Phil Spencer apologizes as Bethesda delays raise questions about Xbox pipeline

Game delays happen all the time, and they’re always disappointing. But this week’s announcement of delays to two Bethesda titles and Xbox console exclusives — Starfield, from Bethesda Game Studios, and Redfall, from Arkane — has hit particularly hard.

The two games were given 2022 dates during last year’s summer Xbox showcase, and represent the first real fruits of Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda. They will be the first Bethesda games since the buyout not to be released on PlayStation, and to be added on day one to the Xbox Game Pass library. Starfield, in particular, was hotly anticipated, being the first major RPG from the makers of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim and Fallout 4 in seven years.

Both have now been pushed to the first half of 2023. Crucially, this leaves Xbox without any significant releases from its internal studios scheduled for 2022. Fans are, naturally, not happy; last year, Microsoft promised it would bring “at least one” first-party game every quarter to Game Pass.

Head of Xbox Phil Spencer took to Twitter to offer support for the delay as well as a helping of contrition. “These decisions are hard on teams making the games & our fans. While I fully support giving teams time to release these great games when they are ready, we hear the feedback,” he wrote. “Delivering quality & consistency is expected, we will continue to work to better meet those expectations.”

But what are those expectations, and why is the conversation around them so fraught? A delay for a title as complex and ambitious as Starfield is hardly unprecedented, and such announcements are usually met with a fair proportion of resignation and “a delayed game can eventually be good, but a bad game is bad forever” Miyamoto quotes. That was certainly the case with the recent and similar delay to what had been Nintendo’s flagship 2022 title, a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It has been less so with Starfield and Redfall.

The issue here is that Xbox’s empty 2022 schedule is indicative of the long road Microsoft faces in turning Spencer’s years-long studio acquisition spree — which culminated this year in an astonishing $68.7 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard — into actual software. In the space of four years, Microsoft’s gaming arm has expanded into a constellation of studios of unprecedented size and scope, and there are legitimate questions to be asked about the Xbox organization’s ability to manage this massive development pipeline.

The games — whether from studios acquired since 2018, or from more established parts of the Xbox empire — are simply not coming out. Very little has been seen or said about Playground Games’ Fable and Ninja Theory’s Hellblade 2, both of which were announced years ago. Undead Labs’ State of Decay 3, The Coalition’s Perfect Dark, and Rare’s Everwild are all reportedly floundering in development hell or extensive reboots. Acquisitions inXile, Tango Gameworks, and Double Fine have yet to move past the “still contractually required to release games on PlayStation” phase.

Rare’s Everwild, first announced in 2019.
Image: Rare/Microsoft

Even Turn 10 Studios, which could previously be relied on to turn out a new Forza Motorsport every two years like clockwork, has now not released a game since 2017. (Its reboot of the series is the one possibility for a late-2022 release for Xbox, but it’s by no means a given.)

While none of these incidences is surprising or even necessarily worrying in isolation, together they do not paint a healthy picture of project management within Xbox Game Studios. Anxiety over this might explain why Xbox took the — with hindsight, unwise — decision to put a firm November 2022 date on Starfield last year, despite widespread pandemic-related disruption to development schedules, the ambition of the project, and Bethesda Game Studios’ slightly shaky record on polishing and bug-fixing its games.

Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier said that he had heard this release date had made some Starfield developers “extremely worried” that it might turn into the “next Cyberpunk”, referring to the botched, unfinished release of the CD Projekt game.

That eventuality has hopefully been avoided, and pressure on Bethesda staff eased, by the delay — in which case it can only be a good thing. And it is true that Microsoft has amassed so much talent, and so many enviable properties, during its acquisition spree that it will inevitably be able to present Xbox owners and Game Pass subscribers with a bounty of games in the long run.

But the delays to Starfield and Redfall cast a harsh light on Xbox’s ability to manage its sprawling development empire, whether or not they are actually symptomatic of it. No wonder Spencer feels that, when it comes to delivering “quality and consistency”, his teams still have something to prove.

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