Microsoft's Bethesda Acquisition Corners the Market on Legacy RPG Studios

Microsoft's Bethesda Acquisition Corners the Market on Legacy RPG Studios

ZeniMax Media, which includes Bethesda's studios, has been bought by Microsoft. What now?

Holy cow! What a breaking news item to wake up to. Over a DM from my colleague Mat Olson this morning, he mentioned "the big Xbox news" and I asked what he meant. Oh, how I was shocked when he shot over the link. ZeniMax Media, a.k.a. the umbrella which Bethesda lives under, has been acquired by Microsoft, making the likes of Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, Wolfenstein, and other franchises now Microsoft properties.

It's the biggest acquisition I've seen during my whole career.

It's a huge boon for Microsoft, a first-party publisher and console maker that has for the past console generation cultivated the reputation for having "no games." Bethesda is one of the biggest third-party publishers out there, and the sheer number of studios it boasts is staggering. Arkane Studios (Dishonored, the upcoming PlayStation 5 timed exclusive-Deathloop), id Software (Doom), MachineGames (Wolfenstein), and Tango Gameworks (The Evil Within, the upcoming PS5-exclusive Ghostwire: Tokyo) all fall under the banner on top of Bethesda proper. It's the biggest get for Microsoft since Mojang.

Bethesda wields a diverse catalog too, ranging from shooters and RPGs to horror. While Microsoft is well-stocked for shooters thanks to its own Halo studio 343 Industries (a reputation now bolstered by the likes of Arkane, MachineGames, and id Software), it is notably lacking in horror. Shinji Mikami's Tango Gameworks will help fill that hole.

The Bethesda acquisition is the culmination of the spending spree Microsoft has undertaken to amend its exclusive-starved reputation. In the past few years, Xbox has acquired Double Fine, InXile Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, and now ZeniMax. It's quite the portfolio, and that's adding to the studios that already operate under it like Mojang and Rare.

The rush to acquire new studios is a response to the virtual monopoly PlayStation has enjoyed over exclusives through the past couple generations. Clearly determined to extend this advantage, Sony has already lined up a number of console exclusives from third-party developers—including those that fall under this new Microsoft deal. (Xbox head Phil Spencer has already gone on record confirming that yes, Ghostwire: Tokyo and Deathloop will remain PS5 console exclusives.) Thanks to the PlayStation's popularity in Japan, a region where the Xbox has never quite found success, Sony has in a roundabout way been able to net even more exclusives without really trying. Vanillaware's new game 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, for instance, is currently one such de facto exclusive, being available only for PlayStation 4.

Xbox hopes to offset PlayStation's advantage with its own stable of studios. The spending blitz is also part of a longer play by Microsoft. A few years ago, the publisher started the Xbox Game Pass service, a Netflix-like service where subscribers are able to download hundreds of games while getting access to first-party games on their first day of release. For subscribers with a PC or Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass has become a valuable option, and the addition of Bethesda makes it that much more compelling.

So while the Bethesda acquisition comes as a surprise, when pondered further it makes a lot of sense. Adding the likes of Elder Scrolls and Fallout alone is a massive plus for Xbox Game Pass subscribers. Most integral, however, is Bethesda's dedication to big-budget RPGs utilizing classic RPG properties. Folded together with Obsidian's own RPG chops and Fallout expertise (get your bets in order for Fallout: New Vegas 2 to happen eventually folks), InXile's Wasteland literally inspiring the Fallout series back in the day, and Playground Games now developing a new Fable, Microsoft has shaped itself up to be the de facto western RPG publisher in the oncoming generation.

Of course, there's other heavy hitters out there still beyond Microsoft's growing media monopolistic umbrella. CD Projekt Red, one of the biggest developers and publishers in Europe, are set to release Cyberpunk 2077 this November. Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series has grown to be even more critically acclaimed since the series pivoted to the RPG genre, with its newest entry Valhalla out later this year as well. Electronic Arts still leads BioWare, who are toiling away at rebooting Anthem and on a new Dragon Age. And that's all without mentioning Atlus, Square Enix, and the many other third-party studios that release JRPGs.

