We Need to Stop Bitching at Microsoft For the Tomb Raider Xbox Exclusivity Deal

By Giuseppe Nelva

August 21, 2014

Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider is, at least temporarily, exclusive to Xbox platforms, and when that deal was announced on stage at Gamescom people were dumbfounded. I was there among the audience, and those around me looked like they were stuck by a hammer to their teeth.

Of course many watching from home felt the same way, and then surprise turned into rage. I rarely ever saw so much abuse thrown at Microsoft, at Phil Spencer and at everyone else involved as in this case beforer. I even read a few articles alleging that the house of Xbox “stole” Tomb Raider. 

That is, under every point of view, absolutely ridiculous.

Let’s get out of the way that if I was in charge, every game would be on all platforms. It would be developed on PC first with the best possible technologies, and then ported down to every possible console according to its hardware capabilities, to give everyone the best version of the title they can afford.

That’s because I would like our hobby to be inclusive, not exclusive. Yet I realize that such an idealized vision of gaming, and especially of the market that supports it, is not very realistic.

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That said, alleging that Microsoft “stole” the franchise, or the game, or anything else, is something I won’t hesitate to define completely bonkers. Phil Spencer did not walk into Square Enix’s headquarters with a shotgun, and didn’t point it between Yosuke Matsuda’s eyes demanding the exclusivity rights to the game.

Microsoft and Square Enix made a deal, and it takes two to tango. You can’t buy something that isn’t for sale, and apparently Square Enix had absolutely no qualms in putting Tomb Raider up for sale. They weren’t forced. Microsoft took no hostages. There was no theft involved, as much as some felt appropriate to use that word because it looks compelling in a headline.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a PlayStation or PC gamer you’re absolutely entitled to feel annoyance due to this deal. It’ll cause you to have to wait longer for the next installment of a franchise that was on your platform of choice before, or to buy a new platform entirely, or to give up on the game.  That’s not a sweet pill to swallow.

Yet, if you’re directing your annoyance at Microsoft, Phil Spencer, or anyone on that side of the deal, you’ve simply picked the wrong target. The proper party to direct your anger at is Square Enix, as they’re the ones in full control of the franchise and of the platforms on which each of their games is published.

Microsoft has absolutely no control on that. They can make and accept offers, of course, but the only party that can take executive decisions on whether the deal will happen or not is Square Enix itself.

I’m sure someone will say “but if Microsoft really cared about gamers, they wouldn’t have done this to us!”

To those I say “welcome to the real world.”

Xbox One is the underdog in the competition among current generation consoles at the moment. Microsoft sold roughly half as many units as Sony did with the PS4, and right now they’re basically like a wounded and cornered tiger.

I’m sure many would love to see the tiger just roll over like a big fluffy cat and give up on the fight, but that’s not what tigers do. When they’re cornered and wounded is when they’re most dangerous, and bare their fangs ready for a bitter battle.

Microsoft’s “fangs” are its deep pockets, and we can expect to see them brought to bear a lot on the upcoming months. Tomb Raider‘s most probably won’t be the last deal of its kind, as the house of Xbox will do whatever it can to salvage this console generation.

Microsoft is a business, just like Sony and Nintendo. As a business they are duty-bound towards their shareholders and customers to strive to make their products successful. Unfortunately, in the exclusive-driven market we have now, that also includes doing so at the expense of the competition and of its customers.

That’s not something limited to Microsoft. Sony and Nintendo have to play by the same rules as well, and do so (or try) quite intensively, even if Nintendo is forced to rely on third parties a lot less nowadays.

Some define those practices “anti-customers,” but that’s not the case. They’re practices any business has to enact to the advantage of their own market share and their own customer base. The rules of the games haven’t even been set by Microsoft, but they have ultimately been created by the whole industry, including its customers, the gamers.

It wasn’t just Microsoft (or Sony, or Nintendo) that turned the console market into an environment where exclusives are waved around like clubs to bludgeon customers into choosing this or that platform. It’s another fruit of that damned “console war” that at least partly came from the gamers themselves. And now we’re reaping what we’ve sown.

Platform holders need to navigate those murky waters in other to be successful (or at least relatively profitable), and deals like Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s are the inevitable consequence. We simply cannot expect a console manufacturer to pass on that kind of chance.

Phil Spencer seems like a good guy by all means and purposes, a passionate gamer and someone that truly cares about gaming, but he also has to run a business. As someone who runs a business he has the obligation to strike deals that will bring Xbox commercial success and a competitive edge.

While the Tomb Raider deal can be seen as questionable in the eyes of a gamer that didn’t choose Xbox as his platform of choice, if I was Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella and Spencer came to me telling “Hey Satya, I’m sorry, but I really couldn’t bring myself to buy Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s exclusivity, It’s immoral” I’d seriously consider firing him on the spot.

As the executive of a company, Spencer’s duty is towards the company itself, its shareholders and its own customers. The interests of Playstation and Nintendo gamers aren’t and shouldn’t be part of his decision process, simply because it’s Sony’s and Nintendo’s business to think about them.

I’m sure it sounds cold, and even ruthless, but this is how the world of business works.

By grabbing the temporary exclusivity of Rise of the Tomb Raider Microsoft did nothing morally or ethically questionable. They purchased something that was on sale, and they did so to the advantage of their own company and their own customer base. It’s a by-the-book case of a sound business decision.

Of course this doesn’t mean that your irritation is unjustified, but if it’s aimed at Microsoft it’s simply misplaced.

Microsoft bought something, but you can’t buy what isn’t for sale. The party who decided to “sell” the exclusivity of Rise of the Tomb Raider is Square Enix, and Square Enix is fully empowered to decide whatever happens to the franchise.

They could have not offered the deal or refused it if it was Microsoft offering. they could have simply said “sorry, no dice. We value our customers on other platforms, so we won’t deprive them of the possibility to play the game as the same time as our fans on Xbox.”

Yet they didn’t.

And that’s not because Phil Spencer or someone else at Microsoft suddenly brainwashed them. That’s because they loved the idea of saving money and resources on development and marketing, letting Microsoft step in, confident that many gamers on other platforms will still buy the game once the exclusivity deal expires.

That is the decision that I deem quite questionable. PlayStation gamers aren’t Microsoft’s customers, so Microsoft owes them nothing. On the other hand they are Square Enix’s customers, and they have supported the franchise since its outset (since way before it even belonged to Square Enix, mind you).

Yet Square Enix didn’t really mind damaging their interests for Microsoft’s money and resources, and if you’re negatively affected by that decision you’re fully entitled to hold them accountable. Ultimately the best way to hoist the signal flag of disapproval is to do so with your wallet.

Internet outrage is a powerful weapon, but its edge is often blunted by misguided aim. This is one of those cases.

Microsoft is the big, obvious and easy target in the Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s exclusivity deal. Yet, they’re also the wrong target. If you want to be outraged you should direct your hostility towards the company that turned its back to a large part of its own customer base, and in this case it’s not Microsoft.

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Giuseppe Nelva

Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.

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