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    Zenimax Media Inc

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    Founded in 1999, Zenimax Media is a video game publisher. The company owns several development studios including Bethesda Softworks, id Software and Arkane Studios

    Microsoft Ends Its 'Hands-Off' Management Of Zenimax; Bethesda, Arkane, id, and Tango Must Report Projects To Matt Booty

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    ZombiePie

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    #1  Edited By ZombiePie  Staff

    In lesser reported news last week, Phil Spencer announced a massive change of direction with Microsoft Game Studios' management of its subsidiary ZeniMax which includes Alpha Dog Games, Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks, id Software, MachineGames, Roundhouse Studios, Tango Gameworks, ZeniMax Online Studios will be reorganized to provide a more traditional management and approval process. All branches of Zenimax, which Microsoft bought in 2020, will need to seek approval and provide progress updates to Matt Booty, who has been promoted to "President of Game Content and Studios." This was announced in an internal memo that The Verge reported on 10/26/2023. The memo from Phil Spencer included:

    Great games are fundamental to everything we do. We believe that an expanded gaming content organization—one that enables Xbox Game Studios and ZeniMax’s development studios to collaborate effectively together—will empower those world-class studios to do their best work in growing our portfolio of games players love. Matt Booty will lead this expanded organization as President, Game Content and Studios.

    ZeniMax will continue to operate as a limited integration entity led by Jamie Leder, President and CEO, reporting to Matt. All ZeniMax development studios and ZeniMax Central Services teams will continue reporting to Jamie to maintain and optimize current content development and production cycles. Also, to deepen our partnership and accelerate mutual learning, a number of ZeniMax leaders will now report to those Microsoft leaders with whom their work most closely aligns.

    While many tend to deplore news of tech leadership asserting itself in the creative process, considering employees of Arkane wanted Spencer and other high ups to take a more direct role in the development of Redfall and possibly cancel the project, it also feels safe to say this has been a long time coming. Some are even suggesting that Starfield essentially coming and going into the zeitgeist played a role in this change of course. Whatever the reason may be, Matt Booty is a veteran in the industry that definitely knows and understands the development process. In fact, you may recall him seated next to Phil Spencer during Giant Bomb's not-E3 2023 couch segment.

    Finally, I should note that this announcement coincided with the news that Pete Hines, the Senior Vice President and Head of Publishing at Bethesda, is retiring after 24 years at the company.

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    ll_Exile_ll

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    #2 ll_Exile_ll  Online

    I don't know how much this will impact Bethesda Game Studios directly, but boy do they need an infusion of new ideas and a challenge to their entrenched design and writing approach. Starfield has basically all the same weaknesses their games have always had, but they have become less palatable with each new release. Things that were easily ignored when their games were still fresh and unique have become far less easy to look past as their games have become less unique and less impressive compared to the rest of the industry. They have fallen so far behind the standards of other RPGs and open world games in so many areas.

    The fact a lot of these criticisms started getting pretty loud with Fallout 4 and they seemed to take no steps to address any of these same core shortcomings with Starfield was the most baffling thing to me. I really would love someone to step in and give BGS a much needed reality check. Bring on better writers, challenge them on their rigid design decisions that haven't evolved in 20 years, because it seems clear that Todd and the other higher ups at BGS have no interest in changing the way they do things.

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    bigsocrates

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    It's hard to know how to feel about a corporate reorganization like this. It's not like masses of developers are losing their jobs and to be frank Bethesda has not been doing great recently. Microsoft relied heavily on Bethesda this year and while Hi-Fi Rush was excellent Starfield was just "another one" despite taking FOREVER to develop and Redfall was a complete disaster.

    I think it's impossible to really understand how bad Redfall is unless you play it, even now when it has been "fixed." I've done a couple hours and it's just a game that not only doesn't work but could never work as conceived or designed. Nothing about it is good. It's not a game that went off the rails it's a game that was never on them, and the fact that it got as far as it did shows a real leadership issue at Bethesda, which should have radically changed or canned it long before it came out.

