How Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Xbox exclusivity represents the nature of the games industry
“What’s the difference between a corporation and a person?”
“Have you ever held a door open for someone?”
“Did you ask them for money first?”
“That’s the difference.”
— Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom
The video game industry is a product-based industry. That means that game companies make products, or games, to sell to people for money to keep making more games.
There’s nothing wrong or bad about that. If you spend too much time thinking about games as money-driven products, you’re probably going to lose any passion for the medium as an art form. It’s easy to get cynical about all of the sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots. But that’s just how it works. You have to accept that to appreciate what games are.
You have to remember that there are tons of men and women who make games with a deep, genuine interest in exploring the possibilities of them. We like to say that games are growing, but I think it’s actually the people that are growing to understand and manipulate what can be expressed in a game. It’s fascinating to watch what we think to be the limits of what games can be get destroyed every day. There are no guidelines or rules to what a game is. And that’s why we play them.
But always hidden behind the layer of artistic form is a product sold by a company for money. As a creator, you put everything you are into a creation and hope that an audience appreciates what you’ve done. After all, art is about eliciting a response from an audience. Traditionally, that audience will recognize the creator’s effort and time and pay them for it. That’s how art forms have worked for hundreds of years. Over time, we’ve added some complications that stand between the creator, his or her product, and the audience. Things like consoles and publishers and retailers and marketing.
Unlike paintings or books, games can only be consumed with the help of technology. It’s an inherent complication to engaging with the form. Someone has to make the hardware for us to play games on and that hardware is another product we have to buy. That’s how games work. At the heart of it all it’s still all about creators and their creations, but now there’s more people helping to bring their work to an audience.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a creation. It’s also a product. It has to satisfy both roles at the same time. Microsoft is a publisher, a company that sells hardware for you to play the game on. Rise of the Tomb Raider needs a console to be played on and Microsoft needs games for people to play on its console. They need each other to function. Sony’s console needs the same things, and Rise of the Tomb Raider should technically be playable on its console too. But with two options (sorry, Wii U) and limited time and resources, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s publisher Square Enix has to make a decision on whether or not to create a game that works on both.
Like Microsoft, Sony also needs games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, so that people will want to buy its console too. If both companies want people to buy their console to play the game and we’re assuming nobody, or not many, are going to buy the game twice with their limited amount of money, then that creates competition. Microsoft would like people to buy its console over Sony’s, and vice versa.
This is where exclusivity comes in. By incentivizing a publisher or developer to only release their game on your platform, you force the people who want to play the game to have to buy your console. Even if it’s a timed exclusive, where eventually it will come out on other consoles, you’re still making a decision that requires someone to buy your console to play that game for a length of time.
Exclusivity is a business decision. It’s a choice to get people to give you money for access to a product they can’t get anywhere else. What drives that decision is not always known. Maybe the only way Square Enix thinks it can make a profit on the game is to release it exclusively on Microsoft’s console. We will probably never know why a decision like this was made.
We call games “cash grabs” and other names when it seems like they’re acting as more of a product than a creation. We don’t want to believe they can be both at the same time. But even if there’s an apparent imbalance, that doesn’t change the fact that they are still a creation.
The problem is not that Microsoft or Square Enix is money hungry. The problem is the complications from the original form of a creator and his audience. The problem isn’t even really a problem. It’s just how games work.
And if you take the money out of the equation, the game is still a game. Take the game away and all you have left is the money. This whole thing doesn’t work without the game because nobody is paying each other for nothing.
Exclusives suck. They make it so that we can’t play the games we want because we don’t own the product to play them on. But people with lives and families make games as jobs. They need to be paid to keep doing what they do. That’s what this industry is based on and how it’s probably going to function forever.
None of this means you should just accept what exclusives do.
As consumers, as the people on the other end of this whole concept, all we can do is not pay for games that we disagree with, whether it’s because of an imbalance between product and creation, or something else.
When you refuse to pay for a creation the creator has less incentive to do the same thing again. We need each other to function and if one side stops providing, the other side will be forced to change.
Read a different opinion that examines Square Enix’s role in this.