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Microsoft's acquisition of Bethesda is all about Game Pass

Maybe you'll play The Elder Scrolls on PS5, maybe you won't - but for Xbox, and indeed for Bethesda's studios, that's not really the point.

It feels like we've been holding our collective breath for it without realising. Ever since Microsoft set about fixing Xbox's weakness in first-party studios with an acquisition spree that started last year - picking up many mid-sized outfits such as Playground Games, Ninja Theory and Obsidian - we've been waiting for the megaton, the super-acquisition that would snap up some high-profile studio and treasured franchise. Reports circulated recently that talks to buy Bungie had fallen through. Some figured that an even bigger target might be in play, all the way up to and including super-publishers like EA and Activision Blizzard.

It turns out those speculations were not as wild as you might have thought. Microsoft has announced its intention to buy Bethesda parent ZeniMax for an eye-watering $7.5 billion - three times what it paid for Minecraft maker Mojang, and only a billion short of what Disney paid for Marvel and Lucasfilm combined. This brings mega-franchises The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Doom within the Xbox fold and increases Microsoft's roll-call of first-party developers by no less than eight studios, including such storied names Bethesda Game Studios, id Software and Arkane.

Is this the most significant acquisition the games business has ever seen? Yes and no. In pure dollar terms, Tencent's acquisition of Clash of Clans maker Supercell has it beat, at an astonishing $8.6 billion. It's hard to put a dollar value on the 2008 merger between Activision and Blizzard owner Vivendi, since it was an exchange of shares and ownership stakes, but it was in the same ballpark - and Blizzard was such a prize that it took possession of half the new company's name as part of the deal. Away from the numbers, Minecraft penetrates far deeper into the general public consciousness than any Bethesda properties, even Doom, as well as having a broader demographic reach. But I don't think we've ever seen such a showy power move from a platform holder: snapping up a big publisher, a network of talented studios and a slew of valuable properties in one move.

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The assumption, per the old-school console-wars logic, is that Microsoft will make those properties exclusive to Xbox consoles and PC - and that prospective PlayStation 5 owners can kiss goodbye to the thought of playing Bethesda's hotly anticipated Starfield and The Elder Scrolls 6 on their next console. (And it's not just PlayStation fans - as a publisher, Bethesda has been a notable supporter of Switch, too.) This would seem to be the immediate value in the deal, and it's notable it has been announced the day before preorders for Xbox Series X and S open.

Is that really what's going to happen, though? Microsoft has appeared to think more openly about game platforms in recent years. First, it opened its arms to PC, with cross-buy and cross-save initiatives breaking down a traditional bulwark of the console business and pointing to a future where your one game could live on multiple devices. It made no attempt to wall Minecraft into its garden, allowing the game to continue to flourish on Sony and Nintendo consoles, as well as Google and Apple devices, where it could draw in the biggest audiences and revenues. Microsoft strongly advocated cross-platform multiplayer in the face of resistance from Sony. It started selling its PC games on Valve's rival storefront, Steam (very successfully). It has even published a couple of games on Switch. And it has just launched Game Streaming, bringing the Xbox catalogue to Android devices via the cloud. For years now, Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been talking to anyone who would listen about using all these tools to address an audience far larger than the ranks of Xbox console owners.

Does that mean Bethesda games still stand a chance of appearing on PlayStation 5? You wouldn't expect to see Halo or Forza on Sony's machine, so why on earth would they release a new Elder Scrolls there? The statements made today have notably stopped short of confirming exclusivity, noting only that Bethesda's future games will of course be coming "to Xbox console and PC" and namechecking Starfield in particular. This could merely be out of deference to any outstanding publishing deals Bethesda has, such as the PS5 console launch exclusivity for Arkane's Deathloop. Or it could open the door to Microsoft publishing future games on Sony's platform, as it has with Minecraft (assuming PlayStation would welcome them).

The sheer amount of speculation driven by this one image is a big part of what Microsoft has bought into - a fervour its own franchises haven't inspired recently.

It's notable that today's statements may have been woolly on exclusivity, but they have been unequivocal on something else. "[Microsoft] will be adding Bethesda's iconic franchises to Xbox Game Pass. This includes Microsoft's intent to bring Bethesda's future games into Xbox Game Pass the same day they launch on Xbox or PC," reads the press release. That's the whole Bethesda back catalogue included in your Game Pass subscription, along with any future Bethesda release the day it comes out.

That is the real point of this deal, and the clear offer to players. Not 'buy an Xbox to play the next Elder Scrolls' but 'subscribe to Game Pass to play all the Elder Scrolls, past and future'. This is the game every entertainment and tech giant is playing at the moment: acquiring content that will lure you into a monthly subscription and keep you there. Within that game, there are varying models for exclusivity: Netflix, for one, is quite protective of its IP, although it does allow short cinema runs and collectable blu-ray releases for some of its prestige film productions. Microsoft's strategy seems to be more open, but there is a clear logic to it that is quite specific to video games: by putting Sea of Thieves and Halo: The Master Chief Collection for sale on Steam, it expands the communities for those games and thus makes them better, only enhancing the value attached to a Game Pass subscription in the long run. (And making a tidy sum on those sales into the bargain.)

Does that logic extend to the next Fallout or Doom appearing on PS5? In all honesty, I'm not sure. I think it could go either way. But I don't think denying PlayStation owners Starfield was the impetus behind this acquisition. I think it was to tempt those PlayStation owners (and everyone else) into Game Pass subscriptions they could use on their phones or PCs if they didn't intend to buy an Xbox... and perhaps, one day, into a console ecosystem where Starfield comes as part of the package, not as a £70 purchase.

In his blog on today's news, legendary Bethesda director Todd Howard reminisces about bringing The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind to Xbox. Typically games of its sort only succeeded on PC, and he was sceptical, but Microsoft's argument turned him around. As he rehearses it now, the argument could have been quoted from a Phil Spencer interview about Game Streaming or Game Pass: "Microsoft and their new Xbox crew had a view that I came to share completely. Shouldn't we allow anyone to have this experience? Why does it matter where the screen is or what the controller is? There are many people without the same access, and we can bring it to them." This deal isn't about limiting the number of people who can play Bethesda games - it's about expanding it. At a small, monthly cost.

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