Microsoft's eye-watering $7.5bn acquisition of ZeniMax Media presents industry-altering opportunities, and they go far beyond simply hogging The Elder Scrolls VI or stuffing Game Pass with more bangers than Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American. Microsoft could create an entire generation of gamers by giving away The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for free. And then profit from them, obviously.
Gaming is changing, and Microsoft is clearly determined to be both instigator and beneficiary. With Xbox and Windows, it's had the biggest potential gaming ecosystem in the world for some time, but one which has struggled to tempt users away from Steam on PC and lost the last console generation to PlayStation 4 by most measures. Recent conciliatory talk about 'going where the gamers are' (read: putting Microsoft games on Steam) suggests a recognition of this.
And yet, Microsoft's big green garden is starting to look like a much nicer place to stay. Thanks to acquisitions, its first-party IP is now comparable to Sony's, and Game Pass offers a dizzying array of great games for a low cost of entry. If cloud gaming ever takes off, Game Pass also gets you xCloud for free.
Let’s remember all this for later, and introduce the big hypothetical: what if there were a massive potential audience of uncommitted tech users ambling between the gardens? What if Microsoft could persuade them to pop in and smell the roses?
Microsoft should offer Skyrim as a free download, and then it should go further. It should bundle Skyrim in with every copy of Windows and ping existing users to claim it – or maybe even push it to them in an update. It should exploit the ubiquity of its operating system to get its new biggest game on every Windows 10 device. Skyrim should become the Solitaire of the future. Especially since Solitaire is crap now.
Microsoft has already done something very similar with Minecraft: Windows Edition. And it worked brilliantly. So why not do it again with something a bit different?
Don’t worry about hardware. Skyrim is ten years old. Dusting off a tablet of ancient system requirements, we find that the basic edition requires just 4GB of RAM, a paltry 6GB of hard drive space, and a “GTX 260”, whatever that is. Even the Special Edition only needs a GTX 470 at minimum. Here’s a Reddit thread of people playing Skyrim on integrated graphics – the top responder is using Intel’s HD4000 integrated laptop card, which is almost nine years old – imagine what an actual gaming laptop could do. They recommend a bunch of tweaks, but there’s nothing stopping Microsoft imitating them by offering new low-spec graphics settings in a ‘Skyrim: Windows Edition’.
Do this, and almost any Windows 10 user would be just a couple of clicks away from one of the most accessible yet enthralling videogames ever made. What if they’ve always wondered about gaming, but never knew where to start? What if they never wondered, but find themselves stuck at home (maybe during the next lockdown) and in need of an adventure? Hell, what if, upon seeing that silver dragon logo in their Start menu, they just get curious?
Skyrim is videogaming’s gateway drug. Its combat is simple, its systems intuitive, and its difficulty adjustable to any level of skill. Most importantly, the stuff at which it truly excels is appealing to everyone. I’m as sniffy as anyone about Skyrim’s bugs, its recycled assets, and its shallow gameplay, but credit where it’s due: for an accessible, escapist adventure in a vast and beautiful open world, it’s still unequalled in gaming.
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The only catch in the accessibility argument is Skyrim’s mature content, but there are solutions. As we’re bundling Skyrim: Windows Edition with the OS, Microsoft could enable admins to lock access for other accounts, or perhaps rework the game to add content controls, remove gore, or cut some of its more adult quests. How hard can it be to knock seven years off an ESRB rating?
The obvious objection is loss of sales, but how much more money can Microsoft realistically expect Skyrim to generate? After ten years, it’s been remastered and released on everything with a microprocessor, even the Amazon Echo. Its ubiquity is a meme.
Some people are still buying it, sure. Its Special Edition is #71 on Steam’s top sellers at time of writing, which, without knowing more about exactly how many sales that ranking represents, sounds sort-of impressive for such an old game. I’m not saying that literally everyone who is ever going to exchange money for Skyrim has now done so, but I’m saying that the opportunity in giving it away will eventually exceed the value of continuing to distribute it traditionally. It’s simply a question of timing.
I would do it in the run-up to The Elder Scrolls VI. I’d have the announcement that ‘Skyrim is now free’ kickstart TES6’s marketing campaign – core gamers, influencers, and the games media would go wild for this news – and I’d accompany it with a massive game reveal. Use it to drive further hype among core audiences for what’s already sure to be a seismic launch. Use it to get newcomers curious about the world of The Elder Scrolls and about how much bigger and better the sequel will be, maximising its audience.
But the opportunity goes way beyond The Elder Scrolls VI. Let’s say a few curious Windows users do click on that new icon in their Start menu. They do smell the roses. What should Microsoft do next?
It needs to show them around the garden and convince them to stay. Microsoft can add a few tweaks to Skyrim: Windows Edition to do this. Naturally, users would need to create an Xbox account to use online features such as achievements and photo sharing, but give them even more reasons to spend time in the Xbox ecosystem – run an ARG, let us unlock an Xbox Series X fridge to put in our Skyrim homes, add universal (rather than limited) support for user-generated content to the Windows Store in its planned overhauls. Maybe even make new official content? Imagine the hype for the first official Skyrim DLC since 2012.
And while they’re customising their profiles and browsing Skyrim mods, Microsoft’s new audience is seeing ads for Game Pass and the incredible value it offers, or for the amazing first-party library Microsoft is building.
This is where all that cross-platform magnanimity returns to the discussion. Sincere though I believe Microsoft is in evangelising the benefits of this philosophy, it was born out of necessity, and once you’ve got the people in your garden it only makes sense to lock the doors. Just ask Sony, or Apple. Depending on the scale of the audience it draws, Microsoft may calculate that the huge reputational hit it would (justifiably) suffer for walling off its garden once again is worth keeping all those customers and being the only supplier of the games they want.
But it doesn’t need to be so covetous. Even if some of them do eventually trickle out of Microsoft’s pipeline to start a Steam account, the funnel of potential Windows 10 users is so vast that it can’t help but benefit.
Because the funnel is vast. Gargantuan. I saved this stat for the end: as of September 2019, Windows 10 was installed on 900 million devices. It’ll be well over a billion by now. Yes, many of them will be tablets and business laptops, but again: this game is already playable on nine-year-old integrated graphics.
A billion devices, all playing Skyrim. Just imagine if Microsoft could convert even a fraction of its non-gaming Windows 10 install base into gamers and keep them within its ecosystem. Just imagine if it could channel them first toward new Skyrim DLC, then The Elder Scrolls VI, then Game Pass, and then… well, who knows where the journey ends? But surely handing out one of the biggest games of the last decade to a potential audience of a billion is a way to start a lot of them.
‘What if?’ is PCGamesN’s new regular feature series. Check back every Saturday for more hypotheticals, from thoughtful speculation about actually-plausible industry developments, to dream crossovers, to nonsense like Half-Life 3 happening.