The Return of Exclusivity

The Return of


Louis Bedigian

There was a time when calling a game "exclusive" meant that it was exclusive to
one particular game console.  Exclusive games separate the competition.  It
makes owning each console worthwhile; if each unit played the exact same lineup
of games, they’d be no better than DVD players and VCRs.

The last 24 months have painted a picture different from the one we’re used to
looking at.  Namco, the world’s leader in fighting games, had broke the cycle of
releasing their top-tier titles on just one console.  Soul Calibur 2 appeared on
all three consoles and each version featured an exclusive character.

Rockstar, the king of driving games, found a way around their exclusive contract
with Sony and released Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City on Xbox.  San Andreas’s
release is just around the corner.

Due to no other reason than lower-than-expected sales figures, Resident Evil 4
will be ported to PlayStation 2.

Splinter Cell, a game that made Xbox players cheer, lost a tad bit of thunder
when it traded in its exclusivity suit for a multi-platform arsenal.  You can
argue that it’s good for Ubisoft to sell their games to a larger audience.  You
could also argue that this is good for gamers, because now everyone can play
it.  Unfortunately for me, I’m one of the people who waited outside for several
hours (in cold weather) to get an Xbox.  When Splinter Cell got ported over,
that was one less reason to cheer.  One less reason to make me glad I bought
Bill’s game box.

Good or bad, these changes were having a big impact on the industry.  Something
we forget when changes occur is that the game industry is like a boomerang.  No
matter how far it’s thrown, it always comes back.

2005 brings the return of exclusivity, though not in the way you might think. 
The next chapter in the Soul Calibur series will be released exclusively on
PlayStation 2, which or may not turn out to be good for the developer.  (SC2
sold over six million copies across three platforms.  Can they really expect to
sell that many copies on PS2 alone?)

Rockstar is launching Grand Theft Auto PSP (eventually), and unless Microsoft
surprises with a brand-new mobile console, you can bet it will stay exclusive to
PSP for a very long time.

For the next generation of Resident Evil games, Capcom says they’re sticking
with the PlayStation brand.  In other words, PlayStation 3 and PSP.  Don’t
expect these games to be released for another 12 to 24 months.

Hironobu Sakaguchi, the mastermind behind Final Fantasy and the founder of a new
development studio, has pledged his support for Xbox 2.

The list goes on and on.  Game developers have again realized the benefits of
releasing a game on one console and one console only.  Fact: the most successful
games are those that are either (A) 100% exclusive (Halo 2, Final Fantasy VII,
Super Mario 64, etc.).  Or (B) games that were temporarily exclusive and sold
the most amount of copies during the exclusive term (Grand Theft Auto, Splinter
Cell, etc.)

Beyond the individualization and happy press releases is a story that’s somewhat
disturbing.  As we sit and play our favorite games.  As we visit our favorite
Web sites and read articles regarding our most anticipated titles, game
publishers are working hard to ensure that they have control.  Not over you.  
Not over the console manufacturers.  Not even over small development studios. 
What they want control of is the games.

It seemed like it started with the NFL.  EA secures the rights to the country’s
most popular sport.  Why would they do this, you ask?  Madden is so successful,
the real question is: do they even need to?

Perusing the
Advertising in Games Forum announcement
, I notice that ESPN NFL 2K5 sold
many more copies than previous reports had led me to believe: 1.6 million. 
That’s a phenomenal number considering who its competition was.

EA knows that they may not increase their sales by having exclusive rights to
the NFL.  No matter what though, their license now prevents 2K Sports from
repeating last year’s success with another hit game, a game that EA would rather
crush than compete with.

What many of us face to realize is that the problem (if that’s indeed what it
is) runs much deeper than one giant publisher buying exclusive rights to a
particular type of game.

Water racing isn’t a full-fledged genre, and there’s not enough money in it to
purchase a license that would prevent others from creating similar games.  So
what did THQ do?  They went out and bought the developer who makes the best
water racing games: Rainbow Studios, the creator of the Splashdown series.

Last year, EA purchased Criterion to gain control of the incredible Burnout
series.  Criterion is also the makers of RenderWare, an important development
tool used by hundreds of developers.  It was feared that EA would keep
RenderWare all to itself, but thus far that hasn’t been the case, indicating
that Burnout was the primary reason for the buyout.  At least from an
exclusivity point of view.

Before Bungie unleashed its beloved first-person shooter, Microsoft hurried up
and bought the studio, taking the game from major PC release to Xbox exclusive. 
A PC port followed two years later, but it didn’t receive half the attention
that the Xbox original received at the console’s launch.

Now in the case of Bungie, I don’t think anyone can argue that it was a mistake
for Microsoft to purchase the studio.  It made Xbox a success and it made
millions of gamers happy.  Only a handful of people would have played the PC
version in compared to the millions and millions of people who played the Xbox
version.  (Halo 2 has sold over 6 million copies worldwide.  From my personal
experiences it seems that there are three players for every copy of Halo 2. 
That being the case, over 24 million people have played Halo 2, making it one of
the most played games ever released.)

Square is still considered to be a game industry powerhouse, but what good has
come of their major, over-hyped merger with Enix?  Count the number of great
games released before the merger, then count the number of great games released
after.  It ain’t pretty.

Heck, go one step further and just compare the number of total game releases,
good or bad, both in Japan and in the States.

For years analysts have predicted that small studios would be eaten by big
publishers.  The publishers would then merge, further consolidating the
industry.  Problem is, if you build a bridge too long, it will crumble.  That’s
what’s happening here.

I’m not doubting the industry as a whole.  I love games, and I love what
developers do.  But what when the business of it all grows too large, and as the
desire to be #1 (or at the very least, not go bankrupt) increases, a serious
problem arises.

Cheers to those who develop in-house and don’t need a dozen subsidiaries to
release one good game.  Cheers to those who have turned down mergers, buyouts,
and other financially sound business decisions that, in the end, would hurt the
company and our industry.

Stay independent.  Keep our games free.