Thought Bubble: An End to Console Exclusives

Sony walked away with all the headlines following its PlayStation Experience over the weekend, and while one was bad (I’m looking at you, David Jaffe), the rest were overwhelmingly positive. The publisher shared details for multiple highly anticipated titles, many of which will be exclusive to Sony consoles, including Capcom’s Street Fighter V.

In the Land of Hirai, there was much rejoicing. Me? I own a PS4, but I’m a little sour on the announcement. Because I’m tired of exclusives, even though they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Microsoft will be publishing next year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, while Nintendo has finally pumped out enough Mario-branded content to make the Wii U worthwhile. Exclusives are kind of its thing.


But I honestly thought we had moved past all the nonsense. Exclusives increasingly feel like a relic of the past designed to arbitrarily divide consumers into opposing camps. The console wars of the 1990s made sense given the less refined nature of game development – Nintendo and Sega had to make many of the games that bolstered their consoles – but that’s no longer the case now that the bulk of development has shifted to third party providers. (Nintendo is the unique exception. The company is still prolific enough to sustain its own devices, though it’s gotten tougher and it’s worth noting that Nintendo’s relationships with other developers have deteriorated as the rest of the industry has shifted.)

The point is that technology has leveled, reaching a state where all of my devices except my game consoles are nominally compatible. There was even greater integration in gaming. Towards the tail end of the last generation, I assumed that every game would launch on as many platforms as possible, with the exception of those made and published by the console manufacturers. I thought that trend would continue with the Xbox One and the PS4, largely because it’s in the best interests of game developers to reach as wide an audience as possible and manufacturers sell more consoles when they have more games to support them.


To an extent, that’s proven to be the case. Some of the games mentioned during the PlayStation Experience – including Shovel Knight and Super Time Force – will be appearing on Sony platforms for the first time and will no longer be exclusive elsewhere as a result. Many developers spend years porting and updating a single hit for other platforms. The farther a game is from its release date, the more places it’s likely to appear.


I similarly won’t be surprised if the same happens to Street Fighter V and Rise of the Tomb Raider, two franchises that until recently were multiplatform. The nature of the exclusivity deals remains unclear no matter what Sony and Microsoft may say publicly , and I’ve been around long enough to know that ‘exclusive’ seldom means forever.

That’s why it’s so odd to see the industry digging its heels into the exclusionary business practices of the early 90s. Few games are actually exclusive – timed exclusive would be more accurate – but rhetorically speaking, exclusives have become more important to console manufacturers as they search for a competitive advantage to kick-start their latest products.

The thing is, I don’t really care about the hardware. I just want to play the best games, and I’m not picky about where which is why I’ll still take Halo over Resistance (and both over Killzone). Yet I’ve grown wary of every new game announcement because there’s always a chance that I won’t be able to play it for months – if not years – depending on the circumstances. Publishers withhold their best content from interested audiences in order appease the sensibilities of 1994. I don’t see how the inability to share is supposed to benefit consumers, especially since it  only seems to happen in gaming as industry leaders catch up to Beta vs. VHS.


Meanwhile, the rest of the entertainment world has used technology to make access increasingly democratic. Books can be found on anything that supports text. I’ve got a Netflix account that I can access on an iPad, a laptop, a console, or a television. I have a collection of old DVDs that I can play on any device with a screen and a disc drive. I never have to worry about format or platform or compatibility. As long as I can decide on a movie, I can rest secure in the knowledge that everything is going to work (or that I can buy adapters in the rare cases that it doesn’t).


I’d love to get that security from gaming, but the industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Console manufacturers actively encourage a bizarre kind of tribalism, demanding that consumers pick sides before anyone is allowed to participate. After all, you need a platform if you want to play games, and that platform is supposed to say something about who you are and what you value.

That’s playground logic. It sort of made sense twenty years ago when I was eight. But I grew out of it, and I hoped the gaming industry would do the same. Instead, we have two jocks picking teams in gym class. Even though we have the technology to facilitate greater compatibility, the industry insists on separate universes, largely because that’s the only world it knows.

There’s no longer any reason to accept that as a given. I liked most of what I saw from the PlayStation Experience. Naughty Dog has been one of the most consistent developers for years, and the more people get to play Super Time Force, the better a place the world will be for all of us. More importantly, I know that I’ll be able to play everything that was advertised.


But I don’t derive any sense of self-worth from that fact. I actually feel kind of bad about it because other people don’t get the opportunity to try awesome stuff. The ongoing console wars make it more difficult to build a shared vocabulary, creating fragmented pockets of knowledge that encourage animosity as fans shout in a pointless attempt to crown a winner.

It’s entirely possible to envision a marketplace without those arbitrary boundaries. Right now, Sony and Microsoft are holding games hostage to convince people to buy consoles that are in many ways functionally identical. I sadly don’t expect that to change anytime soon. But owning a PS4 doesn’t make me special, so don’t expect me to celebrate just because Sony has another box of toys.