A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

I won’t be playing Alan Wake for the XBox 360 any time soon. When my 360 died at the beginning of this month, I was given the choice of either paying to repair it or buying a new console. I chose the new console option, figuring it was time for an upgrade, but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to get a PlayStation 3 or stick with the XBox 360. I debated both choices for a few days because I like Microsoft and I like Sony equally; I support whatever gets me the most titles and the best experience. And while I believe both consoles do these things equally, I’d heard very good things about Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and had yet to experience either, so I purchased a PS3.

I don’t regret my purchase, although I do regret being unable to play Alan Wake.

But more on that later.

Exclusivity, in the video game world, is a word I’ve come to despise over the years. It tends to lead to lost experiences, biased gamers, and misinformed fanboys. Growing up, my household was a staunch Nintendo home. I had a NES, a SNES, and later the N64 along with a slew of Gameboys. I grew up on the Legend of Zelda series and Mario Kart. Luckily, my exclusivity was only limited to consoles as I also happened to own a PC where I played a lot of diverse titles. I devoured all of Sid Meier’s works, enjoyed Maxis’ endless simulations, discovered MMORPGs like Asheron’s Call, and lived in fear of FPS games like Doom–all members of vastly different genres that helped to broaden my tastes.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

In fact, I feel it’s largely in part due to the PC and my best friend who owned a Genesis I borrowed that I feel like exclusivity didn’t dampen my gaming experiences. By being able to play Mortal Kombat, I learned that Street Fighter 2 was just one type of fighting game; Half-Life taught me FPS games weren’t all just another GoldenEye 007. That isn’t to say one was bad and the other good, but rather, they were both vastly different from the other and playing both of them changed my perspective on gaming as a whole. My friend and the computer effectively pushed me beyond Nintendo’s colorful but ultimately limited world. As such, I was never entirely in the dark to what gaming’s bigger picture was.

But, even as lucky as I was, I still missed quite a lot of titles. I didn’t play Parasite Eve for half a decade after its release, nor did I get a Final Fantasy until FFVII was ported to the PC. I didn’t play Resident Evil until its sequel got a port to the N64, either. While I had a PC and every Nintendo console under my roof, something was missing.

I discovered what was missing in the tail end of 2000, when I got the PlayStation 2 on release day. The price tag was hard to swallow, but I sold my dad on it by promising to actually walk the dog for once. After an adventure to a local department store where we procured the last PlayStation 2 in stock, we got home and I set up the new console in our entertainment center. I turned it on, adjusted to the controls, and set out to experience Final Fantasy IX for the first time. It was then discovered that I couldn’t save. In a bit of hindsight, they hadn’t included a memory card with the purchase of the PS2, and being new to the world of Sony, I’d had no idea a memory card was required. My N64 let me save without any additional paraphernalia, so the concept was foreign and alienating–almost as alienating as using actual discs instead of cartridges. Let down by my mistake and unable to settle with the idea of not playing right away, I pleaded and pleaded until my disgruntled dad went out in the middle of the night in search of a memory card. About an hour later, he came back with a memory card for the PlayStation 2, tossed it my way, and walked out of the room.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

Except it didn’t work. I still couldn’t play FFIX. Although it had backwards compatibility with PS games, the PlayStation 2 required their saves be written on the original PlayStation memory cards–not the PS2’s.

And back into the abyss my father went. When he returned for the second time, he was not particularly happy. Neither was his wallet. While in theory a new console shouldn’t have been a bank breaking ordeal, the games and the extras quickly added up.

The PS2 grew to fit into my family, though, and we soon forgot all about the amount it cost. I got to see more RPGs, like Suikoden II and Vagrant Story, as well as play through the newer Final Fantasy titles. As the console’s library expanded, I rediscovered survival horror and explored both Resident Evil and Silent Hill. I’d missed some brilliant gaming when I just owned one console and I was more than happy to catch up. The best part was that all the while I was exploring Sony’s world, I got to play N64 and PC games as they came out too. I was no longer stuck in just one company’s world.

Then the GameCube came out a year later and ruined everything.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

This time I was forced to exist solely in Sony’s sphere as the Nintendo 64 was phased out for its successor. I thought I could live without Nintendo’s new console, but it soon offered solid titles I wasn’t able to play on its release. It only got worse with every fiscal quarter that passed. Some of these exclusive deals were understandable, since they were Nintendo’s intellectual property like Mario and Zelda, but others were unprecedented. The worst of these was probably the move made by Capcom. Although the PS2 was also a sixth generation console, Capcom chose to sign a deal referred to as the “Capcom Five” to make five future titles exclusive for the GameCube–among them Killer 7, Viewtiful Joe, and Resident Evil 4. Along with this deal, Nintendo also asked Capcom that all Resident Evil titles in the series after Resident Evil: Code Veronica X be Gamecube only. Prior to this, RE had been mostly on the PlayStation with an occasional PC or Nintendo port throughout the years. A large part of why I’d even bought the PlayStation 2 had been for its survival horror reputation and that was now on the verge of being destroyed with Resident Evil’s migration and the advent of intense titles like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem to the GameCube’s exclusive library.

