Timed exclusives are a bit of a modern oddity for video game companies. Choosing between making a title a traditional exclusive vs. keeping a full-fledged third party title has, for a long time, pigeonholed companies into only two options. But, what if there was a third? Timed exclusives now provide a new route that video game companies can take besides the two traditional options that existed before in regards to exclusivity. The rewards for the company, however, are not so obvious.
I am sure many other gamers don’t care for the practice of timed exclusives, but it is still important to know why they exist and how companies benefit from these newer exclusivity deals.
Exclusives are a necessary evil in the gaming market. While gamers may hate the practice of exclusives, it provides several benefits to the company that is creating them. The biggest of these benefits is that an exclusive title differentiates one’s platform from another. What’s one of the biggest differences between a Nintendo console and another? Nintendo games. You won’t see Nintendo titles on the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4, and because of that, it differentiates Nintendo’s consoles from the others. It’s the only place to play Nintendo games, giving Nintendo’s console a unique offering in comparison to other consoles. That differentiation is needed when it comes to consoles, especially when they are similar such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
There are also ancillary benefits that exclusives enable in comparison to the third party titles. As Jim Sterling from the Jimquisition succinctly illustrates, exclusives can enable a model for console developers that allows them to create games that are not inherently profitable, but because they sell consoles, are still profitable for companies to create. Even further, there exist tertiary benefits to exclusives such as building brand quality and awareness, especially in relation to franchises.
If companies gain so much from traditional exclusives, why go the other route? Why just go for promotional rights or for timed exclusives? Well, like everything in business, it comes down to cost.
The Belated Raider of Tombs
Microsoft has become the largest offender when it comes to timed exclusives. With titles such as Dead Rising 4, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, and a litany of indie games making the Xbox One the home of timed exclusives. However, the most well known timed exclusive is reserved for one title, Rise of the Tomb Raider. Fans were arguably upset at the decision, a title that was exclusively a PlayStation franchise for the majority of its life was now to be on the Xbox One for an entire year before gracing the PlayStation 4. Looking back, this was obviously a poor decision on Microsoft’s part (the next title is not a timed exclusive but Microsoft appears to have some minor level of promotional rights), but the reasoning and hopes behind these decisions are still valid in concept.
The goal of timed exclusives is similar to a traditional exclusive, just with less of a guarantee. As mentioned before, the goal of an exclusive is to provide consumers a reason to purchase a console, timed exclusives are hoping for the exact same outcome. While traditional exclusives do this by keeping a game locked to a single platform, timed exclusives hope to do the same but through association. Take Rise of the Tomb Raider, regardless of its aftermath, the entire first year of its existence it was associated with the Xbox One. When you thought Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Xbox One was the console that came to mind. The hope on Microsoft’s part, was to translate this association into sales; while the Xbox One version sold around 1.5 million copies, the PlayStation 4 version would ultimately outsell it with 1.8 million copies sold.
Microsoft’s gambit failed. It attempted to associate the Tomb Raider brand with the Xbox One brand, but unfortunately for Microsoft, a timed exclusive wasn’t enough to do that. On the other hand, Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare, a timed exclusive, benefited Microsoft with both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One versions outselling the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. In this case, Microsoft was successful in associating the Garden Warfare brand with the Xbox brand.
Microsoft isn’t the only one to find success in the timed exclusive model. Sony has most notably found success in having timed exclusive rights to Crash Bandicoot N’sane Trilogy. Nintendo has found timed exclusives as a valuable business strategy, most notably in indie titles such as Shovel Knight or Steamworld Dig; in both cases, the developers of these games have seen their most success on Nintendo platforms. While not every timed exclusive is built around the premise of a company buying those rights, the benefits are all the same, regardless if it is achieved.
Timed exclusives represent additional avenues companies can take to associate a game or a franchise with themselves. Sometimes they pay off, other times they don’t. But when they do, companies look to associate a game and its franchise with a specific console for a potentially long time at a fraction of the cost. It is why we associate Shovel Knight with Nintendo, the latest Crash Bandicoot with PlayStation, and Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare with Xbox without any of those titles being true exclusives. So when the next game of those franchises releases, what console are you going to associate it with? It’s going to be the one that made its name on those consoles.
Taking that small association, and turning it into more console sales.