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E3 2014 - PlayStation/Xbox hallway Photo: Samit Sarkar/Polygon

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The console wars are coming back, whether we wanted it or not

Sony’s and Microsoft’s studio acquisitions spell the return of exclusive games

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

It was nice while it lasted.

After a full generation of console exclusives being mainly a PlayStation thing, the console war is about to take shape once again.

For years, Microsoft and Sony have been buying up third-party developers — often ones they already have contractual relationships with — and adding them to their portfolios. Smaller, well-known studios like Double Fine Productions and Housemarque now reside inside the halls of Microsoft and Sony, respectively. Paired with the acquisition of larger companies like Insomniac Games for Sony and Bethesda Softworks for Microsoft, it’s clear that the two giants are ramping up for a new wave of “us versus them.”

Why buy up studios? And why sell?

The Nemesis boss fight in Returnal
Returnal’s Selene battles the Nemesis boss.
Image: Housemarque/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

For massive companies like Sony and Microsoft, studio acquisitions are assurances that offer control. Now that Sony’s bought Insomniac Games, the studio can’t go make a new Sunset Overdrive for Microsoft. When Sony wants another Ratchet & Clank or another Spider-Man game, they don’t have to wait in line. Microsoft, meanwhile, has secured guaranteed hits for their console by picking up Bethesda, one of the most lauded developers and publishers in the industry.

For the studio that sells, living under the umbrella of Sony and Microsoft is safe. Sure, studios get sold off, shuttered, or even dissolved into the company at large. But when Microsoft or Sony offer to pay your bills in exchange for more video games, the sale starts to make sense.

In a June video announcing Psychonauts studio Double Fine joining with Microsoft, Double Fine CEO and President Tim Schafer pointed out the value of having a concrete publishing house. Talking about various ideas that Double Fine has for games, Schafer said that “the thought of being able to develop those [games] without dragging them all over the world, pitching to every publisher that exists, it’s really nice to think about.”

Being independent offers freedom, but it also leaves developers without a safety net. The right partner that lets a studio do what it wants can provide good incentive to join up. “I was very concerned about our culture and identity,” Schafer told GameInformer after the acquisition. “[Microsoft] explained the new way they’re doing these acquisitions with unplugged studios that are not integrated into Microsoft. They’re left alone, they do their own thing and stay independent, but are well funded. It sounds like a good deal.”

Returnal studio Housemarque has a similar story. According to Push Square — which pulled interview details from Finnish site Yle — Housemarque was always going to sell to someone, but not necessarily Sony. Multiple studios were looking to buy, but Sony appealed to Housemarque because it offered a semblance of freedom alongside a big sack of money. Like Schafer with Microsoft, one of the biggest pluses for Housemarque CEO Ilari Kuittinen with Sony was “financial freedom” — the ability to make something interesting, and potentially risky, without having to worry about the bill.

The catch here is that, past delivering Psychonauts 2 to all of its Kickstarter-promised platforms, Double Fine’s future games will only appear in the Xbox infrastructure. Housemarque has mostly been making PlayStation games for some time, but their games are now guaranteed to be exclusive as well.

Due to their acquisitions, Double Fine and Housemarque get to have safety nets and financial freedom. Microsoft gets a cadre of bizarre, cute games from Double Fine to appeal to a different kind of Game Pass subscriber. And Sony gets Housemarque, a studio that really came into its own with Returnal.

Everyone wins, right?

What about players?

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary - Warthog firing at an air vehicle
Master Chief chases a Covenant ship in the original Halo
Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios

What’s good for companies is not always good for players.

The acquisition of studios like Double Fine and Housemarque offer some guarantee that they’ll be able to move forward and create new games for fans to adore. But now players will need to adore those games on Sony and Microsoft’s terms, on their specific consoles.

In previous console generations, if you wanted to play Halo 3, Gears of War, and Metal Gear Solid 4, you needed both an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3. If you loved Ratchet & Clank and Blinx: The Time Sweeper, you needed two different consoles if you wanted to play both.

But over the years that changed. There was an increase in third-party and indie games available on multiple platforms. Depending on what you were looking for, you could play most of the games you wanted on your platform of choice, and console allegiance began to feel like a thing of the past.

That said, the consoles still found ways to stand apart from each other. Sony continued to focus on console exclusives, primarily in the PlayStation 4 era, with “must-play” games like God of War and Bloodborne. In a generation where the latest Assassin’s Creed or Fallout was mentioned in the same breath as exclusives like God of War, why wouldn’t players pick up a PlayStation 4 that played all three instead of an Xbox One that just played two?

But Microsoft didn’t stay stagnant. Though it started shying away from its own IP, its primary appeal became less Halo and more the Netflix-like subscription for games like Game Pass, building a new way to talk about console value. Where we’d previously looked at consoles as exclusive platforms — knowing if your friend was a Halo or Metal Gear person the second you set foot in their room — Microsoft started making the argument that a subscription service for old and new games could be just as valuable as a critically acclaimed title. For some, using a yearly subscription service to access 100+ games is worth missing out on Bloodborne.

Sony and Microsoft spent an entire generation diverging from one another. Now that Game Pass is up to full speed, Microsoft is taking an opportunity to have the best of both worlds for themselves: exclusive games and a powerful subscription service. In creating an ecosystem that profits from exclusives, Microsoft can compete with Sony’s “big exclusives” business model. The companies are buying up developers left and right, and it seems like we’re about to dive back into a franchise war.

Where will a new war lead us?

An astronaut in the cockpit of a spacecraft sitting on a planet in Starfield.
A shot from Starfield’s first in-engine trailer
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Exclusives are a bad deal for players no matter their age, but it mostly affects kids, whose only console for an entire generation might come in the form of a big holiday gift or long-haul allowance saving. These days, in a world where cross-play is becoming normal, we were almost to a point where grandma could accidentally buy her granddaughter a PlayStation 5 instead of an Xbox Series X and it would all work out. But now, if that granddaughter is specifically excited for Starfield, she’ll be out of luck now that Microsoft has locked down future Bethesda games.

With console manufacturers buying up studios, we’re headed right back to where we were a few years ago. Not every player can play every game, at least not until the next generation is here and old console prices drop like a stone. The new console exclusivity might not look like the big first-party games of yesteryear, but manufacturers buying studios means that players will need to think more carefully when they purchase a new console.

By the time I was old enough to start thinking about buying games myself, I remember looking at release information and upcoming games in magazines, trying to map out which console I needed first ahead of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era. I loved Halo, but Ratchet & Clank was a series I felt I needed to keep up on. (That’s not even factoring in the next Smash Bros. game, which I needed to own immediately upon release to keep my social life intact.)

We haven’t lived in that particular world since part-way through the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era. For about a decade, fans have been able to pick up a video game machine of their choosing with a light shrug. Maybe they’d miss out on a few games by only having an Xbox, or they might need to pay better attention to PlayStation store sales without Game Pass, but it wasn’t enough for casual or even regular players to need both machines.

With Sony and Microsoft buying up prominent developers and increasing their exclusive catalogs even further, we’re rocketing back in time, where you’ll need a spreadsheet and a mood board to determine how to get the most bang for your video game buck. If it’s anything like the late ’90s and early 2000s, this return will separate gamers into two camps: players willing to spend money on both machines — giving Sony and Microsoft exactly what they want — and insufferably loyal defenders of the only console they’ve got.

Sony and Microsoft’s recent acquisitions are good for developers and great for themselves. But as the need for multiple consoles in a single home rises, it’s the players who are going to lose out.

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