Platform exclusivity is bad for gamers, developers and everybody

sad lara croft rise of the tomb raider

Console exclusivity has been around since consoles themselves, and in many ways defines that console – or used to.

In the days of enormous third party developers with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, console exclusivity feels anachronistic – a relic of a time when multi-platform development wasn’t feasible. The practice has now been appropriated by deep-pocketed corporations desperate to get the edge over their competitors.

But is this a practice that needs to be retired?

Games sell consoles – or do they?

As console makers have said time and time again, it’s not the console that sells the hardware, it’s the games.

I’ve begun asking myself lately however if this bit of accepted rhetoric is actually true, or if it’s simply one of those myths that’s been perpetuated so long that we no longer question it, like NASA being too stupid to use a pencil in space or Napoleon being short or 30fps not being utterly terrible.

It’s no secret at this point that the console exclusives on the new generation have been, well, pretty bad. The big franchises are present and accounted for, but so-called big exclusives like Ryse and The Order 1886 haven’t amounted to much.

The PS4 is currently obliterating the Xbox One in sales, and I’d argue that it has little to do with what games are available. When people discuss the difficulties the Xbox One is facing, most of the talk is around the PR disaster that they called a launch and the perceived (and actual) performance differences between the consoles.

Neither console set the world on fire with their launch titles, and we can all remember that dark period where various remasters were the order of the day. Nevertheless, the message is important – the hardware matters.

Consoles exist as more than just a means of playing your favourite game; the hardware matters. And, of course, the more the disparity between the game libraries decreases, the more the importance of the hardware comes to the fore.

This is good for everybody (except, I suppose, the company stuck with a sub-par console). Negotiating exclusives does nothing to benefit the consumer, and too many of these exclusives allows hardware makers to rest on the laurels of their game libraries and not compete in the area they should be competing – the quality of the hardware itself.

Sorry Nintendo.
Sorry Nintendo.

It encourages a monopoly

Saying that games sell consoles isn’t completely disingenuous – the only reason the Wii U sells any consoles at all is the games, after all, and their lack of third party developer buy-in conversely hurts them immensely.

In a world where several of the de facto “best” titles appear on one console, that is obviously a significant advantage. However, that also requires that both consoles be perceived equally, which isn’t the case with this generation.

The problem here is the potential for a snowball effect. Due to the installed userbase of the individual consoles, it is a lot easier for Sony to negotiate an exclusive at this point than it is for Microsoft. As for Nintendo, they won’t even get their calls answered.

What brought this into sharp focus was the recent release of Rise of the Tomb Raider, a hotly anticipated IP that has some pretty atrocious sales figures. This is in no small part due to the release of Fallout 4, but being exclusive to the lesser-played console is significant here.

It’s not just about a userbase either; that exclusivity greatly limits the hype leading up to release. Fallout 4 was a marketing juggernaut for weeks beforehand, to the extent that it became a global, shared experience. Of course Xbox One owners wanted to buy Fallout 4 – they wanted to buy the game everybody is playing. If your three main gaming friends own a PS4 and you are rocking the Xbone, you’re going to want to play what your friends are playing.

When 70-80% of the people who plan on playing Tomb Raider are only getting the game in a year’s time, it’s hard to get all that excited about its release.

Still, it sends a pretty clear message to publishers – Xbox One exclusivity is a death knell for sales. Whether or not it’s actually the whole truth is almost irrelevant; people tend to get a little gun-shy with budgets in the millions of dollars.

It’s annoying, overly complicated and ineffective

Exclusives have been less commonplace in recent years, as the money in the games industry has increased to the point that it’s difficult for publishers to justify releasing only for a single platform, and the required compensation is more than the perceived benefit for the console makers.

What has happened now instead is that we get “exclusive DLC”, “timed DLC” and in cases like Tomb Raider, “timed exclusivity”.

All this stuff is generally absurd and overly complicated for the average consumer. PS4 owners will be getting this set of maps, both platforms can download this DLC but this other DLC is for Xbox One owners only. The worst is probably the “exclusive content”, where particular in-game characters, items or objects are available only to a specific console.

Hell, if you want your bikini straps to break in the next Dead or Alive, you’d better have a PS4. Underwear integrity is far more advanced on a Microsoft console, apparently.

This is what platform exclusivity is all about.
This is what platform exclusivity is all about.

What makes this particularly annoying is that it is essentially just a pissing contest with little real-world benefit for those involved. I would wager that precisely nobody was swayed into buying one console over the other because they get access to the Call of Duty maps two weeks earlier.

If anything, all this serves to do is fuel the rampant fanboi-ism and pointless rivalries that already exist between the console communities, with each lauding these trivial benefits over the other as if they actually mean anything.

It appears that exclusives (at least third-party ones) are on the path to extinction – let’s hope it stays that way.

Do you think exclusivity is a good thing? Bad for some other reasons not listed here? Share your thoughts in the comments.