You could see the smile dance across Phil Harrison's face as he uttered the word "exclusive" during the Microsoft Gamescom press conference. Exclusives have traditionally been the weapons used by platform holders to wage war against one another. As Nintendo did unto SEGA, so Sony did unto them, and so Microsoft blah blah this has been going on forever blah.
But lately the waters have become muddied. Time was when companies would slap down cash for studios and IPs, it was all or nothing. Platform holders went big or they went home. But the dawn of digital distribution and product updates allowed companies to deliver bits and pieces of games, and suddenly the rights for those were up for sale. These are the DLC times, and frankly it's difficult to know whether or not you're getting the "complete experience" with certain titles these days.
Then, of course, there are timed exclusives, games with timed exclusive DLC, console exclusives, and a whole host of other ways to otherwise baffle and confuse consumers.
Let's look at the facts: Microsoft did not buy a studio and invest in their talent. They did not secure the rights to an exciting new IP or charge a talented outfit to deliver something fresh. They dropped a fat bundle of cash in Square Enix's pocket for a limited period of exclusivity for a sequel to a game that eventually broke even, but needed a generation-jump retooling to do that.
That's pretty much all we know at this point.
Square's finances have stabilised after their corporate overhaul, but they can't afford to spend as lavishly as they did before. Their slew of Western-oriented releases -- Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs -- were critically acclaimed (well, maybe not Hitman) but the budgets were astronomical and the sales projections laughably huge and everything went wrong. Sony, for their part, sold all of their shares in Square (the old-school Ninty fan in me is laughing at the current, somewhat hypocritical Sony ire given the Squaresoft debacle a couple of decades ago), which isn't exactly a move that suggests support or confidence.
The point is that when Microsoft came along with a boat both made of, and filled with cash, of course Square jumped at the chance. Did that save Rise of the Tomb Raider? Would the game have died in development hell, swiftly nixed, never to see the light of day had Microsoft not turned up? Only Square can really say.
This is not to paint Microsoft as saviours at all. However you slice it, they gave Square money to take Rise of the Tomb Raider off of the market on other platforms for the busiest season of the year, and we still have no idea how long the exclusivity agreement will last. Weeks? Months? A year or more? Sony have snipped bits off of what is likely to go head to head with COD for hottest FPS of the year, spreading their third-party agreements across multiple games.
There's another factor to consider too. Sony are winning.
There's no other way to put it. Microsoft are playing catch-up to Sony, and in some ways they always have been. Sony were a leviathan in the video games industry long before Microsoft brought out the original Xbox, having already amassed a huge stable of developers and nurtured talent. Microsoft had to hit the ground running with the original Xbox, and they've had to do the same with its grandchild. Across the two previous console generations, we've seen that when the going gets tough, Microsoft splash the cash on relatively safe bets. FIFA and COD were no-brainers, Titanfall has given them a franchise synonymous with the Xbox One, and now Tomb Raider presents something of a Lara vs Nate Christmas next year.
That all being said, Microsoft have botched the communication once again. Had Rise of the Tomb Raider been announced as an Xbox One exclusive from the start that would have been something truly special. As a PS4 and PC owner, I myself would have been disappointed, but it would have been churlish of me not to admire the ballsy move. But the game was announced with the expectation of a multiplatform release at E3, and everything in between then and now is filled with images of clandestine backdoor meetings, executive handshakes laden with swag, and business dealings that have shut off over half of the gaming audience. Had MS come out with this at E3, there would have been rapturous applause. As it is, even parts of the Xbox One fanbase seems a little ill at ease with the nature of all of this. After all, they'd expected to get the game anyway.
The outrage from Sony fans has been over the top and ludicrously hysterical in some cases. Then again, these are the same sorts of people who sent Square death threats when it was announced that Final Fantasy was going multiplatform with FFXIII.
I... can't even...
A sense of perspective is something that certain denizens of the internet clearly don't possess. It's disappointing, sure, but it's also business. It's a desperation play from Microsoft, and frankly that's what we expect of platform holders -- to go out there and broker some hot damn deals for hot damn games! There's nothing happening here that we haven't seen time and time again before.
But there's a lesson to be had, and it once again comes as a result of Microsoft failing to understand the importance of communication and advanced planning. In business terms there's little difference between one exclusive and the next perhaps, but we perceive a demarcation between investing money in the industry and preventative cash-splashing. For a big company, it might seem to be a minor distinction -- between seeming altruistic, the vision of a company helping a game come to release and securing the continuation of a rebooted legacy that we all want to see run for a while, and simply paying to exclude the install base of your competitors -- but it's the difference between a (perhaps begrudging) tip of the cap from a loud and vocal fanbase, and protestations of damnable practices.
This should have been a triumphant moment for Microsoft. Instead, their PR messaging leaves much to be desired once again.
Personally? I don't really mind. Exclusives foster competition and force the platform holders to measure themselves against one another. But I dislike the obfuscation that's been happening of late. Transparency is key, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth to get hyped for something you believe is coming to the platform you just dropped several hundred quid on, only to be informed a couple of months later that's not the case. As it stands, it looks like Rise of the Tomb Raider will eventually come to PS4 and PC, and for fans of the former there'll at least be a little game called Uncharted 4 to breeze through a few times. Not to mention No Man's Sky and Rime and Wild and The Order: 1886 and those exclusive bits for Destiny and MGS V and AssCreed Unity and Far Cry 4 and DayZ.
Oh yeah. One of the biggest PC games of the last decade looks like it's coming exclusively to PS4. There's that.
Swings and roundabouts.