, but only time will tell.