Starfield exclusivity is about Game Pass’ bargaining power

Starfield exclusivity on Xbox has become a lightning rod for criticism of developer Bethesda Game Studios‘ relationship with Microsoft. Ever since the game was unveiled at the Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase last June, devotees of PlayStation have been trying to read between the lines in the hopes of getting any indication that the highly anticipated space-based action RPG will be coming to PS5.

This week’s version of that news cycle started up again when Pete Hines, senior vice president of global marketing & communications at Bethesda Softworks, told GameSpot that Bethesda games aren’t necessarily done appearing on other platforms:

“There are Xbox brands that exist on other platforms, first and foremost. I think that’s important to note. Minecraft didn’t just stop existing on anything once Mojang got bought by Xbox,” Hines said. “It’s a massively played game on all of these other platforms. It’s not a, ‘Sorry, you’re never going to get to play anything by Bethesda again.'”

“Certainly, there are going to be things that you’re not going to be able to play [on PlayStation]…Starfield, it was announced as a thing that’s an Xbox exclusive. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say you’re done ever playing stuff on PlayStation. But again, I don’t know the answer to that right now.”

In effect, Hines refused to conclusively state that Bethesda games will never appear on other consoles and one suspects that it’s because a) it’s a bit premature to rule out years of upcoming games from now until the end of the decade and b) because it’s unlikely he’s the only person who has a hand in making that kind of decision.

This set the wheels spinning among consumers on social media and writers on various other game blogs, who resurfaced the possibility that Starfield exclusivity is simply (and secretly) a timed one, to arrive on PlayStation later. Unfortunately, Aaron Greenberg, general manager of Xbox games marketing, put this rumor down in as absolute a manner as he could:

Microsoft is in a strange place right now because their acquisition of Bethesda came with caveats, that is to say existing arrangements that can’t simply be undone. Not only does Elder Scrolls Online continue to operate on non-Xbox platforms, but Arkane Studios’ Deathloop – which releases in under two weeks – is a timed exclusive on PlayStation as is next year’s Ghostwire: Tokyo from Tango Gameworks.

So while the acquisition gives Microsoft an exclusive roster of IPs, the very thing that Microsoft has in the past been criticized for lacking, it also inherits a company with a long history of multi-platform releases. Inevitably many if not all of these IPs – your Wolfensteins, your Dooms, your Dishonoreds, your Fallouts and your Evil Withins, to name a few – will become Xbox exclusives.

Of course, one could argue that Starfield exclusivity means limiting the game’s overall sales potential. But it’s safe to assume that savvier minds at Xbox have already calculated that. Denying future releases from revenue on PlayStation is a cost they’re willing to pay.

Of course, one could argue that Starfield exclusivity means limiting the game’s overall sales potential. Sony has moved over a hundred million PS4s and is likely to sell at least that many PS5s eventually. But I think it’s safe to assume that savvier minds than ours at Xbox have already calculated that. Denying future releases from revenue on PlayStation is a cost they’re willing to pay.

No one expects Nintendo to bring Mario or Zelda to the PlayStation 5, and Sony is never going to entertain the added sales possible from porting Ghost of Tsushima or Horizon Forbidden West over to Xbox or PC at launch. Granted, those two can’t be equated with the Bethesda situation, but the fact remains that platform holders make these calculations all the time and come to their own decisions, prepared to accept the results of those decisions for better or worse.

Starfield exclusivity

The idea that Bethesda’s next big open world action RPG is a bitter pill to swallow, and I’m sincerely sorry for PlayStation fans who have been fans of the company’s output for years. But I think there’s more to it than just Microsoft withholding a game from a rival: it’s about consolidating the power of Game Pass, which has long been billed as a place for Microsoft’s first-party exclusives.

It’s been made clear to us now that Microsoft wants to put Game Pass on every screen that can output it: smart TVs, desktop browsers, Android phones, and more. And in past months, there’s been buzz that Microsoft really, really wants to put the Xbox app on other consoles too, for as long as they can come to the right arrangement.

That hasn’t happened, and the truth is that at present, I can’t imagine that ever happening. It just seems too unlikely. But it’s no secret that Xbox Cloud Gaming on Switch or Remote Play on PlayStation are just a couple of pipe dreams they have. But for Microsoft to ever have a hope of making these pipe dreams a reality, they will need to have a powerful offer to make.

Starfield exclusivity isn’t just about making a must-have game an Xbox console-only affair. It’s about consolidating the power of Game Pass. Such that if it is the only way for PlayStation users to have a game like Starfield, persuading platform holders like Sony and Nintendo to consider enabling the Xbox app gets a little easier on Microsoft’s end.

Make no mistake, Sony and Nintendo are incredibly obstinate companies, so this is I repeat, extremely unlikely. But Microsoft has demonstrated it is willing to play the long game, and it really wants to put Game Pass and the Xbox app everywhere. If that ever happens, I’ll definitely be looking out my window for flying pigs and check the weather to see if hell has frozen over.