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a huge, horned demon covered in flames leers over the player in Doom Eternal Image: id Software/Bethesda Softworks

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Microsoft’s big choice: Will Bethesda games still come to PlayStation and Switch?

Exclusivity, or revenue?

Microsoft has acquired ZeniMax Media and publisher Bethesda Softworks, the companies announced Monday. The deal means that Microsoft will control some of the biggest franchises in gaming, including Doom, Fallout, Dishonored, The Elder Scrolls, and Wolfenstein, among other one-off titles and upcoming releases.

Announcing the acquisition a day before pre-orders for Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox Series X and Series S consoles is a masterstroke, a way to make sure anyone sitting on the fence is cleanly pushed toward the “just buy the system, already” option. The fact that both companies were able to keep the deal from leaking before it was officially announced is an impressive achievement.

The bigger question, however, is whether upcoming Bethesda games will be exclusive to Microsoft’s platforms, or if they will still be coming to PlayStation and Nintendo platforms.

The situation will likely go one of two ways.

Future Bethesda games will be exclusive to Xbox and PC

This is where I would put my money, were I a betting man.

Microsoft lacked a portfolio of strong exclusives for a long time, and this acquisition solves that problem in one fell swoop. The $7.5 billion purchase price for ZeniMax Media is a lot of money, but the long-term gains Microsoft could experience by keeping Bethesda games exclusive — and launching them on Xbox Game Pass on day one to get even more people interested in the service — is hard to fathom.

Microsoft is all about growing its ecosystem during this upcoming generation, and strong exclusives are the best way to do that, as evidenced by the company’s ongoing shopping spree.

It’s also possible that Microsoft gives itself timed exclusivity of these games, making sure they launch on Xbox and PC first, before arriving on PlayStation and Switch to maximize revenue. The message would still be the same: If you want to play Bethesda’s biggest games without waiting for months, if not years, you’ll need to get an Xbox console or a gaming PC, or subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Each option brings Microsoft more power.

Xbox chief Phil Spencer wrote an Xbox Wire post that indicates some form of exclusivity may be the case. “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,” he stated.

Spencer did not mention any other consoles.

This move would help push players toward an Xbox Series X or Series S pre-order, and likely a Game Pass subscription as well — and it would mean that Microsoft suddenly has an array of exclusive games that rivals Sony’s. That’s a huge win, even with that gigantic purchase price for ZeniMax.

This may not be the case, however, because ...

Bethesda games could still be released on multiple platforms

Both Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo have been announced as timed console exclusives for PlayStation 5, and Microsoft has already stated that it plans to honor those agreements, reports Bloomberg.

Microsoft has a history of not keeping its acquisitions strictly to itself, after all. The company purchased Mojang, creator and developer of Minecraft, for $2.5 billion in 2014, and Minecraft continues to be sold on mobile devices, every major gaming console, and PC platforms.

Minecraft characters, including animals like a sheep and a pig, pose on the top of a hill
Minecraft showed Microsoft the power, and profitability, of multiplatform games.
Mojang/Xbox Game Studios

Microsoft knew it would make more money if Minecraft remained available on as many gaming devices as possible. That’s not to mention the negative PR the company would have to deal with if it suddenly made one of the most popular games in the world exclusive to Xbox and PC.

Despite what I said above, those are the two reasons Microsoft might not keep Bethesda’s games for itself: It would mean leaving large revenue streams on the table in the hopes of long-term growth, while also enraging a huge swath of customers who suddenly can’t buy any of their favorite Bethesda games without investing in a new platform or service. Microsoft risks both consumer ire and short-term profits if it decides to keep these games as exclusives, and Minecraft proves that the company knows how to share. A comment from Phil Spencer to Bloomberg on Monday morning indicates that Microsoft itself may not know the answer yet.

If the Xbox division has any pressure from Microsoft corporate to justify that $7.5 billion cost for Bethesda in the next few years, it’s very possible the company will continue to sell these games on every platform possible. Would Microsoft really have the discipline to stop all those well-known, and likely lucrative, Skyrim ports? I’m not so sure.

So which will it be?

It may be a while before Microsoft makes it plans for these games known, but I’m still leaning toward exclusivity after seeing how much Microsoft is focusing on growing its ecosystem in the next generation (and not on the purchase of a single new piece of hardware). This is a strategy the company has been working on for years, and this acquisition could be a huge boost in making it happen.

But then, can Microsoft afford to make so many Bethesda fans its enemy? And is the company really willing to say no to all the money that comes from selling these games on multiple platforms? There’s no clear path forward, with pluses and minuses to each approach.

We’re stuck waiting to see what will happen, but in the meantime, I’m going to make sure I put some money down on an Xbox Series X tomorrow, and my last upgrade to a year of Game Pass Ultimate now feels really, really smart.