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Microsoft's Studio Stockpile

Microsoft's Studio Stockpile - Article

by Lee Mehr , posted on 31 October 2020 / 2,271 Views

"All good things come to end, I suppose," said the aching masses upon witnessing Ninja Theory's video explaining the Microsoft (MS) buyout.  More cries reverberated across the world upon recently discovering The Green Demon’s intent to purchase ZeniMax outright.  With bated breath and trembling knees, millions wonder whom MS will tempt next with its leftover Windows 8 money.  Such avaricious hunger knows no bounds!  Cut off the head before it slithers away to squeeze yet another victim!

That intro probably became tiring halfway through. You get the gist of it.  Ever since the surprising acquisition announcements at its 2018 E3 event, MS has bolstered its 1st-party lineup and IP portfolio beyond anything previously seen; so much so, you’d need a comprehensive Excel file to compartmentalize everything.  Once the ZeniMax deal is finalized, MS could simultaneously make a mascot brawler and mascot racer without needing to double-dip any of the characters to fill out the roster.  But what does this increasing cultural hegemony mean for the industry and gamers going forward?  Does MS’ pockmarked past reveal a destructive end for all those involved?



For the uninformed, I’ll give a succinct rundown of how dramatic things have become these past two years:

  • 2018 – inXile Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, Undead Labs, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, and The Initiative.
  • 2019 – Double Fine Productions and World’s Edge.
  • 2020 – Stated intention to purchase ZeniMax Media, which includes ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane Games, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog Games, and Roundhouse Studios

It’s an eclectic mix of building new studios from the ground up, bringing what are termed “2nd-party studios” officially under the Xbox Game Studios (XGS) moniker, acquiring independent developers, and purchasing a 3rd-party publisher.  Although I can’t help but laugh at irritable fanboys decrying “desperate” moves by a company trying to address the biggest criticism leveled at it, I can understand the lion’s share of grief by earnest fans with respect to 3rd-party acquisitions.  In order to answer those previous questions let's break it down point-by-point.



Anticipated Exclusivity

What were once creators sharing their work across all/most major platforms are now only granted such freedom by Microsoft’s say-so. This in turn could limit a sizable chunk of their prior fanbase in the process.  It's a sympathetic point to consider.  I follow that genuine concern in seeing fans lose out on the opportunity to play their favorite developer’s future titles because they're locked on platforms they may have no interest in using.  There’s a consideration that disrupts this narrative though: Microsoft’s strategy is actually the most flexible in regard to “exclusives” out of The Big Three already.  We’re at the point where every XGS-published title will be available on an Xbox console, Windows PC, and likely every major mobile phone via streaming.  If it’s the fact that some of your money still has to go towards Microsoft in order to get said game access?  That’s simply the nature of these console wars to begin with.

With respect to ZeniMax-published titles, this worry may not come to fruition—at least not entirely.  The haziness to exclusivity questions (for obvious legal reasons) by Phil Spencer leaves the door open for this to be a non-issue.  MMOs or GaaS titles like Elder Scrolls Online Fallout 76 will likely have next-gen versions available on PlayStation too.  Even if the “case by case” line is strictly limited to these examples and timed platform exclusivity deals (Ghostwire: Tokyo & Deathloop), I have to refer back to my previous paragraph. 



Constrictive Creativity

"They're like a poison.  Just look at their past: ending *x studio* and making Rare a former shell of itself.  They’re all corrupted now, I tell you."

There’s nary a time when this sort of sentiment isn't hastily made—oftentimes just to a horde of likes. That doesn't mean such a claim isn't without evidence.  One of Xbox’s biggest failings was closing Lionhead Studios and Press Play in one fell swoop.  Before we start making spurious comparisons to the festering boil known as EA, it’s unfair to savage MS for something every big publisher has done before.  By that same token, it’s also fair to acknowledge how MS and developer Twisted Pixel left on amiable terms. A team that wasn't dissolved on a whim but instead parted ways for different creative endeavors.  While I’m not privy to the actual contracts signed by the previously-independent developers, I’m left with the impression that similar settlements are in these contracts; however, a publisher purchase is a bit more complex.

