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Starfield could have been a PS5 exclusive, says Xbox exec

One reason Microsoft purchased ZeniMax was to secure Starfield

An astronaut in the cockpit of a spacecraft sitting on a planet in Starfield. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Microsoft’s acquisition of ZeniMax Media was driven, at least in part, by the company’s desire to scoop up Starfield for Xbox, putting it out of Sony’s reach. Xbox head Phil Spencer said as much during the Federal Trade Commission’s hearing to temporarily block Microsoft from acquiring Activision Blizzard.

Spencer claimed that competitors — i.e. Sony Interactive Entertainment — paid to keep games off the Xbox platform. Final Fantasy 16, which was released this week, is one of them, he said. Sony also had a deal with Bethesda Softworks’ Ghostwire: Tokyo and Deathloop to keep the games off Xbox, Spencer said, and was in talks to do the same for Bethesda’s Starfield. (It was reported in September 2020 that Sony had been negotiating timed exclusivity for Starfield.)

“ZeniMax is a great example,” Spencer said. “When we acquired ZeniMax, one of the impetus for that was that Sony had done a deal for Deathloop and Ghostwire and pay, effectively, Bethesda to not ship those games on Xbox.”

Spencer added that it was necessary to “secure ownership” of ZeniMax and Starfield to keep up its rate of new games on Xbox. “We can’t be in a position as a third-place console where we fall further behind on our content ownership,” he said.

Microsoft acquired ZeniMax in September 2020; the $7.5 million deal was finalized in March 2021. Both Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo were released after the Microsoft acquisition as PlayStation exclusives, but Deathloop eventually came to Xbox Series X in September 2022. Starfield is slated for release on Sept. 6 as an Xbox and Windows PC exclusive. On Thursday, Bethesda publishing lead Pete Hines said Starfield is “irresponsibly large,” and that putting the game on other console platforms would have surely delayed the game.

“As someone who has been playing it a lot and sees all this stuff to do,” Hines said, “there’s no question in my mind that being able to focus on fewer platforms to support, hardware to support, has been a big benefit to that team.”

Spencer was the second Xbox exec on the stand Friday for the FTC hearing, following senior finance director Jamie Lawver. Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley sealed the courtroom for the entirety of Lawver’s testimony due to its confidentiality. The proceedings will continue Friday with a recorded deposition from Sony’s Jim Ryan and testimony from Google Stadia’s Dov Zimring. The FTC is looking to Judge Corley to temporarily block Microsoft from acquiring Activision Blizzard. Her decision will decide whether the deal will remain paused until the FTC ongoing case is concluded.

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