Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
The rise and fall (and rise and fall) of exclusive third-party games

Aurich Lawson

Since practically the beginning of the video game console, game makers have sought to differentiate their systems with games created in-house by in-house studios or from wholly owned second-party subsidiaries. But the idea of ​​large, independent third-party developers releasing games exclusively on one console or the other has risen and fallen in popularity over gaming’s short history.

When a pair of Atari programmers split off to form Activision in 1979, they weren’t eager to tie themselves exclusively to their former employer’s console. Activision games like Pitfall And River raid also appeared on the Intellivision and Colecovision, even though Atari’s dominant sales position meant that numerous other third-party titles would only land on the Atari 2600. Still, even first-party developers weren’t immune to cross-platform development in those days: Coleco published games like Donkey Kong And Zaxxon on the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, as well as his own Colecovision.

The idea of ​​the exclusive third party really came into its own during the 8-bit era, mainly because Nintendo forced it. To publish games on the ultra-popular Nintendo Entertainment System, licensees had to agree to a strict non-compete agreement that guaranteed those games would be exclusive to Nintendo’s system for two years. Most developers were more than willing to sign on the dotted line to gain access to the NES’s tens of millions of players, squeezing outside game development resources for fledgling challengers like the Sega Master System and Atari 7200.

When Sega entered the market with the Genesis, it succeeded in part because it offered third-party publisher licensing terms that were much more favorable than those Nintendo imposed on publishers (and the NES’s near-monopoly). But it was not destined to be this way. As EA founder Bing Gordon recalled in a Game Informer interview early in Genesis’ life, Sega president Mike Katz wanted to try and enforce the same strict third-party licensing terms as Nintendo.

That situation didn’t change until EA basically reverse-engineered the Genesis lockout chip and threatened to produce its own cartridges for any interested developer, dropping Sega from the lucrative licensing process. “We basically said, ‘We’re going to run our own licensing program unless you agree to our terms,'” Gordon recalls.

As a result, Sega lost its grip on third-party publishers and offered more favorable terms and rates than Nintendo (and later forced Nintendo to follow suit). The strong-arm deal ended up being one of the best things that could have happened for the Genesis, leading to a number of exclusive third-party offers from EA and other developers. This made the Genesis and Sega a force to be reckoned with. More publishers than ever decided to port their games to both the Genesis and the SNES, even though Japanese developers like Squaresoft and Enix largely maintained the loyalty to Nintendo they built in the NES days.

The 16-bit era also saw a number of pseudo-exclusives for each console. While the SNES got Street fighter 2 turbogot the Genesis Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition. The SNES got it Contra 3: The alien wars while the Genesis got Contra: Hard Corps. The SNES got it TMNT: Turtles in time while the Genesis got TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist. The SNES got it Super Castlevania IVwhile the Genesis got Castlevania: Bloodlines. In any case, both Sega and Nintendo were able to claim another “exclusive” title, while third-party developers were able to exploit the customer base of two consoles that were both very popular.

The PlayStation era and beyond

For about ten years, these buttons were synonymous with
Enlarge / For about a decade, these buttons were synonymous with “video game consoles” for many major third-party franchises.

The next two console generations would see an NES-style return to third-party publishers overwhelmingly bringing their games to just one system: PlayStation. For about 10 years, the vast majority of games not self-published by Sega, Nintendo, or Microsoft were only available on a PlayStation system. Everything of Final fantasy Unpleasant Tekken Unpleasant Metal Gear solid Unpleasant Guitar Hero almost defaulted to Sony’s systems, which dominated the market in the first half of the 2000s.

Interestingly, while the Tomb Raider franchise would experiment with a few releases on the Saturn and Dreamcast, Tom Raider II, Tomb Raider III, And Tomb Raider: the angel of darkness only appeared on Sony consoles (and computers) during this time.

However, by the 2000s, Microsoft was able to throw its weight (and its money) around to get a few third-party exclusives of its own on the original Xbox. That system has the only console versions of PC favorites like Thief: Deadly Shadows, Knights of the Old Republic, Unreal championshipand the only versions of third party games like crazy taxi 3 And dead or alive 3.

As we got into the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation, most third-party publishers decided to play it safe by porting their biggest games to both consoles rather than lose a significant chunk of the market. The Xbox 360 could claim big name games like the Left 4 dead series and the original Saints row to itself, while Sony could still refer to it Metal Gear solid 4 and the Yakuza series as major third-party exclusives. But largely the last generation was where major third-party publishers decided on franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, rock band, Battlefield, Older roles, Tomb Raider, Fanal fantasy, and plenty of others had to be on at least two major consoles to impress.

That trend continues in the new generation of consoles, aided by similar architectures that make porting games between the Xbox One, PS4 and PC easier than ever. While Sony is currently winning the sales race, the Xbox One’s millions in sales make it far from easy for most publishers to ignore.

The third-party games most likely to appear on just one family of consoles these days are the ones that Sony or Microsoft are willing to pay for the privilege of securing it on their platform (Fall of the Titans, Rise of the Tomb Raider), or titles aimed at Japan, where the Xbox brand still has a small presence (Bloodborne, Deep inside). With fewer third party titles to differentiate the consoles, Sony and Microsoft will likely lean more heavily on exclusive third party titles they can get their hands on (as well as their own stable of exclusive titles and second parties) in hopes of getting noticed.

By akfire1

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