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COMMENT | On Microsoft's Dark Side Business Dealings and Titanfall Exclusivity

Matt Gardner
EA, FPS games, Microsoft, Next-gen, PS4, Titanfall, Xbox One

COMMENT | On Microsoft's Dark Side Business Dealings and Titanfall Exclusivity

It's a murky state of affairs, the whole Titanfall debacle. We always knew that the game would be coming to PC, Xbox 360, and Xbox One only at launch, but the recent months have been filled with whispers of the possibility that the game might make an appearance on the PS4 at some point. Until this week, that is.

It wouldn't matter, of course, had the game not been the toast of the summer and autumn conventions. From E3 to Gamescom, from PAX to EGX, Titanfall has been the next-gen title that everyone's been talking about, and with good reason: it plays amazingly. At first it was the drama: this is, after all, the first game from Respawn, the Vince Zampella-led company that marched forth from under the thumb of big bad Bobby Kotick and defected from Infinity Ward to start anew. At EA.

Cue the handbags graphic.

COMMENT | On Microsoft's Dark Side Business Dealings and Titanfall Exclusivity

But as Titanfall began to appear, as we got the chance to go hands-on with the game, it quickly became apparent that this was no mere COD knockoff. Here's what I said about the game in my Titanfall Gamescom preview:

"Prepare for Titanfall," a female voice crackles over the in-game mic as I punch a button on the keyboard. I turn my gaze to the heavens and wait, breathlessly. An aircraft screams by overhead and a shape appears, hurtling towards the ground, barrelling through the clouds. It lands with a thud that kicks up a dusty film, fogging my vision for a few milliseconds. I hammer the 'E' button on my keyboard with impunity just as a smouldering enemy Titan stomps around the corner. Its cannon misses me but the red mist signifies a little collateral damage.

It is of little consequence.

Iron walls envelop me, there is a whirr of mechanical activity, blinders slide back to give me a full view of the smoking, but still standing, enemy ahead. But he is reloading, and I have a cannon that fires four rockets at once. Titan Kill, the screen blinks as I blast the mech and its pilot into oblivion. The grin on my face will not fade until hours later.

Thing is, it's not the press and the consumers who've got the bug; Titanfall has captured the attention of the whole industry. Before the shows mentioned above opened, you'd still find queues at the game's booth, with developers, publishers, and retailer reps alike all itching to strap on a Pilot's jetpack and jump into a Titan. We knew it looked good, we knew it sounded good. Now we know that it plays like a dream.

Thus the news that it'll be a lifetime exclusive makes me somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, it's a brilliant coup for Microsoft. From a perspective of console competition, I love it. Sony have some seriously big hitters in their stable too with Killzone and Infamous, and Microsoft need a big name  in their roster until Master Chief can turn up and save the day. But with new platforms comes a chance for new IPs, and the buzz that's built up around Titanfall is partly because it looks new and exciting, not just in terms of its name and brand, but in terms of gameplay too. There's a fluidity and verticality to things, and a flavour to the combat, that we've not really seen before.

We have seen this approach from Microsoft before, though. Whereas Eastern platform holders such as Sony, Nintendo, and SEGA (back in those glory days) have always sought to facilitate the nurturing of development from within, accruing talent early on and then developing those studios as first and second-party partners, Microsoft have built their empire on the strength of short-term contracts. There are the big hitters of Halo and Fable and Forza and Rare (hahaha...only joking), but otherwise it's been all about the third-party connections, striking deals with Activision and EA for exclusive DLC, timed-exclusives and the bid to be first. When placed in comparison with the more holistic approach of Sony and Nintendo, one perspective might be big business vs. creative cultivation. And Titanfall is a massive deal.

This isn't a matter of boosting the Xbox One's roster as much as it's about denying Sony what's set to be an early next-gen classic. It's a strong Dark Side move, to be sure, but it's damn good business.

We challenged Microsoft to deliver -- we know that thanks to SCE Santa Monica and SCE Japan and Naughty Dog and Media Molecule and Evolution and Guerilla that Sony will -- and this is the fat contract that they brought home. What's surprising is that Vince Zampella knew nothing of the locked-down agreement between Microsoft and EA about exclusivity in perpetuity, and his sad face hints towards a less-than-thrilled reaction to the news.

