The Decline of Platform Exclusivity
The year was 1991 and Sony had just suffered a public humiliation at the hands of Nintendo. On May 28, Sony had announced that it was working with the gaming company to build a new console with a CD drive. Nervous about Sony’s intentions regarding the gaming market, Nintendo publicly rebuffed the company a day later, declaring that it would be partnering with Phillips instead.
Nintendo had inadvertently helped create a juggernaut that would crush its competitors until Microsoft joined the fray. In the ’90s, the console wars had all been about Sega and Nintendo, but with its first PlayStation console (1994), Sony outsold the Nintendo 64 by a huge margin, and with the PS2, it finished off Sega as a console player. Microsoft realised that a new entrant could disrupt the market, and released its Xbox to compete with the PS2 – and this is why we talk about Sony vs Microsoft today, rather than Nintendo vs Sega. Nintendo still thrives in the console market, largely by not competing directly with Microsoft or Sony, and appealing to a wider, casual demographic.
In this article we will discuss how platform exclusives – games released solely for one platform – have been the deciding factor in every iteration of the console war until the ninth generation of consoles. We will also delve into the reasons why companies are now moving away from platform exclusivity toward an inclusive approach that involves PC ports, multi-platform game subscription libraries and cloud gaming solutions.
What are Exclusive Games and non-Exclusive Games?
An exclusive is simply a game that can be played on only one platform – no exceptions. Such games are locked down to a single platform, such as the Xbox or the PlayStation, or even the PC. Halo 5: Guardians (2015) – the best selling first-party Xbox One game, can only be played on that console or the Xbox Series X|S, Shadow of The Colossus (2005) can be played on the PS2, the 2011 remaster can be played on the PS3, and the 2018 remake can be played on both the PS4 and PS5 – in effect, the title is restricted to the PlayStation console platform. Dota 2 (2013) and League of Legends (2009) – both major esports – are exclusive to PC.
A timed exclusive is an exclusive that can be released for different console platforms and/or PC after a specific timeframe lapses. Timed exclusives such as GTA III (2001) and GTA: Vice City (2002) are among the best selling PS2 games of all time. Mass Effect (2007) was a timed exclusive for the Xbox 360, before being ported to PC in 2008, and to the PS3 in 2012, and Mass Effect 2 (2010) was a timed exclusive for the Xbox 360 that was ported to the PS3 in early 2011. Both the first and second part of Mass Effect are among the best-selling Xbox 360 games.
Both exclusives and timed exclusives can be called ‘platform exclusives’ – they are released for only a specific video game console or to one company’s console platform, and not available on any other platform, either permanently, or for a set duration.
A console exclusive is available and playable on one console platform, but not on the other, while being available on PC or another non-console platform. Halo Infinite (2021) can be played on both the Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One, but it can’t be played on any PlayStation console, and Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) can be played both on the PS4 and PS5, but it can’t be played on any Xbox console. While both Halo Infinite and Horizon Zero Dawn are available on PC, a gaming desktop would be required for the best experience. Like platform exclusives, ‘console exclusives’ are meant to sway potential buyers toward their respective platforms – Halo fans will opt for the latest Xbox consoles while fans of Sony exclusives would choose the latest PlayStation console.
Many prominent games such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011), The Witcher 3 (2015), GTA V (2013) and Elden Ring (2022) are non-exclusive – they offer vast worlds, great stories, engaging quests and more, and none of them are locked behind a single platform. All these games are available on PC, Xbox and Playstation and thus maximise the potential audience they can garner.
In the next section, we will deal with how platform exclusives determined the victor in several iterations of the console wars, until Microsoft adopted a multi-platform ecosystem policy mid-way into the eighth generation of consoles, signalling a shift away from platform exclusivity.
The Prominence and Decline of Exclusives in the Console Wars
Most video game consoles are sold at a loss for the first few years – the strategy being to gain consumers for the console’s library of games – eventually, console sales, along with sales of games available on it, may more than make up for the cost incurred in developing the console.
