With the official closure of the acquisition of Activision Blizzard finally in the rearview, it is time to look to Microsoft’s next likely target in the industry. As it happens, a nice and tidy opportunity just opened up when, following the disappointing launch of the new IP The Lamplighters League, Harebrained Schemes announced that it would separate from Paradox Interactive to seek new investments and partnerships. There are several reasons why the studio, founded in 2011 by Jordan Weisman (who’s now busy with Adventure Forge) and Mitch Gitelman, might be an ideal target for Microsoft’s next acquisition.
First of all, let’s go through why the Xbox company needs yet another studio. As mentioned above, they just acquired Activision Blizzard. However, that does not mean they’re done with acquisitions, not by a long shot. Microsoft began the massive acquisition spree that led them to acquire Ninja Theory, Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, Playground Games, inXile Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, Double Fine Productions, plus all of ZeniMax and ABK in the span of five years because it finally understood that content is king, especially for its Game Pass subscription service.
Microsoft famously set for its studios the goal to release one big game per quarter to keep subscribers engaged. The thing is, games are taking longer and longer to make due to constantly rising quality standards. As such, reaching that lofty objective year after year is far from a certainty, even with the latest acquisitions. Moreover, the less it has to rely on costly deals with third parties to fill up the Game Pass library, the better for Microsoft.
It is no coincidence that CEO Satya Nadella came out and said outright after the ABK deal’s closure that Microsoft would double down on its gaming business both as a publisher and as a developer. Further investments are undoubtedly on the way, then. Of course, the next acquisition is unlikely to be major, even if just to avoid triggering yet another regulatory process after the exhausting ABK saga.
An acquisition like Harebrained Schemes wouldn’t do that, as the developer isn’t nearly as large to warrant such investigations. Indeed, Microsoft might be able to scoop up Harebrained Schemes for a relative pittance, at least compared to its immense pockets; after all, Paradox acquired the studio for just $7.5 million in 2018.
The significant upside is that HBS is already familiar with two IPs owned by Microsoft: Shadowrun and BattleTech. Prior to The Lamplighters League, the studio successfully launched games based on those licenses, demonstrating prowess in the tactical RPG/turn-based strategy genres. It did so on little more than a shoestring budget, requiring Kickstarter campaigns to bolster what few funds they had available. Not only are Shadowrun and BattleTech overdue a proper triple-A treatment, but they’re also two tabletop IPs extremely well-suited to follow in the trail blazed by Larian’s Baldur’s Gate 3.
The message sent by BG3’s massive success is clear: there is indeed a market for triple-A cRPGs/tactical RPGs. Microsoft’s current roster of studios does include two teams with proven cRPG expertise, Obsidian and inXile, which made games like Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland, and Torment: Tides of Numenera. However, they’re both very busy with first-person action RPGs like Avowed, The Outer Worlds 2, and Clockwork Revolution. While that’s not to say they won’t go back to making cRPGs at some point (Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer recently said he’d do Pillars of Eternity 3 with a BG3-like budget), it’s not in the cards any time soon, especially if these games are successful.
So, Harebrained Schemes could be the right studio to try and create a triple-A Shadowrun cRPG, for example. Of course, it would need to scale up its size much like Larian did to create Baldur’s Gate 3, but Microsoft certainly has the financial capability to enable such a process.
On the plus side, the proximity to the studio’s offices (HBS is headquartered in Seattle, while Microsoft is in Redmond, just 15 miles east of the city that hosts the Space Needle) would allow Xbox executives to keep a close tab on its growth. Even in this day and age where remote working isn’t going anywhere, being able to check progress in person is still valuable.
For its part, HBS would get financial stability and the chance to create triple-A versions of the games they’ve always wanted to make. Of course, other factors that only the parties are aware of could influence whether or not such a deal is indeed viable. From the outside, though, it makes a lot of sense for both Microsoft and Harebrained Schemes. We’ll see in the coming months and years if they agree.