Some friends and I were discussing a frankly broad topic involving PC gaming and the ways that Sony’s latest marquee system has managed to fatally offend me, but eventually one brought up system exclusives citing something along the lines of “it will always be a problem”.
No it won’t. It’s barely a problem now, but as it turns out, it was a problem worth having.
I actually addressed the Console Exclusive Problem-that-is-not-a-problem in my New Year’s op-ed, in which I praised the Wii U for being the only console out there actually innovating on gameplay.
As I wrote there:
System Exclusives seem to have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, which means that there’s no longer any clear reason to buy one system over the other as everything is available on everything, with less than five percent of major releases being tied to a given system, and most of those are TIMED exclusives, which will eventually be available on a competing platform, which generally fails to drive system sales.
Compounding the issue, the PS4 and Xbox One are basically just a low-midrange gaming PC with a custom UI in terms of hardware. Then, most damningly of all, not only do systems get all the same games, but all those games feel more similar than ever before.
Console exclusives are becoming a huge rarity. It’s not like back in 2004 when you had to buy a Playstation 2 to play one game, a Gamecube to play another, or an Xbox to play a third. Look at Amazon listings at some point and you’ll see what I mean.
The PS4 and the Xbox One share the majority of their respective libraries, and virtually all of their major releases, and most of that can be found on PC as well. This is good for the consumer in the short term but bad for Sony and Microsoft in every term, as it forces them to lean on aging tentpole franchises like Halo and Uncharted that come from an era before multiplatform gaming was the default. Most system exclusives tend to be in a franchise that originated pre-2008, and the whole industry is feeling the resultant dearth of identity. In that environment, why go for either when the PC is better at almost every price point and has the most of the same games, a massive amount of titles not to be found on any console, plus things like mods and emulation?
That’s part of why I praised Nintendo for betting big on a library unlike almost any other out there. The Wii U has a phenomenal catalog of games that appears nowhere else. Furthermore, the system is so cheap that it undercuts even the best budget PC builds. Now, I’d still like to have one, but for the time being, it’s all hands on deck as I build my PC gaming monster.
Really, the only solution that makes any logical sense for most gamers in the current release climate is a cheap but powerful budget PC and whatever Nintendo’s got that year. Sure you’ll miss out on the latest inFamous or Gears of War, but these are franchises that are seriously feeling their own age and are only iterative tweaks on prior games. There aren’t many inventive or bold system exclusives left on the console side; PC, by comparison, has TONS. Sure, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are more indie friendly than ever. And you know what? I wholly support this. But PC was the primary bastion of these guys to begin with, and still gets the first helpings. Nintendo? They just channel that indie spirit into their own games, and it leaves the Wii U feeling like an incredibly polished library, though small, with mainstay game styles and other, indie-esque eccentricities in equal measure.
Microsoft and Sony are starting to notice that the homogeneity between their libraries is a problem, and I think gamers are starting to take notice too. I mean, can anyone rightly tell me that Battlefield and Call of Duty are completely different games? Do you really want to lie to yourself that much after all this time?
Honestly, there’s only one system exclusive franchise that still manages to hold my interest, and that’s Halo. Halo has turned into quite the lovely space opera, with one hell of a story running throughout that spans millenia that rivals anything Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, or Mass Effect has on offer. Halo 5: Guardians was a very mixed bag, but it delivered some effective twists throughout that kept the story interesting.
Halo has remained a worthy exclusive, in my eyes, but you know what? It doesn’t sell a system like it used to. We need system sellers more than ever in a period where there are fewer than ever. Despite this unfettered access any given platform has to gaming at large, without the drive to create a game that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that you should buy this new Xbox or PlayStation, innovation dries out. Then the sepia shooters move in, and everything turns the color of mud.
Ironically, the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox One wasn’t Halo. It was Sunset Overdrive, and it’s a system exclusive for the Xbox One. I would not have an Xbox One today if this game had been on another platform. I’d have bought it for the thing I already had, and that would have been the end of it. I wouldn’t have given the Xbox a second glance, and given some of the technical issues I have had with the PS4 I think that would have been a travesty.
So while I still work away at my no-holds-barred PC, fittingly (and lengthily) named the “Das Übermensch Build — “God is Dead”, also sprach Zarathustra” (or “Nietzsche” for short), I continue to hold a fond desire in my heart that we’ll see a game SO GOOD I’d buy a whole new system just for a chance to play it.
Yeah, system exclusives used to be a problem. They were expensive buy-ins, railroading, and always felt a tad dishonest. But in a world that functionally exists without them, I can honestly say I’d rather go back to having that problem than the homogeneity among games we have today.
It’s worth bringing in this sentiment from Infocom back in the eighties, after they had been asked by the company’s new owners at Activision (yes, they’ve been screwing up your favorite developers for a while now) to design graphical multiplatform games: “A game made for every system cannot take advantage of the strengths of any of them, and must therefore cater to the lowest common hardware denominator.”
Let’s just call it “Infocom’s Law“, and it still holds up today. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a gorgeous console game, but it can’t take proper advantage of the PS4’s hardware gains over the Xbox One, and the PC version is likewise hamstrung by the same.
Infocom’s Law speaks clearly in favor of system exclusives in clear, observable logic, and explains just what we lost and why with the consumer demand that everything play on anything. By necessity, the wider you make the pool of hardware the game is meant to play on, the more the end result suffers.
If things keep going the way they are, we risk the industry becoming creatively stagnant, and then we can expect a fairly literal depression to hit the industry, not just in terms of sinking sales, but in unenthusiastic customers as well. Competition keeps the edge sharp, and Microsoft and Sony just aren’t competing correctly. It’s a duel of clones, Solid Snake vs Liquid Snake, but instead of the threat of global nuclear war, the stakes are simply an ennui-stricken industry that doesn’t see the point in trying anymore.
System exclusives were born out of a desire to produce a “killer app”, a game that would sell systems by virtue of its excellence and unseverable ties to a given platform; if you wanted to partake in the face melting awesomeness that was Halo: Combat Evolved, well, you have to buy an Xbox. If you wanted to experience the amazingness of the original release of Devil May Cry or Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (because screw Devil May Cry 2), sorry bruv, you needed a Playstation 2 (Xbox fans would finally get the Devil May Cry HD Collection. A decade later.). Without those exclusives vying for your cash and system loyalty, any given system is just as good as any other. When any system is as good as any other, well, both console manufacturers and consumers get punished in the long run as consumers both say “well screw it” and just spring for the best option they can find. Increasingly, that option is a PC, and with game changing boxes like Alienware’s Alpha and Steam Machines which can be had for around the price of a gaming console and with more press than PC gaming has ever had since the mid-1990’s, if console manufacturers and game development studios can’t pull together some impressive killer apps in the near future, we could be looking at a very different gaming industry in just a few short years.
So, I hate admitting this, but… COME BACK SYSTEM EXCLUSIVES.
We need you.