Titanfall, GTA V And The Problem With “Exclusives”

The circumstances surrounding Titanfall and its lack of a PlayStation release is already well known to those closely following the news surrounding the upcoming PS4 and Xbox One releases. Looking around at some of the reporting on it reveals some characterizations surrounding what occurred. Microsoft did not pay for exclusivity, they paid to squelch the possibility of it ever releasing on the PlayStation 4. “But that’s the same thing!” you might be thinking; well, no, it actually isn’t. Because the game is still releasing on PC, it’s not necessarily an “exclusive.”

This distinction is also important to draw for another reason, with two of the most obvious examples being the Wii U and GTA V.  I’ll start by looking at GTA V because most likely many must be puzzled as to why this is an example of anything outside of “how to make gads of money in the video game industry”. Yes, GTA V is and will most likely be the shining example of the potential the video game industry holds for companies that manage to do things right. There’s no arguing that GTA V deserves the windfall of success that it has received. One aspect of the release, however, was conspicuously missing: a PC version. Grand Theft Auto is a franchise that is perfect for the PC gaming market and has been a staple of PC gaming for a long time. Yet the most hyped and successful of the long running franchise didn’t end up on PC?

In a discussion with PC Gamer that ended up touching on why GTA V was missing from a platform that it undeniably belongs on, Chris R. Silva the Director of Marketing for Intel’s Premium Notebooks explained the situation saying  “…that’s what happens when you have a brand new launch with two companies that have lots of money trying to make sure they have content” adding “Somebody paid a lot of money to make sure that title was exclusive.”  But it wasn’t exclusive. It released on two different consoles.  It was very openly suppressed from releasing on PC, leaving a multitude of PC gamers in the lurch, twiddling their thumbs while they wait for a game that should have been released for their (usually very expensive) gaming method of choice on day one.

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“But that’s just competition,” you might be thinking. Well, no, actually it isn’t. It’s the suppression of competition.  Competition is consumers having multiple choices and the competition between these options drives prices down, while simultaneously driving creativity up. Yes, there are exclusives in the industry and I’m not arguing completely against exclusives. The problem comes in when multi-platform titles from third parties begin to be not so multi-platform, not from an organic business decision, but from backroom deals made by companies that have financial backings so large that it would be nothing but foolish to try and “outbid” them in an attempt to bring a title to your platform which should have been there in the first place.

This goes a long way in explaining not only why Nintendo held back on trying to go all in with a system that has major graphical horsepower, but also the current lack of third party games.  Nintendo has cited the fact that they wanted to do something different than just make hardware that would be in direct competition with Sony and Microsoft.  What now seems to be the biggest reasoning behind that is the fact that in the face of the practically infinitely deep pockets of Microsoft and Sony (does Nintendo own an almost completely ubiquitous operating system? How about a movie studio and electronics empire?), there was no way they could, or can presently, throw the kind of money at developers and publishers that Microsoft and Sony can.  They know it, and while Nintendo may not be viewed as a complete underdog as far as video gaming is concerned, operating at losses is not nearly as viable as an option as it is for Sony and Microsoft who can easily absorb the losses in a long term strategy that turns the industry into a contest of monetary attrition. That is not competition.

The above strategy doesn’t just apply to hardware, but also third party titles.   In the bid to gain market share or rather suppress others ability to increase theirs, it seems that it has become commonplace to throw money at developers to stop them from developing for certain hardware. While the company will be losing money initially, it works in the long run because if you starve a competing platform of a good amount of third party games for long enough, it throws the system into a death spiral. Developers won’t make games for the system because of lack of install base (and the fact that the company is not throwing money at them), and consumers will be hesitant to buy the system because of a lack of third party games.

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Third parties had it easy with the Wii, all they had to do was cite the lack of graphical horsepower and you have a reasonable explanation as to why Street Fighter 4 isn’t on the Wii. With the Wii U however that excuse evaporates and the lack of third party support becomes harder to explain. That is until viewed through the prism of suppressed releases. The loss of some exclusives, such as what happened with Rayman isn’t the problem and is somewhat expected in the face of sales for a system that weren’t as strong as expected (but really achieving Wii level sales numbers twice in a row at release was not something one should reasonably expect), the problem becomes a lot more pronounced when game after game starts to almost inexplicably not be coming out for the Wii U.  Well in the context of what is happening within the industry it’s a lot more understandable.  That’s not to say that Nintendo’s woes are entirely explained by this phenomenon, but it would be foolhardy to say it has nothing to do with it, and helps to understand the decisions they have made so far.

The problem is that rather than having a legitimately cheaper option for consumers to play third party titles, with the acceptable trade off of not having extreme graphical fidelity, gamers are artificially forced to seek out the higher priced Sony or Microsoft consoles because they can afford to force you to. This isn’t just about Nintendo either as the competition between the big three is starting to look simply like an ever more expensive duopoly.  Sony (and other) gamers should be and are legitimately upset with the revelations about Titanfall, just as PC gamers are legitimately upset at a lack of GTA V release. Spending money to artificially reduce options for the consumer isn’t competition. Spending money to distinguish your product from the many and make it the most enticing and cost efficient choice is competition.