I wasn’t up to a Diecast this week, but last week Microsoft purchased Zenimax software for 7.5 gigabucks in cash and lots of people wanted to know what I thought.
The press release says they bought Zenimax for cash, but of course that doesn’t mean “actual folding money”. It just means they did a really big wire transfer and the acquisition didn’t involve trading assets, stocks, handjobs, or whatever. But it would be so much more fun if this really was a physical cash transaction. I like to imagine Satya Nadella driving a dump-truck of money to Zenimax headquarters and pouring it on top of Robert A. Altman‘s car. I think big acquisitions would be more fun if they did them like this. (Particularly on windy days.)
I thought this story was in need of some in-depth analysis. Sadly, there’s no one around to do that, so you’ll have to settle for my lazy drive-by hot take.
So Microsoft Bought Zenimax
I see young people describing this as “Xbox bought Bethesda”, which – while woefully inaccurate – is a pretty understandable way for a consumer to frame this particular event. When I was in my twenties1991-2001., I didn’t know anything about games beyond what was on the box. I didn’t keep track of publishers, studios, acquisitions, brands, and the various ways those things rose to prominence, merged, changed hands, and diedMostly the last one..
But on this site we’re cursed with casual knowledge about the corporate skulduggery that drives this wretched industry. Since we follow this grotesque circus, we might as well use what we’ve learned to engage in a little speculation about what “Xbox buys Bethesda” really means.
Will This Help Bethesda Games?
Back in 2009, Zenimax acquired id Software. At the time, I took the optimistic stance that maybe this was was going to help both companies. Id Software was famous for making solid technology, which was a weak spot for Bethesda. I imagined that we might get Fallout sequels that ran atop id tech, which would save Fallout from the horrors of Bethesda’s Gamebryo Engine.
Looking back, that is adorably naive.
The engine was never the problem with Bethesda’s games. Sure, the engine was was a big pile of jank and the tools were appalling. But the source of their dysfunction was never their software, it was the company culture. Over the years Bethesda has demonstrated again and again that they are unable to deliver a stable product.
I think it’s pretty clear this dysfunction originates at Bethesda and not at parent company Zenimax. This isn’t a case where the Zenimax CEO forces developers to shove games out the door before they’re ready. Bethesda’s sister studios Arkane, id Software, and Machine Games aren’t notorious for routinely shipping massively broken titles. Every company makes mistakes sometimes, but no other AAA studio comes anywhere close to Bethesda’s track record for bugs, glitches, crashes, lockups, slowdowns, and general jank.
Fallout 76 was the most glaring example of this. In the early days of the game, patches would routinely introduce serious new bugs, or bring back bugs that had been previously fixed, or introduce new features that would bring about new exploits.
If you look at the Bethesda Fallout and Elder Scrolls games in order of publishing date, I think you can make a good case that the problem has been getting worse.
Now, you can argue that Bethesda doesn’t care about quality and they could fix all of this if they really wanted to. I can’t prove you wrong, but it does seem weird that they spent so much time and money improvingIn the early days they were mostly “improving” the game, but they eventually began making actual improvements. Or at least, people have stopped complaining about it and begun combatively defending the game on YouTube. Fallout 76 if they didn’t care about it. I can’t escape the notion that their problem is much deeper: They do care about quality, but as an organization they don’t know how to properly uncover bugs, document them, prioritize them, assign them to appropriate team members, fix them, document the fixes, then make sure they’re fixed before pushing an update to the community. I get the sense that the whole thing is a massive free-for-all where nobody knows what the major bugs are or who is supposed to be working on them.
Like, re-introducing old bugs? What the hell? Are they not using source control???
Contrast this with Microsoft. I think it’s obvious Microsoft can put out good software, and the only challenge is keeping them interested long enough to finish the job before they get bored and their corporate priorities change. If I was still an optimist, I might hope that Microsoft will teach Bethesda how to do proper testing before inflicting their software on the masses, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Microsoft probably wants to treat Zenimax like a black box where money goes in and games come out. If they wanted to do something hands-on, they could have spun up their own studio.
What Will Happen to Zenimax Games?
Honestly, I don’t really care about Bethedsa games at this point. Fallout? Elder Scrolls? Both games began as classic RPGs back in the 90s, but since then Bethesda has turned them into moronic trash-picking games about inventory management that seem to have a child-level understanding of the source material. I imagine the upcoming Starfield will be more of the same: Trek, as executed by someone who thinks Star Trek Into Darkness is the best Trek movie because it has lots of painfully obvious callbacks and explosions.
In short, if Bethesda’s games were forever cancelled next month, it would probably be a bit of a relief. In a creative sense, the franchises died a decade ago and Bethesda has been playing Weekend at Bernie’s since thenProbably because they still make tons of money. Why cook dinner when people will eat Skyrim leftovers for an entire decade?. It might be nice to get some closure and be able to give the franchise a proper burial.