    Will Matt Booty actually improve things? Who knows. Microsoft has a terrible record when it comes to getting good games out of the studios it buys. There's been some excellent smaller stuff, and Forza Horizon is consistently strong, but other than that their games range from mildly disappointing to awful. Psychonauts 2 was truly great, but it was also developed mostly when DoubleFine was independent and DF hasn't produced anything since, despite saying they were going to take on a smaller project after.

    So far Microsoft proper doesn't really have a better track record than Bethesda recently so is Booty the right guy to turn this ship around? Who knows.

    But Redfall is strong evidence that changes needed to be made. And Starfield is somewhat weaker but still compelling corroboration.

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    AV_Gamer

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    #4  Edited By AV_Gamer

    If this means they will let developers develop the games they want and not tell them what games to develop, which is what I believed happened with Arkane and Redfall, then I'm all for it. Clearly, making a loot, multiplayer shooter was out of their element and it showed. Bethesda on the other hand, followed the same blueprint as always, and while I ended up liking Starfield overall, it wasn't the mind blowing experience that was promised, which is why for most people, the game came and went. The only really good thing you can say about Starfield was that is launched with less bugs than normal for a Bethesda game. It is also good if this mean, they won't for a deadline on them for the games they do develop and give them the right amount of time to make it. Redfall is an example of this as well.

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    doncabesa

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    Starfield was massively successful. This reorganization is more about bettering communication between studios as far as I can tell. Bethesda is still run by Jamie Leder, who reports to Matt now alongside Phil.

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    Nodima

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    What little I know about Booty comes from the various times he came up in anecdotes from Giant Bomb staff over the years, some E3 @ Nite appearances and his late cameos in the PsychOdyssey documentary, but with that cursory impression of the guy he seems like the real deal as far as a liason between developers and publishers. While, much like Phil Spencer, it's plenty appropriate to attach some "yeah but management/executive" buffers to his public image, but from the outside looking in Booty seems like somebody any studio would want input and guidance from.

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    ll_Exile_ll

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    #7  Edited By ll_Exile_ll  Online
    @doncabesa said:

    Starfield was massively successful. This reorganization is more about bettering communication between studios as far as I can tell. Bethesda is still run by Jamie Leder, who reports to Matt now alongside Phil.

    Starfield may have been financially successful, but public perception was pretty mixed. It certainly didn't help that it came out between BG3 and Phantom Liberty, both of which basically make Starfield look pretty weak in comparison in specific ways (BG3 in terms of RPG freedom, Phantom Liberty in terms of first person RPG presentation, both in regards to quality of writing and worldbuilding).

    Microsoft first party doesn't have anywhere near the reputation of quality that Sony and Nintendo first party have. They need more than just a game that sells, they need games that embody prestige and AAA quality in the ways that Sony and Nintendo games do. Bethesda no longer commands that level of respect, and if MS wants Bethesda Game Studios to be a part of building up the reputation of their first party brand, the studio likely needs an outside voice.

    Strong sales or not, I don't think Microsoft's hope for one of their flagship releases was for the conversation to be dominated by discussion about how it's not as good as other games in its release window. They wanted a 90+ scoring game with a strong case for GOTY, not one that will be lucky to crack the top 5.

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    bigsocrates

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    I think people here are underplaying just how long Starfield took and how expensive it was to be as "it's fine I guess" as it turned out being. It sold well and a lot of people played it, but it took many many years and was a hyped tentpole game that didn't perform like one, at least in terms of reception (which is very important for Microsoft with its attempts to restore the Xbox brand and need to attract Game Pass subscribers.)

    This was their most anticipated game for years. If The Outer Worlds II came out and performed like this it would be a good outcome, but Starfield was supposed to be on another level and it wasn't.

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    ALLTheDinos

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    To echo some of the above points, Microsoft didn’t just want a really good game that was financially successful, they wanted a Game of the Year contender. I’m sure some publications will be happy to give it to them, and it will probably also find itself amongst the Game Awards finalists. But man will it ever look out of place next to those other games, whatever they may be.

    (For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed Starfield, but it’ll be lucky to crack my top 10 for this year.)

