Bethesda Acquisition Arms Microsoft for Upcoming Console War

Bethesda Acquisition Arms Microsoft Upcoming Console
Variety Intelligence Platform / Cheyne Gateley

Rapid acquisitions of dev studios throughout the tail end of the last decade was the first sign of Xbox Game Studios prepping for a new console generation, ending 2019 with as many first-party studios as Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Then Xbox parent company Microsoft revealed Monday it was set to acquire Bethesda Softworks parent ZeniMax Media for a gargantuan $7.5 billion, thereby gaining ownership of the “Elder Scrolls” and “Fallout” IP, in addition to many other titles developed for Bethesda by a host of well-regarded in-house studios.

This has significant implications for how things may play out in the next stage of the console wars, where subscriptions will play a pivotal role.

Just look at the subscriber numbers Microsoft boasted about not long after the Bethesda news dropped: Xbox Game Pass subscribers increased by half from 10 to 15 million between April and September, making Xbox’s paid subscription offering for games a far more successful endeavor than Sony’s PlayStation Now cloud gaming service, which was reported to have only 2.2 million subscribers as of May.

Enticing subscription bundles will be a big part of the Series X, and justifiably so, as this is a major Xbox strength that’s necessary to double down on and offset a mostly untested exclusives pipeline for Xbox, especially after “Halo Infinite,” intended to lead the host of launch titles this November, was delayed in August.

The Xbox All Access payment plan, for instance, is already set to grant access to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (which includes an EA Play subscription) while saving customers $80 or $120 over 24 months, depending on the new Xbox they purchase. While paid installment plans do exist through some retailers for PlayStation 4, that was never a de facto feature of that console, nor does the PS5 seem to have its own official credit plan like Xbox does.

By gaining control over the existing Bethesda catalog, which includes well-received franchises “Doom,” “Dishonored, “The Evil Within” and “Wolfenstein,” Xbox Game Pass will receive a tremendous boost in value for gamers at a time when the service is already ahead of the subscription gaming pack, a crucial move given that the next generation will see standard game prices increase from $60 to $70 per new AAA release.

So, is there a reason to panic just yet over which Bethesda games will be beholden to Xbox? Not necessarily. Bethesda’s two upcoming 2021 releases will keep their timed exclusive deals with PlayStation, while future multi-platform releases will be handled “on a case-by-case basis,” per Microsoft gaming EVP Phil Spencer.

Spencer’s language here is a good hint at the likelihood that Bethesda’s biggest titles won’t be outright Xbox exclusives, because it’s just not the smartest business move, given that Xbox has some serious catching up to do with PlayStation when it comes to actual paying customers.

Should PlayStation’s lead over Xbox be replicated again in the next gen, withholding Bethesda’s biggest releases from PS5 will bring in far fewer sales for Xbox than keeping traditional multi-platform distribution intact for new “Elder Scrolls” and “Fallout” games.

Thankfully for Xbox, Bethesda games are known for having hefty DLC add-ons and expansion packs after release, so Xbox can certainly explore timed or entirely exclusive post-release content for any of Bethesda’s popular titles.

Even amid poor reception, “Fallout 76” is also evidence that Bethesda is invested in the live-services space. Having support from the company that has controlled “Minecraft” for six years could see Bethesda expand upon live services and related exclusive content under the Xbox brand, something that could be crucial for Xbox given the absence of live services coming from SIE’s suite of studios.

With less than two months to go before the new consoles launch, it’s tough to tell if one has a clear shot of prevailing or if another tie is in store. But Xbox has clearly adjusted to a new gaming ecosystem that demands more from them beyond trademark consoles and is finally suiting up with more than the likes of “Halo,” which it no longer can rely on to bring in customers. 

Luckily, Bethesda’s got its own suits of armor to match Master Chief’s.