I remember when exclusives were actually a thing. Sega and Nintendo used to rally their fan bases around Sonic and Mario, and their marketing departments made it clear that each offered an experience you simply couldn’t find on a rival platform. Genesis does what Ninten-don’t, etcetera, etcetera.

Even as not-that-long-ago as the Xbox 360 and PS3 launches, exclusives were actually a big deal. Buy an Xbox and you get Halo. Buy a Playstation and you get Metal Gear.  I remember that being a big decision. I remember I really used to care about exclusives.

Fast forward to now. Metal Gear Solid 5 is coming out on 5 different platforms, and so is Bungie’s grand new venture Destiny. Exclusives don’t seem to be that much of a big deal anymore. I certainly don’t care about exclusives anymore. In fact, if I’m honest I tend to find them annoying, like they exist just to make my life a bit more difficult. Xbox does…basically what Sony does, now ; or something.

In fact it seems the only people who care about exclusives these days are the platform holders themselves – well, them and the kind of fans who are weirdly attached to the companies that sell them games consoles, to the point they are willing to defend and champion every single decision made by the corporation of their affections.

Even the term ‘exclusive’ is getting a little bent out of shape these days. Due to big-hitting console game budgets ballooning into the hundreds-of-millions, and the hardware of the newest Xbox and Playstation being functionally pretty much identical, the once-vaunted third party exclusive has pretty much ceased to exist.

Sad Lara

Do you think Lara’s happy about her Xbox ‘exclusivity’? Does she look happy to you?

Hence the furore around Microsoft’s recent bombshell announcement that the latest Tomb Raider was going to be ‘exclusive’ to Xbox platforms, and the complete lack of surprise from the world at large when it turned out that that ‘exclusivity’ was in fact only temporary. Because of course it was – Microsoft can write pretty big cheques, no doubt, but there’s still no way that Square Enix are going to keep one of their flagship franchises out of the hands of over half the console gaming audience in the modern market.

Exclusive content on Playstation

‘Wait, what? There’re exclusive hats? I’d best get me one of them PS4s immediately!’ say exactly zero people.

The term ‘exclusive’ these days has to be stretched to include pithy little deals involving ‘1 hour of exclusive gameplay‘ that are going to impact exactly nobody’s console buying decisions. Sony even has their own little logo specifically for showing off the ‘exclusive content’ you can find on Playstation for an otherwise multiplatform title.

Does anyone really care about these sorts of exclusives? The gaming public’s reaction to the Microsoft Tomb Raider announcement is perhaps telling. No one seemed to be impressed that Microsoft had ‘scored’ such an huge ‘exclusive.’ People seemed to either not care or just be annoyed, and it quickly turned into another Microsoft PR bungle that made them come across like out-of-touch money-men again.

Which must have confused people at Microsoft, because they must have been expecting people to be impressed. After all, exclusives used to be big deal. But in fact the death of the third party exclusive lies partly at Microsoft’s feet. Back in their giant-killing days, Microsoft persuaded many publishers to bring long-standing Playstation exclusive franchises to the Xbox 360, proving that platform’s viability as a real contender to the Playstation 3.

Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Devil May Cry, Resident Evil – all third-party franchises that would once have been assumed exclusive to Sony, that Microsoft brought into the Xbox fold in the name of levelling the playing field. So it is really surprising that their recent attempt to suddenly un-level the playing field again by purchasing ‘exclusivity’ of a franchise that’s long been available on multiple platforms made a lot of people annoyed?

Destiny exclusive content

Nobody cares about this. Nobody.

I find it annoying because it’s just another part of what’s becoming an increasingly transparent campaign to wall-off certain bits of content in order to artificially add value to a console platform. When the only thing to differentiate between two games consoles is which one has ‘1 hour of exclusive content,’ is there really any point in there being two separate games consoles to play these games on?

And there really is so little to choose between the two new platforms now. Microsoft has spent the last nine months busily stripping away any features that make the Xbox One distinct from the Playstation 4, so now we’ve got a choice of two boxes with the same feature set at the same price point. All that separates the two are a tiny handful of big-budget exclusives and a handful of indie games each.

I find this annoying because I want to play Bloodborne and I want to play Sunset Overdrive, but I sure as hell don’t want to drop £700 on two separate boxes just to play the both of them. I want to play Ori and the Blind Forest and I want to play Rime, but I only get the option if I buy two otherwise basically identical pieces of hardware.

I understand that commercial competition is important in a capitalist economy – that it’s supposed to be good for us as consumers to have both Microsoft and Sony releasing similarly-featured boxes. But I’d argue that a couple of exclusive games and countless hours worth of ‘exclusive content’ don’t warrant real competition, not when we’re talking about hardware that costs upwards of £300.

I want to try a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that one day Microsoft and Sony decide that this whole competition they’ve got going on is just needlessly segmenting the already meagre console-gaming pie. Probably this happened while one of their designers was working on a logo to advertise ‘exclusive armpit hair variations only on Playstation!’ and died of shame.

Anyway, the two console giants decide they’ve had enough of this malarky and join forces to launch the PlayBox XStation, or whatever they decide to call it. How would this actually effect us as consumers?

Some advantages:

– We only have to buy one ‘next gen’ system. We can use the money we save here to all go and buy Wii Us, because seriously that new Zelda is going to be boss and Nintendo really need the help right now.

The Last Guardian

Coming never to a console near you!

– We can play all the ‘next gen’ games on our one ‘next gen system.’ Seriously, imagine how cool it would be to have a console where you’re playing Halo, then you stop playing Halo and put on Uncharted instead. I’d say The Last Guardian, but at this point this imaginary joint-console theory is looking more likely to happen than that game ever actually being released.

– We only have to subscribe to one online service. One subscription to XStation PlusLIVE gets us access to all the online multiplayer and other annoying paywalled off features that are all the rage these days. Plus, we’d get the combined advantages of Sony’s Gaikai streaming network and Microsoft’s Azure cloud servers, which could lead to some serious online innovations.

– We can play with ALL of our console-owning friends. If I own Destiny on PS4 and my friend owns it on Xbox One, we can’t play together. This is flagrant bullshit.

And, for measure, some disadvantages:

– They could charge whatever they want for the box. You can bet the PS4 is only priced as reasonably as it is because Sony knew that Microsoft would have to launch at a higher price point. And the Xbox One only dropped in price (and Kinects) because the success of PS4 forced Microsoft’s hand. With no direct competition other than the Wii U they could hike the price up as high as they liked, because the Wii U isn’t really competition at this point.

PSPlus

Look at all that hot, hot value…

– Their online service wouldn’t actually have to be any good. Or good value. Playstation Plus developed from an eyebrow-raising superfluous expense into perhaps the most generous subscription service around, and it did this largely to match Microsoft’s unarguably superior Xbox LIVE for value. Now it’s Microsoft playing catch-up, and if that means I get to play Crackdown and Battleblock Theatre for free, then I’m down.

– First party studios would dry up. This is a little speculative, but if all the third party studios are producing content for one platform, there seems little point in the platform holders funding their own in-house studios as well. It would be a shame to see the end of the quirky in-house titles that bring a unique – perhaps the only unique, these days – style to each console.

Okay, so there are positives and negatives to this imaginary scenario. It’s probably worth pointing out that a lot of those negatives would be mitigated by the fact that there’s a lot of competition in the games market that doesn’t come from dedicated gaming consoles.

The XPlay BoxStation couldn’t become too expensive, because as soon as the price of the box reaches the price of a decent gaming PC, consumers will have to question why they don’t just buy or build a PC instead.

And while there may be no direct console competitor forcing the joint Sony/Microsoft venture to offer an enticing online service – Nintendo’s online services are still bare bones, after all – they would still have to compete with services and pricing structures offered on Steam and other PC platforms as well as the various handheld and mobile devices.

In short, there is plenty of competition from other markets such as PC and mobile to stop the console manufacturers becoming too evil if they don’t have a direct competitor in their own market; at this point in time the gaming public are well aware there are lots of other options for gaming than an Xbox or a Playstation.

Of course this speculation is all for naught, as there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of this actually happening, and Sony and Microsoft are set to continue fighting bitterly over the same small slice of the gaming market. I guess I’ll just have to put up with a continued cycle of irritating exclusive games and fenced-off content. I do not, however, believe for one second that this is supposed to be good for me as a consumer.

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