What’s With The Console Exclusives?

Last week we learned that Red Dead Redemption 2 will be delayed until October 26, 2018, and there is still no word on a PC version. (The first one was a console exclusive.)

I personally don’t care that much about RDR2, having never played or even seen the first one. I was more interested in the ensuing Twitter thread I got involved in about PC versus console games. I felt like I came across as one of those “oh no PC games are dead!” people so I figured I should elaborate a bit more here. (It’s almost impossible to say anything substantive on Twitter without being misinterpreted.)

In the last year, I’ve noticed what seems to be an increase in buzzworthy, game-of-the-year-contending console exclusive titles or titles that release on the console first, then on PC later. Horizon Zero Dawn, Breath of the Wild, Nioh, Destiny 2, and just recently, Monster Hunter World. Those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head, because they’re all games that I might be interested in playing (okay I had to lookup Nioh because I forgot the name). Those games are all different cases that don’t really tie together, but it “feels” like there were more last year than I can ever remember before, especially more games with delayed PC releases.

(Bloodbourne is the next most recent console exclusive I can remember wishing I could play.)

If Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up skipping out on a PC version too, or delaying the PC version, it makes me wonder if something is “going on.” There has to be a reason studios keep doing this. Is it too troublesome to make PC games now? Is it too “expensive” as we learned from Raph Koster a while back? Are console makers paying studios to make console exclusives? Do gamers buy console games more than PC games? Are studios trying to trick us into buying both a console version and a PC version?

I don’t really know the answer, but it’s probably some combination of all of the above.

I thought I had heard Sony paid for Horizon Zero Dawn, but after a bit of investigation, it turns out that Guerrilla Games is actually a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment, so it makes sense that basically all of their games will be PS4 exclusives. Guerrilla may not be receiving cash money from Sony to turn away Xbox and/or PC sales, but they are certainly getting a lot of free marketing dollars. (That is wild speculation, but if I were in charge of Guerrilla, I would certainly be expecting some quid pro quo there.)

I don’t know much about Nintendo’s world but I assume there’s a logical explanation for why Breath of the Wild was only available there. Oh, that’s right: Nintendo develops their own games.

What other explanations could there be for console exclusives? I can only think of two: The developer is more proficient at making console games (a weak rationale in a world of cross-platform game engines), or players buy more console games than PC games, so it’s more profitable for the developer.

As a PC gamer myself, I very much hope that consoles are not more popular, or at least not so much so that developers stop bothering to make PC games. (I lived through the 1990s when game developers stopped bothering to make Amiga games and switched to making PC games so they could actually make some money. Remember the Amiga version of Doom? Me neither, because it didn’t exist until someone ported the source code in 1998, long after the Amiga was effectively dead.)

I did some investigation. A popular ESA study released in 2015  definitively showed that there are more PC gamers than console gamers. Most of the headlines made it sound like it was a tidal wave of PC gamers, but it was actually more like “a little bit more but really for business decision-making purposes pretty close to even.”

If that’s still the case today, I don’t see why a developer wouldn’t make an effort to target both (all) platforms. Targeting only consoles would mean throwing away potentially half of your customers. Especially when it’s relatively easy to make cross-platform games these days (compared to 10+ years ago–before Unreal Engine, Unity, etc.).

Of course the cynic in me looks at the study again and sees this: It doesn’t say that console gamers don’t have a PC, or that PC gamers don’t have a console. If anything, it says most people own both. Only 6% of the “frequent gamers” have a PC and not a console (that would be me). So if a developer makes a console-only game, does it really mean half of the potential audience can’t play it? Probably not.

But console exclusives are their own thing, and not really worth too much investigation. They are almost always a product of the console maker, in some way or another–essentially an advertisement for the hardware.

Most interesting to me are these cases of games that release first on the console, then later on the PC. I don’t know why studios do this. I can really only think of two reasons that make sense to me.

The first is that releasing on the console first would allow the developer to iron out bugs before the PC launch. That seems like an incredibly weak reason, though, considering that typically console launches have to be more bug-free than PC launches. I don’t know much about this, but I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s harder and slower to push updates to consoles than PCs. If developers were going to use a launch platform as a live testing phase, it should be the PC platform.

The only other–and frankly the best–explanation I can think of is a pretty devious one: They are hoping to trick gamers into buying both versions to double their sales.

Based on that study above, and plenty of anecdotal evidence on Twitter, we can assume that more people would prefer to play a game on the PC over a console (I know I would). But if the studio releases a “hot” game on console first, buzz and hype will compel PC gamers to buy the console version so they are part of the hip crowd even though they would prefer the PC version. (We also know from that study above that a whole lot of PC gamers also own consoles.)

That might sound ludicrous to saavy consumers, but based purely on observations of my Twitter timeline, it sure looks like PC gamers will happily throw money at a console game without any hesitation, even knowing full well that it will be arriving on PC later. Someone in my blogroll even bought an Xbox One X to play Monster Hunter World.

The real question, though, is will those people buy the game again when it launches on PC? I would guess that a lot of gamers have a fair amount of disposable income, and would not hesitate to do so. Such gamers might get the “hype” out of their system with the console launch, then, if they like the game, settle down to play the game “for real” (or again) with the PC version, after all the “cool kids” (aka. Twitch streamers) have long since moved on to something else.

That’s wild speculation, though, based on my exceedingly dim view of the modern game consumer. I imagine the average gamer now as having considerably more money than sense, to be perfectly blunt about it. Then again, gaming is a pretty cheap hobby, comparatively speaking. Ask a golfer how much their hobby costs.

But suppose the PC gamer does the sensible thing and doesn’t buy the game again? Assuming they like the game, they will remain locked into the console version for the life of the game. Why would studios want that? If a lot of people do that, it shifts more percentage points away from the PC Gamer side to the Console Gamer side of that study, and some day, studios might really decide PC games aren’t worth the effort any more.

I know, more wild conspiracy theories. And I’m not quite sure what the endgame there would be. I can’t explain why it would be advantageous for studios to herd gamers from PCs to consoles, other than that it might be easier to develop for consoles. But since we now live in a cross-platform game engine world, I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

The only other explanation is that we gamers are but pieces in a giant game of chess between the boardrooms of console makers and PC OS makers.

Anyway, these are the kinds of things that run through my mind after I see a random tweet go through my timeline.

2 thoughts on “What’s With The Console Exclusives?”

  1. When you do a game for a console, you end up paying the console manufacturer a royalty. When you do a game for PC, you pay a royalty to Steam or to whatever other distribution system you use (e.g., you don’t get box price for a retail game, a big chunk goes to retailers, distributors, publishers).

    It takes work — even in these days of Unity and Unreal — to take advantage of the features of different platforms, so doing additional versions generally costs the developer more money. They then hope to make it up in the broader audience they can reach.

    PC in particular can be a much much bigger hassle than consoles, because PC development is always a moving target and there are zillions of driver bugs and hardware incompatibilities out there and you have to support a wide range of machines instead of a single known target.

    A console exclusive is generally a case where the console company will pay the developer in order to make the game only available for their platform. (This might come out of platform royalties, it might be payments during development, it all depends). The console owner wants this because it drives people to buy their hardware. The developer may save money on development, but the bonus had better be equal to the amount of potential profits they would miss out on for the sales of other versions.

    You also see “timed exclusives,” which are where there is simply a time limit before the other versions come out. This lets the console company get the benefit of the marketing value, and the dev gets a payment (though smaller) and then eventually the benefit of the sales on other platforms.

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