The pros and cons of console exclusives: Anti-consumer or important identity?

Every time a new console generation comes around, the gaming community at large finds a hot topic to compare the major AAA companies. Last year it was physical copies, used games sales, and DRM. In fact, it could be argued that the mere rumors of an Xbox One policy that prevented you from selling or sharing your used games cost it all the momentum it needed at launch, therefore letting the PS4 establish its winning hold on the market.

This time around, the hot topic issue that has bubbled to the top of the new console buzz is console exclusives. Xbox’s Matt Booty said in an interview with MCV that the Xbox Series X will not be launching with any console exclusives. Everything on its first party launch lineup will be playable on PC or any version of Xbox One, and this is good for consumers. Meanwhile, it was revealed on Kotaku’s Splitscreen Podcast that Sony’s PS5 will have first party launch titles built for PS5 only with all PS5’s new technology taken into account, allowing them to do things that PS4 titles simply couldn’t… and this is also good for consumers.

So, which is it? Which policy is better? Well, gamers have sounded off on social media and, of course, they are split down party lines harder than American political parties. We thought we would take this opportunity to take a dive into this topic and look at what we gain and what we lose from console launch exclusives.

The evolution of the launch exclusive

There is an old adage in the gaming world: “A console is only as good as its software.” This was especially true for the early days of consoles when we were all blowing in cartridges. For example, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis ran on fundamentally different hardware. They produced graphics and sound in wildly different ways. You couldn’t easily port games from one console to another without essentially rebuilding the game from scratch. This is why console ports varied so wildly in those days.

That’s also why multi-console games were so much rarer than they are now. Console exclusives were the norm. The majority of any consoles library was exclusive. If you purchased an SNES, you probably purchased it because that was where you could play Chrono Trigger or Mega Man X or Super Castlevania IV, or at the very least you liked how Street Fighter II looked, sounded, and played on one console over another. This is essentially where the adage I talked about earlier came from. A console was only as good as its software because they were defined by their software.

The thing is, gaming technology has changed a lot. Current generation consoles are basically just computers, and while their specs might differ slightly games play pretty much the same on either. For the most part you are getting the same graphics, same sound, usually the same framerate (if you don’t count the Switch), and certainly the same mechanics.

As a result, most games are now multi-console games, or at the very least cross-platform with console and PC. The number of true “exclusives” has dropped significantly, and while console are still primarily bought for those exclusives, they also sell themselves on other functions such as VR, streaming apps, and social media functions. Console exclusives are no longer a matter of technology, they are a matter of branding. They are exclusive because they are developed by first party developers, or first party affiliates, and they are used to build up the identity of a particular console.

Microsoft’s choice: rejecting the software based console model

Let’s take a look at Microsoft’s strategy for a second. They have essentially decided to buck the trend of selling consoles based on software. If it’s true that not a single piece of Xbox Series X software will be exclusive to the Xbox Series X for a few years past its release then no one will HAVE to buy the Xbox Series X to play a new game. The new Halo or Gears or Forza can all be played with equipment you already have.

This is why the gaming community has looked at this policy as pro-consumer. Upgrading to a new console is extremely expensive, and right now it’s looking like next-gen consoles are going to be more expensive at launch than this generation’s consoles were. By ensuring that the Xbox Series X’s game lineup is multi-console, that means that anyone with an Xbox One X or sufficiently powered gaming PC can comfortably build up the money to purchase an Xbox Series X over the first few years of its lifetime.

It also means that Xbox Series X consumers have the time to consider whether or not purchasing the console is right for them. By the time exclusives actually do start coming to Xbox Series X, consumers may change platforms, especially because Microsoft is so good about making their games cross-compatible with Windows 10.

All of this is great, but if you aren’t going to be buying Xbox Series X for its killer app, what are you going to buy it for. This is where Microsoft’s plan is really looking to change the way we think about consoles. As I said before, consoles are really just small computers with predictable specs right now, and Microsoft is leaning into that.

But to understand why, first we have to look at Nintendo. Many have said that Nintendo has dealt a killing blow to the console “generation” as we know it. The Wii U failed and instead of waiting for Sony and Microsoft to say “ok cool we are ready to make some new consoles now” they just went ahead and made the Switch and made a ton of money on it.

Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft didn’t have any “new” consoles to compete with Switch, so they kind of made some, but not really. What they made were console upgrades. Xbox One got Xbox One X, and PS4 got PS4 Pro. Both of these weren’t really new consoles. They had no exclusive software that couldn’t also be played on the original hardware (sound familiar?). You could make your games look a little better on these new upgraded consoles, with nifty 4K resolutions, deeper colors, decreased load times, and so on, but you were still playing the same games you would play on less powerful hardware. Purchasing an Xbox One X to replace your Xbox One was more akin to purchasing a new graphics card to replace your old one.

And to be honest, it worked. Microsoft promised power with Xbox One X and they delivered. Tech minded consumers decided to upgrade, more casual consumers saw this as a good time to purchase an Xbox One for the first time at a reduced price, and everyone was still buying Xbox One software which was where Microsoft made the majority of their money anyway.

