Xbox, PS4 and the trouble with exclusives

Sony’s iron grip on the best single player exclusive titles has become an accepted theme of this gaming generation. So much so, in fact, that we don’t question it anymore. But is the gap really as wide as the popular narrative would have us believe?

Full disclosure: I’m a PS4 owner; in fact I’ve owned at least one iteration of every console they’ve ever produced. From Wipeout on PSone (memorably discovered at 1 a.m. in a Glasgow nightclub), Onimusha on PS2, Killzone on PS3 and the scintillating remake of The Last of Us on PS4, I’ve loved every one of them. It is, and always has been, an astonishingly good console with an admirable history and heritage. Some of my fondest gaming memories came with a dualshock in my sweaty hands. Despite the hardware faults on PS2 (DVD drive failures) and the security leak on PS3 (data breach failures), there was never any doubt I’d add a PS4 to my collection.
But when I dusted off my PS4 to play Spiderman in late 2018, it occurred to me that ‘dusting off’ wasn’t just an expression – my PS4 lies dormant for weeks, even months at a time. My daily driver and go-to console is my Xbox, and Sony’s magic machine sits there, patiently dormant, waiting for the next exclusive. All the massive multi-platform games, Red Dead, Odyssey, FIFA et al are played on my Xbox. My PS4 exists and remains solely for those exclusives. So how prevalent are they?

A quick glance through my Trophy collection shows two spikes in 2018 – God of War (which was truly outstanding) and Spiderman (which was very good). Hardly enough to justify a £350 console and a PS Plus subscription is it? I consoled myself (no pun intended) with the promise of exclusives to come. Days Gone, Dreams, The Last of Us 2, until it occurred to me I’d been looking forward to these games forever. In complete contrast to Microsoft, Sony have no qualms about showing their hand early and building hype for upcoming titles. Such is the quality of the output, they run little risk of hype depreciating over time and feed into the notion that they have more in their current catalogue than they actually do.

Microsoft, with its fingers perhaps still stinging from the cancellation of Scalebound, steadfastly refuse to release footage early. And when they do, as in Crackdown 3, the gap between hype and release is construed as a development disaster which they have to carefully unpick via friendly PR. Sony, on the other hand, can tease us with a few minutes of heavily edited footage and watch the internet lose its collective mind. But lest we forget, they do have form with selective edits. For example, early footage of Killzone 2 bore little or no resemblance to the finished product. Thankfully for Sony, the blowback which ensued was confined to the gaming community. The public at large were won over by the spectacular clips and had little interest in debates about pixels. Another win for Sony’s hype machine.

I’m not suggesting they’re engaged in nefarious marketing in 2019. I’ve no doubt their upcoming exclusives will be great. But for every God of War, there is a Shadow of the Colossus, for every Uncharted there is a Knack. They’re not all winners, but the failures and the modest successes are drowned out by the applause for Uncharted 4 etc.

Forza aside, Xbox exclusives have been a mixed bag. Sea of Thieves has a passionate audience, but hardly a mainstream one. Halo is huge, but the last title didn’t inspire the love; see also Gears of War. Ryse, Sunset Overdrive, Ori, Quantum Break – all good exclusives which didn’t capture the public imagination. At least not as system sellers.

The fact of the matter is, Sony has had better exclusives since 2013, but not to the extent the popular narrative would have you believe. Unfortunately, most of the Xbox exclusives, from the original Titanfall to Sea of Thieves, have failed to take off. Sure, they have (or had) devotees, but gaming success is determined by sales – plucky losers need not apply. Sony has had failures too, but with a steady stream of Naughty Dog greatness and the zeitgeist behind them, they can afford to swallow the odd bad apple. Every failure from Microsoft has been exacerbated by the runaway success of PS4.

The exclusives gap may not be as big as some would have us believe, but if we want at least two competing behemoths vying for our cash, we need Sony to keep innovating (success breeds stagnation after all) and Microsoft to bring its 360 era AAA game. Another few years of Forza and Gears/Halo cycles will alienate all but the most devout Xbox gamers, and that’s bad news for everyone who loves console gaming. Regardless of your console of choice, competition is a good thing.

Microsoft have the most powerful console available in their arsenal right now. Whether that technical advantage persists next gen remains to be seen, but their recent consumer friendly form (Game Pass, EA Access, deep discounts and so on) has clawed back some much needed goodwill. Ironically, being a distant second to Sony seems to have brought the best out of Microsoft. Those exclusives Xbox owners enjoyed over the last few years were better than they got credit for, but definitely lacked the wow factor that Sony has delivered at least once a year. So if Microsoft is to reverse the trend for the next generation of consoles, should they take a leaf from the Sony playbook and start the hype early? Would two years of build up to Quantum Break have created more excitement and generated more sales?

With the recent acquisition of a ton of studios, E3 2019 might be the opportunity for Microsoft to begin showcasing its future in style. Jez Corden of Windows Central (a generally decent source on all things Microsoft) has already tweeted that we can expect to see the latest project from Hellblade developer Ninja Theory this year. Could this signal a change of tack from Microsoft?

There’s always going to be a proportion of ‘fanboy’ gamers who will purchase their console of choice, but the 80% of consumers in the middle of the extremes will be making subconscious decisions about their next generation purchase soon. Microsoft has done a poor job with exclusives this gen, both in marketing and delivery. We should find out more about plans for the future in the coming months; new console hype is already building. If Microsofts huge investment in studios is to pay dividends, they need to simultaneously showcase the software.

With Sony skipping E3 2019, Microsoft will never have a better opportunity to showcase what’s coming next. Hardware, yes, for sure. But what we really need is games, and plenty of them. I’ve enjoyed many Xbox exclusives since the launch of the One, but all the real standout moments came on games I could have played on PS4, or could only play on PS4. That needs to change in 2020 and beyond, but for now I’ll settle for a few of those heavily edited trailers that Sony are so good at. Swiftly followed by ‘Only on Xbox’, of course.

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