For multiple generations, the success of a console was largely dependent on its exclusive library – it was the deciding factor for someone looking to buy a console. Sega pulled in gamers with exclusives like Sonic, Nintendo did the same with Mario and Zelda, and Sony and Microsoft would continue this trend with a plethora of exclusives Hence, any history of platform exclusives is inextricably linked with the console wars – in the sections below, we discuss such exclusives in the larger context of competing console makers.
Gen 1-3: Atari, Sega and Nintendo Come to the Fore
The first generation home consoles often supported only one game, usually a variation of Pong, such as Pong Doubles, Quadrapong, and Breakout. The success of consoles like Magnavox Odyssey and Atari’s Home Pong series resulted in hundreds of inferior console clones hitting the market, eventually precipitating a market crash in 1977. In the same year, Nintendo would release several dedicated home consoles – the Color TV-Game series – that would support multiple games. The first console had six ball-and-paddle games. A later console would feature a racing game and the last would contain a port of Nintendo’s arcade game Computer Othello. With a bigger library, Nintendo’s Color TV-game series outsold all others, at 1,500,000 units.
Home consoles of the second generation used game cartridges, which spurred the development of multiple games for each console. Space Invaders (1980) became the killer app for the Atari 2600 (1977), quadrupling sales of the console. The ColecoVision (1982) also boasted the successful Donkey Kong, which it licensed from Nintendo. The Atari had an extensive game library and dominated sales with 30 million units sold, while Mattel’s Intellivision sold 3,000,000 units and ColecoVision, 2,000,000 units. The second generation would also end in a market crash in North America, due to market saturation and poor game quality (apart from a few exceptions)
Nintendo’s revolutionary NES (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1983) would dominate third-gen consoles and revitalise the industry, selling more than 60 million units on the back of a top-notch gaming library that used the computational power of 8-bit processors. Titles like Super Mario Bros (1985), Mega Man 2 (1988), and The Legend of Zelda (1986) set the standard for the third generation and Zelda was a runaway bestseller, selling over 6 million copies – both Zelda and Mario were system sellers as well. Phantasy Star and Alex Kidd in Miracle World were landmark titles for the Sega Master System, though neither Sega nor Atari could compete with the NES – The Atari 7800 sold less than 4 million units, (helped in part by licensed conversions of Nintendo games) and the Sega Master System sold 13 million units.
Fourth Gen: Sonic vs Mario
By the fourth generation, Atari had exited the market due to the 1983 crash and the prominence of Nintendo and Sega, who would become the primary combatants in the ensuing console war. For the Genesis (1988), Sega came up with the infamous marketing slogan, Sega does what Nintendon’t, indicating it would compete directly with Nintendo, especially with Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), a title that would give Mario a run for his money. Other Sega Genesis games include Streets of Rage 2 (1993), Phantasy Star IV (1994) and Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994)
Nintendo responded with the Super NES (1990), releasing more industry-standard games such as Chrono Trigger (1995), Super Metroid (1994), Street Fighter II (1992) and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past (1991), which is considered one of the greatest games of all time.
However, Sega held its own: Sonic the Hedgehog became the best-selling game of 1991, selling 2 million copies worldwide. Sega did not win the war – it sold over 30 million Genesis units while the SNES sold over 49 million units, but it had proved that it could go up against the industry giant.
Fifth Gen: Sony Rises to the Top with Game-Changing Exclusives
Until the fifth generation, the major players in the console wars had been Atari (until the fourth generation), and Sega and Nintendo. That would change with the advent of Sony’s Playstation.
The original PlayStation home console changed the game, quite literally, with Final Fantasy VII (1997). FF publisher Square Enix had developed games exclusively for Nintendo until Sony convinced the company that its ambitions for FF VII would only be realised with the PlayStation, which used CDs rather than cartridges, and supported the latest 3D graphics. Square took full advantage of the PlayStation’s capabilities – introducing full-motion video cinematic cutscenes that would become a major selling point for the game.
