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What did Microsoft want from Starfield? | Opinion

Bethesda's latest is a bona fide hit, topping US sales charts – but for Microsoft's plan to use exclusives to drive Game Pass subscriptions, that success is a double-edged sword

Not that there was ever really much doubt, but we now have the numbers to confirm it: Xbox Series finally has a huge exclusive hit on its hands.

Bethesda's Starfield has topped the US sales charts for September, sliding into the top ten for the year thus far in the process. Everyone knew that Starfield would be a success, but commercial performance on this scale was never a given. Bethesda games generally do well, but are not guaranteed chart-toppers, with their numbers only getting truly impressive when you look at the long tail performance.

It remains to be seen if Starfield will have the kind of long tail seen with some of Bethesda's other games – the comparison that will most likely be trotted out in the coming months and years is Skyrim, though demanding any company to find a way to bottle the lightning that turned Skyrim into an industry phenomenon is a pretty huge ask.

Player response to Starfield has been a little mixed, in the most literal sense; some people love the game, others found it disappointing. (I'm in the latter camp personally, though Bethesda gets the last laugh; Starfield whetted but did not satiate my appetite for their style of RPG gaming, leading me to reactivate my Elder Scrolls Online subscription.)

Still, Bethesda games always evolve after launch as well. It would be unsurprising if the player buzz around Starfield was tipped far further towards the positive in six months or a year's time.

Either way, there's plenty here for Bethesda to celebrate – and for Microsoft too, for whom a great deal was resting on the performance of Starfield. Rather unfairly, the game had come to symbolise much of both the hope and the scepticism around the company's spending spree on publishers and studios, which had cost somewhere in the ballpark of $15bn even before the acquisition of Activision Blizzard completed a few days ago.

Starfield was to be the long-awaited first fruit of all that investment. On its shoulders rested expectations not just about the future of the Xbox Series platform, starved of major exclusives for almost two years, but of Microsoft's gaming ambitions as a whole. Thankfully for Microsoft, the game has done very well; the alternative was somewhat dark to contemplate.

If Starfield is an unqualified commercial success for Bethesda, though, its success is a little more complex for Microsoft to contemplate. Of course they will be delighted that the game has done well, and will feel some vindication for the billions they spent buying Zenimax (and perhaps a little less anxious about the even more billions now being spent on Activision Blizzard).

Microsoft is, for now at least, a top ten game publisher in the US in 2023. Taking that title before integrating Activision Blizzard is a solid move that will make a lot of people at Xbox feel pretty good about things. Step back for a moment, though, and ask the question: what does Microsoft actually want to accomplish in the video games market? Why is it spending all of this money? And does Starfield's performance, as reported thus far, actually align with those goals?

It feels incredibly weird to even say this, but on some levels, Starfield may have sold too many copies for it to be seen as a genuine success for Microsoft's commercial goals. That's because Microsoft's goal isn't to be a top ten publisher – though I'm sure many people there are happy to be in that position. It's not even for Xbox to be the leading console platform though, again, lots of people there will be feeling happy and relieved that Xbox has such a solid exclusive in its line-up at last.

Microsoft's goal, long term, is all about Game Pass – it's about turning Xbox into a platform-agnostic gaming service with Game Pass subscriptions as its beating heart. All of the other numbers – Xbox console sales, game sales, and so on – matter as well, but at the top echelons of Microsoft the number that has the most currency is Game Pass subscription numbers. Those keep growing, and everyone stays happy.

Did Starfield grow Game Pass' subscriber base significantly? We don't know for certain – the figures released this week account for physical and digital sales, but give no insight into how many people played the game on Game Pass. The sheer strength of those physical and digital sales, however, suggests that the impact on Game Pass may have been relatively small.

Most copies were sold on PC, so perhaps that's where the split lies – Xbox players on Game Pass, PC players purchasing on Steam or elsewhere – but knowing that merely diagnoses where Game Pass' growth problem lies (on PC), it doesn't make the problem go away.

There's an optimistic way of looking at this too: you could argue that it shows that Game Pass doesn't harm day one sales of major AAA titles as much as people feared it would. The sting might be in the long tail, as people who weren't enthusiastic enough to pre-order are more likely to check a game out on Game Pass than to pay full price for it, but it's still an unexpected data point, since it was generally expected that launching day one on Game Pass would crush sales in other channels (which is more or less what happened to Halo Infinite, it should be noted).

That said, "day one on Game Pass" was a bit of a stretch in this case. It cost $35 on top of your Game Pass subscription to get access to the game on its actual release date, since Microsoft did a weird staggered-access thing with the launch (which they hand-waved away by saying people were paying for early access, as that's presumably an easier sell than saying "it's out now, the plebs can have it next week though").

It feels incredibly weird to even say this, but on some levels, Starfield may have sold too many copies for it to be seen as a genuine success for Microsoft's commercial goals

That probably turned a lot of people towards buying the game in preference to using Game Pass. Moreover, the Game Pass version had difficulties with handling many mods on PC (and they don't work at all on Xbox). Mods have always been an important part of the experience of Bethesda games for many players, so veterans and hardcore fans were unlikely to use Game Pass from the outset, even before the $35 upgrade nonsense was wheeled out.

All of this leads me to wonder what Microsoft actually wanted from Starfield, commercially speaking. In theory, it should be using its big exclusives to push people towards Game Pass subscriptions – especially having made day-one releases on Game Pass into a core part of its differentiation from Sony's rival services.

In practice, though, the decisions made around the launch of Starfield were actively pushing players away from using Game Pass to play at launch; making the game a week late and shipping with poor (or on Xbox, zero) mod support is not an especially enticing pitch. If the objective here was to drive Game Pass subscriptions, shouldn't the incentives have been in exactly the opposite direction?

For example, allow people who have subscribed to Game Pass for a certain length of time, or who purchase/renew a six-month Game Pass subscription, to play the game a week early, or receive bonus items in the game; encouraging people to play through Game Pass, rather than driving them away.

On the flipside, doing that would have damaged up-front sales (and, let's be honest, would have pissed off a vocal contingent of gamers). You can't have it both ways; there's always been a possibility that these objectives, building Game Pass and becoming a major publisher on Xbox, would end up at odds with one another at times, and Starfield may have been the first major test of that.

I don't know that it's possible for Starfield to both perform incredibly well as a full-price game, and for it to be a major driver of Game Pass subscriptions. Consequently, the cracks in Microsoft's "first-party releases, day-and-date" policy are really showing here, with the Game Pass version being effectively nerfed in a number of ways that made it much less appealing to a lot of players than just buying the game was.

If the result of that is that Microsoft's biggest game release of the year passes without giving a major boost to Game Pass subscription numbers, it makes this into a somewhat bittersweet success for the Xbox division – and likely a cause for much contemplation about how the company's policy on major exclusive releases should be approached in future.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.