Opinion: Tomb Raider exclusivity ignores lessons learned

Gamescom has already been home to plenty of announcements, but nothing has inspired so much feedback (and backlash) as Microsoft's snagging exclusivity for Rise of the Tomb Raider, the sequel to the critically praised 2013 franchise reboot. Though it certainly makes sense from Microsoft's perspective to seal up the rights to such an anticipated game, it's difficult to find the logic in Square Enix's decision to agree.

A year ago, an arrangement like this would have made perfect sense. At the time, Square Enix was grousing about Tomb Raider (among others) falling short of its unrealistically high sales expectations. It only launched in early March, and Square pinned the hopes of 5-6 million units by the month's end. That would be a hard sell for even most established franchises, much less a reboot that took time to gather steam.

If we were still under the impression that Tomb Raider was a commercial flop, we would likely have a very different view of Microsoft stepping in. It would be more akin to Nintendo's involvement in Bayonetta 2. A first-party publisher would be taking a chance on a risky sequel that likely wouldn't even see the light of day without its involvement. At the very least, even given Square's unfair expectations, it would be understood that the publisher--rightly or wrongly--regarded a sequel as unproven territory.

However, we know that Tomb Raider was most certainly not a flop. We've seen a dramatic turnaround of Tomb Raider's fortunes in the past year. It went from bearing the blame for a bad quarter to profitability, then exceeded profit expectations, and was most recently hailed as a reason for revising Square Enix's forecasts upward.

That's an awfully dramatic turnaround for such a short span of time. By May we knew that Tomb Raider was a bona fide hit, but even as early as January it was turning the corner. And how did it pull off this feat? By releasing on as many platforms as possible. The original profitability turn-around was credited to the success of the console and PC versions, and then it exceeded expectations by porting the Definitive Edition to the new generation. Perhaps not surprisingly, casting a wide net catches more fish.

All this means that Square Enix has known for quite some time that Tomb Raider is not only a healthy franchise, but that it pays to spread the wealth. That makes the decision to go console exclusive fairly baffling in itself, much less to the console with the smallest install base. Worldwide, Xbox One is lagging behind the PlayStation 4 by a wide margin--in North America and Europe especially, where Tomb Raider is most popular. With the exception of Wii U and Ouya, any platform on the market would give Square more bang for its proverbial buck. An Xbox 360 version is also in the cards, but part of Square's initial reaction to its purportedly poor sales cited lagging numbers for last-gen systems.

We can likely presume that this deal was in the works, if not finalized, as of E3. The teaser-trailer that announced the game was only shown at the Microsoft conference, and didn't make an appearance at Sony at all. 

This is not to argue that the exclusivity is any great mystery. Microsoft has deep coffers, and after Xbox One's rocky start it was common wisdom that the publisher should invest some of that money into securing exclusives. Tomb Raider is a good investment, and may drive sales of XBO. Given the vague phrasing in the announcement, it seems likely that this is a timed exclusive, and the game will release in 2016 on other platforms. Third-party exclusives are rarities these days, after all, and timed exclusives are the norm.

But even this runs the risk of isolating the fans that helped make the first game a success. Unlike Bayonetta 2, this move was voluntary. It wasn't a this-way-or-no-way scenario. Tomb Raider fans who helped make the first entry a success may feel rightly put out by Square's decision. At the very least, they'll have to wait for no reason other than a corporate deal that has no benefit to them.

Perhaps in the long run that will pay off. Square's previous experience with Tomb Raider's slow march towards profitability might have taught the publisher that patience pays off in the long-run. As a best-case scenario, though, Rise of the Tomb Raider will be successful relative to Xbox One's install base as of 2015, and then be ported to much less fanfare on PC, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4. It's a gamble that may pay off, depending on what Square set as the price tag, but this strategy ignores the wide-net lesson learned from the first game. If Rise of the Tomb Raider underperforms, the publisher will have no one to blame but itself.