On the other hand, I’m terrified something bad will happen to Arkane’s projects. I really liked Dishonored 2. More importantly, my favorite genre of all time is the quasi-horror first-person immersive sim set in space with a silent protagonist, open-ended design, and very minimal cutscenes. How exotic is this genre? I think there have only been three games, ever: System Shock, system Shock 2, and PreyBioShock tried, but it never felt like it belonged. Too linear, the combat was very same-y, the resource management was gone, along with specialized builds. Oh, and despite being praised as one of the great stories of video gaming, the end where you have to turn yourself into a big daddy to open a door was lazy, contrived, and obnoxious. And the final boss was childish. It had it moments, but this game isn’t as smart as it thinks it is.. Aside from remakes, Arkane is the only place I can get this fix, and right now it feels like a miracle that Prey exists at all. The usual non-gaming executive is very likely to look at the game and demand a fixed non-branching story, cutscenes, and “streamlined” gameplay. Oh, and make it third person, make the shooting more fun, and give the player a sexy lady to rescue. Oh, and this sci-fi stuff about AI and space-creatures and consciousness requires way too much thinking. Just give us a really obvious bad guy that kills people and beats the player up in cutscenes. THAT’S how you get people to care about the story!
Sorry. I keep hoping if I bitch about this often enough, the game industry will knock it off just so they can shut me up for a fiscal quarter or two.
What Does this Mean in the Long-Term?
The most obvious concern is that Microsoft is going to use Zenimax like a cudgel in their ongoing battle with Sony. Having the next Elder Scrolls as an Xbox exclusive would really sting. Having the next Fallout, Wolfenstein, Dishonored, and Doom as Xbox exclusives would be devastating. It probably wouldn’t impact PC gamers like meMicrosoft is more interested in hurting Sony than trying to get PC gamers to buy an Xbox., but it would impact a lot of PlayStation fans, and that’s no fun.
I think the biggest risk is that Microsoft will get bored and lose interest. Maybe they’ll yank Zenimax around with contradictory and ever-changing mandates: Everything needs a phone tie-in from now on. Actually, cancel the phone games, we think tablets are going to be huge next year. Actually, don’t bother with tablets, we need more VR stuff. No, make streaming-friendly games! More multiplayer! More cinematic stuff! No, screw that, more focus on short-session gameplay! Push the top-end hardware! More backwards compatibility! Make new IP! Remake / remaster older games! Family games! Cute mascots! More gruesome adult violence! Motion controllers! Free-to-play with grasping microtransactions! Make AAAAA games! Quintuple A! We’ll be unstoppable!
Then, once all of the studios are completely confused and demoralized, Microsoft will find a new shiny thing and they’ll leave the studios to finish whatever they were working on. When the studios are done, they’ll discover they just spent 36 months making games that Microsoft no longer cares to publish, market, or support, because it’s not part of the New Shiny Thing management is pushing.
Shamus, you’re being ridiculous. Microsoft just paid 7.5 billion for this company. They wouldn’t have bought Zenimax if they didn’t have a plan, and you don’t just walk away from something after spending that much money on it.
That’s a very sane point of view, but I’m afraid it doesn’t apply to Microsoft. Remember that this is the same company that bought Skype for 8.5 billion before shoving it to the the back of the fridge and forgetting about it until it went bad.
So that’s what I think of this acquisition. Seriously, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m sick of hearing the publishers and platform holders prattle on about the exciting new stuff they hope to sell us someday when so much of the 2020 lineup has been delayed to 2021 and beyond.
Like, don’t tell me about new graphics or services or studios or hardware specs. I don’t care. Just publish some video games already!
 Mostly the last one.
 In the early days they were mostly “improving” the game, but they eventually began making actual improvements. Or at least, people have stopped complaining about it and begun combatively defending the game on YouTube.
 Probably because they still make tons of money. Why cook dinner when people will eat Skyrim leftovers for an entire decade?
 BioShock tried, but it never felt like it belonged. Too linear, the combat was very same-y, the resource management was gone, along with specialized builds. Oh, and despite being praised as one of the great stories of video gaming, the end where you have to turn yourself into a big daddy to open a door was lazy, contrived, and obnoxious. And the final boss was childish. It had it moments, but this game isn’t as smart as it thinks it is.
 Microsoft is more interested in hurting Sony than trying to get PC gamers to buy an Xbox.
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
Was it a Hack?
A big chunk of the internet went down in October of 2016. What happened? Was it a hack?
This Game is Too Videogame-y
What's wrong with a game being "too videogameish"?
What was the problem with the Playstation 3 hardware and why did Sony build it that way?
This is Why We Can’t Have Short Criticism
Here's how this site grew from short essays to novel-length quasi-analytical retrospectives.