E3 2012: The state of exclusive games

And why this is the time for publishers to take a risk.

The death of the third-party exclusive is inevitable. As hardware improves and production costs rise, developers naturally seek to maximize their audience and minimize their risks – to limit their product to just a single segment of a ever-growing market is increasingly difficult to justify.

And with middleware that can run games on everything and your calculator, publishers are no longer confined as a matter of convenience or technical know-how. Even if your platform is powered by a rat wheel and a wired-up potato, you can bet your bottom cheese that they’ll find a way to port it.

Indeed, things have changed. And the Big Three are ostensibly baffled on how to adapt to the industry’s shifting ecosystem.

In Sony’s case, it’s not difficult to see why. Its PlayStation predecessors were synonymous with third-party titles. Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy – these were properties that, even if they eventually found their way to other boxes, remained distinctly PlayStation. They defined the system.

Fast forward, and platform holders are increasingly third-parties to their own hardware. They depend on the whim of other companies – which aren’t motivated by loyalty, but by profit – to bring colour and diversity to their line-ups. First-party efforts are ever-becoming ‘that bit on the side’.

And yet, as E3 has demonstrated, Sony is coping better than most. The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls alone testify to the company’s willingness to invest in new, exclusive properties. Announce exclusive downloadable content, people sigh.

Announce exclusive games, people cheer.

Perhaps spurred by last generation’s biggest franchises migrating to multiple platforms – no longer did exclusive third-party games fall into Sony’s lap – they’ve apparently benefited from what appeared to be a disastrous situation. At this year’s E3, it reminded us that ‘Only on PlayStation’ could mean something.

On the next stage along, though, Nintendo seemed largely dependent on ‘old’ software. Naturally, the Wii U will be graced with a crossover period, a time when to port content from this generation’s production cycles is perfectly feasible. But when this inevitably ends, the high-definition element of the system means that developing a game won’t be seen as the small, throwaway investment that many saw in its predecessor.

And Microsoft has perhaps placed too much stock in its core cache of exclusive games. With six Halo titles since 2007, they’ve shown that even the most spectacular franchises can be somewhat dulled by rampant exploitation.

This is the time to experiment. Successful properties tested now – in the relative safe-heaven of this generation’s production values – can be carried into the next-generation, where games cost substantially more to produce, and games lacking a number at the end are at a greater risk of failure.

Implanting upcoming third-party software into a ‘Big Three’ conference with the tentative link of exclusive downloadable content is unconvincing at best. If it’s free, that’s one thing. If it’s premium, it screams: ‘If you purchase the game on our platform – you lucky sod, you – you’ll be blessed with the opportunity to spend more money on a game you’ve already paid full price for.’

Yeah, thanks for that – that’s exactly what I bought your platform for.

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