The video game industry went on a shopping spree in 2021. Throughout the year, a handful of larger companies consistently bought up a boatload of smaller ones, at a rate where it seemed a new acquisition was announced every few weeks.
Of course, all of these went down in the shadow of the big one: In March, regulatory bodies approved Microsoft’s $7.5 billion dollar purchase of Zenimax (Bethesda’s parent company), formalizing a consolidation of game development superpowers under the ceaselessly swelling org chart of Xbox studios. But 2021 was additionally peppered with a bunch of not-quite-ten-figure acquisitions, some of which were headline-making. Here are the most significant.
Well, that didn’t take long. In May, reports circulated that Netflix was looking to bring on an executive specifically tasked with furthering the streaming giant’s foray into video games, which began with experiments like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Two months later, Netflix hired Mike Verdu (formerly of EA and Oculus). And then, in September, it purchased Night School Studio, an independent outfit best known for Oxenfree. The duo makes sense: Night School makes atmospheric, choice-driven games, and Netflix has toyed with choose-your-own-adventure stuff in the past, packaged as a prestige television special. Over the past few years, Netflix produced successful adaptations of Dota, Castlevania, and League of Legends. And then there’s the Oxenfree TV show (initially conceptualized as a film), revealed in January. A network has not yet been announced for the series, but c’mon.
The developer says production on Oxenfree II, which would be its first game released under this new arrangement, is not impacted by the acquisition, and is still on track for release some time next year. That wouldn’t be Netflix’s first game, though. In November, Netflix added five video games to its streaming offerings, including two previously released (and tepidly received) adaptations of Stranger Things.
In March, Epic Games purchased Mediatonic, the studio behind 2020’s incandescently popular platformer royale, Fall Guys. At the time, Mediatonic planned to release Fall Guys on Xbox and Switch. That’s since been pushed to 2022, with the game still only available on PlayStation and PC. What’s more, to date, Fall Guys still hasn’t landed in its new overlord’s metaverse, Fortnite, though data miners claim such a crossover is imminent.
The acquisition of Mediatonic is just the latest example of Epic’s intent to dominate the party game metaverse. In 2019, it purchased Psyonix, the developer of Rocket League, the car-soccer sports game about listening to extremely catchy EDM earworms. A year and one bazillion crossover events later, Epic pulled Rocket League from availability on Steam. For the time being, Fall Guys is still available on Valve’s storefront.
Mediatonic wasn’t Epic’s only major acquisition in 2021. Last month, Epic scooped up Harmonix, the creators of Rock Band, to design “musical journeys and gameplay” for Fortnite. Over the course of the pandemic, various popular musicians hosted digital-only concerts in Fortnite for big stars like Ariana Grande; it’s not immediately clear whether Harmonix would work on experiences like those or design stuff more like the rhythm games for which the studio made its name. In any case, Harmonix says it’ll keep its back catalogue on Steam, despite Epic operating its own competing PC storefront.
It’s not so often that Nintendo buys game development studios outright, but the company kicked off the year by officially acquiring Next Level Games, the Vancouver-based makers of Luigi’s Mansion 3. The studio previously developed the 3DS games Metroid Prime: Federation Force and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, both of which received praise from Kotaku’s reviewers.
Honestly, if you’d asked me off the cuff at any point earlier this year, I’d have guessed that Housemarque was a first-party Sony studio. Since 2012, just one the Finnish studio’s game (Nex Machina) came out on a non-PlayStation platform (PC). But it wasn’t until June, following the acclaimed April release of Returnal on PlayStation 5, that Sony formally brought Housemarque on as a first-party studio.
Everyone saw this one coming, since the news was accidentally revealed in a tweet three months prior, but in September, Sony bought Bluepoint Games. Best known for producing luxurious remakes of popular games like Demon’s Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, Bluepoint is currently working on original games, studio head Marco Thrush told IGN.
In July, Sony acquired Nixxes, a studio known for working on PC ports of popular games. (Over the past few years, Sony has started publishing its biggest games on PC.) That was followed, in September, by the purchase of Run Sackboy! Run! developer Firesprite. Just this month, Sony bought Valkyrie Entertainment, a Seattle-based outfit that’s primarily functioned as a support studio for AAA games, including the forthcoming God of War Ragnarok. And on top of all that, all the way back in March, Sony bought Evo, the fighting game tournament, in partnership with Endeavor. No, not technically a development studio, but still a “holy shit” gaming-related acquisition.
Tencent continued its push into gaming with the December purchase of Turtle Rock Studios, fresh off the release of Back 4 Blood, the developer’s buzzy multiplayer zombie shooter. Turtle Rock marked the sixth significant purchase for the multinational conglomerate, following majority investments in Klei Entertainment (known for Don’t Starve), Yager (Spec Ops: The Line), and Stunlock (Battlerite). In 2021, Tencent also outright bought Sumo Group and Fatshark, a Swedish indie studio.
In February, Embracer Group—the mega-corp that owns THQ Nordic and Koch Media—bought Gearbox, the developer of Borderlands and the publisher of games like Godfall and Tribes of Midgard. 2K, the longtime publisher of Borderlands, says this merger won’t impact future games in the eternally crass series of co-op shooters. A fantasy-inspired spinoff, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, is planned for a March release next year.
The very same day Embracer bought Gearbox, it also picked up Aspyr, a company best known for porting games to various devices. Aspyr is currently working on a proper remake of the 2004 RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, planned for a release on PC and PS5.
Take-Two Interactive is best known for publishing megawatt hits in the Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and NBA 2K franchises, in addition to games in the comparatively smaller but still blockbuster Borderlands and BioShock series. But the NY-based company dabbles in lighter fare with its Private Division label. In November, Take-Two bought Roll7 (the developers of the OlliOlli skateboarding games) and placed it under Private Division’s purview. OlliOlli World is planned for a February release.