Sony and Microsoft acquisitions hint at return of console war


It was nice as long as it lasted.

After a full generation of console exclusives mainly due to the PlayStation, the console war is about to take shape again.

For years Microsoft and Sony have bought out third-party developers – often with whom they already have contractual relationships – and added them to their portfolios. Smaller and well-known studios like Double Fine Productions and Housemarque now reside on Microsoft and Sony premises, respectively. Coupled with the acquisition of larger companies like Insomniac Games for Sony and Bethesda Softworks for Microsoft, it is clear that the two giants are preparing for a new wave of “us versus them”.

Why buy studios? And why sell?

Return‘s Selene confronts boss Nemesis.
Image: Housemarque / Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

For big companies like Sony and Microsoft, studio acquisitions are insurance that offers control. Now that Sony has bought Insomniac Games, the studio can’t make a new Overdrive at sunset for Microsoft. When Sony wants another Ratchet & Clank or another Spider-Man game, they don’t have to stand in line. Microsoft, meanwhile, has achieved guaranteed success for its console by choosing Bethesda, one of the industry’s most beloved developers and publishers.

For the studio that sells, living under the umbrella of Sony and Microsoft is safe. Of course, the studios are sold, closed or even dissolved into the business as a whole. But when Microsoft or Sony offer to pay your bills in exchange for more video games, the sale starts to make sense.

In a June video announcing Psychonauts Double Fine studio joining Microsoft, Double Fine CEO and President Tim Schafer stressed the importance of having a solid publishing house. Speaking of the various ideas that Double Fine has for games, Schafer said that “the idea of ​​being able to develop these [games] without dragging them around the world, by pitching to all the publishers that exist, it’s really nice to think about it.

Being independent offers freedom, but also leaves developers without a safety net. The right partner who lets a studio do what they want can be a great incentive to join. “I was very concerned about our culture and our identity,” Schafer told GameInformer after the acquisition. “[Microsoft] explained the new way they are making these acquisitions with disconnected studios that are not integrated with Microsoft. They are left alone, they do their own thing and remain independent, but are well funded. It sounds like a good deal.

Return the Housemarque studio has a similar story. According to Push Square – who pulled the interview details from Finnish site Yle – Housemarque was still going to sell to someone, but not necessarily to Sony. Several studios were looking to buy, but Sony brought in Housemarque because it offered a semblance of freedom alongside a big bag of cash. Like Schafer with Microsoft, one of the biggest benefits for Housemarque CEO Ilari Kuittinen with Sony was “financial freedom” – the ability to do something interesting and potentially risky, without having to worry about the bill.

The problem is that after delivering Psychonauts 2 on all of its platforms Kickstarter promised, future Double Fine games will only appear in the Xbox infrastructure. Housemarque has mainly been making PlayStation games for some time, but their games are now guaranteed to be exclusive as well.

Thanks to their acquisitions, Double Fine and Housemarque have safety nets and financial freedom. Microsoft is getting a bunch of weird and cute games from Double Fine to appeal to a different kind of Game Pass subscriber. And Sony gets Housemarque, a studio that really made sense with Return.

Everyone wins, right?

What about the players?

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary - Warthog shooting an aerial vehicle

Master Chief pursues a Covenant ship in the original Halo
Image: 343 Industries / Microsoft Studios

What’s good for business isn’t always good for gamers.

Acquiring studios like Double Fine and Housemarque provides some guarantee that they can move forward and create new games that fans will love. But now gamers will have to love these games on Sony’s and Microsoft’s terms, on their specific consoles.

In previous generations of consoles, if you wanted to play Halo 3, Weaponry of war, and Solid metal gear 4, you needed both an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3. If you liked Ratchet & Clank and Blinx: The Time Sweeper, you needed two different consoles if you wanted to play both.

But over the years that has changed. There has been an increase in third party and indie games available on multiple platforms. Depending on what you were looking for, you could play most of the games you wanted on whatever platform you wanted, and console allegiance started to feel like a thing of the past.

That said, consoles have always found ways to stand out from one another. Sony continued to focus on console exclusives, primarily in the PlayStation 4 era, with “must-see” games like God of the war and transmissible by blood. In a generation where the last Assassin’s Creed or Fallout was discussed in the same breath as exclusives like God of the war, why wouldn’t gamers choose a PlayStation 4 that plays all three instead of an Xbox One that plays just two?

But Microsoft has not remained stagnant. Although it has started to shy away from its own IP address, its main draw has become less Halo and more the Netflix-like subscription for games like Game Pass, creating a new way of talking about the value of the console. Where we previously thought of consoles as exclusive platforms – knowing if your friend was a Halo or Metal Gear person the second you stepped into their bedroom – Microsoft has started to argue that a service subscription for old and new games could be just as valuable as a critically acclaimed title. For some, using an annual subscription service to access over 100 games is worth the trip. Transmitted by blood.

Sony and Microsoft have spent an entire generation diverging from each other. Now that Game Pass is at full speed, Microsoft is taking the opportunity to have the best of both worlds for themselves: exclusive games. and a powerful subscription service. By creating an ecosystem that takes advantage of exclusives, Microsoft can compete with Sony’s “big exclusives” business model. Companies are buying developers left and right, and it looks like we’re on the verge of falling back into a franchise war.

Where will a new war lead us?

an astronaut in the cockpit of a spaceship sitting on a planet in Starfield

A photo from the first trailer in the Starfield engine
Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks

Exclusives are a bad deal for gamers of all ages, but they mostly affect kids, whose one console for an entire generation can come in the form of a big holiday giveaway or allowance savings. long-haul. These days, in a world where cross-play is becoming normal, we were almost at a point where Grandma could accidentally buy her granddaughter a PlayStation 5 instead of an Xbox Series X and everything would work out. But now if this granddaughter is particularly excited for Starfield, she’ll be out of luck now that Microsoft has locked down future Bethesda games.

With console makers buying studios, we’re going back to where we were a few years ago. Not all gamers can play all games, at least not until the next generation is here and the prices of older consoles drop like a stone. The new console exclusivity might not look like the big, proprietary games of yesteryear, but manufacturers who buy from studios mean gamers will need to think more carefully when they buy a new console.

By the time I was old enough to start thinking about buying games on my own, I remember looking up information about releases and upcoming games in magazines, trying to figure out which console I needed first. before the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era. I liked it Halo, But Ratchet & Clank was a series that I felt I necessary to be continued. (That doesn’t even take into account the upcoming Smash Bros. game, which I had to own immediately after release to keep my social life intact.)

We haven’t lived in this particular world since the middle of the Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 era. For about a decade, fans were able to pick up a video game machine of their choice with a slight shrug. Maybe they would miss a few games by having only one Xbox, or they might need to pay more attention to PlayStation store sales without Game Pass, but that wasn’t enough for casual or even regular gamers. to need both machines.

With Sony and Microsoft buying out top developers and further expanding their exclusive catalogs, we’re taking a step back in time, where you’ll need a spreadsheet and mood board to figure out how to get the most out of your business. video game money. If it sounds like the late 90s and early 2000s, this comeback will split gamers into two camps: gamers willing to spend money on both machines – giving Sony and Microsoft exactly what they want. – and the unbearably loyal defenders of the only console they have. obtained.

The recent acquisitions of Sony and Microsoft are good for developers and good for themselves. But as the need for multiple consoles in a single home increases, it’s the gamers who are going to lose.

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