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The console wars heat up as Microsoft (MSFT.Q) purchases Bethesda Studios, but will it make a difference?

Fallout 4 image
09/22/2020

Dispatches from the front of the console wars indicate that the conflict is heating up in 2020 as Microsoft (MSFT.Q) shelled out $7.5 billion in cash to acquire ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda Game Studios, the braintrusts behind such games as The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series of games. Whether or not the two combatants, in this case Microsoft and Sony (SNE.NYSE), will gain ground in the conflict has yet to be seen. The Playstation 5 comes out on November 12, and Microsoft is set to release their next-gen console, the X-Box Series X, three days later.

From elder scrolls V: skyrim

In the interests of full disclosure, I am presently a playstation guy. I’ve been a playstation guy since we bought our first PS2 back in the mid-oughts and outfitted it with enough games to keep me interested. Between the two systems, PS2 and Xbox at the time, I chose the playstation because it disappointed me less than the Xbox. We graduated to the PS3 about two years after it came out when my wife’s father bought it for us, and it disappointed me even less than its predecessor so we kept it.

Not to be outdone, my father bought us a PS4 and while it’s also quite disappointing due the dearth of couch co-op games and its intentional focus on bilking us of extra cash to play over the internet, it at least had superior content to the Xbox analog. We saw no need to make the transition. I think someone somewhere gave us an old Xbox, but it sat alone and unloved in a storage closet until finally we traded it into a pawn shop for the $5 or $10 it was worth.

What I want to know, and I write this because I suspect others are in the same boat, is whether or not this acquisition is going to tip the scales in the ongoing technological tug of war over to Microsoft’s side.

Here’s what Microsoft’s bought:

  • Bethesda Softworks
  • Bethesda Game Studios,
  • id Software,
  • ZeniMax Online Studios,
  • Arkane,
  • MachineGames,
  • Tango Gameworks,
  • Alpha Dog,
  • Roundhouse Studios

Bethesda’s best known franchises include The Elder Scrolls and Fallout as named above, but also DOOM, Quake, Wolfenstein and Dishonoured. I’ve never played Dishonoured, but DOOM, Quake and Wolfenstein were gigantic parts of my childhood, and represent a significant track record of putting out solid, award-winning, industry-defining games.

The addition of Bethesda helps Microsoft grow from 15 to 23 creative studio teams and will be adding their franchises to Xbox Game Pass. So if I want to play Elder Scrolls 6, I either need to get myself an Xbox or get it for PC. But it’s not like this acquisition is a knockout blow for Sony. It’s a significant setback and maybe a standing-eight count at best, but Sony isn’t exactly devoid of hits or heavy hitters.

Too continue the fight analogy, this is more like Microsoft fighting back from the ropes after Sony’s been busy battering it for most of the fight. The narrative for awhile has been that their first party studios and game have lacked, while Sony’s been dominating this sphere for years.

Here’s a list of what Sony’s filled their boxing gloves with:

  • Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us),
  • Santa Monica (God of War),
  • Insomniac (Spider-Man),
  • Guerrilla Games (Horizon Zero Dawn)
  • Sucker Punch (Ghost of Tsushima)

That’s still an impressive list with a healthy amount of accomplishments. Let’s also consider the somewhat controversial fact that Bethesda’s best days may even be behind them. They haven’t had many important hits in the past few years—their Fallout themed MMO Fallout ’76 was a widely-panned buggy mess which lost the company billions of dollars in 2018, the latest Wolfenstein drop flopped, Evil Within 2 was middling to okay, and while I haven’t played either Dishonoured or its sequel, the sequel apparently didn’t live up to expectations and scored mixed reviews.

From Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

None of these are Elder Scrolls: Morrowind or Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas or Fallout 4 quality games. If we consider present performance as a probable indicator of future performance, then these poor-to-middling quality games are indicative of what Microsoft’s purchased with this acquisition. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an advantage for the new Xbox offering.

Instead, more disappointment.

Lastly, let’s consider the relative sizes of these two companies.

Microsoft reached into its deep pockets and pulled out the equivalent of Sony’s gaming profits, and paid for Bethesda in cash. Even if they wanted to retaliate by buying an equivalent gaming studio to balance the scales, they couldn’t afford to spend as much as Microsoft for an equivalent studio without doing significant damage to their bottom line. At least it looks like they may not have to worry so much. Maybe Sony can take some of that money they save by not buying up a rival studio and put it towards fixing their damn infuriating play store.

If there’s anything that’s going to shake up the decision making criteria for fence-sitting console consumers like me, it’s the Xbox Game Pass. The game pass applies the monthly subscription model championed by Netflix to gaming, offering the prospective game player $10 a month access to a rotating stall of games. It’s not like you’re getting access to ancient emulator games from the 80’s and 90’s as some variety of nostalgic niche-market promo, either. Instead, some of the gaming studios involved are Namco, Capcom, WB Games, 2K Games, Bethesda Softworks, and first-party games from Xbox Game Studios.

The closest Sony has to that program is their Playstation Now service.

PS Now gives you access to 800+ games in its library with the option to download them to your PC or PS4 hard drive, and following Sony’s purchase of Gaikai, a cloud gaming company, in 2012 for roughly $380 million,  members can play on a remote server if their internet is strong enough. For our buck, we’ve gone with the PS Plus service, which has given us access to free games. For pure nostalgia’s sake, I picked up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and my wife downloaded Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a surprisingly addictive, cutesy game where jellybeans race in packs through a series of levels. Surprisingly, of the two games, Fall Guys gets the most gameplay. If Sony keeps producing content like this, then it’ll be soon erasing any edge the XBox Game Pass may have.

From Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

And for right now, the Xbox Game Pass does have an edge, but the PS Now service could easily make up some of its lost ground by adding a few key improvements. Namely, to the quality of its library, and the speed by which first party games arrive. Microsoft is also winning through how much time and energy Microsoft is willing to throw into making this service successful, by adding elements like cloud gaming and its partnership with Electronic Arts, through their EA Play addition.

But folks who think the Bethesda acquisition represents a significant speed bump in the road to maintaining supremacy for Sony are likely to be sorely disappointed.

The same as I probably will be with both of the new systems.

—Joseph Morton

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