The news that Microsoft purchased Bethesda Softworks parent company ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion is shaking the video games industry, because it seems like a sea change for the release of the next generation of consoles. Suddenly, Microsoft owns not just Bethesda Game Studios, the maker of the hugely popular Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, but a number of other studios–like Dishonored developer Arkane Studios, Doom developer id Software, and Wolfenstein developer MachineGames. That’s a heavy lineup of game-makers that, one assumes, will suddenly only be making games for future Xbox machines.
That’s the traditional way of thinking, anyway, and the strategy that has defined various iterations of “console wars” for the last three decades. We’re rapidly hitting the end of a generation greatly defined by exclusive games, or the lack thereof. It’s accepted at this point that Sony came out on top in the eighth generation, at least in competition with Microsoft, in large part because of major PS4 exclusive games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and The Last of Us Part 2. Meanwhile, Microsoft had exclusives of its own, mostly first-party games like Gears 5, Halo 5: Guardians, Sea of Thieves, and Forza Horizon 4. But there always seemed to be fewer of them, receiving less acclaim, and with a longer drought between their releases.
So snagging the maker of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, as well as a bunch of other popular games, makes a lot of sense you were looking to build a stable of next-gen exclusives. But the way Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been talking lately, that might not necessarily be the play here. If we take Spencer’s word for it, the ZeniMax acquisition seems more like Microsoft building on a strategy that goes beyond locking players into a specific platform, in order to get them where they live–to sell them on a subscription service and to create bigger cross-platform player bases, instead of just relying on getting customers to commit to a console.