Last year, controversial news hit the games industry as Guerrilla Games announced that their, until then, PS4-exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn would be coming to PC. This shouldn’t be controversial news, but some die-hard PS4 owners at the time took the news pretty hard, like the death of a loved one. Should the fact that other players now get to enjoy a good game that was previously off-limits for them really upset anyone? Of course not. But it did.
This announcement is just one in a stream of changes that have been steadily growing in normalcy for not just years but entire console generations. I still have, back home, a copy of Resident Evil 4 for the GameCube with an irremovable label on it proudly promising that it is a GameCube Exclusive. Resident Evil 4, a game second only to Skyrim in the race to make itself playable on every system known to man. Since then, it has become increasingly more ordinary and less surprising when an ‘exclusive’ game gets ported over to other hardware.
Is this porting and sharing of games across consoles a good thing? Will it put an end to the console war? And is doing so a positive change for the games industry?
The short answer to most of this is: yes. The console war will forever rage on as long as there is more than one console to choose from in any given generation, and for as long as those consoles have different specs, gimmicks, and hardware capabilities. But when it comes to the games – the reason we’re all here – if we can remove the exclusives and the barriers, surely that levels the playing field. It certainly doesn’t hurt the games’ developers and publishers in any way. The more players that can buy and play their games, the better, right?
Well, one major point to ‘console exclusives’ is encouraging gamers to choose a specific console based on its library. And publishers get bought out by these console manufacturers to sign up with them exclusively. So, there’s money to be made. But let’s take a look at what Microsoft have recently done.
Nintendo and Microsoft Studios have been playing very well together recently, with Microsoft sharing some of its exclusives with Nintendo by porting them over to the Switch. A great example of this is the porting of Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which I immediately downloaded and enjoyed over the holidays. It took four years, but it happened.
I played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on my PS4 and was head-over-heels in love with it. I could write a book on that game. In fact, I’ve been a fan of Ninja Theory’s games for years, and Hellblade felt like them perfecting their craft. Then came the news that Xbox Game Studios had bought Ninja Theory and my heart sank. I don’t own an Xbox and I’m no PC gamer. But with the friendly relationship that Nintendo and Microsoft now have, I’m able to keep playing Ninja Theory games on my Switch.
So, we’ve got more and more sharing going on. And one of the biggest changes that the Switch brought around was the opening up of the indie market to console gamers. Speaking as someone with no PC and no Steam account, I was living in constant frustration as a few indies here and there made it onto PS4, and only if they were big enough and/or bought by Devolver Digital. But the Switch has as big an indie library as Steam (for better or worse), meaning that console gamers with a Switch can now get lost in the waters of indie gaming as much as PC gamers do.
One move within this region that we could charitably call “interesting” is Nintendo’s move onto the mobile market. Initially there were a few worries that Nintendo could be going the way of Sega: ditching their hardware manufacturing and exclusively becoming a games developer. But the dizzying amount of commercial and financial success the Switch has had completely buried those concerns. What we have instead is a very cynically motivated and, frankly, dark side to Nintendo.
While most Nintendo games on the Switch and prior consoles were very much focused on being clear and up-front – this is a game, it costs $60, you play it, that’s it – with no microtransactions, no free-to-play economy, no loot boxes, Nintendo’s approach to the mobile market has been the polar opposite of this. Games like Dr. Mario World and Mario Kart Tour are mobile games designed to fish money out of players’ pockets. This is a very un-Nintendo move. But it is a move invented within the mobile space, and one that is so commonplace amongst mobile games that it’s hard to survive in the mobile market without adopting these cynical practices. And that is exactly what Nintendo has done.
So, it’s not all a net positive for Nintendo and for us players. On the one hand, we have Microsoft Studios exclusive like Ori and the Blind Forest getting ported to the Switch. One the other, we have Nintendo making their properties available on mobile but simultaneously leaning on the money-sucking side of the mobile economy. While that is par for the course when it comes to mobile games, it is sad to see Nintendo so happy and willing to jump in head-first and embrace that economy. Kid-friendly Nintendo; happy and colourful Nintendo. The same Nintendo whose president took a 50% pay-cut in order to protect his company and its workers.
That’s all beside the point, though. The fact is that the video games industry is moving towards agnosticism when it comes to console exclusives, with the sharing of former exclusives becoming a commonplace occurrence. And how will the gamers be affected?
If you’re a gamer who has always had a devotion to a particular console (and I know a few, myself), I would love to take this moment to remind you that they don’t care about you. They are not going to reward you for your loyalty. They don’t know who you are. So, stop it. For gamers who do take pride in their brand loyalty, nothing really changes. They still get the same exclusives they love, and now they also get access to games they secretly always wanted to play but could never admit to because they had brand loyalty. For them, it’s a win-win.
Speaking for myself, I have always gone into each new console generation having to decide which console’s library tempted me the most. As a kid I picked the PS1 over the N64. As a teenager I stuck with the PS2 but eventually gathered enough money to buy a GameCube as well. As a university student, I switched over to the Xbox 360 because of its lower price tag and enormous library of games – then I also picked up a Wii. And when the previous generation hit, I switched back over to PlayStation and picked up a PS4. I’ve always gone where the games take me. But with an agnostic approach to the marketplace, all that changes for players like me is that it becomes a little harder to choose. If every game is available on every system, it’ll take a little more consideration on my part to pick a main console for that generation.
The changes coming to the “console war” are, on the whole, positive ones for the developers and the players. For the console manufacturers, it might seem a little more complicated. Brand loyalty will still play a role in things, and with fewer exclusives, a console will have a rougher time standing out as the obvious choice for gamers to pick. Cost, deals, hardware specs, design, functionality, subscription packages – all of these things will be what gamers will examine and consider when picking their next console, especially between the PS5 and, uh, Xbox Series X, is it? What does that mean, exactly? They really need to work on their naming strategies. Xbox console names honestly give me a headache.
As for Nintendo, they play by their own rules, but dominating the indie market on the Switch was a smart move. That said, I still hope that the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 get to enjoy an equal share in the indie market. Because sharing is caring.
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Will Heath is a freelance writer and digital nomad from the UK who mostly splits his time between London and Tokyo. He runs the website Books & Bao – a site dedicated to international literature and world travel – and writes about video games for Nintendo Link and Tokyo Weekender.