Okay people, let’s take a step back. Yesterday at Gamescom it was announced that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a (timed?) exclusive on the Xbox One platform. In the announcement’s wake, numerous gamers have taken to the Internet to voice their frustration over the deal with moneyhat gifs flooding forums, online petitions being circulated via Twitter, and foul language abound. The anger is palpable and it is easy to get swept up in the emotional aftermath resonating from the announcement. In the thick of it, it is easy to lose perspective on why moves like this happen.
First, there is precedence for moves like this, both in previous generations and this current generation. By precedence, I don’t mean third party exclusives, but the taking of a franchise that was multiplatform and giving it an exclusive experience on a platform in a later iteration (whether timed or not). One of my favourite Xbox 360 games was a third party exclusive that had lived on multiple consoles before it: Spinter Cell: Conviction. The game was developed and published by Ubisoft, and yet Microsoft had managed to ink a deal that kept the game solely on their platform. Prior to Resident Evil 4’s release, Nemesis was a multiplatform game, calling the Playstation, Dreamcast, Gamecube, and PC home, yet Nintendo managed to have Resident Evil 4 as a timed exclusive on the Gamecube, making the title one of the system’s flagship experiences. Even this generation, Microsoft started off with a host of key AAA exclusive games, one of those being Dead Rising 3, the successor to the multiplatform Dead Rising 2. So what makes Rise of the Tomb Raider different? Well, for starters, the Tomb Raider reboot was just so very good. I declared it one of the best games of 2013, and I stand by that, as my experience playing that game was almost second to none in the months that followed. Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing board with the franchise and basically came back with something so surprisingly spectacular, it took everyone aback. It is understandable, therefore, why frustration would set in for those who do not have an Xbox One.
The second point I wanted to bring up has to do with the business angle. People are crying that this is a dumb business decision on Square Enix (the game’s publisher)’s part, pointing to Square’s previous comments toward the disappointing sales of the reboot. Why after all if you were unhappy with the sales of the first game, would you theoretically half (or in the case of the current ratio of PS4s to Xbox Ones, less than half) your potential audience by only delivering the game on one platform. There are potentially a host of reasons why this business decision was made, but never forget that it was/is a business decision through and through. These are multi-million/billion dollar a year companies with investors all over the world. Decisions like this do not happen ad hoc. These companies have accountants that looks at loads and loads of data before such relationships are penned. We don`t know how much money Microsoft offered to Square for the exclusivity deal, but what ever that amount was, it was put into a table that accounted for production costs, marketing costs, sales expectations, expectations of risk, and a host of other matrices of information and the end result was a deal that was of benefit to both parties. To read some twitter users comments, you would think that Microsoft simply drove a fleet of armored banker trucks up to Square Enix’s door and demanded the franchise. Such thinking is based on purely uninformed, reactionary views with no regard toward basic principles of business 101. It lack’s rationality and is only harmful to the discussion at hand.
Finally, I can’t help but feel that much of this hate is based purely around the Xbox One as a console, and the fact that it was Microsoft that secured this deal. Even leading up to the unveiling of the Xbox One, the level of vehemence toward Microsoft as an anti-consumer company was almost suffocating. Microsoft has taken on some demonic Beelzebub-like caricature in a tiny, yet incredibly vocal section of the gaming community. Through it’s many policy reversals, Microsoft has attempted to change the tide that was working against it, by listening to the core gaming audience and shaping their experience around what gamers actually want. They are playing catch up. At Gamescom, Sony announced that they have now sold through to the consumer more than 10,000,000 units of the PS4. That is in under a year, and for lack of a better word, incredible. Microsoft has not announced sell-through numbers in some time so we are only left to speculate. In the late spring they announced that they had shipped 5 million units, and after the removal of Kinect, announced that their cheaper Kinectless bundle more than doubled their monthly sales. Yet we have no true numbers to compare against Sony’s unrelenting locomotive. In a recent Neogaf forum, the question was asked “What would it take to get you to buy [an Xbox One]?” and the overwhelming response was games, games, games. In truth, since the removal of many of Microsoft’s controversial policies and hardware specs, many have commented that little differentiates the Xbox One from the PS4, and for the most part this is true. Subtle policy differences and power discrepancies may offer muted experiential differences, yet run two third-party games side by side and the differences are negligible. It is in this regard that the only way Microsoft can differentiate itself from Sony’s platform is through their software line-up, and to this point Microsoft is making great strides. Both systems have been delivering several exclusive experiences to their systems but Microsoft is still clinging to the idea that AAA experiences are the difference makers and they are putting their money where their mouth is. Microsoft has already released several AAA exclusives for their platform including Forza 5, Dead Rising 3, Ryse, and Titanfall, and this holiday will be releasing Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive, and Fable Legends. Sony, on the other hand, is putting their stock in the independent and self-publishing model of gaming and is landing some of the most anticipated indie titles currently revealed. Once again, in this regard Microsoft is playing catch-up, and doing reasonably well (as I opined here). Yet it is not a surprise that with their focus on exclusive AAA games that Microsoft sought this deal with Square Enix. Making Lara Croft – who has reached a level of relevance she hasn’t seen in years thanks to the reception of the reboot – a de facto mascot of Xbox’s system, much in the way Commander Shepard and Sam Fisher were for the 360, only adds more reason for current fence-sitters to buy an Xbox One.
And yet pushing all of this aside, based on the reactions of many, Square should feel only shame for bringing forward this Faustian drama. In her article on why this exclusivity deal was a terrible mistake for Tomb Raider, Kotaku’s Keza MacDonald explicitly states that by choosing Microsoft as a partner, Square is in essence turning their nose up at the majority:
Exclusivity on any terms is a bizarre choice for Square Enix to make, but it’s especially bizarre when you look at the sales breakdown for Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, which made 69% of its total sales on PS4. So not only is Square Enix going with an exclusive partner here, letting down literal millions of fans, it’s partnered with the less popular platform for Tomb Raider players. PS4 exclusivity would have been unpopular too, but it would at least have been less unpopular than Xbox exclusivity, if those numbers are anything to go by. (Kotaku)
The takeaway is that if you are going to go exclusive, at least go with the more popular system. Heaven forbid Xbox make a move that could draw more potential costumer’s to its box. On Twitter the reaction was equally negative toward Microsoft:
Even Camilla Luddington, the voice actress and model for Lara Croft has been flooded with hateful tweets, an unforgivable action toward someone with no say in the situation whatsoever.
The truth is, however, that only Microsoft would have made this deal because A) they have the financial capacity to do so, and B) they are in the weaker position and need to give people a reason to play games on their platform. It is certainly a logical decision for the big black VCR to want to have games you can only play on their system. For Square Enix, they took a game that is going to be very expensive to make and market and that they already have cold feet over based on lower than optimal sales of previous iterations, and signed a deal that makes the games development and release more financially secure. And believe me, you can bet that with Microsoft’s advertising budget, they will be marketing the hell out of this game. We are still a long way away from the next E3 but we already know of two blockbuster exclusive games coming to Xbox One holiday 2015 with this and Halo 5, and Microsoft is going to make sure everyone who doesn’t know that, will in the coming months.
If I can leave this with one final thought, we are currently right in the thick of the storm so emotions are obviously very heated. Calls for boycotts of Square, Crystal Dynamics, and Microsoft are all well and good but there is one inherent flaw in that logic. Primarily, if the game is amazing, do you really want to sacrifice not playing it based on some artificial narrative concocted out of emotion. If so, my thoughts go out to you but I choose to play.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar