Microsoft rubbed a few people the wrong way when it was announced at the recent GamesCom 2014 Xbox media briefing
that the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider would be an Xbox exclusive. The news was significant because although the series technically debuted on SEGA Saturn and has been ever-present on PC over it’s 18 year history, much of Tomb Raider’s enduring popularity stemmed from its appearance on PlayStation platforms.
So for those enthusiasts that might currently only own a PlayStation console, Microsoft announcement can be effectively interpreted as ‘we paid Square Enix a bunch of money so you can’t play this without buying our device’.
Now, I’m going to go against the knee jerk opinion here and say that it’s an understandable and acceptable business practice if a platform holder wants to throw down some big bucks to tether big potential titles to its stable. From the end-user’s perspective, the result is not a whole lot different to the concept of first party titles -- games developed by studio’s wholly owned by the console manufacture that are inherently platform exclusive.
Similarly, recent so-called second party titles -- entirely platform exclusive titles developed by third party studios such as Sunset Overdrive and Ryse -- don’t seem to have drawn the same games community ire as the Tomb Raider decision, so the issue here seems to be simply because its an established franchise that had cultivated an expectation of platform agnosticism.
Tomb Raider publisher Square Enix wouldn’t have pledged the game to Microsoft’s console if it didn’t think it was in its best financial interests, and it’s difficult to speculate how much cash might have changed hands in the deal, but it has obviously concluded that the benefits of the deal outweigh potential lost sales from delaying the game’s launch on Xbox’s competitors.
Tomb Raider is a well known brand, but it’s quality has waxed and waned over the history of its nine or so adventures, so even after the critical acclaim and commercial success of the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider will still have to work hard to prove and promote itself if it wants to continue elevating the franchise to the level of other publisher’s money printers like Super Mario or Assassin’s Creed.
By allowing Xbox consoles an exclusivity window on the game, Square Enix gains a significant marketing partner in Microsoft. If current dates are met, Rise of the Tomb Raider will be launching in the same market as Sony’s next Uncharted title, a very similar type of game (in a series very likely inspired by Lara’s adventures) from a developer known for its unrelenting quality, coming off the back of the smash hit The Last of Us.
It’s quite clear that Microsoft will be making a big contribution to the new game’s marketing effort, we might even see Tomb Raider console bundles or other cross promotion type things as a result, and when framed like this it makes sense that the deal surely has a net benefit for Square Enix beyond just money changing hands between the companies.
So the issue then isn’t that this practice is occurring, but rather how it’s being conducted. During Sony’s GamesCom presentations the likes of Destiny, No Man’s Sky, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter were all being promoted with some manner of exclusivity on PlayStation, yet they didn’t attract the same backlash.
The key difference is how its expressed. If you paid attention to the language Sony used when crowing about these exclusives, it made repeated reference to “first on PlayStation”. It’s still a little vague, in that they neglect to mention how long that lead advantage will be, but it doesn’t try to pretend that it will be forever.
Contrast that with the Tomb Raider’s GamesCom announcement, in which Crystal Dynamics head Darrell Gallagher broke the news thusly:
Blockbuster games need big partners. We've had some great support from Microsoft, and we're excited to take our partnership to new heights with Rise of the Tomb Raider, coming holiday 2015 exclusively to Xbox".
On the stage screen was a title reiterating that line "coming holiday 2015, exclusively on Xbox".
Microsoft’s Phil Harrison then entered the stage applauding and said "thank you Darrel, that's right, we're incredibly excited to have Rise of the Tomb Raider come to our platform in 2015, exclusively".
In the following days, a series of interviews from various publications would eventually prompt Xbox head Phil Spencer to confirm that the game was only exclusive for the holiday 2015 launch window, but it seems clear that there had been an intentional effort to obfuscate the fact that the game would indeed eventually be making its way elsewhere.
Square Enix also then followed up with another clarification of it’s on by way of an official FAQ
stating that “Yes, our deal with Microsoft has a duration”, but not elaborating on the timeframe. But disappointingly acknowledged a fan question regarding “Why all the indirect language?” without actually explaining why, only consoling that “it didn’t intend to cause any confusion”.
To the people in games PR and marketing, this is your problem. We the audience are largely not idiots and we don’t appreciate being treated as such. It’s understandable that sensible business decisions are going to lead companies down the path of exclusivity deals when they make sense, but please just be mindful of the language used and be more up front about the deals you announce. More transparency will almost always buy you more respect from this very passionate and vocal community.