When Microsoft first announced it was going to buy ZeniMax Media, the owners of developer and publisher Bethesda, a lot of gaming fans held their breath. Many of us asked what does this mean for PS5 exclusives, with Microsoft not really giving an answer.
But now Xbox boss Phil Spencer has confirmed that Microsoft's $7.5b acquisition of ZeniMax Media has been done and dusted and Bethesda is now officially a part of the Xbox family. And it's bad news for PS5 fans. But I saw this coming.
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Rather predictably, when the acquisition was first announced, the biggest topic of debate is whether future Bethesda games will be coming to the PS5 or will be exclusive to the Xbox Series X.
But in some ways, it’s surprising that the topic remains such a source of contentious discussion, as from where I’m standing the future of Bethesda games on PS5 was and is pretty clear. There isn’t one.
The official word
Before getting into my reasoning behind why PS5 gamers are going to have to accept that they won't be playing The Elder Scroll 6 or Fallout 5 on their system, let's examine what Xbox's statement (opens in new tab) tells us.
The statement is mostly flowery language about how exciting the acquisition is. But there are a few little nuggets that hint towards what Bethesda's relationship with Sony will be in the future.
The most interesting part of the announcement is when Spencer directly said: "Xbox consoles, PC, and Game Pass will be the best place to experience new Bethesda games, including some new titles in the future that will be exclusive to Xbox and PC players."
However, this got clearer in an Xbox and Bethesda roundtable (opens in new tab), where Spencer said in no uncertain terms that future Bethesda games will be used to bolster Xbox Game Pass.
"If you're an Xbox customer, the thing I want you to know is this is about delivering great exclusive games for you that ship on platforms where Game Pass exists," Spencer said. "And that's our goal, that's why we're doing this, that's the root of this partnership that we're building — and the creative capability we'll be able to bring to market for Xbox customers is going to be the best it's ever been for Xbox after we're done here."
Reading between the lines, that doesn't scream that future Bethesda games will wing their way over to Sony's PS5.
But then Spencer did give some hope ot PS5 by noting: "Obviously I can't sit here and say every Bethesda game is box exclusive [to Xbox], because we know that's not true," explained Spencer.
"There's contractual obligations that we're going to see through. We have games that exist on other platforms and we're going to go and support those games on the platforms they're on. There's communities of players - we love those communities and will continue to invest in them - and even in the future there might be...either contractual things or legacy on different platforms that we'll go do."
However, this is our clearest indication yet that at least some of Bethesda's future games won't be coming to PlayStation consoles. Frustratingly we likely won't know for a while yet which titles will be Xbox exclusive.
It may not be all bad news for gamers playing on PS5 though, as part of the statement reads: "We look forward to empowering Bethesda’s creative teams to reach even more players around the world."
This could be an indication that Microsoft has no plans to restrict key Bethesda titles to just Xbox platforms. Although it could just be a reference to titles such as The Elder Scrolls Online, which have already launched on PlayStation consoles and have been confirmed to still be receiving support on those systems.
Time will of course tell, and the wiggle room for interpreting Spencer's words might give some PS5 players hope that they'll be adventuring in Tamriel or wandering the Wasteland again this generation. Personally, I think it doesn't change anything.
It’s simple dollars and cents
The idea that hugely popular franchises like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Doom, and Wolfenstein will never grace a PlayStation system again is disappointing. However, to suggest that Microsoft will be putting future installments on Sony’s next-gen system seems completely illogical.
Since the moment the deal was announced the press have hounded Microsoft and Bethesda execs with questions about exclusivity. While a vague statement about titles being considered on a “case-by-case basis” has raised the hopes of PlayStation gamers, it seems like little more than empty PR speak to me.
The simple truth is that Microsoft has spent a colossal amount of money purchasing ZeniMax (Bethesda’s parent company) and will want to see a sizeable return on that massive investment.
Sure, Microsoft would be leaving money on the table by only releasing future Bethesda games on Xbox consoles and PC. But in the long term, it’s a strategy that would actually pay dividends.
It’s a gamer who could have potentially been convinced to buy into the Xbox ecosystem who now has no reason to. That’s a console not sold and one less Xbox Game Pass subscriber to add to the tally. It’s a player who now has no incentive to game anywhere else but on PlayStation.
I’m convinced that Microsoft didn’t buy Bethesda for the short-term gratification of selling a couple extra million copies of a new Elder Scrolls or Fallout. The publisher was bought as a long-term investment to drive people towards engaging with Xbox products and services.
The exception to the rule
Of course, some people have already pointed to the example of Minecraft, which continues to be released and supported on PlayStation systems, as proof that Microsoft isn’t in the exclusive game. The situations are very different.
When Microsoft bought Minecraft developer Mojang for $2.5b in 2014, Minecraft was already everywhere. The genie was out of the bottle. It would have been a hugely controversial move to pull an already released game from a system.
Furthermore, Minecraft is very much a special case, as in many ways it has transcended being just a game and is a platform in its own right. People create games within Minecraft itself and use it for all sorts of functions, even as an educational tool. Making it exclusive to Xbox would only end up hurting Minecraft’s legacy and community.
The better comparison point would be Microsoft’s handling of its first-party IPs such as Halo, Gears of War, Fable, and Forza. None of these franchises have made a single appearance on a PlayStation console — apart from Master Chief’s strange cameo in Fortnite, but we don’t talk about that.
If Microsoft hasn’t made its current flagship exclusives available on PlayStation why would that suddenly change with Bethesda? You wouldn’t ever expect to see God of War (a PlayStation-owned IP) on Xbox, so why do people assume the inverse will happen?
The move would actually be basically unprecedented, no other platform holder is releasing significant first-party games on a competing console. You don’t see Nintendo putting Mario Odyssey on PS5!
Giving you a reason to care
Other arguments that have been made frequently over the past 24 hours include the fact that ZeniMax is not being folded into Xbox Game Studios, and will continue to operate essentially as a separate company.
This is hardly surprising though. ZeniMax has been operating for over two decades whereas Bethesda has been around since 1986 — that’s years of development to the company’s management structure and workplace culture, it’s a smart business move to keep those established for now.
Ultimately Microsoft has spent $7.5 billion in order to give gamers a reason to care about playing on Xbox. Putting Bethesda titles on PlayStation (or Nintendo platforms for that matter) renders the whole point of the purchase moot.
For PlayStation gamers not being able to experience the next entries in beloved franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout is a bitter pill, and as the social media reaction over the last 24 hours displays it’s proving very hard to swallow.
When the dust settles it’s likely that more than a few of the currently outraged PlayStation fans will find themselves contemplating purchasing an Xbox as a secondary console, or beefing up their PC to play the Bethesda games through Game Pass. Which is exactly what Microsoft wants.
It’s already been confirmed that certain titles like the Elder Scrolls Online will continue to have a presence on PlayStation. Plus in a rather funny twist the next two Bethesda releases, Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokoyo, have pre-agreed timed exclusive deals so will come to PS5 a year before Xbox. But after that, I expect Bethesda games won’t grace the PS5 again.
It’s a great shame for PlayStation to lose a publisher with so many amazing franchises under its belt. But at the same time, it shows that Xbox is fully committed to competing, which can only be good for the industry. Competition breeds innovation after all.