Like FF VII, other Sony exclusives such as the original Tekken (1994), Resident Evil (1996), Crash Bandicoot (1996) and Metal Gear Solid (1998), capitalised on the new console’s technological capabilities. Sony became the platform of choice for third-party studios such as Capcom, Konami, Electronic Arts and Namco, which it had eagerly courted from the outset. From 1996 to 2000, the Crash Bandicoot games were exclusive to the PlayStation consoles, Titles in the Metal Gear Solid series also began life as PS exclusives before being ported, and they rank as some of the best games of all time.
Both Sega’s Saturn and the Nintendo 64 failed against a better-designed console with a host of third-party exclusives that set a new standard for gaming. Sony sold 102 million PlayStation units, Sega sold a mere 9.24 million Saturn units, and Nintendo sold 32.93 million N64 units. With its first gaming console, Sony had become the market leader.
Sixth Gen: Sony Exclusives Redefine Gaming, Halo powers the Xbox
Sony’s PlayStation 2 (2000) also boasted a strong library of games. With titles such as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico (2001), Okami (2006), Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (2001), Final Fantasy X (2001), God of War (2005), God of War 2 (2007), GTA III and GTA: Vice City, Sony continued to redefine what people could expect from a gaming experience.
While both GTA III and GTA: Vice City have since been ported to other platforms, Sony entered into timed exclusivity agreements with the publisher, allowing it to gain a ‘stranglehold on the competition’. Sony’s exclusives helped make the PS2 the best-selling home gaming console of all time.
Microsoft’s first console – the Xbox (released 2001-02) , was going up against an industry titan with few competitors. But the Xbox had a killer app – Halo. The original XBox could not match the PS2’s success – Microsoft sold 24 million units as opposed to 158 million PS2 units – but Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) was the beginning of one of the biggest franchises in gaming, and proved that Microsoft could be a contender in the console market. Microsoft has sold 6.43 million copies of Halo: Combat Evolved, and the Halo franchise has sold 81 million copies worldwide – it is still one of the biggest reasons to buy an Xbox console.
The Dreamcast (1998) preceded both the PS2 and the Xbox, but failed against the PS2 because of a lack of third-party content and Sega ended production before it even had a chance to compete with Microsoft’s console. Sega ceased to be a player in the market – the Dreamcast was its last console.
Seventh Gen: Wii Wins by Appealing to a Wider Audience
Microsoft closed the console sales gap in the next generation – the Xbox 360 eventually sold 84 million units while the PS 3 sold 87.4 million units. The Xbox 360 (2005) had a strong exclusive line up, including Halo 3 (2007), which doubled sales of the console, and other hits such as Gears of War 2 (2008) and 3 (2011), Forza Motorsport 4 (2011) and Forza Horizon (2012).
The release of Metal Gear Solid 4 in 2008 boosted sales of the PS3, but as the final tally indicates, the seventh generation was a closely fought race for Microsoft and Sony – many developers found it hard to develop for the unique architecture of the PS3, leading to an underwhelming exclusive line up that gave the Xbox 360 an advantage.
The PS3 eventually caught up with ambitious exclusives such as the Last of Us (2013), God of War: Ascension (2013), Heavy Rain (2010) and Gran Turismo 5 (2010), but the generation was characterised by franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Elder Scrolls, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy, whose third-party publishers released their biggest games on both consoles to reach a wider audience.
The real winner of the seventh generation console war, however, was the Nintendo Wii (2006), whose Wii Remote could be used for both traditional input and motion sensing. Wii Sports (2006), a game bundle that recreated popular sports at home using the Wii’s motion detection, became the best-selling Nintendo game ever, and helped the Wii become the best-selling console of the seventh generation, at 102 million units. With its lineup of family-friendly exclusives such as Mario Kart Wii (2008), New Super Mario Bros Wii (2009) and Wii Play (2006), the Wii won by attracting a much wider, casual audience, which neither the PS3 nor the Xbox 360 targeted.
