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The Answer Doesn’t Have To Be Less

Microsoft’s explanations for the cuts at Bethesda don’t add up

A screenshot from the video game Dishonored: some tall metal robots in a ruined city

Following Microsoft’s abrupt closure of four Bethesda studios earlier this week, increasingly dumb details keep coming out about the logic–if you could call it that–behind the decision. Every explanation for closing beloved studios making beloved games is worse than the last.

As The Verge reported yesterday, head of Xbox Game Studios Matt Booty said in a town hall, “We need smaller games that give us prestige and awards,” a puzzling thing to say when Booty had just shut down Tango Gameworks, maker of the successful and award-winning Hi-Fi Rush. Tango Gameworks was reportedly in the process of pitching a sequel, which one would imagine would have helped Microsoft achieve that goal–but instead, Booty’s logic was to shut the whole studio down.

Yesterday, Bloomberg also reported more of the reasoning behind the closures:

Speaking about the closures more broadly, Booty said that the company’s studios had been spread too thin — like “peanut butter on bread” — and that leaders across the division had felt understaffed. They decided to close these studios to free up resources elsewhere, he said. 

According to Bloomberg, head of ZeniMax studios Jill Braff echoed this sentiment in the meeting, saying, “It’s hard to support nine studios all across the world with a lean central team with an ever-growing plate of things to do… I think we were about to topple over.”

Before we dig into that, some more bad news: apparently the cuts aren’t done, with Bloomberg reporting that “[t]his week, Xbox began offering voluntary severance agreements to producers, quality assurance testers and other staff at ZeniMax,” and that staff across Xbox have been told there are more cuts to come. Also, Arkane Austin was reportedly “pitching a new single-player ‘immersive sim’ game, such as a new entry in the Dishonored series,” another nice thing we’ll now never get.

So if I’m following, the studios this “lean central team” was overseeing wanted to make those smaller, prestigious games Microsoft wants (I would put games like Dishonored and Prey in that “smaller” category when held against Bethesda games like Starfield or Fallout). And they wanted to make them at the studios Microsoft wanted enough to purchase just a few years ago. And this was a problem whose only solution was to shut those studios down rather than, I don’t know, give them more people so everyone could be spread less thin.

And look, I know it’s not that simple, and that money doesn’t grow on trees, despite the fact that Microsoft is making increasingly more money in part thanks to its purchase of Activision Blizzard, which it also promptly made cuts to. And while I’m loath to suggest any company hire more executives and managers to pay bloated salaries to, if I were in charge of things and my leadership team told me they felt spread too thin, I might… change up my structure? I might hire more leadership team? I know first-hand what it’s like to manage a team without enough support, to feel like you’re failing them because you have too much on your plate. Never once in that experience did it occur to me that my problems would be solved by having less people. 

Hyperbole and a Half

Companies deciding they’re too big has been a common refrain following the height of the covid pandemic, especially in the tech and games sectors. Booty and co. don’t cite that logic here, though the timing of Microsoft’s 2020 ZeniMax purchase echoes the pandemic-era growth and contraction of other companies. The answer a handful of years ago was more, and now the answer is less: not just less jobs for people, but less games that are less interesting, at a time when more people seem to want those interesting small games more than ever. It all feels like an extension of the miserly cruelty that’s swallowing the world whole these days, when there is more and more everything at the top–money, power–and less and less everything–jobs, art, affordable food and housing–for everyone else. The only solution companies like Microsoft–and Embracer, and Take-Two, and PlayStation, and Riot, and more– can imagine for scarcity is more scarcity, and the task for all of us to find ways to turn that around feels monumental, though not impossible. When the people holding the purse strings feel like there isn’t enough to go around, based on whatever their unfathomable definition of “enough” is, the stuff that matters–good art and the people that make it–is always the first to go.

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