But EA have made a shrewd move here, too. One, there's a nice bit of all-American business going on there and EA get to help facilitate a two console future (we're ignoring the Wii U for the purposes of this argument), injecting a little competition into proceedings and helping the industry balance out a bit. Two, they understand the power of exclusivity among hardcore fans. Should there be a multiplatform Titanfall sequel on PS4, it'll sell like hot cakes; just look at the fine business Mass Effect 2 and 3 did on PS3. EA are thinking long-term here: a nice hefty cash injection now, leading to a larger uptake of next-gen consoles, and a wider network of new fans when the dam breaks for potential sequels.

But it's not great for the neutral. With the reports of the PS4 outputting at a higher resolution than the Xbox One, with direct comparisons favouring Sony's machine at this early stage for a couple of multiplatform games, and having witnessed most of the multiplatform next-gen previews over the summer being held on PS4 rather than Microsoft's machine, it seems a shame that we'll not see this third-party game coming to the PS4. As a neutral, as a fan of GAMES, you want to see the best games being played by as many people as possible on the best platforms possible. This isn't a case of an in-house studio creating something inextricably linked to a single console, this is third-party console restriction.

COMMENT | On Microsoft's Dark Side Business Dealings and Titanfall Exclusivity

And that's where it rubs me the wrong way somewhat. Microsoft have slapped down some fat cash, not in a bid to create a really great game, but simply to prevent one made by someone else from being on a rival platform. So I can understand and appreciate why they've done it, and it's a great move as a competitive platform holder and great news for Xbox One fans, but as a neutral it's somewhat irritating. Furthermore, to write off the exclusivity just because Titanfall is coming to PC as well would be reductive and fails to acknowledge the difference in markets between console and PC. It's a gamepad title, it feels a little too fiddly and frenetic for mouse and keyboard, and the Xbox One will be the lead platform for the game when it emerges in March.

Beyond that, who knows? Zampella has said that "of course" Respawn will make games for the PS4, "just not the first Titanfall", and it's important to remember that Respawn are an independent outfit who will retain all of the rights to Titanfall when their one-game deal with EA expires. Respawn will end up being the belle of the ball when it comes to offers on the table after Titanfall releases, I have no doubt about that. It's likely to spark the first great next-gen bidding war, and that's kind of exciting. But not nearly as exciting as the prospect of playing the damn game, which sadly won't be available on PS4. Ever.

Add a comment3 comments
Late  Oct. 31, 2013 at 15:36

Fully agree. It's great that I'll be able to play Titanfall, and the fact that Microsoft have secured exclusivity is great for the console (which I fear is going to be massively outsold by the ps4). Exclusives of this calibre should help sales massively.
But it does smack of "we're falling behind - let's find a way to hinder ps4" rather than "we're falling behind - let's find some way to boost ourselves".
And don't get me started on the worrying possibility of the first game being xbox exclusive (ignoring pc) and the second game being playstation exclusive. Stranger things have happened...

Breadster  Oct. 31, 2013 at 16:50

Good article. It does annoy me that Microsoft don't often seem to want to cultivate their own studios. They still just seem like a massive tech company that makes games consoles, rather than an actual games company, if you know what I mean.

teddy1590  Oct. 31, 2013 at 18:11

Good to hear that after the first game, Respawn retain all the rights to future Titanfall games. I don't see E.A as the bogeyman of the gaming industry many people do, but they have been seen to exert pressure on developers to monetize games as much as possible. It makes a-lot of sense for Respawn to have E.A publish their first game, as it means they'll have no issues in getting it marketed and released to as many people as possible, but after they've made bags of cash with the first, I'd like them to have freedom to make the games they want to, and it seems that they will.

The fact that E.A made the exclusivity deal with Microsoft with no mention to Respawn seems to hint at the way they handle their developers. By all means, team with them to make the first game till they get their feet on the ground, but as soon as possible, either publish independently (which could be a stretch for a AAA game) or deal with a more relaxed publisher(e.g, 2K, though they're not entirely innocent themselves)

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