Opinion: Tomb Raider exclusivity ignores lessons learned

Square Enix has agreed to make Rise of the Tomb Raider a console exclusive, after the first game should have taught it that casting a wide net is the key to success.

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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.

Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

  • reply
    August 12, 2014 1:45 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: Tomb Raider exclusivity ignores lessons learned.

    Square Enix has agreed to make Rise of the Tomb Raider a console exclusive, after the first game should have taught it that casting a wide net is the key to success.

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      August 12, 2014 2:14 PM

      Well said.

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      August 12, 2014 3:01 PM

      Any lesson can be un-learned when you dangle enough $$$ in front of a game studio beholden to shareholders

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      August 12, 2014 3:10 PM

      I mean, we are talking about the company that expected Tomb Raider Reboot to sell 5 to 6 million in its first month. That still is just breathtakingly astounding to me, for them to think those numbers were achievable for a Tomb Raider game. And they had the same mentality with Sleeping Dogs, even after knowing that the original True Crime franchise wasn't a barn-burner.

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      August 12, 2014 3:44 PM

      If I was a shareholder I would be pissed off at this decision of theirs. Both as a gamer and as an investor.

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        August 12, 2014 4:17 PM

        It seems like a win for shareholders.

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        August 12, 2014 4:43 PM

        Shareholders tend to love shortsighted massive infusions of cash.

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          August 13, 2014 3:53 AM

          This sums it up really well. Definitely short sighted.

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        August 12, 2014 4:52 PM

        Nope; shareholders love a sure thing, and they're very like the reason this decision was made.

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      August 12, 2014 3:57 PM

      I just wish Square would be honest about it: We wanted a fuck-load of money up-front, so we took it.

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      August 12, 2014 4:12 PM

      All kidding aside I agree. It's just dumb to limit your game to one console or the other.

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        August 12, 2014 11:56 PM

        This is franchise dependant. Tomb Raider is a brand that has been around a long time, and over many platforms already. it's not great logic to place it in a small pool when it can swim in the ocean.

        if it is a new IP then by all means wrap it up, just in case it becomes "angel like" carrying a halo or something.

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      August 12, 2014 4:48 PM

      Opinion: False report is false.

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      August 12, 2014 4:54 PM

      If Square lost money as year, and it's a matter of Exclusive Because of $$$ or No Tomb Raider, I'll take the former every time.

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      August 12, 2014 7:45 PM

      Well, if all goes well, we'll get the GOTY version on PC or PS ;)

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        August 12, 2014 7:56 PM

        Yea this isn't the kind of game that worries me. The content I care about is single player so it's not like you're missing out on a ton if you don't get it until a year later. I'll wait til it finally does hit PC/PS4 and that's fine.

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      August 12, 2014 10:01 PM

      I really don't get the outrage over this decision its like everybody just suddenly realized exclusives are annoying. Of course casting a wide net is better but that argument can be applied to any exclusive. What about the other exclusives on xbox or even the exclusives on PS4?

      As Steve pointed out Tomb Raider is very likely a timed exclusive. If thats true Square could get a ton of money up front and then make even more when they sell the GOTY edition on PS4. This is nothing new.

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        August 13, 2014 12:15 AM

        I think there's a reasonable argument in saying that Tomb Raider is different than the other exclusives because it already has a long (LONG!) history fo being available for every platform under the sun.

        So to suddenly make a main-entry in the series single-platform exclusive is out of the ordinary and sure to disappoint a huge number of existing fans. That's an entirely different kind of "disappointment" than not having access to an exclusive series that you never had the chance to play because it was only on Sega Genesis.

        That said, I am not terribly troubled yet, but I would certainly welcome the chance of playing it on PC at a later time.

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        August 13, 2014 12:20 AM

        People are going nuts because Its one thing to have an IP born as an exclusive, its a whole other thing to turn an IP into an exclusive after already gathering a player base.

        While it very well may be a timed exclusive, that point hasn't actually been defined yet. So of course, people are losing their minds without knowing the whole story.

        This is the masses of the internet we are talking about here...

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        August 13, 2014 3:58 AM

        A console exclusive sequel to a multiplatform title ruins the IP for those without the console.

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      August 13, 2014 12:13 AM

      I always wonder how much Sony/MS have to pay for exclusive games. The developer looses millions of sales on other systems.

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        August 13, 2014 12:20 AM

        I think "pay for" is a misnomer. I am almost certain (and they allude to that in their PR statement) that they didn't simply receive a lump of money. There's some of that perhaps, but equally if not more valuable is probably an agreement for massive advertisement and PR support and perhaps even shared resources and tech support (like access to MS inhous Xbox tech wizards).

        So this deal is probably more about "positioning" I'd say. They are hoping to position themselves into an incredibly advantageous situation. Whether that can offset the lack of sales for other platforms (for now) I don't know.

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          August 13, 2014 5:53 AM

          Oh, it's absolutely about the money. The only reason there's not a large lump sum is because they tie it into performance goals (including reception [metacritic score] and sales numbers.)

          So yes, it's a large sum of money paid up-front, plus ongoing dev costs as they hit publisher milestones, followed up with the final payments tied to reception and sales targets.

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      August 13, 2014 3:06 AM

      Good article. Oh well, not TR for me, roll on Witcher 3

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      August 13, 2014 5:06 AM

      if MS the only ones game enough to kickstart it then they should get early access.

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        August 13, 2014 5:14 AM

        Pretty much my thought. Same reason Gamestop sold Xenoblade.

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      August 13, 2014 6:05 AM

      TLDR: Cyberpunk 2077 is gonna pwn

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      August 13, 2014 6:11 AM

      If Uncharted is coming out Holiday 2015, why wouldn't you setup a timed exclusivity deal on another platform for your (very similar) game? This is especially the case if a company is going to give you money for being a timed exclusive. Yes, they all say timed exclusive now. It is. Wait until after Holiday 2015. It'll be out elsewhere.

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      August 13, 2014 9:44 AM

      "Tomb Raider is a good investment, and may drive sales of XBO. "

      Good investment? Absolutely. The last game was very good, despite some spotty areas.

      May drive sales of XBO? I highly doubt people are going to go out clamoring to buy a Bone solely for Tomb Raider.