Why, yes, we all knew that Microsoft’s ABK (Activision Blizzard King) acquisition was a big deal in every sense of the word, but few of us expected that it could bring about major changes in the company’s strategy so soon – hell, some of us still question whether Microsoft is even able to make the most of that 68 billion investment in the long term. It seems, though, that this acquisition may work as a catalyst for helping Xbox reposition itself in the video games industry – sooner rather than later, too, if recent reports are to be believed. In short: Microsoft may be planning to officially become a multiformat games publisher, offering games for the PlayStation5 and the Nintendo Switch (other than Call of Duty) very, very soon.
It all started a few weeks back, when rumors started circulating on the Web about Hi-Fi Rush – one of the best 2023 exclusive games for the Xbox – coming to Nintendo Switch, followed by other rumors claiming that Sea of Thieves versions for both the Switch and the PS5 have also been under consideration. Most people dismissed those rumors as wishful thinking, but a handful of reporters reminded everyone that several Microsoft executives – including the company’s CEO, Satya Nadella – noted last year that the ABK acquisition would help the company operate more like a multiformat publisher, on more devices than ever before, even “on formats that they would have thought as competitors in the past, such as PlayStation or Nintendo”.
There was still not enough evidence to support the accuracy of those reports, obviously, but now The Verge claims that “a source familiar with Microsoft’s plans” practically confirmed the company’s intentions: Bethesda is considering bringing Indiana Jones and the Golden Circle (which arguably attracted the most attention during last month’s Xbox Developer Direct) to the PlayStation5. There’s even talk about bringing Starfield (the most talked-about 2023 exclusive for the Xbox) to the PlayStation5 later this year, after its first expansion is out.
Even if Microsoft itself is putting this vague information out there so as to get a sense of how media and consumers would initially react to such a move – as companies of this size and fanbase often do – it really doesn’t matter. Something has definitely changed in the way the company will be treating the Xbox brand as a whole moving forward. Let us entertain this idea for a bit, then: would it make sense for Microsoft to bring its Xbox games to other platforms?
It’s… complicated. Here’s why.
What Microsoft stands to lose by becoming a multiformat publisher
Releasing any number of Xbox games on Sony’s and Nintendo’s systems would essentially mean than Microsoft Game Studios does not act just as the internal Xbox software division anymore, but as a third-party publisher… or, to be precise, one of the largest third-party games publishers in the world (now that Activision Blizzard King is part of it too). The difference between these two roles is vast because their traditional respective goals are totally different: first-party studios strive to provide value to a platform through game exclusivity and technical excellence, while third-party publishers strive to attract as many unit sales as possible of each and every game regardless of format.
It’s practically a given, then, that Microsoft Game Studios acting like a third-party publisher would inevitably diminish the value of Xbox as a platform in the long term: if consumers come to believe that most MGS titles will also be coming to the PlayStation or the Switch sooner or later, there’s simply no point in even considering getting an Xbox system. Ever. Microsoft has repeatedly stated that “it’s not interested” in console sales – which is a whole other discussion for another day – but the Xbox systems’ user base needs to at least be in decent shape, otherwise the company could eventually end up developing games for other systems only. It also does not look good for a platform holder to run a hardware division that’s failing and, for better or worse, appearances still matter when it comes to consumer choice.
It’s also highly likely that – should Microsoft move forward with this plan – the company will face considerable backlash from many, many angry Xbox fans. It would even look like “betrayal” to some of them, since PlayStation is seen as “the enemy” in what is widely perceived as the Console Wars. Yes, those are still a thing, so that backlash is to be expected. It’s true that most Xbox fans have remained loyal to Microsoft despite the company’s numerous, spectacular failures in the gaming space during the last decade – so the company just ignoring that fact now would not go down well with the Xbox crowd.
Neither Xbox or PlayStation fans seem to ultimately have such an issue with “their” exclusive games being released on the PC or even the Nintendo Switch – but “the platform of the enemy” is another story entirely. Microsoft going multiformat could end up being a PR nightmare – online comments on many stories published about these reports and on social media are already vitriolic – but a lot depends on how the company handles this. Not just the PR nightmare, that is, but the shift to multiformat publishing of Xbox games itself. To that end, Microsoft has a couple of different options, as described below.
What Microsoft stands to gain by becoming a multiformat publisher
Despite the negative reactions online from Xbox fans – and the serious concerns some of us have regarding the future of the gaming market as a whole, in the event of Microsoft Game Studios officially becomes a multiplatform publisher – the truth is that Microsoft has much to gain by expanding its addressable market. There’s the potential additional revenue stream of new sales of already developed games – something Sony can attest to, based on the healthy sales of past PlayStation titles on PC – which would, in time, ease the financial burden of development of new titles too (since they’d be planned as multiformat from the start). When it comes to blockbuster, AAA productions that now cost dozens, even hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, this makes sense now more than ever.