Whatever troubling complications lie ahead for the future, I still think it’s unhelpful in this discourse to disregard the benefits reaped as well.  Sure, Mr. Moneybags swooping in for teams who’ve been grinding to stay afloat looks lazy on the publisher side.  What of the developers though?  From Ninja Theory’s explanation to the two-ton boulder taken off inXile’s back, the relief felt by these teams was universal; in fact, an RPG-making legend like Brian Fargo forewent retirement partly because 50% of his time that was spent securing funds now goes to his creative pursuits.  He's getting to enjoy work more often.  Obviously gaming isn’t a charity, but there is something about those stories and the technical support needs met for infamous studios like Obsidian that implies their visions will be supplemented rather than eroded.

Let me also be the first to say the 'killing' of Rare charge recycled ad nauseum is so tiring—this coming from a fan who cherished N64 Rare games as a kid (though I couldn’t play Perfect Dark).  That doesn't disregard any dip in quality and prestige, mind you.  It's the severity and ignored complexity that demands refuting.  If I were to compare the earliest-gathered Metacritic averages of Rare (Blast Corps-Star Fox Adventures) I'd land on an 88.  Comparing that to Rare's console releases post-acquisition (Grabbed By The Ghoulies-Sea of Thieves) nets you an average of 75.  Before appeals about utilizing Metacritic come up for “overrated” Rare titles, like Perfect Dark Zero, I can just as easily shoot down Donkey Kong 64 for bagging an unjustifiably high score.  Bear in mind: I'm not using Metacritic because I like it; I'm using it because you seem to like it.  A vocal bunch on here have no dispute about a game's ‘objective’ quality whenever that damn score helps their argument.  I'm just presenting the before/after comparison in a way that's digestible.  And when considering how Kinect games help pull down that moderately positive average, I'm compelled to roll my eyes at this long-running hyperbole.


Let's say I'm just deflecting really hard from the Metascore differential, brushing it off as though it’s nothing (note: I'm not).  The fact remains that a lot of Rare senior leaders, including The Stamper Brothers, left quite early into this acquisition as well; with that noted, I don't think it's fair to lay the charge of terrible mismanagement at MS's feet when that team is hemorrhaging so many critical personnel.  “Gee, Lee,” you say, “it’s almost like being bought out by a creatively-bankrupt corporation would lead senior artists to seek greener pastures."  Even if I'm appalled by such developer devaluing, should blame go squarely on MS for making the most lucrative deal?  Remember: MS didn't pull some backdoor tactic prying Rare out of Nintendo's oh-so-warm-and-tender hands.  I don't want to spend too much detail here, especially with good information elsewhere, but suffice to say Nintendo was being too shrewd in the bidding war and the closest competition was actually Activision.  Say what you wish about the winner’s track record, even the biggest contrarian will admit this was a lesser-of-two-evils scenario.  Rare would’ve eventually became an army of shoe polishers for Bobby Kotick.

This isn't intended to denigrate old fans who might honestly and actively dislike Rare's newer design ethos; furthermore, it’s tough for anyone to stomach a long-running developer with such valuable IPs in its creative vault locked to expending so many resources on Kinect games.  Nearly a 5-year period focused on motion-based sports games.  Yeesh!  But as far as resuscitating old IPs, building new game foundations, and assessing what lies ahead, I can't help but scoff whenever the "Rare’s dead!" platitudes bubble to the surface.

We’ve begun to see the fruits of Microsoft’s energized deal-making throughout this year too.  Although not consistently critical hits, I’ve found myself fairly impressed with the mix between publishing deals and 1st party output—with Minecraft Dungeons being the sole mediocre example I’ve experienced.  Granted, that’s tough to gauge when there’s a heavier emphasis on XGS Publishing anyways.  But even examples like Wasteland 3, inXile’s latest game which had a Deep Silver publishing deal before this acquisition, got to enjoy more resources which went towards full voiceover work for all dialogue and more.  And when considering the tough decisions like pushing Halo: Infinite’s release back to 2021, the rushed-to-market persona erected throughout this generation at least intimates MS is turning over a new leaf.



