Microsoft’s boss may say he’d “love” to end console exclusives, but who benefits from them, anyway? Not us gamers, Vikki writes…
“If it was up to me, I would love to get rid of the entire sort of exclusives on consoles,” Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said yesterday on the witness stand, giving evidence as part of the ever-rumbling-on, possibly-never-ending FTC hearing into Xbox’s planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard King.
“But that’s not up to me to define,” Nadella added. “Especially as a low-share player in the console market that the dominant player –” Depending upon your viewpoint, that’ll be a dig at, or a compliment to, competitor Sony “– there has defined market competition using exclusives, and so that’s that’s the world we live in… I have no love for that world.”
Nor me, Satya, my friend; nor me.
Besides forging one of the stupidest, most meaningless culture wars of all time – the console war one – console exclusivity is, by its very nature, a wholly anti-consumer practice. It intentionally restricts media to one five-hundred-pound machine in the hope that it’ll foster enough FOMO that you’ll spend hundreds of pounds on another. It’s like buying a smart TV that only lets you play the shows it wants you to see, a camera that only lets you take photos in certain locations, or a phone that only lets you install certain apps and…
Oh. Okay. Admittedly, exclusivity isn’t purely a console problem. But the sentiment remains, right? For most of us, the eye-watering price of hardware means we’ll likely only be able to afford one console at a time, and regardless of which one you choose, there’ll be at least one game or series that’ll forever be gated from you – or in the very least, delayed from coming to the system that you do own – because of opaque console or platform exclusivity arrangements, be they timed or permanent.
With even Nadella himself admitting that Microsoft is a “low-share-player in the console market” – although I don’t know how much of that modesty is hyperbole crafted purely for the ears of the FTC – it’s probably no surprise that Xbox is presenting itself as a fan of a freer market where all games can be played across all systems. But regardless of the motivation behind it, I can’t help but think Nadella is right, and the games industry would indeed be better for all if we eradicated platform exclusivity.
Because what purpose does that exclusivity serve us, the game-playing public? There’s no doubt that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo’s first-party studios have produced some astonishing franchises – The Last of Us, Halo, and all things Mario to name but three – but surely they would still be great regardless of whether or not they were tied to particular consoles? (And even two of those three have made their way onto PC at this point, too). What kind of company board decides that the best way to boost its profits is by preventing an entire section of its audience from buying its products? And in what kind of warped system are those exclusions not only tolerated but celebrated? Revered, even?
The solution? You could buy both current-gen consoles, which is almost prohibitively expensive, particularly when you factor in controllers and headsets and online multiplayer subscriptions and the like. Oh, and then there’s Nintendo Switch, which offers its own metric boatload of exclusives, too, of course. Alternatively, you could invest in a gaming PC, but the costs there can be just as painful, upgrading can be pricey and messy, and half the time, you have to wait months, years, or even longer for the PC port that will inevitably suck and take six months’ worth of patches to run properly, anyway.
I’m not convinced Nadella’s positioning of Xbox as a poor little minnow swimming in the shadow of Sony’s gargantuan whale holds much water here, either. Microsoft is no more forced to align itself with its platform-exclusive competitor than it was to introduce a subscription service, offer backwards-compatibility, or offer free upgrades from its last-gen to current-gen systems. Sure, these innovations are welcomed, and could even be viewed as consumer-friendly, but let’s be honest: multi-million dollar companies aren’t known for their philanthropic pursuits.
Still, Nadella says he would prefer for more games to be available on more platforms, because “that’s the Microsoft [he] grew up in, [he] believes in that”, and it’s hard to disagree. Gaming is an expensive enough hobby as it is without exclusives forever making you feel that you picked the wrong console. Cross-play, cross-buy, and subscription services are helping with that, as does the thriving free-to-play market, but if someone like Nadella purports that the reason console exclusives exist isn’t “up to him” then who, exactly, is it up to? And who – or what – ultimately benefits from these kinds of forced exclusions?
Because besides perhaps a handful of console war warriors habitually trolling the Twitter feeds of their ride-or-die console competitors, it certainly doesn’t feel like we do, does it?
Vikki Blake has a column here every week at whynow Gaming. You can read her previous dispatch here.