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Are Platform Exclusives THE VERY DEVIL Or Kinda OK?

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Once a week most weeks, team RPS gathers, eyes itself warily across the table then debates. Sometimes it’s about SCANDAL, like slow-motion Batman or No Man’s Sky hype, other times it’s about perennials, like best levels ever or if Early Access means the end times.

This week, we’re discussing the pitfalls and merits of platform exclusives, in the wake of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture being PS4-only, despite its devs making their name with the PC-only Dear Esther. In recent months similar has happened with Tomb Raider, and of course there’s a long history of this sort of thing, from your Marios to your Halos. Is this right? Is it sensible? And what about the other side of the coin, with XCOM 2 being PC-only? Not so grumbly then, are we? Let’s see if we can figure this one out, eh?

Adam: There are enough of us to form a gang. Let’s form a gang!

Alec: Who shall we fight?

John: Whom.

Alec: That’s settled, we’re fighting John. Actually, let’s fight PLATFORM EXCLUSIVES. This is a week in which every games journalist in Britishland is raving about The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. Except us, because it’s only on PS4, because that kind of thing now happens to small games as well as big games. How do we feel about having treats out of reach like that?

Pip: Is this a good time to say that because of this reminder I have just set Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture downloading?

John: After the towering pile of wank that was Dear Esther, I’m sort of glad it’s over there in that corner.

Adam: There as a time when I wanted everything as soon as it released and would have been sad that I couldn’t play the new thing everyone is talking about. Nowadays, I don’t mind exclusives so much until time has passed. I feel like there should be a limit on these things so that I can draw up a list of my favourite games ever and know that they’re all playable in one place by just about anyone who has a computer. But much as I’d like to play Rapture – even though I agree with John about Dear Esther, I loved A Machine For Pigs – I’m happy to play it in five years time. It might feel more fresh then than it does now because all of the conversations around it will have died down, and it’ll seem like a quiet little thing. Unknown and mysterious.

Alec: FWIW Rapture is more comparable to an open air (and extremely English) Gone Home than Dear Esther. But, feelings about introspective clifftop muttering games aside, does it seem any better or worse that we’re seeing more ‘indie’ games sign up with one hardware manufacturer or the other? It’s not just the realm of big corps or first parties now?

John: I think I said similar in a recent Shottake, but I find it extremely concerning. Deals like these are removing independence from independents, and seeing them hand over a great deal more of their profits (and rights) than they would were they simultaneously selling the game via their own Humble widget, and even on a Steam page. Sure, it’s in return for a wodge of development cash, but that’s some heftily short-sighted thinking.

Graham: I think it’s sometimes in exchange for some development cash, and just as importantly in exchange for advertising, store placement and other perks that can make the difference between ‘Release Event Everyone Is Talking About’ and ‘Oh, that game’s out on Steam along with 11 other games today.’

I can understand why developers do it, is what I mean, and assume that they’re making the decisions that make sense for their business. And ignoring concerns for the developer, and approaching it as a player, I don’t know that it harms me substantially that there be a game that’s not immediately available to me.

Adam: I’m pleased that XCOM 2 isn’t going straight to console because I think it could benefit from being a PC/Mac/Linux game. Specifically a computer thing rather than a console thing. It’ll hopefully allow modding tools to be integrated more comprehensively, or at least for mods to be readily available. Supported on menus and whatever, so that they’re a part of the game rather than a separate thing.

If a game benefits from exclusivity – whether that’s because of tech, a control method, peripheral or some kind of support from a publisher – I don’t have a problem with that at all. Whatever gets the most best games made and hopefully in the hands of as many people as possible. I’m more concerned when games remain exclusive because there’s a belief that there’s no audience for them beyond the one they’ve already reached – that’s often a regional thing as much as a console thing though.

