The last few years have had a similar narrative when it comes to major video games released in the fall. Sony has a big PlayStation 4 exclusive set, delays it to early the next year, and has no major fall exclusive. It happened in 2014 with The Order: 1886. It happened again in 2015 with Uncharted 4. And, big surprise, it happened once again in 2016* with Horizon Zero Dawn.
(Some of these games, on both sides, released on PC in addition to their home console. For the purposes of this discussion, exclusive refers to games which only appeared on one gaming console. Also, this is going to be about just two consoles: PlayStation and Xbox. Nintendo’s consoles, Switch included, thrive on exclusives and nothing more, and they have for a while, but Nintendo really lives in its own special corner of the gaming world.)
The PlayStation 4 hasn’t been entirely without its fall exclusives, of course. Driveclub and LittleBigPlanet 3 (both of which I had completely forgotten) came out in 2014, Tearaway Unfolded and Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (both remakes/rereleases) in 2015, and PlayStation VR and its exclusives in 2016. As far as I can tell, none of those were hotly anticipated games (with the possible exception of Driveclub).
Compare that list to the Xbox One exclusives coming out in the September to November sweet spot: Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive in 2014, Forza Motorsport 6 and Halo 5: Guardians in 2015 (plus the questionable decision to buy 11 months of Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusivity), and ReCore, Forza Horizon 3, and Gears of War 4 in 2016. Not all of those games are on the same level, but it’s a consistently more impressive exclusive lineup than Sony’s been able to manage over the same months.
The thing is, it hasn’t mattered.
Despite not having a major exclusive game over the past few fall seasons, PlayStation 4 has continued to outsell Xbox One at a steady pace. Microsoft’s won a few months here and there, even racking up consecutive wins in 2016, but PlayStation has dominated the conversation—and the sales charts—more often than not.
Strategic partnerships with major third party, multi-platform games like Destiny, Star Wars Battlefront, and Call of Duty has kept PlayStation in the conversation despite its lack of exclusive games. Being the best place to play third party games, with PS4 versions of multi-platform games boasting typically higher resolutions and slightly better performance than on Xbox, has continued to give people reasons to pick up PlayStation games (and systems).
The Xbox One exclusives haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, with new titles like Sunset Overdrive and ReCore failing to move units (despite Sunset Overdrive being a total blast), and stalwart franchises like Halo and Gears of War not maintaining interest like they once did. Even moving outside the fall window, Microsoft doesn’t have much to hang their hat on: Titanfall, Quantum Break, Rare Replay, Halo Wars 2 and the downloadable Ori and the Blind Forest “headline” their exclusives.
It’s unclear when upcoming exclusives, including Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, Sea of Thieves, and Phantom Dust will arrive, or if any of them might meet the same fate of the recently canceled Scalebound.
On PlayStation: Infamous Second Son (and the downloadable First Light), The Order: 1886, Until Dawn, Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Street Fighter V, The Last Guardian, No Man’s Sky, and Gravity Rush 2 top the list of releases. A ton of other downloadable games join the mix, in part thanks to Microsoft’s (since abandoned) policy which required games to launch day and date on Xbox One or to skip the console entirely.
Still on the way? Days Gone, God of War, Spider-Man, The Last of Us 2, Death Stranding, Detroit: Become Human, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, and Knack 2. Notice that I’ve moved away from AAA titles here. For both lists. Sony has struggled to put out PlayStation exclusives in the prime fall window, but Microsoft has struggled to do the same for Xbox One in general.
It seems safe to assume that the presence of these games, regardless of when they released, played a major part in console sales. I have both PS4 and Xbox One, as do many of my friends, but that’s not the way the majority of console owners work. Most people who buy these systems probably don’t care about the bulk of these games on either side, but there are many who do care about them—even if it’s only one or two.
Unencumbered by friends in one ecosystem and pre-existing attachment to any exclusives, it seems almost impossible that an informed prospective buyer would choose Xbox over PlayStation thanks to the sheer number of high quality exclusives available and on the way. Heading into Project Scorpio, this is a problem Microsoft needs to address. Playing the best version of multi-platform games is one thing, and one with Scorpio will easily do given what we know so far, but it’s not enough. Exclusive experiences are, and will always be, the foundation on which consoles live and die.
There are two major takeaways here: 1) console exclusives absolutely matter, but 2) the timing of their release doesn’t. With this current generation of consoles, we’ve outgrown the times when buying a console was decided based on current hot games and recent releases that could be played right away. Microsoft’s had that each fall season, but it hasn’t made a difference.
No, what matters now is the general library, both present and future. It’s no longer a question of “what can I play that just came out?” It’s “what can I play right now?” and “what can I play in the future?” PlayStation has the edge on both of those questions, and consumers are swayed not by what’s available in the moment, but by the overall state of the system.
*The Last Guardian came out, but it was in December, safely out of the prime fall window and after black Friday. And let’s be real: The Last Guardian was, despite its lengthy production, never a AAA game.
Do you care about console exclusives? If so, which ones have you loved the most and which ones are you most looking forward to? Let me know in the comments.