Platform exclusivity: does it serve a purpose anymore?
I was kicking this thought around in my head recently because of Ratchet & Clank, the movie based on the video game series. I have only ever played Up Your Arsenal from the R&C franchise but I quite enjoyed it. It was engagingly fun and was off the beaten path of my usual bread and butter strategy and platformer games. All in all, I would say I would be glad to sample more R&C games, but I am stymied by one small problem: platform exclusivity.
Odd though it might sound to the big publishers, the era of the console wars is over, or at least has gone into a cold war status. Knockout blows like Sega exiting the console market would be all the more anomalous now than before, primarily because Sony and Microsoft are technology titans that could throw money at the video game market from other divisions within their companies. Nintendo carries serenely on by virtue of being the patriarch of modern video gaming. It is fairly safe to say, notwithstanding some more recent falterings by Ninty, that none of the Big Three will be leaving this arms race anytime soon. They are too well-established or too rich to eliminate each other, and, by the tenets of capitalism, that competition is better for the consumer. This, however, is where we have a logic error in the system.
You see, the failure of the current state of things with video games is that they exist in an oligopoly. Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony all set the terms of the market, rather than the other way around. In a truly competitive market, we would have a multitude of publishers all trying to hawk their products. Instead, these three publishers dictate to consumers what the prices of products will be and adjust carefully in accordance with their rivals. Indeed, on the Wikipedia page for oligopoly, these three companies are cited as an example (along with Valve). Speaking of the Wikipedia page on oligopoly, one of an oligopoly’s distinguishing features as noted there is non-price competition, competing in a way that has nothing to do with price. What might some examples of non-price competition be? “Loyalty schemes, advertisement, and product differentiation.” Does that sound familiar?
Getting back to the topic of platform exclusivity, the very reason the console wars started is that Sega tried to build an identity distinct and equal to Nintendo at a time when the latter had a monopolistic hold on the video gaming market. To that end, Sega tried to achieve two things: carve into Nintendo’s market share and also capture untapped consumers. Ads like “Sega does what Nintendon’t” and the Sega scream were attempts to play to an edgier, older crowd than Nintendo’s target demographic. All of this is old news, but at a time when it was Nintendo or nothing, Sega had little choice but to do things that would either be corny or dangerously close to being slanderous. Those market conditions no longer exist; we now have a much bigger market of consumers than we did 25 years ago, we now have a wider array of video game genres than we did 25 years ago, and we have many more developers than we did 25 years ago. Video games are being churned out at such a high volume that the market is saturated and gamers are spoiled for choice. Coupled with digital distribution (e.g. Steam) in this modern era, gamers can obtain old games, new games, AAA games, obscure games, bad games, good games, and all kinds of games they want, as fast as their Internet connection will permit. Some companies, like Sega, have embraced digital distribution wholeheartedly. Others, like Nintendo, are only beginning to flirt with the idea of going beyond the market share that already owns their platforms. With these kinds of market conditions, one would think the last thing still in existence is a vestige of yesteryear like platform exclusives. Does it even make sense anymore?
I would say no. After all, gamers can have diverse tastes like anyone else. There can be overlap between people who enjoy Halo and people who enjoy The Legend of Zelda. Left up to Microsoft and Nintendo, though, these people would have to buy a Microsoft console and a Nintendo console to enjoy both. This is surreal and absurd. It leads to the same problem for gamers that existed 25 years ago: prohibitive costs. If I want to play the Master Chief Collector’s Edition with Limited BFG 9000 Day 1 DLC and Legend of Zelda: Another Dumb Pun About the Word Link Here, that means I have to purchase an Xbox One and a Wii U Really Want This? in order to play them. Sorry, but last I checked, going rates on Amazon.com for the Xbox One are around $290 and $180 for a Wii U. That’s a lot of money just to be able to play these games, and then perish the thought if I only want to play that one game. I would not invest in a PlayStation 4 just to buy the newest Ratchet and Clank, relying on a misguided hope that something else will come along to justify my inordinately expensive investment. Very few other games published by Sony appeal to me, so I naturally would not invest the $250 in a PlayStation 4 to buy a single game. Of course, the publishers know this, and that is where the oligopolistic practice of price setting screws the consumer. The prohibitively high price of owning multiple consoles is what Sega banked on in the 90s and what the Big Three bank on now. To ensure loyalty, certain big name franchises are therefore held hostage as platform exclusives, unavailable anywhere else.