Microsoft having Xbox games appear on PlayStation and Switch could also work as an effective way to promote Game Pass and, through that, even give Xbox systems sales a small boost. Since it’s highly unlikely that Microsoft’s subscription service will ever come to Sony’s or Nintendo’s platforms – it would be a hell of a surprise to all if it did – PS5 or Switch owners would sooner or later acknowledge the value of paying e.g. $149.99 a year for access to hundreds of games instead of paying $69.99 or $79.99 for a single game three of four times a year. Game streaming is still a work in progress (it will remain so for years to come) and hardly the ideal way to play the vast majority of modern AAA titles, so Game Pass could actually convince PlayStation or Switch owners to finally get an Xbox, provided that they are interested in enough Microsoft Game Studios titles for that.
The Game Pass advantage would become even more apparent if Microsoft turns into a third-party publisher in the way most of us suspect it will: conservatively, to start. It’s safe to assume that the company would not “go all out” with its multiformat strategy from day one: chances are that, in order to appease its loyal Xbox fanbase, it would only be offering a small number of already released Xbox titles to PlayStation and Switch at first. It would also be following a timed exclusive strategy similar to the one implemented by Sony for the PC versions of past PlayStation hits: Microsoft would release the Xbox/PC versions of its new games first, releasing the PlayStation/Switch versions e.g. six or nine or twelve months later. It could be years, actually, before the company is ready to release most of its new games for every format simultaneously – and easing its Xbox fanbase into this idea is only one of the reasons why.
It’s also highly likely that the company will also be releasing Xbox games on other platforms on a case-by-case basis, since not all Microsoft Game Studios productions are a good fit for the PlayStation crowd and the Switch crowd. It makes sense e.g. for Indiana Jones and the Golden Circle to be released on Sony’s system because PS5 owners love single-player, cinematic action adventures. It also makes sense e.g. for Hi-Fi Rush to be released on Nintendo’s system because of the signature aesthetics and gameplay that will appeal to Switch owners (but also to many PS5 owners). It’s safe to say that most Switch owners would not be all that interested e.g. in Starfield – assuming it was even possible to get it to run on mobile hardware – but many PS5 owners would. Every third-party publisher makes these format choices this way, so Microsoft doing the same depending on the target demographic of each title is to be expected.
By granting Xbox owners timed exclusive access to its games and carefully selecting which titles make the jump to the PS5, Microsoft could gradually become one of the most important third-party publishers in the world without upsetting its loyal customer base too much. Let us not forget that the company has brought its two Ori games to the Switch and the latest Call of Duty to the PS5 already – and that its most commercially successful game ever, Minecraft, has been on Sony’s and Nintendo’s systems for years – so, in reality, selectively bringing over some of its existing Xbox games to the PS5 and/or the Switch now may not be that hard for Xbox fans to accept. It’s the day Microsoft announces its first new multiformat release that includes the PS5 at launch – or the day any one of Xbox’s iconic franchises gets a PlayStation version – that the Xbox fanbase will really make their feelings known about the company’s new direction.
Until that day comes, though, the Redmond giant stands to gain additional income, additional Microsoft Game Studios recognition and additional interest in Game Pass – which could conceivably lead to more subscriptions and boosted system sales – if it does indeed become a third-party publisher soon. The tricky part would be making this transition without irrevocably damaging the Xbox brand and weakening competition in the gaming console space further. The last thing anyone who cares about video games as a modern entertainment form wants to see is Sony completely dominating console gaming… again.
How Microsoft would go about becoming a multiformat publisher is key
Microsoft effectively becoming a third-party publisher for Sony and Nintendo gaming systems would mark a monumental change for the Xbox brand, even a major shift for the company as a whole. Since nothing is officially confirmed yet, though, the most important thing about all this – the way Microsoft would go about bringing some of its best Xbox titles to other formats – has yet to be determined. That could ultimately make all the difference: it would explain (a) why Microsoft would make such a move and (b) how such a strategic choice would fit into the company’s plans for the future of Xbox.
All these scattered reports do not seem baseless precisely because Microsoft Game Studios going multiformat – now that Sony has officially won the current Console Wars – actually makes business sense. At least for Microsoft, at least short-term. It may also be why Xbox fans are already angry about this possibility: a lot of them had probably already realized, on some level, that the acquisitions of so many game development studios and some of the largest game publishers over the last decade were not made for the Xbox systems alone. Hence the notion of “betrayal”… maybe?
In any case, Microsoft also knows this – otherwise Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, would not have tweeted this a few hours ago: “We’re listening and we hear you. We’ve been planning a business update event for next week, where we look forward to sharing more details with you about our vision for the future of Xbox. Stay tuned”. Even though the Xbox leader does not explicitly refer to the reports on Xbox going multiformat, it’s hard to imagine this “business update” being about anything else.
It’s clear to all that changes are coming and it will be interesting to see just how far Xbox is willing to go in order to address a bigger audience and attract more Game Pass subscribers. Crash Bandicoot or TowerBorne or Everwild on the Switch? Halo or Forza or Hellblade on the PlayStation? Weirder things have happened!