In case you somehow missed it, Microsoft recently acquired Zenimax Media and the deal has sent out ripples in the gaming community. PS5 players are panicking over the news that future Bethesda titles will be Xbox Series X exclusives. But if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, they're almost certainly getting worked up over nothing.
Zenimax is the parent company of Bethesda, which is the studio that's home to hugely popular franchises like The Elder Scrolls and the Fallout series. Xbox boss Phil Spencer's statement in the wake of the deal plunged PS5 players into despair as he confirmed that news that yes, "some new titles in the future that will be exclusive to Xbox and PC players."
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While this sounds like the death knell for the likes of Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls on Sony's consoles, it would make little sense in the context of Microsoft's ethos and strategy. Gamers who believe that they won't ever see their favorite games release outside of the Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and PC are jumping the gun.
Microsoft's Xbox masterplan
Ever since Phil Spencer took the helm at Xbox, Microsoft has managed to win over gamers. Spencer and his classic t-shirt and blazer combo has made us feel like we've got one of us in the boardroom, representing our interests in a sea of stuffy suits and corporate execs.
His mantra is all about inclusivity. And before Fortnite forced Sony's hand on the topic of cross-platform play, he spoke candidly on Sony's stance at the time. "It doesn’t help the developer, and it doesn’t help the consumer, then it doesn’t feel like it helps grow gaming to me," he said.
Spencer has also been vocal on Sony's proclivity for exclusivity when it comes to PS5 games and what he thinks about nabbing exclusives for one particular platform. Back in 2017, he told GameSpot that he's staunchly against the idea.
"People always knock me on this; I've been on record... I don't love the idea or practice of us paying so other platforms can't play or use a certain gun in a game or do a certain level." Spencer said. "I know I say that and, Xbox history — DLC exclusivity windows with Call of Duty — I understand the fingers are pointing right back to Xbox. I can only be who I am. It's not the best PR answer. But I don't like that."
Talking more specifically about console exclusives just before the Xbox Series X launched, Spencer told GamesIndustry.biz: "Our device is not the centre of our strategy, our game is not the centre of the strategy. We want to enable you to play the games you want to play, with the friends you want to play with, on any device.
"On TV, the Xbox console is going to be the best way to play console games. Xbox Series X is the most powerful console out there and it will have absolutely the best versions of our console games. But that's not to exclude other people from being able to play."
Spencer waxed lyrically explaining that gaming is about entertainment and community, and how exclusives are counter to what gaming is about. He also enthused that "gaming is bigger than any one device" and about the players and access to games.
Just a few months later, news of the Zenimax deal broke. In an interview with Gamereactor, Spencer stressed his belief that platform exclusives provide short-term value, but he thinks the jury's out on how beneficial it is outside of generating hype.
"From an exclusivity standpoint, they are great marketing vehicles and they can lead to some great games. But if we take a higher-level view, is gaming better if more people get to play more of the great games in our ecosystem? I think that is true," Spencer said. "And that is why we ship our game on Xbox, we ship our game on PC, and if you have an Android phone you can play our games too."
The Minecraft model
Minecraft is a great example of this. After Microsoft bought Mojang, it was still possible to play the game on Nintendo Switch, and PS4. But you can sign in to your Microsoft account on both platforms for benefits like cross-play. Furthermore, you can tie your in-game purchases to your account, so they carry over if you switch to a different device or platform to play the game on.
In this instance, the game was already available on the platforms, and while there was pushback from Sony, which cited player safety as a reason to oppose cross-play, the company eventually relented. Microsoft got its way: PS4 players were free to sign in to their Microsoft account and link it to their PSN account.
Paired with its historical stance on exclusives, and willingness to echo the sentiment expressed by gamers on subjects like cross-play, suddenly pulling a 180-degree turn would be bad for business.
Phil Spencer has presented the image of someone invested in gamers' interest above arbitrary business decisions that would see segments of the community excluded from playing great Xbox games.
A question of time
But of course, profitability is a factor that can't be ignored, especially after sinking $7.5 billion into buying Zenimax Media.
The best way for Xbox to come out on top of the acquisition is timed exclusives, especially with beloved franchises that have released across platforms in the past. It's a 'higher-level view' in-line with Spencer's personal beliefs on how gaming should work.
Moreover, Xbox Game Pass has been dubbed 'Netflix for games.' And while distribution rights vary drastically between industries, it's common practice to see series and films migrate between streaming services, even for original content.
Game Pass is certainly revolutionary in bringing this format to gaming — just look at how Game Pass now has access to EA Play — and the streaming service-like approach is undoubtedly the future. Keeping titles exclusive to one platform forever is decidedly not.
If Phil Spencer and Microsoft are as forward-thinking as they've led us to believe, PS5 players won't have anything to worry about.
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