Since the Wii, Nintendo isn’t participating in a war so much as playing its own game: the Switch (2017) is yet another innovative console – a hybrid hand-held and home gaming platform. It has sold 103 million units as of February 2022, and its exclusives appeal to both core gamers and casual players. Many of its game franchises, such as Mario, Zelda and Pokemon, are huge system sellers and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) has powered Switch sales.
Eighth Gen: Sony Wins by Sticking to an Exclusive Strategy
The scales swung back toward Sony in the next generation of consoles – both the Xbox One and the PS4 were launched in late 2013, and Sony’s console would outsell the Xbox One by a huge margin, primarily by adding steadily to its library of top-notch AAA titles. Despite an underwhelming exclusive lineup at launch, the PS4 would go on to become the second-best selling home console of all time after the PS2.
After a shaky start, Sony released a string of hit exclusives – Bloodborne (2015), Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016), Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), God of War (2018), Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018), and Ghost of Tsushima (2020) – all of which were integral to PS4 sales.
Microsoft, on the other hand, was impaired by an identity crisis, as a ScreenRant article puts it. The tech giant pushed extras like the Kinect, which few cared for, and announced a controversial digital rights management (DRM) policy that required gamers to connect to the internet to play offline games, and also limited sharing physical copies with others. Widespread backlash forced them to abandon their DRM measures.
Sony, meanwhile, offered a cheaper system that was more powerful, and also came with a solid library. Having only a few heavy hitters like Forza Horizon 2 (2014) and Halo 5: Guardians (not yet ported to PC), the Xbox One only managed 51 million units, less than half of PS4’s 117 million units. The Xbox One lost to the PS4 not only because it lacked a good roster of exclusives, but also because it tried to build an ecosystem hostile to gamers.
Microsoft Begins the Move Away from Platform Exclusives
When Microsoft launched its Xbox Play Anywhere program in 2016, it got DRM just right – it allowed users to buy a game once and play it ‘anywhere’ (meaning on both PCs and Xbox consoles, but not PS consoles). It also enabled gamers to carry over their saved games, addons and expansions with them when they resumed playing on a different platform.
The Play Anywhere service was enabled for a slew of games, including Gears of War 4 (2016), Forza Horizon 3 (2016) and ReCore (2016), and the program signalled a major shift from exclusivity to an ecosystem for both Xbox and PC players, even in the face of repeated criticism regarding the Xbox One’s lack of exclusives. The roster of Play Anywhere games has since grown steadily.
After the Play Anywhere Program, Microsoft launched the successful Game Pass game subscription service for Xbox in 2017 and PC in 2019, and added Xbox Cloud Gaming to the Game Pass later that year. Microsoft’s cloud gaming solution would lead to speculation that consoles would soon become unnecessary.
Sony, on the other hand, would take a few years to realise that its time-honoured exclusive-first strategy for its consoles restricted it from reaching the wider audience that Microsoft had attracted with its content services.
Why are More Games Non-Exclusive Today?
In this section we will look at the various factors that have contributed to the decline of platform exclusives – changing industry attitudes, the release of prominent platform exclusives on PC, and the advent of cloud gaming.
Changing Industry Attitudes
In a June 2020 interview with BBC Click, Xbox head Phil Spencer said: ‘Our strategy does not revolve around how many Xboxes I sell this year.’ He added that Microsoft was focused on delivering services through the Xbox Game Pass.
Months before the launch of the Xbox Series X|S consoles, Xbox head Phil Spencer also insisted that the Xbox brand was not built around exclusives. In a July 2020 interview with gamesindustry.biz, the game industry veteran said that the idea of locking people away from being able to experience games was completely counter to what gaming meant to him.
He also characterised the Series X|S consoles as an upgrade rather than a complete departure from previous consoles, and promised backwards compatibility for thousands of games. Later that year, he announced that Microsoft would release all next gen titles for both Xbox and PC, with first-party titles arriving on the Game Pass subscription.