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    doncabesa

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    @ll_exile_ll: They wanted a game that would get people to sign up for game pass and keep playing it. It's done that. Their metrics/focus are different because of that subscription service focus.

    https://www.trueachievements.com/xbox-chart

    I know the way the media talks about the game makes public perception seem "mixed" but the game has been consistently in the top played charts every week since release. As a single player game that is not the norm.

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    isomeri

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    Considering the amount of studios that Microsoft have acquired, this is one of the rare cases where incresing middle-management actually makes perfect sense.

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    bigsocrates

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    @doncabesa: A lot of people played Starfield but we don't really know if it drove subscriptions. And we don't know how many of those subscriptions will hang around. If the game were more universally praised and liked it would probably be more effective at doing those things, and this was one of Microsoft's biggest arrows in its quiver, equivalent to a Naughty Dog game for Sony or a Mario for Nintendo. This is THE Bethesda game for at least the next half decade.

    Microsoft's metrics are different than Sony and Nintendo's, that's true, but in a way that buzz might in some ways matter more. Especially because PlayStation and Switch are the "default" consoles and if they want to drive people into the Game Pass ecosystem they need to offer games that people feel like they HAVE to play, and from the PlayStation fans I know that's just not the case with Starfield.

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    doncabesa

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    @bigsocrates: At the investor's call the CEO said Starfield drove "the most subscriptions in one day of the service's history". As far as I can tell, from player count, to how many are playing it every week the game is doing great. They even said it's the most successful launch in BGS history despite being a single console and in a sub service.

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    bigsocrates

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    @doncabesa: CEO claims that products are doing well. Film at 11!

    The most subscription in one day sounds good, though I don't know exactly what it means and there's always the question of whether that momentum was maintained or the subscriptions sustained. Microsoft has been hyping this game for literal years so it's not surprising a lot of people wanted to try it. Was the momemntum sustained? We don't know.

    "Most successful launch" is very unclear. If it just means that the most people played it...of course. A ton got it for free and others could it for like $10. Microsoft loves that little trick but it's meaningless. It did sell a lot of non Gamepass copies so MAYBE it's highest revenue, which would be very strong, but I bet they're just talking player count, which is puffery here.

    Microsoft loves announcing that every new game has "the most players in franchise history" and it's almost always an apples to oranges comparison.

    Regardless, Starfield was delayed a LOT and came out to a critical shrug and I doubt Microsoft is super happy with that. Maybe it's actually performing super well, we will see in the months and years to come, but my gut feeling is it started strong and then faded fast. It certainly wasn't a failure but I think in the long term it won't be seen as a home run either.

    But as I said in my comment, the real issue I would have is with Redfall, which wasn't a moderate success or a home run. It was a flaming disaster. And that was also one of the studio's major games from an important team (though not as important as Starfield.) Something has to go very wrong from a management perspective to produce a Redfall.

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    doncabesa

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    @bigsocrates: Is an 85 on OC a critical shrug? We put far too much weight into review scores, and I say that as someone with 230 of them on OC/MC myself. There is no "maybe it's performing well". It's been in the top 5 or 6 games played since it launched on the Xbox platform. It's a BGS game, they always do well. It's like with Diablo IV, people are trying to start a narrative that it was a failure but it wasn't. Starfield is doing fine, Xbox is doing really well. Hell every platform and most publishers are doing great, which is why it's so infuriating that all these layoffs keep happening.

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    bigsocrates

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    @doncabesa: 85 is a shrug for a game that's supposed to be one of your biggest releases. This is Microsoft's biggest release of the year and Bethesda's biggest release of the decade. It has a lower metacritic score than Hi-Fi Rush, a game that Microsoft literally didn't even mention until it was released and that cost a LOT less to make. Now obviously Starfield is driving a lot more business than Hi-Fi Rush, but we're talking about how it is doing relative to cost and expectations, not on some absolute scale that ignores that context. As I said, if this were Outer Worlds II performing at this level it would be a massive success. But Starfield is THE big game of the year, and a crown jewel game from the core studio of a company Microsoft bought for $7.5 billion. It has to do more than "very well" to meet expectations.

    Not to bring Square Enix's weirdness into it, but that company frequently has games that sell millions of copies that it calls disappointments because they didn't meet expectations. Has Starfield met internal Microsoft expectations? I don't know but I'm not nearly as confident as you are, and even if it has it had a troubled development. Expectations are what matters here because they can drive a reorganization even if the game is profitable on its own terms, which it probably is.