As Capcom worked deals with Nintendo, Sony expanded their relationship with developers like Konami, thankfully saving me from buyer’s remorse. The titles kept pouring in for the PS2, and for a few years, I was almost able to forget I didn’t have Nintendo’s latest console nor any new Resident Evil titles. A wider range of titles tended to hit the PlayStation 2 and XBox compared to the GameCube, and I enjoyed them. Rockstar Games continued the Grand Theft Auto series with Vice City. Tecmo introduced the oft forgotten yet critically acclaimed Fatal Frame series which redefined survival horror with its ethereal horrors. The Clocktower series brought its third installment to the PlayStation 2 and offered gamers a truly distressing and horrifying psychological experience.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

But even though the getting was good and I loved what I got, what I didn’t have and wouldn’t have still bothered me. I still wanted Resident Evil games–as well as Nintendo IPs–and they were mostly exclusive to the GameCube.

Yes, mostly. Weirdly enough, Capcom made a large showing on the PS2 despite their Nintendo exclusive talks. They still wanted to appeal to PlayStation 2 owners, even though they’d taken their biggest IP off the system. Devil May Cry hit the PS2 with full force and then, for some reason, Capcom released a couple of exclusive Resident Evil titles for the PlayStation 2.

Although they were most likely meant as a peace offering, Resident Evil Outbreak and Outbreak File #2 rubbed salt in PlayStation 2 owners’ wounds instead. They were generally unplayable and highly forgettable additions to the RE series–blunders in the survival horror world. The characters were unmemorable, the gameplay uninspired, and the endings disappointing. They were also games designed for mostly online gameplay in an epoch when the PlayStation 2 was barely ready for online experiences. Unlike the XBox, the PS2 was not boasting a standardized network for online gameplay; the PSN was years off at this point. Third party developers were asked to take internet connectivity into their hands as Sony washed themselves clean of the responsibility, and these developers struggled significantly. Players frequently found themselves purchasing clunky external modems and cords in order to be able to connect to play RE:O with others only to discover it wasn’t even worth any of the money they’d paid. Making it worse, PAL PS2 owners were completely unable to connect and even experience the online content unlike their NA counterparts.

And Resident Evil: Outbreak was bad enough with internet connectivity, let alone without.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

In contrast to RE:O, the GameCube received Resident Evil games that were praised for their attention to detail and ingenuity. Capcom gave the first Resident Evil a complete makeover almost immediately for Nintendo’s sixth generation console. Dubbed the “REmake,” this title added new monsters, stories, and details to the original release and recreated an experience for an old game. Crimson Heads, zombies which could be killed only by a decapitation and/or burning, were thrown into the fray to increase the difficulty level and haunting environments brought the Spencer estate to life. The GC version of Resident Evil was powerful, a tour de force of what was then next generation graphics and gaming, and it showed. Its prequel released a few years later, known as Resident Evil: 0, was met with less critical acclaim but was still worth playing when compared to the RE titles the PS2 was being laden with.

It was clear who was Capcom’s favorite during that time–and it sucked.

I finally bought a GameCube in 2003 when The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was released. It was an unavoidable conclusion, something I had to do as a gamer. Wind Waker was simply the last nudge needed in a long push to return to Nintendo. It was a great game, as were the others I’ve mentioned, but I quickly discovered that the GC didn’t have half the titles the PS2 did that interested me. I’d essentially paid all my birthday and Christmas money to be able to experience just a few IPs. Unlike when I’d purchased a PlayStation 2 and a Nintendo 64, with the GameCube I just felt bitter.

Then, as things are wont to do, they got worse before they got better. Resident Evil 4 had been announced months prior that it would be an exclusive for the GameCube. It had been one of the reasons I actually caved for the GC–WW looked good, certainly, but the upcoming exclusive titles really made the sale. The announcement, however, was redacted at a later date to include that it would be GC exclusive upon release with an eventual PS2 port coming months later. They justified this change by saying it wasn’t included in Nintendo’s original deal, but it looked more like a backpedal from their initial gung-ho exclusivity more than anything else. This was the second sign that perhaps Capcom had learned, mostly financially and in terms of sheer exposure, that it was shooting itself in the foot with its choice to only endorse one console. The first sign was when games like Killer 7 and P.N.03 had been rapidly planned for other consoles as well, forgoing the original deal planned with Nintendo. It was as if Capcom recognized that something had to give if they wanted to remain key players in video game development.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

All said and done, putting politics aside, Resident Evil 4 was probably my favorite game that year. It revolutionized the series by updating it in a more modern light and it brought genuinely fun gameplay into a series that had previously been plagued with slower controls and awkward boss fights. Gone were some of the more tedious elements, like typewriter inks, and in their place were new exciting features like being able to upgrade weapons with various modifications. RE4 was a great title for the GameCube and it stood proud.

