Why Microsoft Are Losing The Exclusives Battle

By Lee on July 12, 2010, 6:57PM EDT

At E3 2008, Square Enix's Yoichi Wada shocked the gaming world. Taking to the stage at Microsoft's press conference, he announced that the latest in a series long associated with PlayStation would no longer be exclusive to Sony. Final Fantasy XIII was hitting Xbox 360.

It was a huge surprise, perhaps E3 2008's only true megaton, an increasingly rare phenomena for an event beset by pre-show leaks. Comments threads and forums around the world exploded with rage.

The news was heralded as yet another example of the US giant's spending power and increased market share. PlayStation were no longer the dominant force. One by one, the strong relationships Sony had developed with publishers over more than a decade were being eroded by the prospect of increased revenues that only Microsoft could offer.

But as well as nibbling away at Sony's exclusives, Microsoft had also proved more than adept at securing their own. Indeed, their efforts dwarfed that of their rivals. By the close of 2008 a massive 205 titles were available exclusively on the Xbox 360. In comparison, Sony's PlayStation 3 had merely 60.

Microsoft had quality on their side too. The Halo, Fable and Gears of War series were among the industry's very hottest properties, and they were all on Xbox 360. Add titles like Crackdown and Mass Effect, timed-exclusivity on Bioshock and the GTA IV episodes, and Microsoft's position looked strong. Unassailable, even.

Yet the intervening years has seen a shift in power. Franchise mistreatment, disappointing sequels and over-familiarity have tarnished the impact of Microsoft's line-up. Now, in 2010, it's Sony that have the upper hand.

At the very forefront of this reversal is the decline of the Halo series. While Bungie's shooters still command an army of fans, their ability to truly excite has been reduced, thanks to an ill-advised RTS off-shoot and a Halo 3 expansion that should have stayed just that. Halo Wars and Halo 3: ODST were disappointments.

It leaves Bungie in the unenviable position of juggling consistency with a desperate need for innovation in their next release, Halo: Reach. The reception so far has been positive rather than fever-pitch. It's just another Halo game. Unthinkable 2 years ago.

Indeed, it is exactly this familiarity that is currently working against Microsoft. Gears of War 3 and Fable 3 are highly anticipated, high-quality titles, but we know what to expect from them. They will be the second or third installments of their series to appear on Xbox 360. As such, their power to delight and surprise will be diminished.

Even Alan Wake, the subject of much pre-release hype, failed to achieve the accolades Microsoft so clearly desired. Again, it was a good game, but not a fantastic one. Detractors pointed to tired and derivative level design and repetitive gameplay. Again, over-familiarity prevented the Xbox 360 exclusive from truly shining.

Sony's exclusives, meanwhile, are crammed with fresh experiences. The upcoming The Last Guardian, for example, exhibits everything that the Xbox 360's line-up currently lacks. Impossible to define in a pre-existing genre, incomparable to anything on any other system and developed by a team who have been all-too quiet in recent years, it promises to be a hugely-important game not just to Sony, but to the entire medium.

Similarly, games like Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain and Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet forge new ground. Uniting innovation with critical and commercial success, they breathe new life into a market awash with identikit shooters and annual sports releases. LittleBigPlanet 2 promises to push the envelope even further.

Even PlayStation's sequels offer more in the way of novelty. While God of War 3 and Gran Turismo 5 operate within the established, predictable confines of their genre, they represent the very pinnacle of what those kinds of experiences offer. They are among the best of their kind, appearing - crucially - for the first time on a current-generation platform.

This last fact is telling. The PlayStation 3 was been slow to build up momentum, loosing ground to a competitor that released earlier and more aggressively. Only recently, four years after release, are Sony's key brands appearing on the console. Only now are the truly exciting, boundary-smashing next-gen experiences hitting PS3. Just as Xbox 360, for now at least, looses a little steam.

So when Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida announces, as he did yesterday, that the PS3's lifespan will be longer than its rivals, it is not just inter-company grandstanding. It's the truth. They're only just getting started.

Microsoft, meanwhile, are issuing similar statements of longevity. Aaron Greenberg insists that Kinect will add 5 years to the Xbox 360's cycle. But motion-sensing tech isn't necessarily what core gamers are looking for. We want new experiences that challenge our expectations of what traditional, controller-based games can achieve. And we want them exclusively on our console of choice. It's this race that, to true gamers, will define the winner of this generation. It's a race that, for now at least, Sony and PlayStation 3 are winning.

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