The Xbox One is struggling because video game exclusives still matter

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We’re three months into 2017 and it’s already unusually crowded with great exclusive video games.

The PlayStation 4 is on a hot streak. Nioh, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Nier Automata have already landed to largely positive reviews. In the coming months, the console will also get, MLB 17: The Show, and Persona 5, along with a grab bag of big-name indie titles, including Nex Machina, Nidhogg 2, and Pyre. And Nintendo has The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, arguably one of the best launch titles of all time.

There have never been more third-party releases, and many of the best-selling games appear on multiple platforms. And yet in 2017, exclusives seem as significant to a hardware’s success as ever before.

Take Nintendo, for instance. Nintendo hasn’t exactly been great at making sure the latest mainstream titles are available for its consoles (something that will hopefully change with the Switch). But Nintendo stays afloat because while it lacks the option to play Call of Duty or the latest sports titles, it has a strong catalog of exclusive titles and continues to release excellent new entries. It’s a strategy the company is already leaning into with its latest hardware, the Nintendo Switch, which has had a great launch carried almost single-handedly by the stellar The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While sales haven’t officially been reported, research firm SuperData estimates that 89 percent of Switch owners have bought Link’s latest open-world adventure, to the tune of 1.34 million copies.

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Perhaps the most revealing example of the power of exclusives is Microsoft’s Xbox One, the console that’s struggled to find its niche with first-party games. While Sony has recently offered a variety of games in a short window of time, and Nintendo has, well, Zelda, Microsoft hasn’t quite found its footing.

Instead, Microsoft has dealt with underperforming new entries in popular franchises, false starts to new properties, and a number of high-profile cancellations. And this isn’t a case of critical darlings failing to find an audience. The top 50 Xbox One games on Metacritic contains few exclusives: two Forza games (Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 6), the original Titanfall, Ori and the Blind Forest, and a pair of legacy remake collections: Halo: The Master Chief collection, and the Rare Replay collection.

Highly hyped Microsoft exclusives like ReCore, Quantum Break, and Halo Wars 2 have been released to semi-positive reviews, but the company has been mum on sales. The few critically lauded Xbox One exclusives, like Halo 5: Guardians or Sunset Overdrive, have quickly faded from the spotlight. Worse, some of Xbox’s biggest franchises have struggled to match the sales of previous entries.

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The Xbox One’s exclusive lineup has also suffered delays, setbacks, and closures. Quantum Break saw numerous delays before its release, and Crackdown, announced years ago, won’t hit until later this year at the earliest. Scalebound, Fable Legends, and Ion were outright canceled, and Project Spark was shut down. And even Microsoft’s big-name indie titles Below and Cuphead have experienced delays.

Exclusives aren’t everything. Nintendo’s inability to get mainstream third-party releases on its hardware has made its wares into a secondary console for many customers — hardware people buy after they purchase a console that runs Madden and Grand Theft Auto. Where does that leave Microsoft in the current living room landscape? Without unique games, the Xbox One is a slightly less powerful, definitely less popular PlayStation 4.

What’s strange about the Xbox One’s troubles is how it’s being bested by a playbook it wrote. The Xbox 360 basically pioneered indie publishing for consoles with the Xbox Live Indie Games program and Summer of Arcade. But Sony and Nintendo have since welcomed indie developers with open arms (and sometimes open wallets).

In recent years, major indie releases hit PS4 first, while Microsoft’s baffling parity clause — which required that any games that released for other platforms had to launch on the Xbox One at the same time, or not at all — drove away a number of developers. Microsoft is finally softening its stance on that issue, which is why Xbox owners can finally play Rocket League and Shovel Knight months after the hype.

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Microsoft made the Xbox 360 the go-to place for fans of popular first-person shooters and AAA blockbusters, securing DLC timed exclusivity for Grand Theft Auto IV and the Call of Duty series. But now, Sony has the timed exclusivity not just for Call of Duty, but the massively popular Destiny.

This is where it would be nice for the story to pivot, but things just aren’t that sunny for Microsoft. In addition to the onslaught of big titles that just got released as PS4 exclusives, the company has also announced Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, The Last of Us Part II, the upcoming God of War sequel, Insomniac’s Spider-Man game, Kojima’s Metal Gear follow-up Death Stranding, and Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, all of which will only be available on Sony’s console. Nintendo obviously has Fire Emblem and a massive Mario game on its slate, but at least is trying to attract more widespread games — who’d have thought that a Nintendo-built console would ever run Skyrim? But Microsoft has surprisingly few announced big-name exclusives: Crackdown 3, Sea of Thieves, and State of Decay 2, and a pair of indies in Below and Cuphead.

Of course, it is possible Microsoft is just operating in a stealth mode until it can use E3 and Scorpio as a chance to reboot? Sure. Xbox head Phil Spencer commented in a recent blog post that Microsoft is “committed to delivering even more exclusive games for both Xbox One and Windows 10 this year than we launched in 2016.” But then the question becomes whether Microsoft can really announce a slate of exclusives at E3 that will be ready for the Scorpio launch in the fall?

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There’s also the looming possibility that Microsoft will make the exact same mistake as it did with the original Xbox One launch. Then, Microsoft made the poor decision of focusing too much on the hardware, emphasizing Kinect and the pass-through HDMI port largely saving game announcements for a future presentation. The worst-case scenario for the Project Scorpio announcement reveal would be a continued focus on the superior hardware, once again ignoring the importance of actually having great games to play on it.

Or perhaps Microsoft believes raw power is its best play. It’s possible that Scorpio could see Microsoft taking a page from PC gaming’s playbook — focusing less on exclusive titles, and more on offering a powerful platform that will run third-party games better than any other console. Project Scorpio could be an interesting middle ground between the offering the convenience of console gaming with the incredible graphics and experience offered by a traditional gaming PC. We’re already even seeing crossover between PC and Xbox gaming through the Xbox Play Anywhere program, which offers cross-compatible titles. Project Scorpio could be the next step in bridging that divide, with less of a focus on exclusive titles and more on offering the best gaming experience possible in your living room for the wealth of games that are available on all platforms.

In this case, Microsoft would have a new take on the idea of exclusivity: it might not have the most or best exclusives, but with Scorpio and crossplay, it could become the best place to play everything else. And considering most of the best-selling games each year are third party, it’s perhaps not the worst strategy.

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Look, console exclusives suck. They split up the player base, force developers to pick sides, and bring endless amounts of dumb, pointless feuding to the gaming community. Imagine how much longer the original Titanfall could have lasted with a console customer base that was twice as large. When Battlefield or Destiny content gets arbitrarily locked to whichever console paid Activision of EA the most money that year, it’s players who suffer.

But for better or for worse the console exclusives are still crucial to a successful console in today’s day and age. It’s the reason that, as of January, the PS4 was still outselling the Xbox One by nearly twice as much. It’s the reason that Nintendo is able to bank on Zelda for driving early Switch adoption. In an ideal world, you’d be able to buy just a single device based on its own merits and get the games you’d like for it rather than having to drop almost a grand on hardware just to be able to play all of the great games. But unfortunately, we’re not there yet. And so for Microsoft, Project Scorpio may be an opportunity: if it can’t win the game of exclusive software, why not make exclusivity about hardware instead?

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