You may have read by now that the new Tomb Raider’s increasingly murky “exclusivity” has an unspecified duration - in other words, that it’s not totally out of the question that Rise of the Tomb Raider will appear somewhere other than the Xbox One at some point after Holiday 2015 (and, reading between the lines, that it probably will, even if that is not the impression given by Crystal Dynamics’ communication on the matter right now). As for what that duration is, or what the exact terms of the deal are, nobody’s saying. But speaking with Microsoft’s Phil Spencer today, I got some insight into what this “exclusivity” - however long it might turn out to be - means for the game and for Xbox, and what Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix are getting out of it.
When I asked straight up whether Tomb Raider was a timed exclusive or a full exclusive on Xbox One, Spencer said that it “has a duration”. “I didn’t buy the IP, so I don’t own Tomb Raider as a franchise. Our deal obviously has a duration,” he clarified. “If I owned the IP it would be forever, but I don’t own the IP and I don’t own development of Tomb Raider on any other platform. So if you ask me, is Tomb Raider going to ship on another platform, I actually can’t give you an answer because I’m not the developer of the game.
I can talk about Tomb Raider coming to Xbox in 2015 exclusively, right - that’s the deal I have on the game, but I don’t own the IP.”
So why not be up-front about it and say that it was coming first to Xbox, rather than throwing the word “exclusive” out there when it could be construed as misleading? Is it fair to say that there are no plans, currently, for Rise of the Tomb Raider to appear on other platforms? “I’m not trying to duck the question - it’s just really not my place to discuss what they’re going to do,” said Spencer.
Whatever the duration of the deal, it seems that Microsoft will very closely involved with Rise of the Tomb Raider for however long it has it. If you were wondering what Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics could be getting out of a deal that will potentially more than halve their sales, at least in the short term, then here are some answers.
“Right now we have a relationship with Square and Crystal on publishing the game,” Spencer confirmed. “The exact details of what publishing means and when it gets done are part of that deal - I’m not trying to be opaque about it. We will clearly spend money on marketing the game, there’s no doubt about that. And we do [that] on games where we have very little to do with development, and with games that we fully develop. And we will definitely be spending money on developing the game - I want to make sure that it’s as great as it can be.”
The impression I’m getting is that Square wants to build Tomb Raider to be as big as it can possibly be, and that Microsoft was the partner it chose in order to help make that a reality. This is a deal that has evidently been percolating ever since the Tomb Raider reboot was first revealed, in Microsoft’s conference at E3. Spencer believes that in the long-term, partnerships like this are good for franchises - even in the face of the immediate backlash from disappointed fans who own the wrong console.
“We’ve started this relationship with Crystal a long time ago,” he says. “If you’ve watched our E3s, this is not the first time it’s been on our stage. So we’ve built that relationship with them over a long time. It’s a genre that fits very well in our lineup, when you think about the games that we have. I would love if we owned an IP that was as strong as Lara Croft and Tomb Raider, that we had a base in that genre, but we don’t have that right now. I’m going to invest in our first-party franchises to be great, but when an opportunity comes up like this, whether it’s putting them on stage or doing co-marketing deals or something that’s a bigger deal like this, those conversations are always going on.
“They own something that they want to grow as big as any of the AAA franchises that are out there, and if the opportunity comes up for us to be able to invest with them to make the franchise great, I think we can help them.”
I get the distinct impression that Spencer was disappointed by the reaction to yesterday’s announcement, and the backlash and confusion that ensued. “I’ve seen and heard and read people’s perception of the deal, and I’d love to have a conversation with you about it, because I feel it kind of gets painted the wrong way, on how the relationship was built and how the deal was done,” he says, when I bring it up.
“I said yesterday that I thought it was a win-win, and certain people look at that snarkily, but I honestly didn’t go out and look at franchises that were on other platforms and say, OK, let’s go cherry-pick some of them. This is a relationship we’ve talked about for a long time.”
Throughout our conversation, Phil draws parallels to games like Dead Rising, Titanfall and Ryse - games that Microsoft has invested in and supported, but which have appeared on other platforms. Only one of those franchises, though, has appeared on Microsoft’s direct rival platforms, and that was well after its Xbox debut. Will Rise of the Tomb Raider appear on PS4 within a few months of its Xbox release next year? It would be odd for Microsoft to invest so heavily in a game that didn’t have at least a long period of exclusivity, and especially odd for the company to make such a fuss about it in a press conference. The word "exclusive", in this context, has caused nothing but confusion.
I still think exclusivity for Tomb Raider is a strange decision that’s hardly consumer-friendly. Exclusivity of any kind isn’t good for the consumer, in my opinion, and limited exclusivity is still a blow to Tomb Raider fans who’ve always played on other platforms. the knowledge that it’s likely that Rise of the Tomb Raider will, eventually, come to other platforms will hardly comfort those PlayStation and PC owners who were looking forward to playing it on day 1.
It’s clearer now, though, what Square Enix is getting out of this partnership: the full force of Xbox’s marketing power, and investment in the quality of the actual product. As for how long that deal will last, though, that’s something only Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics can answer.