After seeing the news that Microsoft plans to acquire ZeniMax Media and Bethesda Softworks for $7.5 billion, the first question uttered by most (well, after “What the f**k?”) was: “Wait, is The Elder Scrolls 6 an Xbox exclusive now?” Officially, that’s a firm “no comment” from Bethesda right now, while head of Xbox Phil Spencer told Bloomberg that Bethesda games would appear on non-Xbox consoles on a “case by case basis”. Behind the scenes, it might present the sternest test of head of Xbox Phil Spencer’s philosophy of openness so far.

The case for making Bethesda’s games exclusive is obvious – players have consistently made the case that PlayStation has had the better exclusives for at least the last generation, building a stable of mega-hits that have undoubtedly had an effect on the huge success of PS5 preorders. Until today, Microsoft had little more than a delayed Halo, some untested new franchises, and hazily release-dated Forza and Fable games.

Now, should it be deemed the right approach, Xbox could also have The Elder Scrolls 6, the much discussed Starfield (even if we don’t actually know what it is), future installments of Fallout, Doom, Wolfenstein and more. It’s not a coincidence that the news came the day for Xbox Series X and S preorders opened.

By classic games industry logic, making all of these games exclusive to Xbox is something of a no-brainer. These are some of the biggest franchises in the world, and locking them into Microsoft’s hardware would likely make them an enormous amount of money, potentially even tipping the balance of the upcoming new generation. The thing is, recently, Phil Spencer hasn’t been espousing classic games industry logic.

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“I find it completely counter to what gaming is about to say that part of that is to lock people away from being able to experience [exclusive] games”, he told GamesIndustry earlier this year. “Or to force someone to buy my specific device on the day that I want them to go buy it, in order to partake in what gaming is about. Gaming is bigger than any one device.”

At the time, Spencer was explaining his philosophy for why new Xbox Game Studios games would appear on Xbox One, the Xbox Series X, in many cases the PC, and, as we know now, the Xbox Series S. But those words might echo a little louder now. Is there a chance Xbox will allow the Bethesda games it will soon own to be released on competing consoles? I’d say the signs are there.

Quite apart from the fact that Xbox has already said it will honour the timed PS5 exclusivity for Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo, and that past Xbox exclusives have already begun popping up on Switch, Bethesda itself has potentially been hinting at the idea today. In a blog post, Bethesda Game Studios executive producer Todd Howard never quite said that the company’s games would remain multi-platform, but got pretty close:

“Like our original partnership [with Xbox for Morrowind], this one is about more than one system or one screen. We share a deep belief in the fundamental power of games, in their ability to connect, empower, and bring joy. And a belief we should bring that to everyone – regardless of who you are, where you live, or what you play on. Regardless of the screen size, the controller, or your ability to even use one.”

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This could, of course, be referring to Xbox’s existing openness – its multi-generational release structure for games, and new cloud streaming services. Like the existing Xbox Game Studios, Microsoft might be imparting a philosophy of making games that will work on as many devices as possible, as long as they’re controlled by Microsoft in some way. Except there’s also the chance that, unlike Microsoft’s other recent acquisitions, Bethesda will be sitting outside of the Xbox Game Studios umbrella.

While a Microsoft press release made clear that Bethesda’s 8 studios were being added to its stable of 15 existing developers, it avoided using the Xbox Game Studios term. On top of that, Bethesda SVP of global marketing Pete Hines said, “We’re still working on the same games we were yesterday, made by the same studios we’ve worked with for years, and those games will be published by us.”

I’ve asked Microsoft for clarification on that language, but the issue of publishing is an interesting one. On its own website, Xbox lists games by its other studios, such as Playground Games or Ninja Theory, as being published specifically by Xbox Game Studios. If Bethesda will be publishing its own games after the acquisition, it could imply that the company will continue to create games for all platforms possible.

So why would Microsoft allow such a thing? It might be as simple an answer as basic maths. At their largest, Bethesda’s games are legitimate phenomena. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim has sold more than 30 million copies, a feat achieved in part because it’s been sold across so many platforms that it’s become a self-fulfilling meme. If Xbox takes a cut on every copy of the game sold (as it does with Minecraft copies sold on PS4), it might simply make more financial sense to release it across all possible platforms, no matter how many more consoles shifted by putting The Elder Scrolls 6 behind an Xbox-shaped wall. Minecraft is a good analogue in general here – a game simply too big to be removed from competitor platforms after Microsoft bought it.

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In fact, Xbox could still benefit beyond the simple sales cut. It’s already confirmed that future Bethesda games will arrive at launch on Xbox Game Pass – to be able to tell customers that they can grab a Game Pass subscription to play all of Bethesda’s games, or pay a possible $70 for a single one of its games on PS5 is still a weighty move. To some, foregoing exclusivity might even come across as a gesture of goodwill, an opportunity for Xbox to look like the good guy, while PlayStation locks its best products away.

The deciding factor, potentially, could come down to appearances. Does Phil Spencer want to look like the man that bought Bethesda but gave their games to everyone, or does he make Xbox into a newfound powerhouse of exclusives? They’re both strong looks, depending on who you talk to – seeing which he chooses will be one of the upcoming generation’s most fascinating moments.

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Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to newstips@ign.com.
Source: IGN Video Games All
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