Exclusive games once defined the brands they were attached to and were major motivators in terms of console choice. In those days gamers chose the platform that aligned with their taste in gaming, and for the most part, these titles stayed within their selected exclusive boundaries.

Even a quick cursory glance at the industry is enough to see that things have longed changed since those days where the Xbox and PlayStation 2 reigned supreme. And the definition of “exclusive” has shifted quite a bit.

Now we have concepts like timed-exclusives, pre-loading and a slew of key AAA titles across all platforms–and the most glaring difference is the lack of first-party exclusives. As the industry changes, a company’s approach must in turn adapt with the market.

Big-name console-makers know that the playing field has evolved and the rapid-fire AAA approach doesn’t quite cut it any more.

“In the old days the name of the game was the game, and people bought consoles to play a certain catalog of games,” Nick Parker, gaming expert at IHS analyst firm said in an interview with Bright Side of News.

“I think now exclusives aren’t that relevant these days due to the current online offering across PSN and Xbox LIVE.”

PS Store

Sony’s PlayStation Network caters to a wide audience of gamers with a smattering of online titles, from digital AAA to indies and everything in between.

Changing tastes and distribution methods

Gamers now have a huge appetite for software of varying tastes. Online stores deliver a massive buffet of content that meet their consumption demands while diversifying the software catalog for the respective platform.

Indie games and the free-to-play sectors compliment a large portion of online stores on consoles. Indies are a big plus because they provide smaller-scale artistic bits of gameplay for an affordable price, and have remained a key spectacle in the evolution of our industry.

As a result both Microsoft and Sony are snatching up key indie devs to help fill out their range of games; Sony alone has released a bounty of free indies across the PS4 via PlayStation Plus.

The success of this digital distribution relies in its accessibility. The ability to download anything at any time by anyone is a massive motivator for gamers, and meets a very real demand for revolving new content.

Pre-loading, which allows users who purchase games early to queue the game in preparation for launch day, is also starting to catch on, and will likely be a new form of leverage and cut costs of physical disc production.

The Halo franchise will always be Microsoft's baby, but the platform has come to host a smattering of iconic figures since Master Chief's intergalactic war.

The Halo franchise will always be Microsoft’s baby, but the platform has come to host a smattering of iconic figures since Master Chief’s intergalactic war.

Crunching the numbers

For Microsoft and Sony, exclusives might simply be too risky — a gamble.

Since exclusive deals are quite high-priority and expensive, hardware makers don’t want to take an unnecessary investment risk, especially when the deals can range from the tens of millions.

To find out the correct balance, companies like Sony and Microsoft have to weigh the numbers.

“Companies have to do the math,” Parker from IHS affirmed. The deals aren’t just for a game, but for a partnership to include a game across a big brand. “The bills [for exclusives] are pretty rich and I would say a deal like that is going to be quite expensive,” he continued.

In this regard indies are cheaper and more flexible, filling a wide range of genres and styles, and console makers still have the big cushion from sure-fire multi-platform breadwinners like Call of Duty and Destiny.

Although Destiny is coming to multiple platforms, the game will have in-game bonuses only available on the PS4 thanks to Sony's deal with Activision.

Although Destiny is coming to multiple platforms, the game will have in-game bonuses only available on the PS4 thanks to Sony’s deal with Activision.

The evolution of exclusivity

At Gamescom, Sony exec Jim Ryan recently told CVG that the company doesn’t “need to outright buy exclusivity.” That one phrase seems to sum up the software strategies that are becoming the norm for our industry.

“So do we feel the need to go out and buy outright exclusivity? Probably not,” Ryan proclaimed.

“You saw last night [at Sony’s press conference] that before the media briefing we showed updated videos of games that we had revealed at E3.

“That’s because we wanted to keep the show itself full of new, fresh things. We think that gave us a good, strong, convincing portfolio of exclusive stuff and we’re happy with that.”

Ryan continued to highlight that Sony will continue to partner with third-party developers “where it makes the most sense”, citing their deals with Activision for exclusive content as an example.

This gives rise to the new definition of exclusivity: timed-exclusives and platform-specific content in multi-platform games. By offering extra maps and in-game items in the PlayStation 4 version of Destiny, for example, Sony offers clear incentives that appeal to a core constituency of gamers.

No Man's Sky, a hotly anticipated indie sim, will release first on PS4 but has also been confirmed for a PC launch.

No Man’s Sky, a hotly anticipated indie sim, will release first on PS4 but has also been confirmed for a PC launch.

Timed-exclusives are a more attractive strategy to boost hardware sales and can also drive up pre-orders, which in turn raise profits across all fronts.

This is a sort of “delayed release” of multi-platform content (not always a full game) that launches on a specific console first. How PS4 owners were given first access to Destiny‘s beta test last month or No Man’s Sky first launching on PS4 a prime example of a timed exclusive.

Now console-makers can reap some of the benefits of exclusives while also collecting the profits pulled in by AAA games–all without having to buy out total exclusivity in the process. And to top it all off we have pre-order incentives, which have been known to be console-specific in themselves.

This ingenious method of semi-exclusive content across widely-available titles is something we’ll likely see more of in the future, especially with massive franchises from EA (Battlefield, EA Sports games) and Activision (Call of Duty).

Tomb Raider

The semi-exclusivity behind the new Tomb Raider game has been a sore spot in the industry, becoming a sort of casualty misfire to the new “timed exclusive” strategy.

Where does the future lie?

Building a console brand isn’t just about creating a substantial catalog of content, but also a reputation within the gaming sphere. Creating a distinct identity helps bolster sales and maintains the overall image gamers attribute with a company — this is especially reflected in the next-gen console war.

Microsoft recently fell into hot water with the controversial double-speak that surrounded Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s exclusivity on the Xbox One.

At first it seemed Crystal Dynamics’ new Lara Croft adventure would only be available on the Xbox One, but Xbox head Phil Spencer later clarified that it’s exclusivity isn’t permanent.

While Spencer did clarify the exact nature of the deal, the Gamescom announcement was all bravado and surety. This double-speak deepened the rift and distrust that was sown during Microsoft’s bumbling blunder with the console’s reveal nearly a year ago.

Microsoft has been seen as the underdog of the console battle, having to "catch up" to Sony's rocketing 10m PS4 sales.

Microsoft has been seen as the underdog of the console battle, having to “catch up” to Sony’s rocketing 10m PS4 sales.

“I think it’s all about brand awareness and brand resonance,” Parker continued when prompted on the total scope of console marketing. “The general perception from a gamer’s point of view seems to be that Microsoft is just throwing money at the situation to build their brand, whereas Sony is coming off as the good guy.”

Games exclusivity isn’t dead. It’s presence has definitely dwindled, and some gamers might not pick up a PlayStation 4 just to play exclusives like Sony Santa Monica’s Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture or snag an Xbox One just to play Quantum Break, but these titles are nonetheless important for long-term sales.

First-party exclusives like The Order 1886 and Halo 5: Guardians remain key pieces of next-gen strategies, but they are only a fraction of the big picture. These games certainly help build a core identity that’s been formed throughout the lifetime of a console brand, but companies are focused on a bigger, more diversified picture.