Alec: I was going bring up XCOM 2, because it’s an example of a PC ‘exclusive’ and also because we reacted positively to it – one of relatively few problems with XCOM was that it compromised on controls, feeling a bit off on both PC and console by seeking an arguably necessary middleground. So to John particularly, I guess, do you feel similarly about XCOM 2, that it’s unnecessarily denying itself to people even when it seemingly has a more concrete, less bag-of-cash-related reason for it?

John: When it’s pragmatic, it’s a different choice, I suppose. While I take no position of “But I DESERVE THIS!”, I do stare in wonder at developers and publishers who wish to narrow their potential sales. Sure, Microsoft and Sony are locked in a childish war, but when you cut off PC, you’re cutting your nose off too. Saying all that, I think it would behoove XCOM 2 to find a way to innovatively use a controller to allow itself a console port, for the sake of making more money, certainly.

Pip: Potential sales aren’t guaranteed cash, though. Just because something is available on all platforms doesn’t mean the entire world of game players will buy it. I can understand the appeal of a definite chunk of change and a promise to expose that game to an audience. Besides, the point of console exclusives is pretty much to shift particular hardware. Console manufacturers then need to make that deal attractive or pragmatic or whatever else to the developers and publishers.

Alec: Going back to Rapture, it really is very, very pretty, and as much as that might be superficial in many respects, here it’s propping up the recreation of a very particular environment, which is what’s so startling about it. I sincerely doubt it could have been anything like so beautiful on just proceeds from Dear Esther, and if my inkling is right, we might well see this on PC a little later anyway. And we’ll get a better version because of it. Is that not worth it, to some degree?

Pip: I really can’t remember how this came up or with whom but I remember a developer talking about timed exclusives and how that gives you breathing room and lets you focus on getting one platform right instead of trying to meet all the requirements for everything all at once. They were saying that that’s a big ask if you’re an indie.

John: Do people think there’s a notion of betrayal when an indie who found their audience and their initial success in the open fields of the PC, then offs and puts their game in a walled garden away from the people who first supported them? (I phrase it emotionally to make that point, rather than think this way. Although I definitely sometimes think this way.)

Pip: I don’t, and I’d question the idea of the open fields of the PC. Most of the people I know who play games outside the industry are console gamers. I guess they’re only open fields if you’re a PC gamer.

John: Open in the sense that it’s non-proprietary, accessed by all with a functioning typewriter machine, and not owned/licensed by a corporation.

Pip: I get what you’re getting at but there are still divisions within that. I’ve owned a Mac and some devs don’t’ bother with Mac versions of things. Same with Linux. What I’m getting at is that there are still gardens, it just depends on your perspective.

My main problem with exclusives is the way they affects other people. I said earlier that exclusives are a way of selling hardware. I’m in the position where I can afford a PS4 or an Xbox One as well as my gaming PC. Someone else might have to choose and that’s a source of stress. You try to work out which of these not-insubstantial investments is likely to house as many of the games you want to play or work with as many of the publishers you tend to like as possible and plump for that. Then what if it was the wrong choice for you?

Adam: I want a PS4 and can’t bring myself to buy one because there are so few games. The PC garden might be unwieldy and overgrown (sometimes it feels like the world’s largest hedge maze) but the PS4 one looks absolutely tiny. It’s a flowerpot. That’s not to say it isn’t packed full of good things but I can’t bring myself to spend the money on a console until the end of the generational cycle when there’s plenty to pick from. That’s partly to do with my gaming habits – I pick at things briefly and then move on more often than not – but I think it’s also a fair reflection of the games that are available. That said, I’m probably ignoring quite a few smaller games that I’ve already played on PC.

But to go back to John’s point quickly as well, I don’t think any developer has a duty to the people who played their previous games. I am disappointed when a game I want to play isn’t available to me immediately but I shrug and move on. I don’t feel as if I’m owed anything other than the game I bought.