The problem is, as good as the game was on release for the GameCube, the PS2 version that came just a few months later was better. It included DLC in an age when downloadable content didn’t exist–extra content that enhanced the game immensely and wasn’t available for the other console. The PlayStation 2 version of Resident Evil 4’s biggest feature was a new side game of sorts, Ada Wong’s Separate Ways. This allowed players to see a side of the story untold before which brought insurmountable depth to the story. We got to play as the sometimes friend, sometimes foe double agent and get what she went through while saving Leon S. Kennedy from behind the scenes.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

It was good and it was solid. I loved Separate Ways. It just shouldn’t have come to PlayStation 2 exclusively to make us buy a copy of it to experience it even if we’d owned the first version. It wasn’t worth the price of a whole new game.

My GameCube grew dusty after my experience with Resident Evil 4. By removing its previously exclusive content, the console was inadvertently dead to me. I’d bought a GC because it finally lured me with its library of exclusive titles only to feel cheated when suddenly it barely had anything unique anymore when games like Viewtiful Joe and such got ported to the PS2 around the same time as RE4 did. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy the exclusivity was over, or disappointed because the console had little appeal without it. Still, one angry teenager’s emotions aside, the gaming world kept turning. Capcom ended up fulfilling its Nintendo exclusive quota over the years by releasing two rail shooters for the Wii later on as well as a Resident Evil port for the Nintendo DS.

And, again, the gaming world turned.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

But exclusivity never really went away, even if some companies chose to abandon it. It still exists, seen in titles like Fable 2 which is solely for the XBox 360 despite the original being on both the XBox and PC (luckily, Fable 3 is going back to its roots with copies for both). Dead Space: Extraction was an experience lost to many Dead Space fans simply because they didn’t own a Wii, where it was exclusively brought to, though at E3 2010 it was announced it would finally be ported to the PlayStation 3 at the request of fans. And those rail shooters I mentioned revisited Raccoon City, a place many Resident Evil fans were desperate to see again, but only for owners of that one console.

The good news is that more and more developers seem to be intelligent about exclusivity and understand it frequently does more harm than good. For all purposes, I also understand that exclusivity has good points as well. It’s not pure evil; companies have to make a name for themselves and consoles need their own unique reasons for existing. Nintendo wouldn’t be Nintendo without some of its memorable series like Kirby, Metroid, or Zelda. The XBox wouldn’t have been made without Halo. And certainly no one could argue with the notion that Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid carried the PlayStation to some of its current success.

But sometimes it’s good to let go. Recently, the Final Fantasy series expanded to include the XBox 360 with FFXIII. And as with Final Fantasy XI, FFXIV will also be on the PC as well as the PlayStation console. In fact, I see PC ports or simultaneous releases as a generally favorable alternative to formerly exclusive titles as well (though console ports from the PC are generally a no, looking at Valve’s Orange Box and its long since neglected port to the 360). It’s a good compromise to both help sell a specific console and still allow many gamers to experience the title even if they didn’t own that particular console. Bioware, for example, did good things when it made Mass Effect 2 for both the XBox 360 and the PC. Both versions were interchangeable in content and flawlessly fitted to the gamer’s platform of choice.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

I think that the times are changing. We’re still a long ways off from one single universal console that used to be speculated and maybe that would be a bad end goal. A monopolistic console is probably the last thing gamers need. Kinect, Move, or Wii Motion–gamers are allowed to choose how they want to play. Variety is a beautiful thing. Exclusivity is merely a consequence of that sometimes.

It’s a consequence less and less these days, though, which is largely a good thing in my book. Although I have little interest in Rage by id Software, I was charmed when John Carmack spoke of the technical ways they were approaching the development beast of designing for multiple consoles at once. Rather than sacrifice overall quality, they chose to address the platform differences by designing for the best then compressing for the rest. In this case the XBox 360, while a great console with much potential, was limited too much by Microsoft’s unwillingness to allow Rage to require a hard drive for its gameplay since its lower tier of the console doesn’t come with any storage space. Because of this, MS asked Rage’s XBox 360 version has to be streamed from its DVD–something daunting for a game which had an uncompressed software build of over one terabyte!

Ultimately, while they are still finding a solution, this means it could end up being a lesser quality for XBox 360 users. But it also means that the other versions, if they go this route, will be unaltered. This is something I can stand behind and respect. While it would have been easier for id Software to simply veto consoles, or at least turn their backs on the XBox 360 because of hard drive requirements, they worked diligently and found a solution. It’s a big step in gaming made by a big name in gaming–Carmack.

A Retrospective: In the Wake of Console Exclusivity

Still, for every step forward, there are a few backwards now and then. Alan Wake, which I spoke of in the beginning of the article, won’t be played by me on account of my 360 being dead. But if it’d been released a few years prior according to its original plan, it would have been. Alan Wake was originally slated to be released on all consoles as well as the PC. As the game development progressed, its availability shrunk down to just the XBox 360 and PC. Then for some reason (largely cited as an inability to develop for multiple platforms), in its last few months of development, it turned into an XBox 360 exclusive.

How disappointing.