This is what Microsoft is trying to continue to push with Xbox Series X. Once again they are promising power. Even back when it was known as Project Scarlett the hook was that Xbox Series X was the most powerful console that consumers have yet seen. It’s that power that they are hoping to make their brand this generation. Consumers will buy Xbox Series X not because of any killer app, but because they like the way that games look and sound on it. In a way, this is Microsoft replicating the original choice in multi-console games we had in the sprite era.

More importantly, this is Microsoft taking a HUGE gamble to retain their user base. They are basically assuming that consumers won’t buy a PS5 for its console exclusives, or at the very least their core audience won’t. Or (again) if they do, they will still prefer to buy software on Microsoft platforms. That’s the major upside for Microsoft here. By doing away with console exclusives they open up more of their userbase to be active software consumers and as I said before, software is where Microsoft or really any first party publisher makes the bulk of their money.

Sony’s choice: reinforcing console identity

So what does Sony get by staying the course? Well, to be clear, they aren’t just choosing to do nothing. They are choosing the benefits that come with console exclusives, and there are lots.

The first, of course, is brand reinforcement. This is the benefit that first parties have been reaping since the early days, and we already discussed it. PlayStation 5 will still likely be the “Persona Machine” or the “Final Fantasy Machine” or the “Street Fighter 6 but only until it comes out on PC Machine.” Yes, that does kind of feel like browbeating your market into buying new hardware so they can still play the games they want… but it works. It’s been proven to work for eight generations now.

The second, is the ability to create experiences that better use the power of PS5 than multi-console games.

Developing games for PC is hard. You have to make your game work with a ton of different graphics cards, processors, and hardware configurations. Your game has to look great at whatever settings your players play it on, and you are generally developing for lower settings and then upgrading the visuals from there.

This causes a couple problems. For one, we in the PC gaming community just kind of accept that games will be buggy here or there, not game breakingly so, but certainly a little. Sometimes you have to put in elbow grease to make them work. Sometimes a game just won’t run the way you would expect it to because of the hardware you are running it on.

Microsoft is going to inherit those same problems, albeit to a smaller degree, with their new policy. Sony, will not.

Sony will be able to make a game for PS5 and PS5 only, and you know what that means? They can push it to its absolute limits. They know that there is only one set of hardware this game will be running on, one set of specs they need to make it operate with. Not only will this allow them to make their exclusive games stable, but they can make it look and sound amazing.

I’m sure a lot of you out there are getting ready with your pitchforks and torches saying that PC games always look better than console games, and yes this is generally true because PC gamers usually have access to better hardware. So your $5,000 gaming rig will make your games look better than Sony’s PS5 will.

But launch titles always kind of look primitive compared to games released later in a console generation. That’s because developers don’t yet know how to harness the power of a new console in the most effective ways. Microsoft is going to have an even bigger issue with that because they have to develop their games to run on last generation hardware. Meanwhile, Sony can focus on PS5 and just PS5 and that will give them a small advantage in terms of development.

Finally, and I hate to keep bringing up this rumor but it’s very important. There’s still murmurs that Sony’s PS5 will be “forever compatible.” What that means is that it will be able to play games going all the way back to the PS1. If this is true (and note, this has not been confirmed yet) then Sony is essentially doing the exact opposite of Microsoft.

Microsoft is ensuring that you can play new games on old hardware. Sony is ensuring you can play old games on new hardware. Instead of enticing you to buy a PS5 with power, they would be enticing you with convenience. If PS5 is, in fact, backward compatible with all PlayStation games, then you would only ever need a PS5 to play any Sony product. After a few years pass, Xbox Series X will eventually get its own exclusives (presumably) at which point you’ll still need to dust off your Xbox One X, Xbox 360, and original Xbox to play Microsoft games.

Pro or anti consumer?

So let’s address the rabble rabble and discuss whether either of these policies are anti-consumer. While it’s important to be vigilant about anti-consumer policies, I’m not entirely sure a choice to have or not have console exclusives can be looked at as either pro or anti-consumer. We never really looked at this choice as anti-consumer before. It’s hard to believe that in previous generation this was “just how things were” but in current generations Sony is making console exclusives just to dick us over.

Remember, Sony is also taking a gamble here. Microsoft’s policy allows much more of its user-base to purchase its software. Meanwhile, Sony’s PS5 exclusives will have a much much smaller user base that has to make just as much money.

Both are models that their respective company hopes to make money with, just in different ways and appealing to different consumers.

A more interesting question is, which policy will win, because it will have long standing historical repercussions. If Microsoft “wins” and turns a bigger profit than Sony, then they are sure to follow the same policy for whatever comes after Xbox Series X, and Sony is sure to follow. It might actually be the end of the exclusive as we know it.

Meanwhile, if Sony wins, there’s two possibilities. One, things can stay how they are. Two, depending on the capabilities of PS5, backward compatibility might become more important as a console launch feature.

Either way, we are watching a small piece of gaming history, as well as gaming economics, being made.

What do you think? Which policy appeals to you more as a consumer? Let us know in the comments.