Gamescom is well underway now and most of the big announcements are out of the way. We’ve seen plenty of good news for gamers since Microsoft kicked off the press conferences on Tuesday afternoon but one area that has drawn a lot of attention, particularly from angry PlayStation fans, is that of exclusivity.
The exclusivity of Rise of the Tomb Raider was, perhaps, clumsily announced, with carefully selected language and a degree of obfuscation around what the message actually was – was it exclusive forever or only for a period of time? Does this mean the PC version is on hold too? We got mixed messages or defensive posturing from some of those involved in the deal. The developers themselves issued a statement saying that partnering with Microsoft would really help them. Well, yes, I would assume that plenty of money changed hands and that financial security will put many minds at Crystal Dynamics well at ease.
It’s difficult to judge the developers (or their publishers) too harshly when there’s a bag full of cash on the table that means they all get to feel safe in their jobs for the duration of the game’s development. They undoubtedly do want as large an audience as possible to play their game, that’s a driving force for most creative producers, but if someone is offering them financial security, they’d be taking a significant risk to turn that down. I struggle to be too damning about anybody taking measures to ensure they can continue to feed their families for the foreseeable future. That said, I think that exclusivity is generally a bad thing for developers, almost as much as it is for the people that enjoy their products.
I’m not talking about first party exclusivity here. Uncharted and its numbered sequels being made only for PlayStation 3 (so far) has meant that the best was wrung out of the system and it made for a better experience thanks, in part, to the fact that the developers were able to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the system they were developing for. This is true for many exclusives, even if it is often simply a side effect of the cold, hard business-minded fact that top quality exclusives can tempt people into buying one system over another.
But it’s rarely a good thing for a third party game. Rise of the Tomb Raider now has a significantly smaller install base to sell to. Choosing a convenient figure for my limited mathematical skills, if ten per cent of all new-generation console gamers buy it, this exclusivity decision has cut off a million potential sales on PlayStation 4. Using that simple figure, for the sake of argument, this decision has cut Rise of the Tomb Raider’s future sales from 1.7 million copies down to 700,000. That’s significant.
It also tarnishes the future of the series in the minds of over half your potential customers. Even though it has eventually been revealed as a timed deal, when Rise of the Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (or whatever they pitch the almost inevitable eventual release as) finally does come to PS4, there might still be people who no longer want it. Even if the PlayStation fans are prepared to forgive the momentary slight of being prioritised beneath their Xbox-owning counterparts, Square Enix will have to spend another round of marketing budget on getting awareness raised. Selling your game twice to a million people each time seems like it would be more expensive than selling it once to two million.
And what do Xbox owners get now that this deal has been done? Exactly nothing that they weren’t already getting. Third party exclusivity is simply a deal that takes away from people – it’s only ever a negative interaction with your fans. It’s someone using their money simply to stop a group of people enjoying something. That’s the very definition of mean-spirited.
Let’s not let everyone else off the hook either. Tomb Raider is the bombshell that most people are reacting to but there’s plenty of other instances around the exclusivity issue that devalue the creative work and belittle the passions of those who pay for it.
Exclusive content is a recent favourite strategy of both Sony and Microsoft. But it’s self-evident that the content a game like Destiny will have exclusively on PlayStation is content that is surplus to the needs of the game. If you can afford to hold it back from half your game’s players, it’s obviously not needed to play the game. So you’re dedicating development time and resources to making superfluous tat that does nothing for the creative work – but plenty for the business side of things. And if it’s so unnecessary, is it really worth having for those that are lucky enough to have the golden ticket of the requisite console? It’s detrimental to the development process, pointless for the fans of the medium and only really beneficial to the people who care more for the cashflow than the creativity.
Exclusive content – whether it’s a multiplayer map, a section of single player gameplay or an entire game – is a con, foisted upon us by the business people who infest the modern games industry and don’t really care about advancement of the medium, just about advancement of their company’s market value. I can’t blame them for striving to get better at doing what they do but I can’t help wishing their influence wasn’t as strong as it has become.
As long as we keep falling for the polarising trickery that drives a wedge between fans of video games, by throwing money at it or by fighting over how important it is to us and our choice of platform, they’ll keep running the same con. We, as fans of games – as those that nurture the medium and encourage its continued evolution – must embrace all that is inclusive, adventurous and innovative so that the medium may continue to offer us more and more meaningful ways of interacting with it. There is nothing inclusive, adventurous or innovative about exclusivity.