Sunday, August 1, 2021 | 11:07 am

What To Expect From Microsoft’s Blockbuster Bethesda Acquisition

What To Expect From Microsoft’s Blockbuster Bethesda Acquisition

The European Commission has approved Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax Media, the Maryland-based holding company for the video game publisher Bethesda Softworks.

In conjunction with last week’s Note of Effectiveness from the SEC, the deal — one of Microsoft’s largest acquisitions ever — now has a clear legislative runway. It’s expected to take full effect later this year.

With ZeniMax and its studios added to its current lineup, Microsoft now has a total of 23 first-party Xbox developers, as well as the licensing rights for a bevy of landmark video game franchises. Through Bethesda, ZeniMax currently publishes and develops games in the Doom, Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Wolfenstein series, as well as a number of well-liked original titles like Dishonored and The Evil Within, all of which are now Microsoft’s property.

While Microsoft has yet to offer any further public comment on details of the acquisition, it quietly created a new subsidiary in February called Vault, which will be merged with and into ZeniMax. The name is likely a nod to the numbered survival bunkers found throughout the Fallout series, which is suggestive regarding what Microsoft would like to do next.

Microsoft initially announced the ZeniMax acquisition back in September, and confirmed shortly afterward that it would continue to honor platform-exclusive deals that had been worked out before the acquisition. The Bethesda-published games Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo are still planned as timed console exclusives for the PlayStation 5 when they launch later this year.

The studio director for ZeniMax’s popular MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online, also confirmed back in September that it would continue to be supported on all its current platforms, which include the PS4 and Google Stadia.

Future Bethesda/ZeniMax games, according to Xbox’s Phil Spencer, are planned to come out for the PC and Xbox, with other console ports coming on a “case by case basis.”

That’s the first big takeaway from the deal for game enthusiasts: none of Bethesda’s games going forward will necessarily be Xbox exclusives. For PC players, it’s business as usual, right down to many first-party Microsoft games, including Halo Infinite, eventually becoming available on Steam. The only potential loser here is Sony. Even then, it’s not that weird when Microsoft’s current franchises, such as Minecraft, show up on the PlayStation.

“The excitement for gaming is bigger than the excitement for exclusive games,” Spencer said to Game Reactor to October. “…Our high-level goal inside of our team… is how many people are playing on Xbox, and when we say ‘playing on Xbox’ it doesn’t mean an Xbox console. It could be on an Android phone. It could be on a Switch.”

Bethesda’s games all also tend to be cultural events, when they do show up. Titles like the Fallout series and Skyrim become touchstones in the games industry almost immediately, due to a combination of widespread appeal, open-ended gameplay, meme value (the “arrow to the knee” gag in Skyrim will outlive us all), and their tendency to glitch out in hilarious ways. Skyrim in particular had sold over 30 million copies by 2016.

As such, the real value for Bethesda’s lineup for Microsoft, based on what the company has said, is in putting them all on the Xbox Game Pass.

The Game Pass, which reached 15 million subscribers in September, is a major driver of Microsoft’s gaming business. The Netflix-style subscription plan lets players download and play the basic retail versions of a rotating assortment of video games, with most of Microsoft’s first-party titles appearing on Game Pass on launch day.

The Game Pass is already a solid per-hour deal for your entertainment dollar, but the presence of a new Fallout or Elder Scrolls game adds a lot of value to that. It also dramatically cuts the price of a new game, as an interested buyer could theoretically pick up a new Fallout or Elder Scrolls game for a $10/month subscription, then play it on an Android phone or an Xbox on an All Access plan.

This ordinarily wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but the Bethesda deal is moving forward at a point when studios like Take-Two are putting up trial balloons for increasing the base MSRP for a brand-new video game to $70. Microsoft was already making a lot of interesting moves regarding lowering video games’ basic cost of entry, but now it’s actively moving against the tide.

The overall gamble seems to be that if it’s cheaper and easier to play a game on Xbox — via a phone app, web browser, or an inexpensive subscription — then it doesn’t matter if that game is an Xbox exclusive. It’s an unconventional strategy, and must-have games like Bethesda brings to the table could be what pushes it to the next level.