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Short-term exclusive equals long-term loss?

Let's hope so, says Tom, as he gets pissed off about exclusivity agreements.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Namco's Kill.switch, as we've dealt with elsewhere, is a pretty enjoyable but largely clichéd and unspectacular shoot-'em-up designed to do one thing and do it well. Although it makes a good rental, there are plenty of other games that take ideas like this and do them a great deal better, and spread them over the course of a game that lasts longer than half a Rings trilogy.

Why, then, were we told just before Christmas that Sony had forked out an untold amount of euros for European exclusivity on Kill.switch, which earned a flurry of 7s and 8s when it appeared on PS2 and Xbox in the USA last year, and a healthy but not overly exciting 7/10 from our good selves? It's puzzling, and more than a little bit frustrating.

Now, I can get along fine with platform exclusivity. Software is how platform holders make their cash, either through licensing fees from third parties or by developing better looking first-party games with new ideas, and marketing them in such a way that the public gets the point. At least it used to be.

These days however, platform exclusivity is more like a measure of who has the most money. With big, highly anticipated games, platform holders will scramble to keep the game out of the hands of rivals. Grand Theft Auto, for example, has long ruled over the PS2 world - selling millions and millions of copies in the process. By the time it hit the Xbox on January 2nd 2004, the damage was already well and truly done, and the GTA Double Pack (also on PS2) only made it as high as No.2 in the All Formats chart just after Christmas, despite broken street dates and all the rest.

And yet, thanks to the Internet, nowadays we're starting to see things differently, and people aren't prepared to have their carefully considered console purchase undermined by a rival platform's financial manoeuvring. Thusly when Sony announced their successful bid to keep Kill.switch (and I-Ninja for that matter) away from Xbox and Cube owners in Europe (and make no mistake, that's what they're buying with this deal), a lot of Xbox and Cube owners rose up and demanded blood, particularly given slowdown issues in the PS2 version which wouldn't trouble the Cube or Xbox crowds. "I'll never buy a PS2 now," was a common retort. "Pfft," Sony might well respond from atop a pile of money. Here's a hint, guys: "I'll never buy a PS3 now," might put the wind up them.

The truth is though, it's very easy nowadays for Sony and Microsoft, who both seem happy to chuck money around until the sun goes down, to waltz up to a developer with a promising game and bribe them into sticking it on their platform and their platform alone. And I don't like it. To me, buying games out of the hands of Xbox and Cube owners seems remarkably childish, like breaking a sibling's new toy because nobody bought you one. In fact, it's more like breaking a sibling's new toy even though your parents bought you one anyway.

And yet I have no beef at all with exclusives like Halo, Mario or Jak & Daxter. I have no problem with games funded entirely by platform holders, or companies bought out by platform holders and redirected at a certain format. Although it might grate a little now and then (and I certainly felt a pang when Rare left Nintendo for good), in the long run we're better served by a more competitive market, where each system has specifically catered games that live up to its strengths and the developers can work in financial security, than we are by a purely multi-format market, with EA and its rivals lobbing games at every system in sight and barely noticing when studios fall out of favour and go under.

But that's not what we're dealing with here. In the case of Kill.switch, the game was fully developed - released, even - on both rival formats.

What I'm hoping is that by depriving Xbox and Cube owners of a game they should be able to buy, this sort of tactic will do little for Sony in the long run, and may even backfire. In fact, in this case the joke seems to be squarely on mother SCEE. Other than forcing people who own two or three consoles to pick up the PS2 version, on the surface the Kill.switch deal feels like a ridiculously bad business decision. It seems safe to say that the game won't sail to the top of the charts next week, good though it is, and unless original publisher Namco really sold itself short, Sony is unlikely to recoup the money it spent keeping it away from the likes of you.

There simply has got to be a better strategy for a modern platform holder than this. It's all very well scoring a short-term gain by keeping a big game to yourself (like Grand Theft Auto), but in the long run you could be taxed in untold ways for alienating your target audience and generally pissing everybody off. With key titles like GTA also available and often a better bet on the PC, albeit only after a delay, how many people out there are now comfortable boycotting the PS2 - and other Sony formats - on these sorts of grounds? Quite a few, I'd imagine. Not huge numbers, yet, but then SCEE hasn't robbed us of that many really good multi-platform games yet - the GTA deals were done and dusted before the games were even developed, and POP and BG&E were both released on PC at the same time or at least very soon after. When we first see a multi-platform game appearing on PS2 and nowhere else for some time, it could become a serious problem - and let's not forget how easy it is to lose a seemingly insurmountable lead in the volatile console market. Sega and Nintendo can tell you.

So here's a tip, Sony: take the money you're going to spend this year robbing Xbox and Cube gamers of simple pleasures like Kill.switch and I-Ninja, and instead why not spend it on selling vastly under-appreciated titles like Jak II: Renegade and Ratchet & Clank 2 to the masses? Not only do you generate more sales on an existing product, but you also increase the probability that gamers will go after existing, budget-priced games in the same series, and stick any further franchise updates on their Christmas list. What's more, you can avoid the ugly business of consumers calling you money-grubbing arseholes all over the Internet, which is pretty much what's happening right now. All in all, investing in giving good games a bigger audience has to be a better idea than paying to dilute the impact of a relative newcomer. Right?

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