The company’s bottomless appetite for buying new studios means the art of the deal is threatening the art – and heart – of the game
In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft’s developer Mojang for what seemed, at the time, an eye-popping figure: $2.5bn (£1.8bn). It was the first in a series of bullish video-game studio acquisitions by the tech giant, whose games division has been led by executive Phil Spencer, a long-time advocate for video games within Microsoft and the wider business world, for the past eight years. More studios followed, for undisclosed amounts: beloved Californian comedy-game artists Double Fine, UK studio Ninja Theory, RPG specialists Obsidian Entertainment. It seemed that under Spencer’s leadership, Microsoft was cementing its commitment to the Xbox console and the video-games business by investing in what makes games great: the people who make them.
Then came 2020’s deal to acquire Zenimax (and with it Bethesda), for a properly astonishing $7.5bn. This was different. This wasn’t the Xbox division acquiring studios to make games for its consoles. This was an entire publisher, with several different studios and a whole portfolio of popular game series. At this point Microsoft’s spending started to look like a monopoly move – a bid to sew up the market by closing off hugely popular games behind Microsoft’s own consoles and services. When it was confirmed that Bethesda’s forthcoming games, including this year’s space role-playing epic Starfield and the next fantasy Elder Scrolls game, would be exclusive to Xbox and Microsoft Game Pass, I started to wonder whether Microsoft’s stated aim to make video games more widely available to everyone was lining up with its actions in the market.