Monday, 18 August 2014

The Tired, Bastardized Practice of Exclusivity

Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusivity has ruffled
some feathers.
Last week, Microsoft and Square-Enix made some waves when it was announced that Rise of the Tomb Raider would be a timed exclusive for the Xbox One. Many a gamer cried fowl, and it's been a parade of interviews ever since by various executives and developers to paint a narrative that this is somehow a good thing.

Traditionally, when I think about exclusivity, it's more to do with a developer or publisher deciding to put a game on a specific platform because they see something special in the system whereby it makes more sense to either make it the only one it shows up on, or at least the lead platform. Be it market dominance, player-base idiosyncrasies, or specifics to the hardware, in these circumstance at least the people making the game are looking at a set of variables and choosing on their own to make a game for that system based on its merits. What we're seeing here with the whole Rise of the Tomb Raider kerfuffle reeks far more of a return to the bad old days of money hatting.

At this stage in the game, it's far more debatable why a publisher would feel compelled to make a game exclusively for a given platform with regards to the new generation of systems. If anything, it makes a lot more sense to go muliplatform for no other reason than to have the game available to as wide of an audience as possible, especially given how much it costs to make games these days.

Call me old fashioned, but I liked the old days when it was up to the console manufacturers themselves to do the heavy lifting with exclusives. Growing up, it was exciting to watch Nintendo and Sega lock horns, creating scores of very good games internally that helped define their consoles, and won over user bases.  Nintendo had Zelda, Mario, Metroid et al (and still do), while Sega brought us Shinobi, Alex Kidd, Phantasy Star, Streets of Rage, and, of course, Sonic. Even NEC got in on the action with stuff like Bonk on the PC Engine.

Final Fantasy IV on the SNES.
It was stuff like this that initially made the consoles interesting to various camps for all sorts of reasons, and, over time, people slowly gravitated toward whatever one whose jib they liked the cut of most. This in turn lead to various third parties choosing on their own which platform to throw their hat in with. One of the big ones was Squaresoft, ironically enough, when they decided to bring their games to Nintendo consoles, foregoing the Genesis. Suddenly, RPG fans had a very good reason to go out and get something like a SNES or Gameboy what with all of the Final Fantasy games that went there.

The trend continued on with the introduction of the original PlayStation. Sony brought a combination of compelling technology, slick marketing, and a number of interesting, internally developed games to the table that convinced a lot of people to pick up their system. Granted both Sega and Nintendo made this all the easier with slow releases, questionable technology choices, and mishandling of Western markets. Nonetheless, though, Sony dug in their heels and made the early efforts to make their system a success on their own, and with time various third parties supported the console more and more.

I only ever really started to take notice of companies that tried to garner exclusives via tossing large wads of cash at companies when the Xbox came on the scene. Microsoft wanted it to come out swinging, and they paid a pretty penny to make this happen. Bungie came under their wing, they got Rare off Nintendo, and then there was the whole Oddworld thing that spawned the Penny Arcade money hat comic in the first place. I won't deny that Halo played a pivotal role in getting the Xbox off the ground, but the whole process really seemed to kick off a race, particularly between Sony and Microsoft, to garner exclusives more through poaching than internal development, and the whole thing has just spiraled out of control in the last 10-15 years.

For a time this went out of control with both companies really pouring it on during the PS3 and Xbox 360 days, trying to scoop up exclusives whenever possible. When third parties had to slowly back away from this because it made more sense financially to go multi-platform, things just shifted toward timed exclusivity and exclusive DLC, which is about where we are now.

PaRappa the Rappa was an excellent first party exclusive
from Sony.
The funny thing is how it often seems to be Microsoft that is at the center of these exclusivity deals because I remember a time when they had internal studios that made some very nice games. Sure, it was more for the PC audience, but stuff like MechWarrior and Age of Empires were fantastic, and prove that the company was more than capable of bringing in talented teams to make quality titles. Somewhere along the way, this changed and eventually the studio ceased to be. I do wonder if this is due to how directionless Microsoft can appear at times. The company has a tendency to get super excited about a specific quadrant of tech, go all in for a few years, then completely shift gears after. It certainly brings into question the decision making at the top of that company at times.

In any case, the whole exclusivity thing just feels so dirty. Sure, it's a viable way for companies with deep pockets to try and make a fast buck, but if they have money to throw around, why not buckle down and try to make something special on their own?

I guess this could just as well be ascribed to the rise in corporatism during the last 15 years where fast profits at all cost are the order of the day. Why take a risk developing something on your own, when you can just buy up an interesting product from someone else who took the bigger risks to make said product already?

Regardless, given the outcry over the Tomb Raider incident, I do think that a lot of gamers are getting increasingly fed up with these sorts of shenanigans from large publishers. Sometimes developers and publishers ask why people have gotten so cynical about the industry in recent years. Well, crap like this really isn't helping.