Corporate Structure

I'll admit Microsoft's corporate culture is among the most nuanced angles to take in admonishing any creative team signing a 1st party deal.  If one could psychoanalyze the decisions from each of The Big Three, there's a compelling case to suggest MS may suffer from bipolar disorder.  From its authoritarian bent during the 2013 blunder to end all blunders, to being the most fervent in crossing online platforms’ thresholds, going back to a shipped product ~4 years later to overhaul the matchmaking system in Halo: MCC, giving sequels like Crackdown 2 pitiful development time, and finally the initial rules about mandatory Kinect being reverted.  It's a really, really, really strange history to say the least.

With all of this said, it'd be unfair to peg that history against what the company is doing right now.  Bleating on about 2013's TV, TV, TV Division nowadays is the equivalent of me continuously bashing Sony's attitude at PS3's launch sometime after The Last of Us has released.  A comedian isn’t getting the same hysterical laughs after a decade of recycling material.  Whether in respect of consumer response or the Xbox brand's place in MS's business hierarchical structure, there's a heap of difference between the division now and in 2013; as a matter of fact, details recently came out about internal corporate politics occurring in 2017.  Phil Spencer is now answerable only to CEO Satya Nadella, not some Microsoft Media Division stiff.  Nadella also seems to be all-in for… anything its game division leaders are currently doing; a part of me believes some type of “acquisition-bloodlust” has collectively befallen them.

Where I do express greater worry comes from outside influences rather than current leaders within.  In essence, the forthcoming ZeniMax deal includes suspicious caveats upon reading the fine print.  With respect to Bethesda’s structure & leadership, it appears that everything remains the same.  Does that mean the same people who’ve done bullshit moves like Fallout 76 Power Armor’s bag controversy or had previously withheld review codes get to call themselves Microsoft employees now?  Say what you will about some dopes getting tricked into high-priced editions of Fallout 76, but it takes a special kind of greedy to ignore consumer regulations like blatant false advertising.  This doesn’t even touch on Bethesda’s newest scandal where Ragnarok Games is now suing it for allegedly sabotaging Rune II.  The price tag is to the tune of $100 million!  These are the types of bombshells I worry about.  Whereas the first “wave” of acquisitions (2018-2019) were focused on directly supplementing creative types (some in desperate need of it), this second wave beginning with ZeniMax/Bethesda makes me reflexively consider its grimy history.  I’ve even written on this before becoming a writer here.  As great as some of the IPs are, the accompanying corporate poison leaves me worried.



Purchased Pop-Culture

The final matter comes back to how Microsoft’s made these business-savvy moves.  As humorous as the about-face reactions have been to Microsoft becoming serious about its game division, that doesn’t mean an honest fan's irritation with these spending sprees has no merit.  As a 90s kid who acknowledges some of Disney’s animated films as the best of all time, its current form speaks less to rewarding financial acquisitions and more to ‘creative overlords’ with exclusive rights to vast swathes of pop culture—with political backing to tweak public domain rules.  Similarly, having MS stake out this huge corner of the RPG and FPS market is going to elicit similar unease.

My main contention would be the severity applied to this ZeniMax deal.  The, shall we say, overemphasis on Microsoft’s supposed “cultural monopoly” status goes too far.  The same industry where publishers like Square Enix, Capcom, Nintendo, Sony, SEGA, THQ Nordic, EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Gearbox, 505 Games, and more exist that you can financially support is leagues away from what Disney’s done in proportionality.  The plurality and name recognition is disanalogous to Disney securing so many of the most ubiquitous sci-fi/fantasy & superhero titans of our time.  Comparing this situation to a corporate entity capable of dictating ludicrous terms to movie theaters, thereby financially damaging its closest film competitors, is grasping at hyperbole—at best.  Perhaps there’s some apprehension of monopolization potentially happening, but the current evidence and argumentative weight doesn’t hold water.



Conclusion

In sum, I consider these moves to be among Microsoft’s most exciting, but they’re heavily tempered by said publisher’s faulty history.  I’m sure congratulations are in order for me winning Most Mundane Observation Award!  I can't change this reticent attitude when 2020 has been its breakout year for hopping into a plurality of underrepresented markets.  Granted, the habit of releasing some content-slimmed GaaS titles at launch is worth considering, along with potentially bothersome monetization efforts; however, using irregular examples to judge everything else can provide an unreliable picture.  When considering the change in MS’s corporate dynamics, its healthier responsiveness to consumer complaints, and more, many signs suggests these studios could produce their best work yet.  Even if you’re not convinced, at least it’s more substantiated than believing these teams’ creative aspirations will be assailed and ruined. 


Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


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10 Comments

Veknoid_Outcast (on 31 October 2020)

Really nice read! I will reply to this comment so I can use paragraphs.

  • +3
Veknoid_Outcast (on 31 October 2020)

I definitely don't think that recent MS acquisitions will lead to anything catastrophic; that studios now under the MS umbrella will lose they way and their unique voice. That said, I also don't think it will mean any significant improvements. Based on my observations, these studios will simply stay the course. The quality of their output will be determined more by the thinkers and technicians within the studio than by MS leadership.

Rare is a great example. The studio was already in decline in 2002 and it continued its downward trend under MS. I don't think MS necessarily accelerated the decline, but neither did it do anything to fix it. Later, when Rare decided to tackle Kinect, MS said "you do you, bro". To look at more modern examples, MS gave the Halo reins to 343, a studio hostile to the franchise status quo. The result: a game that was hostile to the status quo. Then MS assigned to Gears of War 4 Rod Fergusson, who produced the original trilogy. The result: a game that played by the rules of the original trilogy.

Long story short: I expect no notable changes one way or the other with the studios now under the Xbox banner.

  • +1
coolbeans (on 31 October 2020)

I appreciate it, Vek. But I think you're downplaying the potential for "significant improvements." Perhaps that's on me for doing more dmg. control than positives within the article. A critical thing I briefly mentioned that ought to be considered with the indie studios acquired: dev. tools & funding. I believe Obsidian can make a relatively polished open-world game the size of Skyrim IF (a big if) Microsoft does their best in assisting on the programming & Q/A side. The same can for the likes of Compulsion, which has had some veteran talent from the beginning but don't quite reach expected polish upon release date. No one could've confidently said that when they were still going solo.

Another aspect I overlooked is the variety of engines and expertise behind them. id Tech 7 on next-gen could be an absolute beast for any shooter to use. Although there's still a lot of unknown variables, who's to say 343's SlipSpace can't also have broader applications. More than just the names & merchandizing, there's a lot of supplementary goodies coming along with the ZeniMax purchase to consider.

In the end, a lot does ride on management too. But I think that's more of a conundrum for the ones MS has built than purchased atm.

  • +1
Veknoid_Outcast (on 31 October 2020)

A very valid point. Surely, many of these studios can now operate with a larger budget and greater access to tools and technology.

But that doesn't always translate to a better product. Sometimes it can produce an inferior one. There are certainly instances in the industry where a tight budget and limited technology have translated into creative problem-solving and invention, and instances where a huge budget and advanced tech have lead to bloat and feature creep.

  • +1
coolbeans (on 31 October 2020)

No doubt that can be a nasty pitfall as well. I guess that's why I came away really impressed with all of their '18-'19 picks: veterans across the spectrum who've done their due diligence in regards to passionate people. That's not to say ZeniMax's studios won't have that either, but the business side coming with it has me suspicious.

  • +1
Jumpinbeans (on 31 October 2020)

Just need to look at the history of game developers being taken over by big corporations to see success (and survival) isn’t guaranteed. Bullfrog found that out.

  • +2
coolbeans (on 31 October 2020)

Certainly. I don't want to suggest everything will turn out fine from this corporate buyout; that said, you can also look at MS' publishing history (specifically Twisted Pixel) and see failure isn't a surefire sign that the developer will dissolve either.

  • +2
Mr Puggsly (on 31 October 2020)

Some succeed, some don't. Many studios eventually have been bought though.

  • +1
OneTime (on 31 October 2020)

Being borged into a huge organisation isn’t in itself going to change things. You need to write the games, and you need to sell them at a profit.

I can guarantee you that Microsoft will have no qualms about laying people off when things get tough. That’s how big business works - you are a number on an excel spreadsheet.

There will always be people branching off into a new small company, some of which will be successful. And the cycle continues...

  • 0
coolbeans (on 31 October 2020)

Sure. Layoffs are possible at any corporate job. But I think the issue becomes what does that look like in respect to these recently-acquired studios. Considering the example of Twisted Pixel, it *seems* like these agreements enable them to detach from MS should unrepairable difference arise. I don't think the equivalent worry for when EA bought Bioware should be applied with these acquisitions (yet).

  • +1