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Microsoft deciding ‘case-by-case’ about future Bethesda games on PS5, Switch

Exclusivity is the billion-dollar question

a screencap from the Starfield teaser trailer showing a sun barely visible on the edge of a planet
A scene from the teaser trailer for Starfield, which debuted at Bethesda Softworks’ E3 2018 press briefing. Will it come to PlayStation 5?
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

One day before Xbox Series X and Series S pre-orders go live, Microsoft has announced a compelling argument for investing in its next-generation consoles: The company is acquiring ZeniMax Media, parent company of game publisher Bethesda Softworks and more than 10 game developers such as Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, Arkane Studios, and MachineGames.

Of course, that raises a $7.5 billion question. Now that Microsoft is poised to take full control of ZeniMax and everything in its portfolio — Microsoft says the deal is expected to close in the second half of its 2021 fiscal year, which runs from Jan. 1-June 30, 2021 — will future Bethesda games be exclusive to Windows PC and Xbox, or will they continue to also be released on platforms like PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch? The answer for now is, well, it depends.

Speaking to Bloomberg following the announcement of the acquisition, Xbox chief Phil Spencer said that future Bethesda games will be released on PC and Xbox, and via Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service. As for third-party platforms, Spencer said, “We’ll take other consoles on a case-by-case basis.”

“When we think about strategy whether it’s in gaming or any other part of Microsoft, each layer has to stand on its own for what it brings,” Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, told Bloomberg. “When we talk about our content we want our content to be broadly available.”

That should leave some hope in the hearts of PlayStation 4 and Switch owners (and anybody who was planning to buy a PS5 rather than one of Microsoft’s next-generation consoles). But you can make some inferences about Microsoft’s thinking from one line in Spencer’s Xbox Wire post announcing the acquisition: “One of the things that has me most excited is seeing the roadmap with Bethesda’s future games, some announced and many unannounced, to Xbox console and PC including Starfield, the highly anticipated, new space epic currently in development by Bethesda Game Studios.”

Note that “PlayStation,” “Nintendo Switch,” and “Google Stadia” are conspicuously absent there. Of course, that’s not a definitive confirmation that future Bethesda titles won’t be released on those platforms. And things are always subject to change — the gaming industry is littered with titles that were exclusive to one platform until they weren’t.

Expect Microsoft to maintain the status quo for existing games, whether already released or announced with confirmed platforms. Spencer told Bloomberg that Microsoft plans to uphold the agreements that Bethesda previously made with Sony to release Arkane Studios’ Deathloop and Tango Gameworks’ GhostWire: Tokyo on PS5 as “timed console exclusive” games. And ZeniMax Online Studios, the developer of The Elder Scrolls Online, said Monday that “ESO will continue to be supported exactly as it was [...] on each of the platforms that are currently supported.” That includes PS4 and Stadia. In addition, the company announced in August that it would release an upgraded version of the game on PS5 as well as Xbox Series X.

As for upcoming games, it seems hard to imagine Microsoft leaving money on the table by skipping out on PS5 versions of highly anticipated titles such as Starfield or The Elder Scrolls 6 — especially if the PS5 takes off like the PS4, which quickly became Sony’s fastest-selling console of all time. Microsoft kept Minecraft available on every platform following its purchase of developer Mojang, and released Minecraft Dungeons on multiple platforms in 2020, more than five years after the acquisition. The company isn’t doing the same with some of the other studios it has bought in recent years: Avowed, the next game in Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity universe, will be exclusive to Xbox and PC. But then, Pillars of Eternity is no Fallout when it comes to name recognition (or size of fandom).

Microsoft could decide that it’s worth keeping major games like The Elder Scrolls 6 exclusive to its platforms, as a way to encourage fans of Bethesda’s biggest franchises to buy Xboxes and subscribe to Xbox Game Pass. (In announcing the acquisition Monday, Microsoft confirmed that it plans to release future Bethesda games into the Xbox Game Pass library upon launch, just like it does for other first-party Xbox titles.) Perhaps the natural middle ground — a timed exclusivity arrangement where Bethesda games debut on Xbox and PC before launching on other consoles months later — makes the most sense.

Update: We’ve updated this story with comments from Xbox head Phil Spencer and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to Bloomberg.