Rumors are swirling that Microsoft has been considering bringing some Xbox exclusives to rival PlayStation and Nintendo Switch platforms. Sea of Thieves and Hi-Fi Rush have both reportedly been under cross-platform consideration, and when you combine the rumors with recent comments from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Xbox CFO Tim Stuart, it’s clear Microsoft is weighing its Xbox strategy now that the Activision Blizzard deal is complete.
At a Wells Fargo summit in late November, Stuart detailed what he described as “a bit of a change of strategy” for Microsoft Gaming, the division that houses Xbox and Microsoft’s overall gaming efforts. “Not announcing anything broadly here, but our mission is to bring our first-party experiences [and] our subscription services to every screen that can play games,” said Stuart. “That means smart TVs, that means mobile devices, that means what we would have thought of as competitors in the past like PlayStation and Nintendo.”
Xbox chief Phil Spencer was quick to respond to fans questioning the future of Xbox, making it clear to Windows Central days later that Microsoft has “no plans to bring Xbox Game Pass to PlayStation or Nintendo.” That’s largely out of Microsoft’s control anyway, as Sony and Nintendo dictate what launches on their platforms, just like Microsoft does with Xbox.
Spencer didn’t refute Stuart’s comments about bringing “our first-party experiences” to rivals, though. The comments have fueled speculation ever since that Microsoft might be transitioning to a third-party publisher. That speculation has only increased recently after rumors emerged that Hi-Fi Rush might be coming to Nintendo Switch. YouTuber Nate the Hate vaguely referred to the Xbox exclusive coming to Switch on a podcast earlier this month, and others filled in the blanks.
Then, days later, Jeff Grubb revealed on Giant Bomb that he had heard Microsoft has been thinking about bringing Sea of Thieves to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation. Stephen Totilo, a former Axios and Kotaku reporter who now runs the excellent Game File newsletter, chimed in hours later to confirm he had heard Microsoft had looked into launching Sea of Thieves on PlayStation.
Microsoft has previously released two Ori games on the Nintendo Switch, which were developed by Moon Studios and published by Xbox Game Studios. Sea of Thieves was developed as a key Xbox exclusive by a Microsoft game studio, so if it eventually appears on PlayStation, that would mark a new strategy for Xbox.
Microsoft hasn’t commented on the rumors, but CEO Satya Nadella spoke recently in broad terms about the company’s gaming ambitions. “With Activision I think we have a chance of being a good publisher quite frankly on Sony, Nintendo, PCs, and Xbox,” opined Nadella in an interview with Bloomberg this week. “We’re excited about that [Activision Blizzard] acquisition closing, I’m glad we got it through.”
Nadella made similar comments in response to a question about the future of Xbox at Microsoft’s annual shareholder meeting in December. “We think that now we have the ability to really do what we always set out to do, which is build great games and deliver them to folks across all platforms which is Xbox and consoles, the PC, and now including mobile gaming and cloud gaming,” said Nadella.
When you hear Nadella’s comments alone, they could easily be dismissed as the obvious reality that Microsoft is a publisher of games on PlayStation, now owning the Call of Duty franchise. But when you combine them with the rumors of Xbox exclusives like Sea of Thieves and Hi-Fi Rush coming to rival platforms, Stuart’s previous comments, and big leadership changes at Xbox, it’s clear Microsoft has been thinking about some new strategic moves for its gaming division now that its giant $68.7 billion acquisition is complete.
Sea of Thieves is now six years old, so a release on PlayStation or Nintendo Switch would open up the live-service pirate game to millions of new players. It wouldn’t necessarily undermine Microsoft’s Xbox exclusives pitch, much like how Sony releasing PlayStation exclusives to PC years later serves as a new revenue stream that doesn’t undermine its console efforts. Microsoft’s biggest game, Minecraft, is also available across multiple platforms, and opening up a live-service game like Sea of Thieves to other platforms seems like a natural step.
Hi-Fi Rush is different, though. The rhythm-based action game is already available on PC, but it’s not even a year old, so a move to Switch or PS5 would certainly take some explaining from Microsoft to reassure Xbox fans that the platform and hardware are still worth investing in.
That reassurance is something that Spencer has admitted Microsoft hasn’t been good at in the past. “I don’t really love this idea that for every one of our games, there becomes this little rumor on it ‘is it going to end up on the Switch or not,’” said Spencer in an IGN interview in September 2020. “I feel we should set a better expectation with our fans than that.”
Microsoft hasn’t commented on the Sea of Thieves or Hi-Fi Rush rumors directly, and it’s not likely to address this during the company’s Xbox Developer Direct stream later today. But the reality is that Microsoft’s Xbox business hasn’t been about selling the most consoles for at least five years now.
“I think it’s easy from the outside to judge the health of our business around how many consoles any company sells,” said Spencer in a 2019 interview with The Verge. “In the end, how many subscribers you have to something like Game Pass, how many games people are buying, those are much better metrics on the health of the business.”
The Xbox chief made it even clearer last year. “We’re not in the business of out console-ing Sony or out console-ing Nintendo,” said Spencer in an interview with Kinda Funny Games.
That’s understandable because Microsoft doesn’t earn money from Xbox hardware sales alone, as Xbox executive Lori Wright admitted during the Epic v. Apple trial in 2021. “The console gaming business is traditionally a hardware subsidy model,” explained a Microsoft spokesperson in response to Wright’s comments in 2021. “Game companies sell consoles at a loss to attract new customers. Profits are generated in game sales and online service subscriptions.”
Xbox Series S / X sales are still lagging behind the PS5, and Spencer acknowledged last year that losing the prior Xbox One generation was “the worst generation to lose” because everyone was building their digital library of games during the previous generation. Some might argue that opening up some older Xbox exclusives on a case-by-case basis to PlayStation and Nintendo Switch only helps Microsoft improve Xbox Game Pass with more revenue it can invest in its studios to build more games.
Such a move could even work as stealth marketing for Xbox Game Pass since games like Sea of Thieves and Hi-Fi Rush are both part of the monthly subscription price and are available immediately on Xbox consoles. Either way, when you look at Microsoft’s gaming business, it’s clear that for it to grow substantially, it won’t be through selling Xbox consoles alone. Microsoft has made it clear in the past that it wants to target billions of players through the cloud, expanding PC Game Pass, and a new Xbox mobile store is also in the works.
This opportunity means we’re going to see Microsoft, and even Sony, explore new ways for their games to be played. Sony has followed Microsoft into the game subscription era, launched multiple PlayStation exclusives on PC, and opened up PS5 games to cloud streaming. It even has big ambitions for cross-platform live-service games, although some of that is being pushed back due to “mixed levels of success.” The point is both PlayStation and Xbox are experimenting with how they sell their games and where players experience them.
So would it be surprising to see some Xbox exclusives arrive on PlayStation or Nintendo Switch? Absolutely not. If it actually happens, the devil will be in the details.