Forza Horizon 3 is easily Microsoft's most highly acclaimed Xbox One console exclusive this generation, built by independent UK studio Playground Games. As stewards of the arcade Forza Horizon franchise, Playground Games has grown exponentially, employing hundreds of incredibly skilled workers, and being named a "best place to work" in the UK by GamesIndustry.biz.
Playground recently opened a second studio in the UK to sit alongside the Forza Horizon team, announcing that the new group would be working on an open-world action RPG, which is now widely expected to be an entry in Microsoft's dormant Fable franchise.
Recently, internet sleuths discovered a strange directorial change at Playground Games that could hint at a big acquisition by Microsoft. If true, that could signify the second big recent salvo in a renewed focus on first-party game development at Xbox, which you could say has been lacking as of late.
A rodneybouch on Resetera recently uncovered documents that reveal a new directorial change at Playground Games. Keith Ranger Dolliver is a Microsoft vice president who focuses on corporate development and has been involved in previous Xbox acquisitions including Rare, Lionhead, and LinkedIn.
There's a chance that this appointment or deal could be equity related, a stake in exchange for a place on the directorial board to prevent a potentially damaging acquisition from a rival company, but I bet Microsoft has acquired Playground. If Amazon or Tencent were to encroach on Playground first, it would have put a huge dent in Microsoft's first-party efforts, at a time when Microsoft is struggling in this area. Considering how strong Forza Horizon has become, it doesn't feel like Microsoft could afford to let Playground slip away.
Playground would be an awesome acquisition
Playground Games is leading the pack when it comes to exclusive development on Microsoft's platforms. Save for Minecraft, Forza has probably supplanted Halo itself this generation, as the annualized franchise continues to appear on sales charts month after month, while 343i keeps Halo under wraps for its next big entry, spending resources in its attempts to fix the Halo Master Chief Collection.
Forza Horizon 3 has a score of 91/100 on Metacritic, making it Xbox's highest-rated platform exclusive so far, and it continues to engage players with its in-game purchases built on near-monopolistic licensing support for real-world car brands.
Through Horizon 3, Playground has proven itself to be incredibly skilled in the construction of open world games, which is an area where Microsoft is historically weak. Many of the first-party games Microsoft has put out in recent years have taken place in more linear formats, with State of Decay 2 and Sea of Thieves being notable exceptions. However, while awesome in their own rights, both of those game worlds lack the depth and fidelity of those found in Forza Horizon 3, which faithfully portrays the Australian outback in painstaking detail.
If Microsoft really is considering a new entry in the sleeping Fable universe, in a world where all action RPGs seemingly have to be open world, Playground Games is an obvious choice, and it looks like they have been hiring the right talent to achieve it.
Late last year, Playground expanded to a second studio, according to GamesIndustry.biz), bringing its overall size to around 400 staff. Playground was absorbing talent from teams that worked on Metal Gear Solid, Hellblade, and Grand Theft Auto V, including Sean Eyestone, who worked on EA's Battlefront franchise at DICE.
Playground is bristling with leading talent, and through Horizon 3, it has clearly proven its capabilities. The possibilities for Fable, or frankly, whatever game the studio might be working on, are certainly exciting.
The beginning of a new gaming era at Microsoft?
If true (and it's a big if, until we get official word), this acquisition could signify the beginning of a new era for gaming at Xbox. Microsoft has been pivoting and restructuring for a future in the cloud, Xbox will fit into that intelligent edge well. If cloud streaming to any device is truly the future for Xbox, exclusive games will become extremely important, since otherwise, why not just subscribe to a competing platform when the hardware no longer matters as much?
Microsoft is also rumored to be building a new studio in Santa Monica, possibly led by Darrell Gallagher of Crystal Dynamics fame, which would only further the commitment to gaming quality on the Xbox platform.
Of course, all of this potential will take time to bear fruit, but E3 2018 could mark the start of a renewed focus on quality, first-party games at Microsoft. Let's hope so.