Alec: It’s interesting that we might consider there to be a moral duty to one’s established fans, as though making and selling a game isn’t an inherently capitalistic act. I mean, is it OK for people to want more money and more players even if it denies others their games? Isn’t that why they’re doing this anyway, at least partially?

John: It still feels a bit dickish though, right? I know it’s not a good argument, but it’s like a band that was supported by a loyal following announcing they’re not allowed to listen to the first major label album. It just feels a bit rubbish.

Adam: Yeah, but the console manufacturers can get them a gig at an arena. Releasing on Steam, you’re likely to get the backroom of the pub round the corner at 3am. And then you’re out.

John: Absolutely, I get the reasons why. But I’m trying to voice that weird feeling that it’s a bit crappy for the previous players, even though.

Alec:The other side of the coin: are there any platform exclusives which feel a bit… special because they’re only available in this one particular way? I.e. you make the effort.

Adam: Oh god no. Not as far as I’m concerned. I used to like seeking things out – bought Clockwork Orange on VHS back in the day from a dodgy guy in Affleck’s Palace – but now I enjoy recommending things and sharing them. When I play something I like, or listen to an album watch a film or whatever, I usually run around telling everyone I know about it. If I have to then pause and say “you must climb the highest mountain to see this thing” or “it only runs on hardware you don’t own”, I deflate.

Pip: I like having games I can only play on console. But that’s because my PC is a place where I work as well as play. If I’m online and on my PC there are a terrifyingly large number of ways I can be interrupted or distracted. If I’m playing Dota I might be hearing my gchat go off or get a Steam notification or see something else pop up. Or I’ll check my email out of habit or refresh Twitter and see a work thing. If I’m playing Destiny I’m playing Destiny. The only notifications I get are people asking if I want to play Destiny with them.

Alec: Yeah, I’m the same. Console is a quiet space to retreat to, and the ritual of it all, the right seat, the big telly, feels like doing something profoundly different to PC. So whenever I do do that, I much prefer to do it with a game I can’t play on PC.

John: I still feel most comfortable at my PC. Perhaps because it’s in my study, and the big TV is in a communal family room. But then I’ve also got an armchair in here, so I can switch from office chair to lounging, and use the same machine. Although I am RUBBISH at ignoring distractions from the other monitor.

Alec: OK, to finish: console exclusive you feel warmest and fuzziest about despite fist-shaking at the conditions it’s available under?

Graham: I really like Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS. I think it’s a brilliant strategy game, although I only shake my fist at its platform as much as I shake my first at Creme Eggs only being available certain months during the year. Which is to say that my letter writing campaign to Cadbury’s has lasted decades and will cease only when they submit.

John: So much on my Nintendo DS. Dozens and dozens of games from back in the day, most especially Slitherlink and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. The DS always felt like Other, rather than As Well As. It made sense for games to be uniquely designed for it. More recently, on my phone, ALPHABEAR!

Adam: The Fatal Frame (Project Zero here in Europe) trilogy. I still think the third game, The Tormented, is one of the best ever made. A wonderful horror game that does things I’ve never seen anywhere else, playing with the idea of its own position in a trilogy of loosely connected stories. It’s brilliant and not enough people played it because it came out on PS2 right before the release of the PS3.

Pip: GoldenEye on the N64. Amd Hollis’ other masterwork Bonsai Barber on the Wii.

Alec: Night Trap on MegaCD for me. I just love that you have to spend all that money on a device you basically have no other use for, only to have a horrible time in the name of seeing the faintest flash of low-res underwear. That’s a metaphor for console exclusives if ever there was one.

John: POP!

Alec: More seriously: the first Halo, pre-PC version. So entwined with the Xbox and its ridiculous controller, the establishment of it as a party machine, so different and so big and so silly compared to what was going on on PC. It felt like the whole exclusive/lots of money thing had actually paid off, at least for a while. Then Halo 2 and 3 came out and urgh.

OK, in conclusion all games should be exclusive to Linux. The end.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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