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Bethesda and Microsoft: A tight relationship over two decades

Polygon logo Polygon 9/21/2020 Owen S. Good
Todd Howard on the Xbox Stage at E3 2015, announcing Fallout 4, which launched later that year. © Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images Todd Howard on the Xbox Stage at E3 2015, announcing Fallout 4, which launched later that year.

Bethesda Softworks and Microsoft’s games division have had a tight relationship going back to the first Xbox. It’s about to get a lot closer.

Though Bethesda’s big works have also launched on PlayStation 3 and 4, if games like The Elder Scrolls or Fallout series had a lead platform over the past 18 years, it’d be Xbox. Todd Howard, the creative director of Bethesda Game Studios, said as much in a note Monday morning about the acquisition. He pointed out that The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind’s launch on Xbox in 2002 was a gamble for both companies.

“I was dubious Xbox Morrowind would be worth the time, somewhat on a technical level, but more so from taking a hardcore RPG and moving it from a PC desktop experience to a controller-and-sofa experience,” Howard wrote in a note to fans today. “If we made it work, would people want it?”

Morrowind did not launch on PlayStation 2, the best-selling console of its (or any) generation. The game still sold more than 4 million copies on the Xbox, numbers that put it in the company of Halo: Combat Evolved. Its successor, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, launched on PlayStation 3 four months after that console hit shelves. By then it was already a critical and commercial smash hit on Xbox 360, and along with BioWare, Bethesda solidified Xbox as the western RPG platform of choice.

A reputation for especially bugged launches on the PlayStation 3 certainly did not help Bethesda’s standing with Sony’s fans. In particular, 2008’s Fallout 3 and 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas (developed by Obsidian Entertainment, which is now also owned by Microsoft) were major launches whose PlayStation shortcomings drove mainstream attention toward their Xbox 360 releases, even if those versions had their own issues.

“With each new console cycle, we evolved together,” Howard wrote. “From bringing mods to consoles with Fallout 4, now over a billion downloads, to the latest technologies fueling Xbox Series X/S. These new systems are optimized for the vast worlds we love to create.”

Mod support for console versions of Fallout 4 is particularly illustrative of Bethesda’s relationship to both Xbox and PlayStation. Howard took the stage at Microsoft’s E3 2015 news conference to announce that Fallout 4, launching later that year, would support PC-created mods. Microsoft also announced Xbox 360 backward compatibility at this showcase, illustrated by Bethesda giving Fallout 4 buyers a free copy of Fallout 3.

Mod support would join Fallout 4 (and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Special Edition) in May 2016 via the Bethesda Creation Kit, which the PlayStation 4 did not support at launch. Four months later, Fallout 4 on PS4 still didn’t have modding, which Bethesda blamed entirely on Sony. Mod support for Bethesda games ultimately joined PlayStation 4 the next month.

Two years later, Howard showed Fallout 76’s first gameplay trailer at Microsoft’s news conference, then later directly called out Sony when asked why his game wouldn’t support cross-platform play. Microsoft made hay with both of these issues, trying to drive Fallout and Elder Scrolls fans to its console or PC.

It’s true that Bethesda Softworks encompasses more than just Bethesda Game Studios, and that Bethesda-published games like Doom (2016) and its sequel, Dishonored and its expansions and sequel, and Rage 2 have all launched day-and-date on PlayStation alongside Windows and Xbox.

It’s also true that Bethesda having its own E3 showcase (beginning in 2015), and the end of Sony’s presence at E3, can explain why Bethesda Softworks didn’t show off its new games on PlayStation’s stage. Bethesda was also starting to publish PlayStation exclusives — Arkane’s Deathloop and Tango Gameworks’ Ghostwire: Tokyo, both due in 2021, agreements the company will still honor following Microsoft’s acquisition.

But a personal anecdote Howard shared at the end of his note says the most when explaining Bethesda’s tight association with Microsoft over the past 20 years. In 2016, Howard accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Game Developers Choice Awards and joked about how many “achievement points” it was worth, a reference to Xbox Live’s Gamerscore.

“A few months later I was given a code to a game [Microsoft] had created, named after me and locked to my account,” Howard wrote. “When ran, it unlocks a single achievement — ‘Lifetime - 1000pts.’ It still sits in my list when I check, and I smile every time.”

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