Microsoft x Bethesda, and the ramifications for the game discovery ecosystem.

This article is by Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo

You’ve all seen Microsoft’s announcement that it’s buying ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion. In cash. But as someone who thinks deeply about game discoverability – how people find and play your games – what are the ramifications? They’re both subtle and wide-reaching, in my view.

This multi-billion dollar investment is going directly into the ‘content wars.’ Specifically into the game subscription wars, where Microsoft is intent on being ahead of Google, Amazon, Apple and others (and particularly Sony!).

Should you need confirmation, the Microsoft PR notes an “intent to bring Bethesda’s future games into Xbox Game Pass the same day they launch on Xbox or PC.” This is a continuation of the play that has been increasingly obvious in recent months. Ultimately, the Game Pass subscription plan (software as a service) is the ‘center of the offering’ for Microsoft, not a piece of hardware. This is incredibly relevant for game discoverability, since it shifts the lens from an ‘evaluate and buy’ to a ‘subscribe and try’ mode. So all eyes should be on this as it continues to roll out.

Although Bethesda’s games won’t be removed from other devices, it seems unlikely that the biggest upcoming titles will also launch on PlayStation, unless already contracted. Bloomberg’s Dina Bass confirmed as much with Phil Spencer – Microsoft will deliver Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo as PlayStation timed exclusives as Bethesda agreed. After that, games will be on Xbox, PC, Game Pass and other consoles on a case by case basis.

This doesn’t mean new games won’t make it to Steam or Switch, but mainly as teasers for the Game Pass ecosystem, in my view. Selling a game for $60 on Steam, when you know you can get a $10 a month subscription that gets you access to it and hundreds of other games? That’s upsell in the long term, folks.

So let’s take a quick inventory on the subscription wars. Nintendo isn’t interested in fighting on that playing field, and possibly never will be. Same for Steam, besides hosting subscription services like EA Play on its platform. And PlayStation would prefer not to, but can probably feel itself getting dragged inexorably into the fray.

So maybe there’s all kinds of people out there, and maybe game subscriptions aren’t going to dominate in the future. And for Sony, I’ve got to believe that they’ve been internally quoting the movie War Games, where “the only winning move is not to play.” (I think ‘mutually assured destruction’ was involved too somewhere.)

Yet with Sony’s future success hinging on PlayStation being a profit center, not paying billions for devs and publishers, it’s difficult for them to compete with Microsoft. So.. maybe it’s looking like the classic ‘monopolist as disruptor’ situation – at the expense of Company X.

Here’s where the ‘wider-ranging’ discussion comes in. When large companies use loss-leading tactics to get ahead in the subscription space, how is it going to distort the traditional premium game selling/discovery ecosystem?

Could there be some surprising upsides in here for devs or publishers who can get on the subscription train at the right station? Or could there be downsides, as good relationships with platform holders who acquire your games for subscription services end up creating large, complex new gatekeepers to making money, if you don’t make a F2P game.

Guess we’re going to find out. And the true ramification here is that Microsoft is making multi-billion dollar acquisitions because it wants to accelerate the subscription transformation in the game biz. And we’re all along for the ride.

Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency, and runs the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter, which looks at how people find your premium PC/console game in the 2020s. He was formerly Independent Games Festival chairperson, one of the folks running GDC, and a game developer at Atari and Eidos.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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