With exclusivity tearing the gaming world in two, Aaron Poole takes a look at what exclusivity has done to the gaming market.

 

It is not a fallacy to say games are the new pillars of the entertainment industry. The last few years have seen the growth of the video game sector to heights that just keep 1­upping themselves (ba­-ding!), generating profit figures of over $100 billion across the sector on an annual basis, and unsurprisingly at that. The newest generation of consoles have finally begun to settle and mature in the homes of consumers worldwide, the app world and the prevalence of mobile gaming only continues to assert its justification as a major sector in the area. Alongside this, the world of PC gaming is more relevant than ever, with Steam Boxes and VR headsets taking their places as mainstays looking towards the future in how we experience interactive entertainment. The industry is in a diverse and multifaceted position, poised to dominate the world of entertainment for years to come. But, despite this, all is not in the best of circumstances in the production pipeline.

There is an issue in the industry today that boils down to the way game development and production is handled. Games are, obviously, what fuel this market – the constant production and release of new titles are what keep the dollar sign ticking over in the industry. But when it comes to how we enjoy these games, there is room for choice, albeit with caveats. Avoiding PC releases for the time being and looking at the current generation of game consoles, Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One are the two systems that are at the forefront of the industry, the proverbial “poster boys” of the digital entertainment. This is largely due to the exclusive partnerships the console manufacturers have with certain developers. It is here, however, where issues begin to arise.

“When it comes to how we enjoy these games, there is room for choice, albeit with caveats”

Console exclusives have, naturally, been a staple for games consoles since the days of the Magnavox Odyssey, right up to today’s console generation – it is the one thing, apart from graphic differentials and controller input, that sets apart the experience to be had between machines. Each console will have their defining titles, developed for them by offshoot divisions of the manufacturer prior to their release, such as Microsoft Game Studios (first Xbox games, such as Forza and Halo) or Sony Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo). These studios would carry the consoles into the public light for the first time, resulting in a battle to earn their capital which they would then take their and further invest it into their own in­-house IP’s (intellectual properties, or franchises) and the production of their own games which would only ever appear on the manufacturer’s respective console. This was beneficial to the consumer, as new material was constantly being produced specifically for the owners of that specific console, almost as a thank you note for the consumer’s allegiance to that specific brand.

But in more recent console years, manufacturers have pinned exclusivity, both in terms of full game exclusivity and console specific content, as pivotal selling points for their consoles, if not the sole reason you should purchase them. This has naturally lead to console manufacturers reaching out to third party developers with substantial monetary offers in an attempt to buy exclusivity for their console, if not the whole studio, to ensure they have the edge over their competitor. The likes of last year’s Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, an Xbox One console exclusive game, for example, is a sequel to Tomb Raider, a game which was available on multiple platforms, whereas the Assassin’s Creed franchise will feature exclusive content for those playing through the “definitive” edition on Sony’s PlayStation 4, again due to exclusivity partnerships.

“Manufacturers have pinned exclusivity, both in terms of full game exclusivity and console specific content, as pivotal selling points for their consoles”

The argument that presents itself is whether the money being used to purchase this exclusivity is being used inadequately or not. The issue that arises here is that there is now an estrangement of customers by the developers who have decided to partner with these manufacturers. Speaking on the matter, online personality Steven Williams has said that “this doesn’t sell consoles, it just pisses people off. That’s the kind of thing that makes a PC gamer say ‘I’ll never own a PlayStation because they gutted my version of the game’”. The launch of the current generation of consoles is now 28 months behind us. To enforce the launch of their new consoles, the manufacturers would again employ this method of purchasing their exclusives. However, what many thought would be a continuation of the previous generation’s trend, which saw an equitable division of the market between Sony and Microsoft’s PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (with Nintendo’s Wii also a corralling a substantial amount of the overall audience), has now skewed in favour of Sony’s console, leading to a less than impressive run of Xbox One sales for Microsoft. The spending on exclusives has now only landed Microsoft in deficit, which has caused a ripple effect across any company directly affiliated with the tech giant. This has resulted in an event which has directly impacted the consumer. Earlier this month, the video game world saw the death of an iconic game development studio with the closure of Lionhead Studios. Known across the board for the development of their trademark series, Fable, the studio was closed without even a day’s notice, just as they were about to launch an open beta for their latest Fable title, Fable Legends. Lionhead, who were initially an independent development studio, had its doors closed as a subsidiary of Microsoft Game Studios, the same firm who ordered its closure.

“Spending on exclusives has now only landed Microsoft in deficit”

As a result of the push towards exclusivity, Microsoft are now in a position where they are not only under fire from elsewhere over their exclusivity deals, but also suffering as a result of their overspending, having to close down beloved studios such as Lionhead, among 6 other studios who had been shut down by the corporation on the same day in the same notice. It is also worth noting that of those studios shut down, some were working on Microsoft Hololens material, indicating the future of the technology at Xbox could potentially suffer delays as a result of spending on exclusivity.

In either case, it is clear to see that, amidst all of the dealings that go on over exclusivity, the one person who loses in this situation is the consumer ­- if we are to fully enjoy the experience created by a studio that we indulge in, it is now a case of owning the right console at the right time, a luxury not afforded to most people, as opposed to enjoying the benefits of siding with a particular brand from the outset. Gamers are being denied the ability to play the way they want because of exclusivity – that’s the current state of video games.

 

(Originally Published in OTwo issue VII, March 30th 2016)