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Lara Croft and the Myth of the Exclusive

by William Schwartz

tombraider-exclusive

The recent Tomb Raider reboot was an undeniable success. It brought us back to a point when Lara Croft is going out on early expedition, experiencing brutal adversity and danger, and, in a truly sobering moment for the heroine, killing someone for the first time. She is equal parts warrior and archaeologist so playing through this trial by fire was an amazing experience.

And, unfortunately, only Xbox One users will enjoy the follow up experience.

It was at Gamescom 2014 that Crystal Dynamics announced Rise of the Tomb Raider would be an Xbox One exclusive, a shock to any PS4 or PC gamers who enjoyed Tomb Raider. Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, the follow up to Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, will still be available for PS4 and PC.

While it is good news that Temple of Osiris will still make it onto other platforms, it’s an entirely different gaming experience and does not replace Rise of the Tomb Raider to fans of the rebooted franchise.

Once again, gamers find their respective allegiances to how they game tested by the myth of the exclusive. While there are numerous behind-the-scenes reasons for them, exclusives are, at their core, a way to drive fans of a particular gaming franchise towards a specific gaming system, be it console or PC. There are several gamers who use all available systems but they inevitably fall into on category or preference or another.

Realistically, exclusive titles might be a short term way to boost console sales but they’re also a long term way to fragment your market and limit game sales.

For those of you that remember these examples, VHS and Beta did not coexist for a reason, and neither did HD and Blu Ray. While there are a number of factors for one format defeating another, the reality is that film watchers wouldn’t tolerate only being able to get a copy of a new release movie on HD only. Something had to give. Why do gamers tolerate only being able to play certain games on certain systems?

As an example, Nintendo has a stable of classic characters you’re only going to play on one of their systems, which frequently don’t have the big multi-console releases you find on other systems. If you’re not wooed by the allure of mustachioed plumbers stomping on mushrooms, then you’re unlikely to buy their hardware or software. But what if you’re a Mario fan and you just don’t like playing games on Nintendo’s consoles? What if you prefer gaming on Xbox One or PS4? Why can’t the Mario experience be catered to all gamers? Or, to be more precise, why isn’t it?

Sega certainly learned that lesson and survived in a fashion because of it. As a prominent hardware developer they rivaled Nintendo at one point, eventually becoming software developer for…well, Nintendo. For anyone who grew up during the time when Nintendo and Sega were the console choices, seeing Sonic the Hedgehog in a Nintendo game is still an odd experience. While there are numerous reasons for Sega’s change in mandate, their survival involved opening the doors to developing their proprietary characters for other systems by necessity rather than choice.

The biggest sin of the Rise of the Tomb Raider announcement isn’t the fact that it’s going to be an Xbox One exclusive. No, the issue is that it’s moving to that from what was assumed to be wider availability. For gamers who enjoyed the reboot experience on PlayStation or PC and were looking forward to a sequel, it’s a kick in the gut. If you don’t already own an Xbox One and have chosen to game with another system, the likelihood of you buying one just to play a single game on is slim. Well, depending on the game, of course.

All this guarantees is that non-Xbox One gamers are unlikely to play Rise of the Tomb Raider and will most likely never purchase a copy of it. This move is preaching to the choir, to those already converted to being Xbox One users, and has effectively cut the potential market for this game down dramatically. You cannot markedly increase sales of a game by making it unavailable to all but one system, only increase the sales of that system to anyone willing to convert for one game. Exclusives are to the benefit of the companies who develop the hardware and the detriment of those who develop the software, assuming there’s no direct association between the two.

Imagine how those record setting presales for GTA V would have looked if it was a PS3 exclusive. Now, imagine how those presales would have looked had GTA V been available for PC and next gen consoles at the same time as PS3 and Xbox 360.

It would be nice if, at some point, the gaming industry was able to move past the idea of exclusives. If Xbox and PlayStation want to develop content for their own systems, that is, of course, their prerogative. But hopefully other developers can move past the perceived short term benefits that making titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusive might enjoy in favor of the long term benefits that come with nurturing a larger gaming marketplace.

And that will most likely happen by necessity rather than choice.

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