March 6, 2021

Bethesda, Microsoft Make Conflicting Statements About Game Exclusivity After Studio Purchase

By Timothy Geigner

Several weeks ago, Microsoft bought Zenimax Media, the parent organization of Bethesda Softworks for over $7 billion. Bethesda is a celebrated studio best known for its Fallout and Elder Scrolls titles. Both series have long histories of being published across a wide range of gaming platforms, including the PC, PlayStation, and Xbox markets. Almost immediately after the deal, however, many gamers openly worried that Microsoft would warehouse the properties to either the PC or Xbox markets exclusively.

The worry didn’t cease when Kotaku interviewed Xbox chief Phil Spencer about the implications of the deal and Spencer’s remarks were decidedly noncommittal.

“Is it possible to recoup a $7.5 billion investment if you don’t sell Elder Scrolls VI on the PlayStation?” I asked.

“Yes,” Spencer quickly replied.

Then he paused.

“I don’t want to be flip about that,” he added. “This deal was not done to take games away from another player base like that. Nowhere in the documentation that we put together was: ‘How do we keep other players from playing these games?’ We want more people to be able to play games, not fewer people to be able to go play games. But I’ll also say in the model—I’m just answering directly the question that you had—when I think about where people are going to be playing and the number of devices that we had, and we have xCloud and PC and Game Pass and our console base, 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. Whatever that means.”

Whatever that means. Well, what it means is that there has been enough conversation of how Bethesda franchises will be distributed and sold that Spencer felt confident saying that those games didn’t need to be multi-platform in order for the deal to still be profitable. Couching this all in the fact that the specific language of the acquisition didn’t mention exclusivity is all fine and good, but Spencer had this answer ready to go. That likely means that there has been at least some discussion about taking those games exclusive to the Xbox, or Microsoft’s forthcoming game-streaming services. Coupled with a growing trend in exclusivity both in the console and PC gaming spaces, this wasn’t exactly encouraging for those that think exclusivity deals are a terrible idea and terrible for the industry.

Todd Howard, one of the creative leads at Bethesda, was at least a bit more forceful in his remarks to Ars Technica when asked if this was about to become a thing.

“I would agree that is hard to imagine” The Elder Scrolls VI restricted to Microsoft platforms, Howard said in response to a direct question on the matter.

Elsewhere in the interview, Howard admits that the parties haven’t fully discussed the details of multiplatform publishing as part of the purchase deal, which won’t be finalized until next year. “We haven’t gone through all of that, to be honest,” he said.  Howard also stressed Bethesda’s autonomy to “[run] our games and [push] everything the way that we have,” even as a Microsoft subsidiary. “We felt very strongly about their view of access; games for everybody that we can bring to anybody regardless of where they are, what devices they’re playing on. We’re very, very passionate about that, and at the end of the day we’re convinced we’ll make better products and get them to more people easily by being part of Xbox as opposed to being just a third party.”

But that’s still not really a firm answer. Bethesda’s vision can be whatever it wants, but its part of Microsoft now. If you’re into reading industry tea leaves, it doesn’t look like there are any serious plans by Microsoft for locking up these beloved franchises. But sans a commitment by the company to not do so, there is still much worry that access to them may go away for many.

Why anyone would think that would push more people to buy an Xbox in significant numbers is an mystery.