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The Shifting Nature of Exclusivity

Exclusivity is changing. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted a PlayStation to play Tomb Raider. I drew pictures, I read magazines. I had a Sega Saturn, and could’ve played it perfectly well there. But six-year-old me didn’t know that, and nothing I saw convinced me otherwise. I had a PlayStation that Christmas.

A bit after that we went into a little game shop in Birmingham – up near where Currys and Pizza Hut is now, if memory serves. We asked for recommendations and the older guy, who looked more like a mechanic than a game shop owner, picked up Final Fantasy VII and said we wouldn’t need any other game. This was the be all and end all of interactive entertainment. And for the then seven-year-old me, he was right. For a couple of months anyway.

I guess part of me knew that VII meant this was the seventh game in the franchise, and that they hadn’t been on PlayStation. But it didn’t matter. If this was where Final Fantasy was, that’s where I’d be.

Those days are long gone. With the announcement that Xbox is bringing HiFI Rush, Pentiment, Sea of Thieves and Grounded to other consoles, and the double whammy of Sony looking to expand its PC efforts and the huge hit of Helldivers 2, those days of exclusivity are truly numbered. And as nostalgic as I get thinking about the 90s, that’s only a good thing.

Exclusivity is a Barrier

Everybody I knew thought Tomb Raider was a PlayStation exclusive. Today, we’d be able to check any number of sources in seconds. It almost feels quaint that it was ever a question. A quick Google tells me that the Saturn version was quite successful, even. Nobody told us.

That kind of platform specific marketing is still quite effective. Call of Duty is often hinted at as the kingmaker when it comes to exclusive content in the last few generations. But not in the same way. Nobody is buying a PlayStation because Modern Warfare might not be on Xbox.

And Final Fantasy as a Nintendo product?! Even writing it today feels wrong, though I know logically it was once a thing. The impact of exclusives in those days – and I guess today given some of the reactions in the last few weeks – is an emotional thing.

But it’s different. Today I don’t look in wonder at a rack of CD cases, imagining which would get me the most bang for my buck. I have a 30-year backlog, and own every console going. I don’t have emotional ties to exclusives, because there’s just so much coming out and so little time to play it. Kids have their tablets and phones, as well as consoles or PCs, and the idea of shifting between them (sometimes even within the same games) is completely normalised. The Bleem people were way ahead of their time.

Things just aren’t the same today.

Making Their Mark

I’ve written many times over the years about the changing nature of exclusivity. No longer is it about selling someone on buying a console – it hasn’t been for a long time. Exclusives are about showcasing what a console is, and rewarding those who’ve bought into the ecosystem. Grand Theft Auto 3 was as important to PlayStation as Sonic Adventure was to Dreamcast. Both GOATs, both perfect representatives of their given device.

But as people became more entrenched in their favourite ecosystems, even that mattered less. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were effectively the same device, with different insides and branding. They played mostly the same games in mostly similar ways. And sure, I couldn’t play Gears of War on PlayStation or Uncharted on Xbox, but did it matter? On a basic conceptual level, these are not products that are a million miles apart. You shoot, you watch cutscenes, you collect items. The icing on the gameplay cake set them apart. But this is not Final Fantasy vs Ocarina of Time.

Gaming has become more homogenous over time. And it has centred in on big budget risks that are too big to fail. Sony has said it needs to increase its profit margins. Phil Spencer has spoken extensively about this issue. It’s not a one company problem. The entire industry has found itself stagnating. The bubble is about to burst.

Reasons to Buy

And because of the changing effectiveness of exclusivity and increasing costs of just getting a game out of the door, the actual nature of exclusivity has shifted. The invention of the “console exclusive” was the first step. Yes, you’ll be able to play this game elsewhere, but it’s still a kind of exclusive. Honestly. That evolved into both high-end consoles offering their games on PC, and that’s now commonplace and becoming more so.

So what’s the point in buying these consoles then? The real answer is simple: because you will. That’s just how it is. If you’ve been buying PlayStation consoles for thirty years, you’ll suck it up and buy the next one. And if you don’t, you’ll suck it up and buy the games on PC anyway. But chances are you prefer the security of your console of choice.

Exclusives are still important in setting the tone of your console. Microsoft’s biggest problem is that it lost its identity. It’s easy to market PlayStation – you slap up a picture of something that looks vaguely like a Sony-made exclusive even if it’s not one (Final Fantasy, for instance). That is what a PlayStation game looks like. Xbox doesn’t have that. It used to be Gears, Halo, Forza, but that became a meme. Now it’s as likely to be Pentiment and HiFi Rush, which are awesome games but not exactly representative of what the system is capable of. Oh, and they’ll be on PlayStation now too.

As console manufacturers become more likely to release product outside of their own walled gardens, it becomes increasingly important that the brand is still recognisable. That’s what exclusives used to do. Or even the veneer of exclusivity, such as with the original Tomb Raider. Today it’s not as cut and dry. What is the future of the console business when the only differentiator is an operating system and whether you prefer trophies to achievements?

It’s a hypothetical that people at Sony and Microsoft and, yes, even Nintendo will have to work out in the coming decades.


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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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Twitter: @matgrowcott