Spencer – and Microsoft – could make such claims on the strength of the Xbox Game Pass. By 2020, many outlets were calling it a success, and even the Guardian took note when the service hit 10 million subscribers during the lockdown. With 25 million subscribers as of 2022, the Game Pass subscription service has helped Microsoft reach a far wider audience – especially as the Xbox cloud gaming solution is available on multiple platforms, including PC, console and mobile devices. The subscription service also accounts for a significant portion of Microsoft’s gaming revenue. A PC gamer article provides an apt summary of Microsoft’s core business strategy: selling game content through subscriptions or direct purchases. The device on which you play does not matter – in fact, Microsoft can shun the platform exclusive, and disregard console sales, simply because it can afford to.
The PS5 and the Xbox Series X|S were released at roughly the same time in late 2020. Sony stuck with its policy of lining up a compelling set of exclusives, which led analysts to predict that the next-gen Xbox consoles would suffer poor sales because of Sony’s superior library.
Despite the PS5 boasting a strong library at launch, the Xbox Series S actually outsold the Sony console in the 2021 November holiday season – the pandemic-period chip shortage and other factors had led to low PS5 stock, which led in turn to poor sales.
November is a critical month for the game industry: sales spike as Americans buy up game consoles and games to give as gifts. The Xbox Series S was readily available and also benefited from its low cost and the release of the much-anticipated Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 (2021). Forza Horizon 5 broke Xbox records, passing 10 million players within its first week.
An exclusive strategy built around a console requires the console to be readily available, and the PS5 shortage may have impelled Sony toward a dramatic change in policy. In May 2022, SIE president Jim Ryan stated that the company’s focus on building a strong portfolio of narrative-rich, graphically beautiful single-player games, had restricted it to a ‘rather narrow portion of the gaming market’.
By expanding to PC and mobile and offering live services, Sony could move from a single part of the market to ‘being present pretty much everywhere’. In a mid-term strategy meeting, Sony released a presentation detailing its move away from a ‘walled garden’ approach to releasing content on more platforms and mediums. Sony now wants around half of its games to be available on PC and mobile by 2025.
For Microsoft, platform exclusives are no longer part of its business strategy, which now involves multi-platform subscriptions and streaming services. For Sony, moving into multiple platforms gives it the chance to be present in all gaming segments. In the next section, we will discuss how both industry giants have approached the PC ecosystem.
Microsoft and Sony Double Down on PC gaming
Microsoft has led the charge in making all its games available on PC – the tech giant’s next-gen games will be available not only on the Microsoft Store, but Steam as well. Microsoft has also added to its game library by acquiring companies such as Activision Blizzard and Bethesda, both of which have released prominent games on PC and other platforms. With the Game Pass’ cloud solution, such games are available to stream as well, on multiple devices (except PlayStation consoles).
Microsoft is also enticing publishers into the Windows Store ecosystem – in 2021, the tech giant reduced its revenue cut from Store games to 12% from 30%, encouraging more developers to create games for the digital storefront, which is of course, available on Xbox consoles as well.
Sony is also catching up, releasing some of its exclusives on PC. In fact, releasing PC ports is seen as one of Sony’s strategies to reach a wider audience and give gamers a taste of the quality they can expect from a PS5 console. In August 2020, Sony released a PC port of the much-lauded Horizon Zero Dawn and ported Days Gone (2019) in 2021. It then made a stunning announcement later that year: 2018’s God of War, one of Sony’s greatest exclusives, would be available on PC by 2022.
Sony now plans to release four more games on PC this year – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy will be bundled as the Legacy of Thieves Collection, though no release date has been confirmed yet, while Marvel’s Spider Man Remastered (2020) will be available on August 12, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020) during fall 2022. Sony’s announcements have led multiple media outlets to declare that exclusivity and the console wars are over for good.