We can thus see two sides to this debate: the consumers’ side and the publishers’ side. However, there is a third side to this matter: the developers’ side. While the publishers do have in-house developers, many more developers are second- or third-party developers who stand to gain nothing by dying on the hill of loyalty to a single publisher. Unless their plan is to hemorrhage money, developers want to make their games available on as many consoles, computers, tablets, phones, and potatoes as there are in the known universe. This is where publishers really bite developers in the butt. Publishers see games as a means to an ends, that ends being the real-life equivalent of the infinite money cheat code. Developers see games as the ends. Publishers and developers are forced to cooperate, but developers are bearing more risk; again, publishers do not close with the same frequency that developers do. Even developers that have award-winning titles to their name, such as Irrational Games or Maxis, have closed up shop. What makes it worse is publishers’ commitment to pushing their own sales. By this, I mean how consoles are increasingly ditching retrocompatibility, which I have already questioned aloud before. Publishers see this as a way to ensure that gamers keep buying games that present like killer apps, even if they are anything but. For developers, it means that a product released at the end of a console’s life cycle is akin to setting fire to the company treasury because the product’s life is tied to the console’s. Retrocompatibility broke that trend, but apparently the state of video games is such that we are now back to where we started in the 90s with consoles that cannot play games from a previous generation, and yet we call it progress. Paradoxically, it means anyone initiated into the Ratchet & Clank franchise via the movie tie-in game cannot enjoy the PS2 era of Ratchet & Clank games without somehow obtaining a PS2. So now not only does it mean I cannot get to play any other Ratchet & Clank game without getting a Sony console, but I also have to get a Sony console that has been out of production for three years (and I’m sure it would have been out of production longer if the PS3 was not a big, heavy brick of useless obsidian). As a consumer, that is a preposterous position for me to be in, and it therefore comes as no surprise that ROM emulations have become the alternative to jumping through all these hoops to enjoy games of yesteryear. In every way, then, the developers suffer.
There may come a time when all of this changes. I suspect that we are nearing the point at which digital downloads are going to be irreversibly more utilized than buying physical copies of games to play in consoles. Indeed, publishers themselves are already beginning to move in this direction, but consoles stand to be the endangered species. Viable long-term strategies, such as access to Netflix through one’s console or using it as a DVD player, are no longer selling points; phones and computers do all of these alternate uses just as well, if not better, than consoles, meaning that consoles must go back to square one with why anyone would buy them: the games. For big-time developers, there is still enough incentive to do business with publishers. For the indie developers who lack such relationships with publishers, distribution directly through the Internet is far more practical and this will eventually force the publishers to rethink their console strategies. Put simply, it is no longer enough for publishers to sell consoles exclusively on their unique games. Then again, it has not been for a long time. This is why we have seen so many excess features on consoles going back to their sixth generation. A paradigmatic shift in the sales of video games comes with its own problems, such as who will be the oligopolistic players in a new kind of market, but it will also come as a heavy blow to the institutionalized practices we have in place, specifically when it comes to games being limited to one platform. Developers will not want to continue to limit the sales of their products when it becomes clear that self-publishing is a solid plan for enlarging their profits. To that end, platform exlcusivity serves no pragmatic purpose to any player in the market and will have to be discarded as an illogical, outdated practice.
What do you think about the current trends in platform exclusives? How do you think they will change?