In a surprise move, it was announced at Microsoft’s GamesCom press conference that Rise of the Tomb Raider, the sequel to last year’s Tomb Raider reboot, is going to be an Xbox One/Xbox 360 exclusive. This is an unexpected development because the first Tomb Raider reboot was multi-platform. With PS4 currently outselling the Xbox One in every major market on the planet, Square-Enix just closed off a significant portion of their profits.
First, the obvious thing to get out of the way is that Microsoft has clearly exercised their massive financial muscle. In the old days of the PS1 era, SquareSoft moved Final Fantasy VII over to the PS1 for numerous reasons, including the fact that the CD storage medium and other technical concerns would allow them to make a better game on the PS1. This is not the case in the Xbox One/PS4 era, where PS4 has the upper hand in technical proficiency. Microsoft, however, has a history of negotiating with publishers to secure titles, and, to be blunt, Square-Enix could use the money. Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs and recent cross-gen title Murdered: Soul Suspect have not sold in the huge numbers Square-Enix was hoping for. In fact, at one point, Tomb Raider’s sales were cited by Square-Enix as a “failure” because they didn’t hit sales expectations, despite moving over 3 million copies at launch.
If you’re a publisher that’s staring down the barrel of a group of angry shareholders, and a rich console manufacturer comes along and throws out a lifeline of cash for exclusivity… It’s not difficult to make that decision, especially when a company is NOT at the top of their financial game. There’s still a bit of confusion as to what exactly this means, as rumors continue to fly. Scuttlebutt from the show floor itself is saying that Rise of the Tomb Raider is being carefully worded as “exclusive holiday 2015,” to leave the backdoor open for later releases on other platforms, notably PC and PS4.
And in all likelihood, this is probably the case. Even when there’s no mention of timed exclusivity, some Xbox 360 “true” exclusive franchises, such as Dead Rising and Mass Effect did make the jump to other consoles. It’s hard to ignore the potential profits that come from bringing a game out to other platforms, especially when the rising costs of HD game development make it harder to actually secure profit. Ryse is an example of this, as a former Xbox One exclusive moves over to the PC, and Crytek themselves have expressed disappointment with the sales that come from a narrow, single console market.
Tomb Raider, which has never been a low budget production, now faces an uphill battle. 3.4 million units across multiple platforms was considered a sales failure by Square-Enix. The combined sales over one year across multiple platforms—including “definitive editions” on the PS4 and Xbox One—finally pushed the game to profitability with 6.5 million units sold. Square-Enix now faces the same dilemma with Xbox One, restricting their potential profit to the console that is doing the most poorly right now.
In many ways, this move makes a lot of sense for Microsoft itself. Uncharted was one of the big hits of the last generation, and Microsoft had no equivalent for it. Tomb Raider rebooted itself, and it was obvious to everyone that the teacher had now become the student, channeling Uncharted’s gameplay far more than the franchise’s original tomb-puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Now, with an exclusive Tomb Raider game, Microsoft has their own exclusive answer to Uncharted, but will it stay that way?
Right now the fan outcry is hostile, which isn’t good for Square-Enix since they’ve been squandering away good will with numerous disappointments, from the torturous extension of the FFXIII series, to the initial, horrible debut of FFXIV. Many of their Western developed games like Thief and Hitman haven’t sold in the numbers they wanted. Now, with the franchise most likely to succeed as a multi-platform title, they’ve locked it down to the Microsoft machines, and it says one of two things. Square-Enix is either so confident in the quality of the new Tomb Raider that they know it will be profitable even on only one platform, or Microsoft offered enough money that even with reduced sales, the game will still be profitable. Given the nature of Microsoft’s access to a bottomless pit of money, they obviously have to make it worth Square-Enix’s while to walk away from the profit of multiplatform sales and Square-Enix likely just got a fresh injection of cash to keep them going as they toil away on Final Fantasy XV.
The final arbiter will be the sales of Tomb Raider in its new Microsoft exclusive homes. Unlike first party titles, which can afford to take a loss if the console manufacturer feels the title adds value to an overall library; Square-Enix doesn’t have that same luxury. Should Rise of the Tomb Raider not perform as well as Square-Enix had hoped, it’s all but guaranteed that the game will make a return to PlayStation consoles in an effort to recoup costs. For now, however, Microsoft just got the Uncharted-style exclusive their library was lacking.