Update: Microsoft has announced it will buy Activision Blizzard further boosting its suite of developers and publishers.
I’d be lying if I said Microsoft's purchase of Bethesda didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, the collective reaction from the game-centric people at Tom’s Guide was "wow."
In a week that was packed full of PS5 and Xbox Series X news, including pre-orders for the latter and it’s less-powerful sibling, the Xbox Series S, this Microsoft news still hit like a brick. But it’s also an acquisition that will have big ramifications for the gaming world and could supercharge Xbox Game Pass even further.
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As a strange mix of a developer and a publisher, Bethesda was hardly strapped for cash and seemed to be doing perfectly fine by itself. But clearly Microsoft's offer of $7.5 billion in cash to buy ZeniMax Media, which is the parent company of Bethesda’s developer and publisher arms, must have been too good to refuse.
The result of the acquisition means Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios expanded from 15 development houses to 23. Microsoft says it will keep Bethesda’s leadership structure intact and run the company as a separate entity. But the purchase gives Redmond's gaming arm access to The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dishonored, Doom, and Wolfenstein game series.
With Microsoft's billions of dollars, vast software development reach, Xbox ecosystem, cloud platforms, and other tech, Bethesda has the scope to produce some seriously impressive games. And ones that could benefit from a tighter relationship with Xbox and it’s console hardware.
That means we can expect The Elder Scrolls 6 to be a hugely impressive game. And for the likes of Arkane to have the funding and scope to explore strange game concepts that it might not otherwise be able to explore due to publisher sales expectations.
But perhaps more importantly, Microsoft's acquisition of Bethesda could result in a gaming bargain that might be near impossible to beat.
An even better value for Xbox Game Pass
I’ve said in the past that Xbox Game Pass is one of the best deals in gaming. I currently pay £32.99, or $42, every three months for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. For that, I get access to a huge range of Xbox games, some dating back to the original Xbox, xCloud game streaming access, a selection of PC games, and the ability to sync my progress between them all.
While I already own some games on Xbox Game Pass, it gives me the means to play them across multiple platforms and to try out games I’d not normally spend my money on. In short, it’s brilliant.
But I think it will be a ridiculous bargain once a suite of Bethesda games is added to it. You can already get Dishonored 2 on it, and this year's critically acclaimed Doom Eternal is coming to the service on October 1.
Beyond that, I’m expecting to see pretty much all of Bethesda's games get popped onto Game Pass in the coming months, and to stay there. As an Xbox One X owner, that’ll likely mean playing Skyrim in 4K and HDR at no extra charge.
I’ve seen some snarky tweets from PlayStation fans claiming Bethesda hasn’t released any critically-acclaimed games itself in the past few years, leaning heavily on the studios it owns instead. But that’s a weak argument.
Sure some games have been a bit weak, but how many of us have sunk hundreds of hours into Skyrim and would gleefully do it again? Quite a few I imagine. Doom Eternal is one of the best-rated games of the year according to Metacritic, and even the once-maligned Fallout 76 is enjoying a small resurgence thanks to regular updates.
And even if you discount Bethesda’s current croup of games, the acquisition means The Elder Scrolls 6, Starfield, and the next Wolfenstein, Dishonored and Doom games will come out on Xbox Game Pass.
The (Series) X factor
When the Xbox Series X and Series S launch on November 10, we’re likely to see Xbox Game Pass get loaded with some four generations of first-party Xbox games, as well as EA Play games — think Mass Effect, Star Wars and so on — and Bethesda’s catalog of titles, all for a rather affordable monthly fee.
And with game prices set to potentially hit $70, this bulked up Xbox Game Pass could be a boon for families that can’t splash out every time a brand new game is released. While some might see Microsoft's grabbing of Bethesda as a way to stick two fingers up at Sony for its timed exclusives, I see it as a move by Redmond to somewhat democratize gaming.
If you can’t afford a $499 Xbox Series X for example, you can get a $299 Xbox Series S, subscribe to Game Pass, and then have a wealth of games to keep you amused for a long time.
Obviously, time will tell if there’s a sting in the tale of the acquisition; perhaps Microsoft could push publishers to only make the games it wants. But Redmond’s vision for gaming seems like a rather aspirational "let’s get everyone on board" approach.
Microsoft will still make millions of dollars from this move. But I think it’s one that all but the most stubborn of gamers will benefit from.