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Game On: What Microsoft’s $7.5B purchase of ZeniMax means for gamers

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 28, 2020

The eagerly anticipated RPG "The Elder Scrolls VI" is years away from release, and Xbox head Phil Spencer has all but confirmed that it will be exclusive to Xbox and PC.  (Bethesda Game Studios)
The eagerly anticipated RPG "The Elder Scrolls VI" is years away from release, and Xbox head Phil Spencer has all but confirmed that it will be exclusive to Xbox and PC. (Bethesda Game Studios)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

On Sept. 21, it was announced that for $7.5 billion, Microsoft would be purchasing ZeniMax Media Inc., the parent company of Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, Arkane Studios and a whole host of other game development studios.

I’ve waited to pen a piece about it because there were more questions than answers – but a clearer picture is starting to take shape after a recent Kotaku interview with Xbox head Phil Spencer.

The biggest question a lot of people have is will this acquisition mean huge franchises like “The Elder Scrolls,” “Fallout,” “Doom,” “Dishonored” and “Wolfenstein” would become exclusive to Xbox and PC moving forward? From the sounds of it, Microsoft is leaning toward doing just that.

“I don’t have to go ship those games on any other platform other than the platforms that we support in order to kind of make the deal work for us,” Spencer said.

It’s not an unusual decision – traditionally, exclusive experiences push hardware sales. In the 1990s, it was no secret that you bought a Super Nintendo to play “Super Mario,” Sega Genesis to play “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Nintendo 64 to play “Legend of Zelda” and PlayStation to play “Crash Bandicoot.”

Furthermore, even multiplatform games were subject to scrutiny – game reviewers would compare the same game on different hardware to determine which was the superior experience. “Mortal Kombat” was censored on Nintendo systems, while Sega was happy to appease the gore-happy masses – so if “Mortal Kombat” was your cup of tea, you bought a Sega console.

Times have changed, and performance has become somewhat homogenized. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One share similar hardware, so releasing a game on both platforms is usually an easy way for studios to maximize profits. The Nintendo Switch is a bit less powerful but still a capable piece of tech, so plenty of games are available on all three.

This is good for the consumer but bad for the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, who would all very much like for you to buy their system and not those other ones.

It’s not difficult to name exclusive titles for Nintendo or Sony, but Microsoft has had an identity issue for years. It hit the ground running in 2001 with the original Xbox playing host to the likes of “Halo” and “Fable,” two massively popular series. Xbox Live was the first online console gaming experience to really click with mainstream gamers.

But Microsoft began to lose ground starting in 2013 with the release of the Xbox One, which has to date sold 46.9 million units to the PS4’s 106 million. That’s a massive gap for direct competitors, and it seems the company is banking on its “Netflix for video games” Game Pass service and buying up famous game studios to fill the void and grab new gamers.

We’ll see if Microsoft’s gambit pays off when the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5 enter the market on Nov. 10 and 12, respectively. A new generation of hardware means a clean slate for both companies, and I suspect we’ll see a smaller sales gap between the two.

Beyond the business side of things, many gamers are concerned about Microsoft’s acquisition of ZeniMax. It seems likely there won’t be a new “Fallout” or “The Elder Scrolls” title on a PlayStation again, and these are games that have sold millions on all systems. Fewer people experiencing those grandiose titles is a bummer no matter how you slice it.

On the other hand, for years now the Xbox platform has been ridiculed for its lack of significant exclusive titles. Countless hobbyists, journalists and industry insiders have all asked, “Why do I need an Xbox when I already have a PlayStation?”

For better or worse, it seems Microsoft is finally answering that question.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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