Gamers aren’t happy this afternoon with the news that Rise of the Tomb Raider will be an exclusive to the Xbox One – and not multiplatform like the 2013 reboot.
The official Tomb Raider blog has been bombarded with angry comments, complaining about the decision and accusing Crystal Dynamics of running scared of Unchartered 4, perhaps Tomb Raider’s closest rival. But here’s the annoying thing: Whilst the decision is bad for gamers, it probably makes financial sense for the developers. Is there anything we can do about it?
Let’s start from the beginning. Why is it bad for gamers?
By 2013, things were not looking good for Lara Croft. Despite being arguably the best known face in gaming, the series was long past its best. Since Tomb Raider 3 on the PS1 every few years had seen a new Tomb Raider game met with a sense of depressingly inevitable disappointment. Lara must have sat at the bar with Sonic, wondering where it all went wrong.
Luckily, something happened to go very right: In the 2013 reboot of the series the developers opted to cut down on the tedious sexualisation and instead bring in Rhianna Pratchett to write the game – which game it a more mature tone, and overnight Lara Croft felt relevant again.
The game was great – and both the critical response and sales figures made it a hit. Apparently as of June this year, over 6.5m copies had been shifted. Gamers loved it.
So it is a shame to see the now hotly anticipated sequel cocooned away and held back for only one platform… for seemingly no good reason. The Xbox One and PS4, for all of the bluster, are nearly identical systems: If a game can run on one, it can run on the other. There’s no technological or artistic reason why ROTTR needs to be on one platform. All that has happened is that Microsoft has offered Crystal Dynamics a suitcase full of money for the exclusive rights. As a result, gamers who have been forced to pick sides fairly arbitrarily at the start of the generation have been excluded from playing the title. The arguments don’t need to be re-stated: Everyone thinks that it is a little bit mad that whilst films aren’t tied to a specific playback device, games are. That’s the world we’re used to – but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Essentially it is the little guy who has to pay the price. If you owned a Ford car, and it was later announced that you could only fill up your car at Esso petrol stations because BP were exclusive Honda, you’d feel rightly short-changed as you look at the heap of metal on your drive way that is unable to go anywhere.
What makes the problem more frustrating in this case is that so far this generation the PS4 is thumping the Xbox One in sales – by as much as 3:1 – meaning that Xbox exclusivity is disproportionately disenfranchising gamers.
Similarly, Tomb Raider’s position is telling. Whilst as I described above the first Tomb Raider was very warmly received, I dare speculate that it isn’t exactly a system seller. If you’ve got a PS4, are you really going to fork out for an Xbox One to play Tomb Raider? Maybe if it were a game as big as Grand Theft Auto 5, which has so far sold over 29 million copies. For most people though, it is a pain they will live with as they already have a console that will play 90% of the games they want to.
So why do it? Why risk all of the negative PR by making an announcement like this so late on? Unfortunately, money talks and for both Microsoft and Crystal Dynamics, exclusivity makes perfect business sense.
We’ve no idea how much Microsoft paid for exclusive rights, but for Crystal Dynamics the equation is pretty simple: Does Microsoft’s big cheque contain a larger number than the amount of cash that projected sales on the PS4 would bring in? And is the money more than enough to make up for any perceived negative PR from making such an announcement? In other words, will the developers have enough $100 bills to wipe away their tears? It sounds like they will.
For Microsoft, the calculation is slightly more complex. Microsoft is coming into the next year on the back foot, and desperately want to catch-up with the PS4. To do this, it needs to make its product more appealing: That’s why it has canned Kinect in order to cut the price, and why this year’s big E3 presentation was all about games rather than the extraneous multimedia functionality. But given that the PS4 has already sold a lot of consoles, it not only needs to make the Xbox One seem like a better choice than the PS4 to gamers buying their first new console this generation, but also convince some people to give in and buy a second console, otherwise the gap could continue to widen.
Tomb Raider is a game and a brand that can do that. Tomb Raider is a big, attractive brand again – and to be able to use that name and tout it exclusively is a big deal. (A good comparison would be how a few years ago, nobody would believe you if you told them that Iron Man is a top-tier superhero on par with Batman and Superman). Beyond simply games sales, it is also making a statement – and buying another small but significant advantage in the endless corporate chess game between Sony and Microsoft. Essentially – it is worth it for Microsoft to dig deep.
Unfortunately, nothing can be done about this conflict of interests between the corporations and the people who play the games. Not unless you’d want to suggest weirdly draconian regulation (which, even as a left-leaning type, I think would be disproportionate).
There is one thing gamers can do though. Whilst money talks, so do gamers. And if Microsoft has learned anything since the first announcement of the Xbox One it is that what people are saying is everything. The reason the PS4 has so far taken the lead is because way back at E3 2013 when the two consoles were revealed, Microsoft were widely viewed to have had a disaster. This coloured the views of the sorts of early adopters who tune into E3 coverage – and thus has had an impact on PS4 vs Xbox One sales today. It has potentially started a dangerous cycle for Microsoft, where the PS4 will continue to dominate because when the early adopters’ friends come to buy a console, they’re going to opt for the console owned by their friends so they can play online (and so on) – which could further increase Playstation dominance.
The gaming community online is particularly vocal – and the companies that work with games know this, and are cautious not to fall foul of gaming opinion (just look at Twitch’s reputation in tatters following announcements earlier this week) – so my advice to any gamers annoyed they won’t be able to play Tomb Raider… kick up a fuss. Don’t be a dick, obviously – but by continuing to speak out on the issue it could edge the notion of exclusive titles over a tipping point where it becomes reputational suicide to make it happen. Whilst we might not get Rise of the Tomb Raider on PS4, if the reaction is overwhelming then by the time Dawn of the Planet of the Tomb Raider (or whatever they decide to call the game after) rolls around, Crystal Dynamics will be viewing its exclusivity decision in a very different light.