    I think that people claiming that Starfield was a bomb are being silly. Clearly it was not*. But I think it's worth questioning whether it met expectations for a game that took that long to make and was hyped for literal years as Microsoft's most anticipated release.

    Would Sony have been happy with an 85 for Spider-Man 2? Would Nintendo for Mario Wonder? Metacritic isn't everything, but I think here it's also reflected in zeitgeist. Starfield has kind of a "meh" reputation in the media (professional and social) among gamers, and that probably isn't what Microsoft was looking for. Now if it has in fact been a runaway success in terms of driving business then sure, that doesn't matter, Blumhouse is very happy with Five Nights at Freddy's even though that was a critical disaster. But I think that's not quite as clear as Microsoft would have us believe.

    *Redfall was!

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    doncabesa

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    @bigsocrates: most big games score between 82 and 88. The focus on MC/OC by the industry is toxic. Tying it to performance bonuses is insane to me. SM: MM was a better game than the first but it scored 3 points lower and was an 84. It's all subjective from a small group of people using wildly different scoring systems that are mashed into a 100 point aggregate.

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    bigsocrates

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    @doncabesa: Okay, but almost all the coverage I've seen of Starfield whether by professional critics or on social media has been "This game is another Bethesda game, it doesn't evolve the formula, it's flawed in a number of ways though not as bad from a tech perspective, it's good but I was hoping for more."

    Compare that to the reception of Mario Wonder which tends to be "is this the greatest 2D Mario game ever made?"

    Do you think this has been received as a masterpiece by gamers? A lot of people played it and most seem to like it, but do you think it's been a smash "this is amazing" game?

    And I don't think Starfield can be compared to most "big" games like it's any other title. This is from Bethesda's crown jewel developer. It's the Skyrim studio (which also puts out very few games.) It's the equivalent of a Zelda or a Mario or a Naughty Dog or Santa Monica game. It's not like when Ubisoft puts out Tom Clancy's Next Clancefest, Destination Clancy and it gets an 82 and they're like "okay that's fine."

    It underperformed Halo Infinite in terms of Metacritic and that game caused people to ask if Halo is even still a big franchise.

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    doncabesa

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    @bigsocrates: we're two months in and it's still 8th most played on the platform, not the norm for a single player title. it's doing great

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    eccentrix

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    @bigsocrates: I'm a big fan of Redfall. I enjoyed it a lot, but my computer was able to run it with minimal technical issues (I had some textures struggling to stream in which didn't inhibit the gameplay at all).

    However, the things I liked about it were the things everyone complained about (besides the bugs). I liked how easy it was. I liked the gunplay. I liked how empty the world was; it made it feel like a real post-apocalyptic situation, where the world had already ended and you're just sifting through the scraps of what's left behind. There aren't many other games that feel like that, apparently because nobody else wants them to. I haven't tried it since the updates, but it seems like they're trying to remove the things that made it stand out for me. Because it's always-online, I can't just buy a disc and play it online now, the version I liked doesn't exist anymore.

    There's no real point I wanted to make, I just wanted to issue a notice that not everyone hated it and, in this digital world, every lost game is a loss. It also reminds me of that adage I like to spout: every game is someone's favorite game.

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    bigsocrates

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    @eccentrix: I plan to write more about Redfall at some point so we can debate it more then, but while I completely recognize your right to enjoy and even like Redfall, there are a lot of very serious problems with the game that are clearly not design decisions. For example while it's fine that the game is easy, one of the main reasons it's so easy is that the AI is clearly broken. Enemies get stuck on basic geometry, can't detect you from a few feet away etc... Also the tone of the writing is wildly inconsistent and terrible in a way that makes it seem like the writers were trying to sabotage the game at times.

    The fact that it's online only but has no matchmaking is another example of how development was horribly mismanaged. Just an insane choice in 2023.

    You can like Redfall but it's a bad product with a lot of serious objective problems that indicate poor project management.

    Also it's not your favorite game. I refuse to believe it's your favorite game.

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