Xbox Is Primed To Reclaim Its Identity As A Console For RPGsSeptember 22, 2020
With Microsoft’s recent acquisition of ZeniMax Media–parent company for eight studios, including Bethesda–it feels like another step towards reclaiming an old identity for Xbox. Back in the days of the original Xbox and Xbox 360, the Xbox brand was known as the home for console ports of western RPGs. It’s an association that was lost with Xbox One, but thanks to the many acquisitions that Microsoft has made since 2018, it may be one that returns with Xbox Series X/S. And that association will only help Microsoft in this coming console generation, both in moving Xbox Series X/S units as well as selling Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscriptions.
In June 2018, Microsoft acquired Forza Horizon developer Playground Games, which is now working on a brand-new Fable. Later, in November 2018, Microsoft announced it had acquired Wasteland developer inXile Entertainment, following up that it also acquired Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment. Both studios are also working on upcoming RPG projects for Xbox; inXile is still a ways from announcing its game while Obsidian has revealed its developing an “epic, first-person RPG” called Avowed.
Microsoft’s acquisition of ZeniMax Media adds Bethesda Games Studios to its rapidly growing list of first-party Xbox Game Studios. And though it’s still up in the air as to whether or not Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI will release as Xbox Series X/S console exclusives, both are at least coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one. In fact, all of the aforementioned RPGs are scheduled to come to Xbox Game Pass on day one, given that they’re first-party titles.
The total reach that Microsoft has over prominent western RPG developers can technically be extended to include BioWare as well. BioWare’s publisher is Electronic Arts, and EA’s games appear on EA Play at a discount (and sometimes early) for subscribers. And though it currently exists as a separate subscription, EA Play will be bundled into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate at no additional cost. At this point, the only major western RPG developer that Microsoft doesn’t have an official partnership with is CD Projekt Red. But if we’re willing to put on our tinfoil hats and theorize for a moment, there does seem to be some sort of connection between the two that maybe could become an official partnership. CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series first came to consoles through Xbox (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on Xbox 360), and the developer has participated in Microsoft’s press conference for both E3 2018 and E3 2019 in order to advertise Cyberpunk 2077. Really makes you think.
But even ignoring that intriguing possibility, Microsoft’s recent acquisitions equate to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers being able to access some of the most prominent upcoming RPGs for less than their total retail cost. And with game prices seemingly set to rise–Sony is already selling a few of the titles in its PS5 launch line-up at a higher retail cost than what most PS4 games are priced–the savings on a per game basis could be significant.
I don’t think this is going to have any bearing on the first year of the Xbox Series X/S lifecycle–hell, I’m not even convinced we’ll see the impact within two years. But provided these games are well-received, I could see Xbox being regarded as the console to choose if you’re a fan of RPGs, especially those made in the west. Sure, RPGs are still going to appear on PS5 and Nintendo Switch, but I assume both consoles are going to continue dominating the Japanese space.
This gives Xbox something that it has long since lacked in terms of its first-party exclusives: an identity. Everyone knows you go to PlayStation for those single-player, blockbuster movie-like experiences, while Nintendo prioritizes making enjoyable complexity out of simple mechanics. Through Playground, inXile, Obsidian, Bethesda, and, in some part, EA and BioWare, I think Xbox can establish itself as a platform for different types of role-playing games. If your favorite thing to do in a video game is create a character and then live their life, it’s looking like Xbox is where a lot of the biggest names in the business are going to be.
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And creating a space where RPGs thrive is only going to attract more of them. It’s a position that has worked for Xbox in the past–you had to own an Xbox or Xbox 360 in order to play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (for a year–it eventually made its way to PS3), both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 (for a period of time), Deus Ex: Invisible War, The Witcher 2, and the Fable trilogy on consoles. The Xbox and Xbox 360 made it possible to play a type of game that was previously exclusively made for PC, and Microsoft can do the same now with Xbox Series X/S and the studios it’s acquired.
The fact that all of these RPG studios are making games that will be available via Xbox Game Pass is a huge boon for Microsoft. Xbox Game Pass already has a fairly impressive line-up of games for its price–there’s a reason we’ve repeatedly called it the best deal in gaming–but it doesn’t change that a lot of the best first-party studio games on the service (Sea of Thieves, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, State of Decay 2, Gears 5) are game-as-a-service titles or multiplayer-focused games with relatively short single-player campaigns. Getting a few over-40-hour RPGs increases the overall value of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, both in terms of just giving you more actual game to play for the same relatively cheap monthly subscription fee, and in fulfilling a market that is currently a bit lacking on the service.
Reminding players that Microsoft is investing in RPGs again is a smart move to make ahead of Xbox Series X/S preorders going live. Of course, acquiring ZeniMax Media does include studios and genres beyond Bethesda Game Studios and RPGs, but I think it’s Bethesda’s prominence in the genre that will help move Xbox Series X/S units during the platform’s lifecycle, especially when Microsoft’s other RPG-focused studios are taken into account. We’ll have to wait and see how all of these upcoming games turn out, but I for one would welcome the return of the association between “Xbox” and “role-playing games.”