Sony is committed to its PC gambit – in 2021, it launched the Playstation PC label on Steam and a year later, it acquired the porting specialist Nixxes Software, and later confirmed that it would collaborate with Nixxes to bring more PS4 and PS5 titles to PC. In April 2022, Sony put out a job listing for ‘senior director of PC planning and strategy at PlayStation Global’, and a month later, the company forecast that its PC game sales would jump a whopping 275% to $300 million by the end of the next fiscal year.
It is apparent, however, that Sony is making PC ports of its platform exclusives a while after their release on PlayStation consoles, enabling the company to walk a fine line between drawing people toward its consoles, and reaching a wider audience with ports.
The Advent of Cloud Gaming
Cloud gaming services could actually bring exclusives back into play, if they follow a model similar to media streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+. ‘Exclusive’ media franchises such as Stranger Things on Netflix, and the Star Wars and Marvel franchises on Disney+ impel consumers to pay monthly subscriptions for multiple streaming services.
Enabling gamers to play on any device with a strong network connection is a key value proposition for any cloud gaming service. Xbox’s cloud gaming solution (part of the highest Game Pass tier) is available on Android, Windows, iOS, iPadOS, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Steam Deck.
With its robust library, Sony’s PlayStation Plus service is characterised as “the Game Pass alternative that many people believed Sony would never offer”, and as the highest tiers of both the Game Pass and PS Plus feature cloud gaming, gamesindustry.biz argues that a new war, now between competing streaming services, is about to begin. The Playstation Plus Cloud Streaming Service is available on PC – as such, no streaming exclusive can be considered a platform exclusive.
However, cloud gaming services are still in the nascent stage and 5G networks – integral to the game streaming experience on mobile platforms – are far from ubiquitous and the ‘deprioritization’ of Google Stadia has raised concerns about the viability of cloud gaming.
Conclusion: Is Platform Exclusivity Dying?
During the console wars, platform exclusives, timed or otherwise, played a big role in determining the success of a console. Current trends suggest that the once-mighty platform exclusive may be past its heyday.
Microsoft appears to have decisively moved away from platform exclusives, especially with the Game Pass, its multi-platform Store, and its cloud gaming solution. But even Microsoft wants to keep some high-profile titles as console exclusives – Xbox chief Phil Spencer has all but announced that The Elder Scrolls VI will be playable only on Xbox or PC and Starfield, Bethesda’s first new IP in 25 years, is exclusive to PC and Xbox. Responding to the ensuing backlash, Todd Howard, chief of Bethesda, insisted that exclusivity would lead to a better product.
Sony seems unwilling to fully relinquish platform exclusives. It has many platform exclusives scheduled for the PS5, and revealed in 2021 that the company had spent $329 mn on third-party exclusives for the console. But a year later, Sony announced that it would spend $300 mn to help first-party studios develop games and release them on multiple platforms, suggesting a shift toward inclusivity. Sony is committed to its PC strategy, but it wants to make a compelling case for the PS5 as well – by lining up third-party exclusives, and releasing first-party exclusives on PC a year or so after they are released on the PS5 – attracting buyers to their consoles and reaching a wider audience with their games.
The platform exclusive might be dying – only for the service exclusive to take its place. Both the Xbox Game Pass and the PlayStation Plus service feature exclusive content that cannot be accessed anywhere else. Such exclusives may not be locked to a single platform – Game Pass exclusives can be downloaded to both PC and Xbox, and its streaming solution brings these exclusives to just about any device except a PlayStation console. The PS Plus’ streaming solution works on the PC as well.
If subscriptions and game streaming solutions become prevalent, and turn into major sources of revenue, Microsoft and Sony may be at war yet again, on a new front, and may even face challengers offering innovative game content services. The decline of the platform exclusive may well usher in a new era of multi-platform gaming, but gamers would then have to decide between subscription services rather than consoles. Gameopedia’s data curation team amasses information about all sorts of gaming hardware, gaming services and games. Reach out to us to learn about our game data solutions and more.