The Importance Of Exclusives Is Fading
When I was younger, exclusive games were the sole factor I considered when purchasing a new console. I loved my NES, but when it came time to upgrade to the 16-bit era, I switched teams to the Genesis for one reason: Taz-Mania. Even though a game with the same name appeared on SNES (a practice that wasn’t unheard of in that era), the Genesis version – a 2D platformer – is the one I wanted to play. I don’t know what to tell you, except that I was a very cool kid who loved Taz. Unfortunately, Taz-Mania was actually not good, so I jumped ship again; I traded in my Genesis months later so I could a play Final Fantasy II on SNES.
I continued shifting my loyalty like this for years, chasing Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, Metroid, and Metal Gear – whatever system had the exclusive lineup that excited me most. Even after I started buying multiple consoles, my most-played system of each generation usually boiled down to which one had the most exclusive titles I enjoyed. But as we move forward in a new generation, it’s becoming clearer to me that the role of exclusive games is getting smaller and smaller. I’m not saying they don’t (or won't) continue to exist, but they are no longer the only important differentiating factor between systems.
The upcoming abundance of cross-generation, multiplatform titles for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S is unprecedented for a transition to new gaming hardware. I don’t think that necessarily means exclusive games are dying, but they are changing. In general, triple-A games keep getting more expensive to make. That’s a burden that companies have tried to offset in different ways: DLC, unconventional monetization, fancy special editions, and (most crucially) expanding the audience as far as possible.
For third-party publishers (i.e. companies that are not owned by Sony or Microsoft), producing a platform-exclusive game and leaving out an entire segment of potential customers is a tough prospect. That’s why many traditionally platform-specific series gradually made the multiplatform leap over the last couple generations. As a result, exclusives today are often first-party projects that serve as technical showpieces for the hardware – games like God of War or Gears 5. They can still be amazing experiences, but there’s more and more overlap between the game libraries. Regardless of which console you buy, you can be relatively certain that most of the big, genre-defining titles will be available to you.
So, with true exclusives dwindling, what is the deciding factor that pushes players toward one system or the other? It’s not necessarily one thing anymore; it’s a collection of features that create an overall environment. Even the age-old “Which console is more powerful?” question has taken a backseat in favor of more experiential qualities. If I were only buying one next-gen console, the choice would be largely decided by the perks of the subscription services, the approach to backwards compatibility, and the ease of connecting and sharing content with friends. Sony and Microsoft are approaching these things differently, but for many features like this, it’s difficult to say that one platform has a clearly superior approach.
Though I am tired of people always comparing games to movies, this issue brings cinema-related parallel in my mind. When you go to the theater to watch a movie (or rather, when you used to do that, when there wasn’t a global pandemic), what you see on the screen is the same no matter what theater you go to. Even so, people have specific theaters they prefer. Here in the Twin Cities, the AMC theaters all have big comfy recliners, which is nice. On the other hand, the Alamo Drafthouse has a zero-tolerance policy for people who talk and text during movies, which is also nice. Regardless of which one you choose, you’re going to see the movie either way – just with different amenities that you select based on your personal preference.
It’s the same with games. The content you’re enjoying is essentially the same regardless of where you get it – so your choice is more about the context surrounding that experience.
This isn’t just about next-gen, either. Nintendo is often set aside in discussions like these because of the power of its hardware, but it actually fits perfectly on this topic. Nintendo has used the Switch to create a unique and compelling environment to play games; how many times have you bought (or re-bought) a game on the Switch just for the opportunity to play it on the go? That portability is a huge advantage, and a deciding factor in many of my own purchases on that system – even if I can play the same game with slightly better performance on PS4 or Xbox One. I’ve put over 100 hours into Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen and 50 hours into Valkryia Chronicles 4 on Switch, for instance, despite playing both of them previously on other systems. Yes, the Switch still has an impressive library of exclusives … but they aren’t all that's drawing me to the system.
To be clear: I’m not saying that exclusive games are bad on any platform. I’m happy we have them, and I still love playing them. But their prominence in the landscape has been diminishing, and at the same time, other elements of the gaming experience have risen to even the playing field. Unlike when I was younger, I can’t just follow the system with the “best” exclusives; most series that used to draw me to one console over another have since gone multiplatform, and Sony and Microsoft both have great first-party studios making games. So in the absence of exclusives making my decisions for me, I'm enjoying seeing the other clever ways the console manufacturers are setting themselves apart.