I've lost count of the number of times we've lamented Microsoft's bizarre reticence to acquire first party developer talent... but with rumours of the next Xbox being slated for a 2012 reveal, it's never been more important for the software juggernaut to put its money where its mouth is. New platforms aren't judged primarily on specifications in this day and age, rather, they're defined by the exclusives that they promise to bring to the table. See also: the 3DS. There's a case to be made that MS are doing just fine with strong third party support - and it's a valid point in the short term - but console brands are eventually made and broken by the calibre of their first party offerings.
It's high time that Microsoft digs deep and splurges on a few studios to bulk out their worryingly limp roster - and to make it nice and easy for their ageing shareholders to make the right call, we've rounded up ten of the best value acquisitions on the market.
10: Bizarre Creations Talent
Yes, we know that Bizarre Creations are no more. Yes, we know that Microsoft spectacularly failed to make Activision an offer when they floated the studio early this year. But other companies are aggressively cherry-picking the cream of the developer crop in the wake of their demise, and it's not too late to poach a few choice devs into Turn 10 or even into a new Geometry Wars-centric studio.
9: SKA Studios
Jason Silva, the leading light of SKA Studios, originally started out as an Xbox Live Indie developer. His deliciously ultraviolent Dishwasher series makes Xbox Live Arcade a disturbing and brutal place to be - and as much as anything, he deserves to be honoured alongside the best that Microsoft has to offer.
This would also set an interesting precedent that leads us nicely on to...
8: A Bunch Of Xbox Live Indies
Take your pick, Microsoft. The Xbox Live Indie scene is nothing less than an online portfolio of excellent game developers who struggle to receive the exposure they deserve. A little money and publicity is all they need to make you something great, so what could be the harm in rounding up a few of them, giving them a budget and seeing what they come up with? For Windows Phone 7, if nothing else.
They're technically first-party developers as it is, but the XBLIG service desperately needs a major publicity boost to avoid driving them into Apple and Sony's bosom.
7: Ruffian Games
Crackdown is an important franchise for the Xbox 360. The original practically defined the Sandbox+ genre, and the sequel was still surprisingly good fun even considering the outrageously tight deadline and chaotic dev cycle. Crackdown 3 will be receiving a huge amount of attention... and the least Microsoft can do is to ensure that their Scottish golden goose isn't likely to fly the coop any time soon.
6: Twisted Pixel
Twisted Pixel have a good thing going at the moment; pumping out exceptional Xbox Live Arcade exclusives like Splosion Man and The Maw as well as working on Kinect projects such as The Gunslinger. They're the perfect counterpoint to Sony's range of smaller PSN-centric studios, and acquiring them would guarantee their XBLA would be an altogether less interesting place without 'em.
What do Remedy need to do to prove themselves to you, Microsoft? This 40-strong outfit delivered a unique and critically-acclaimed horror exclusive that's bound to become a major (if not enormous) franchise. Plus, you know, Max Payne 1 & 2 were awesome. Just buy them already. It's a no-brainer, because someone's bound to snaffle up this small studio sooner or later.
4: Frontier Developments
"Who?" I hear you ask. This British studio is currently best known for Kinectimals, the instantly forgettible if thoroughly adorable remote control romp... but they're the team behind one of the best games of all time: Elite. What's more, their WiiWare games were exceptionally well reviewed in spite of the fact that no-one actually bought them.
David Braben can't keep his mouth shut about Elite IV, which was up there with Duke Nukem Forever in terms of monumentally anticipated games that never seemed to release. A little first party loving and a great big wad of cash could finally kick development up a notch - and being that Braben believes that Kinect is one of the most exciting peripherals of all time, he'd make an excellent ally.
3: Double Fine
The Big M already has one legendarily outspoken creative director on staff in the form of Peter Molyneux, but with Tim Schafer's studio currently working on a number of Xbox exclusives, they have the chance to add another one to their collection.
Not only would this be a cynically tactical move that would deny a proven left-field studio to their competitors, but it would also be a statement of intent that proves that Microsoft are willing to take a punt on more than just recycled shooters. In many ways, Double Fine has the potential to be the next Rare - if they aren't already. Having another celebrity personality on board probably couldn't hurt either, though the PR department will probably need to take on an extra wing.
2: Epic Games
Microsoft has probably missed the boat on this one. Gears of War practically defined the Xbox 360's shooter scene until Halo 3 made an appearance, and we're not quite sure why a blank cheque and open arms weren't forthcoming from the get-go. However, with the Unreal Engine now being licensed for every platform under the sun, securing Epic as a first party studio will now be extremely awkward to say the least.
Still, this would be a coup of epic proportions - especially considering how shiny their new engine looks. Fish around behind the sofa cushions and make them an (another?) offer, Microsoft.
This nearly happened if Crytek are to be believed. The graphical benchmark-setters practically threw themselves at Microsoft after the release of Far Cry and again earlier this year (with an interesting lack of PS3 footage and test consoles for Crysis 2 possibly demonstrating a stark statement of intent), yet were reportedly turned down in what I can only assume was a massively virulent outbreak of screaming brain fever amongst upper management. Listen carefully, Microsoft, because if the rumours about a 2012 next-gen reveal are true...
Get. Crytek. On. Side.
They know what the next generation of consoles needs to be graphically competitive. They can provide you with the expertise your hardware division needs in order to make it work. They can optimise the next CryEngine game for you, as well as giving you the Crysis series on a silver platter. They can help to craft the next Xbox into an absolute beast... if you only let them.
Right, folks, it's time to get involved. What studios should Microsoft consider buying? Or is their third-party centric approach going to see them through the next generation? Have your say in the comments!