But even if it doesn't have a total monopoly on RPGs, Microsoft's strategy is looking to be a strong one. In fact, it's already starting to bear fruit. During a recent Microsoft showcase, Obsidian teased its first project in the partnership: Avowed, a triple-A RPG set in the world of Pillars of Eternity, which many viewers have already called the studio's answer to Skyrim. The revelation seems ironic now. Still, given that Microsoft's less dedicated to pure exclusivity than Sony, it's possible that some of the projects that result from this Microsoft-owned Bethesda will venture beyond PC and Xbox Series X and S one day. For now, I suppose it's time to light the candles for our Fallout: New Vegas 2 prayer circle.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an adventure journey that lets you play as 13 different characters. | Vanillaware/Atlus

Major Game Releases: September 21 to September 25

Here are the major releases for the week of Sept. 21 to Sept. 25. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.

  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim [September 22 for PS4]: The latest from Vanillaware hits PlayStation 4 this week. You can find our review of the adventure-RTS here, in which we write, "Staggeringly, every character has a rich amount of depth and is treated as a main character in their own right, which is no simple feat." Whether you're a fan of classic adventure games or just of Vanillaware in general, it's a sci-fi romp that's not to be missed.
  • Serious Sam 4 [September 24 for PC, Google Stadia]: Serious Sam is back with Serious Sam 4, a PC and Google Stadia timed-exclusive. The first-person shooter is being published by Devolver Digital, and is headed to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later in 2021 as well. The shooter will also support 4-player online co-op.
  • Mafia: Definitive Edition [September 25 for PC, PS4, Xbox One]: Hangar 13's latest is a top-to-bottom remake of the first game in its Mafia series. Based on our recent preview, the remake is shaping up to be stellar, even if it isn't quite the one-to-one remake that fans may be expecting. You can look forward to our review of Mafia: Definitive Edition soon.
Now that Obsidian and Bethesda are both under Microsoft, the world is waiting patiently for Obsidian to make another Fallout game. | Obsidian/Bethesda

Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week In Gaming

  • Microsoft has purchased ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion. As you gathered from the essay that kicked off this week's column, Microsoft has acquired ZeniMax, which includes all the studios that lie under Bethesda. It's a staggering move that will potentially shape the course of the games industry for years to come.
  • Tokyo Game Show starts this week. Beginning on Thursday Sept. 24 and running until Sept. 27, miscellaneous Japanese publishers and developers will be hosting livestreams full of gameplay demos and reveals. Highlights of announced streams include Xbox, Square Enix, and Atlus/Sega. While we won't be waking up at 4 a.m. PT to cover some of them, we'll be covering the news bright and early when we awake.
  • The former devs behind Skullgirls and Indivisible have formed a new co-op studio called Future Club. Following the mass exit of Lab Zero Games workers following allegations of misconduct against lead design director Mike Zaimont, founding studio members such as Mariel Cartwright, Francesca Esquenazi, Jonathan Kim, and many others have banded together to form a new co-op studio, in which all employees share ownership. Designer Earl Gertwagen says in the press release, "We're a highly diverse team of 15 developers, including artists, animators, programmers and designers, and we shipped our past games as a group effort of teamwork and communication. A co-op structure lets us put that philosophy into reality, and gives us all an equal role in shaping our future as a company alongside the games we make."
  • Sony has apologized for the rushed pre-orders for the PlayStation 5 last week, and promises that more will be available in the coming weeks. Shortly after Sony's big PS5 presentation last week, pre-orders opened across storefronts in a staggered fashion. The digital, cheaper version of the PS5 seemed to be in lower stock, considering it sold out much more quickly across shops. Hopefully, Sony will give retailers and consumers more of a heads-up next time it opens up pre-orders.
  • Meanwhile, Xbox Series X and Series S is opening pre-orders this week. Microsoft clearly communicated when its own next-gen pre-orders go live: it's tomorrow, Tuesday Sept. 22 at 8 a.m. PT / 11 a.m. ET across "Microsoft Store, Amazon, Best Buy, GameStop, Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, Newegg, and other participating retailers," according to the Xbox blog.

Axe of the Blood God for September 21, 2020

Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.

Kat and Nadia react to a huge week for RPG announcements, breaking down Avalanche's Harry Potter game, Monster Hunter Rise, and the PS5 price announcement. Then it's time to talk Final Fantasy 16, as Kat and Nadia analyze its announcement trailer, its connections to Final Fantasy 14, and its place in the long history of Final Fantasy announcements that have kicked off each new generation. It's a busy week for RPG news, so strap on your armor and listen here!

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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