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The rise and fall of gaming’s third-party exclusives

Since practically the dawn of the video game console, game makers have tried to set their systems apart with games made in-house by first-party studios or from wholly owned second-party subsidiaries. But the idea of large, independent third-party developers releasing games exclusively on one console or the other has risen and fallen in popularity over gaming's short history.

When a few Atari programmers split off to form Activision in 1979, they weren't eager to tie themselves exclusively to their former employer's console. Activision games like Pitfall and River Raidappeared on the Intellivision and Colecovision as well, even though Atari's dominant sales position ensured plenty of other third-party titles would end up only on the Atari 2600. Still, even first-party developers weren't immune to cross-platform development in those days: Coleco published games like Donkey Kong and Zaxxon on the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, as well as its own Colecovision.

The idea of the third-party exclusive really came into its own during the 8-bit era, mainly because Nintendo forced it to. To publish games on the ultra-popular Nintendo Entertainment System, licensees had to agree to a strict non-compete clause that guaranteed those games would be exclusive to Nintendo's system for two years. Most developers were more than willing to sign on the dotted line to get access to the NES' tens of millions of players, squeezing out external game development resources for upstart challengers like the Sega Master System and Atari 7200.

When Sega broke into the market with the Genesis, it succeeded partly because it offered third-party publishers licensing terms that were much more favorable than the ones being forced on publishers by Nintendo (and the NES' near-monopoly). But it wasn't fated to be that way. As EA founder Bing Gordon recalled in a Game Informer interview, early on in the Genesis' life, Sega President Mike Katz wanted to try to enforce the same strict third-party licensing terms as Nintendo.

That situation didn't change until EA basically reverse-engineered the Genesis' lock-out chip and threatened to manufacture its own cartridges for any interested developer, cutting Sega out of the lucrative licensing process. “We basically said, ‘We’re going to run our own licensing program unless you agree to our terms,’” recalled Gordon.

As a result, Sega loosened its grip on third-party publishers, offering more favorable terms and rates than Nintendo (in turn forcing Nintendo to follow suit later on). The strong-arm deal ended up being one of the best things that could have happened for the Genesis, leading to a number of third-party exclusives from EA and other developers. This made the Genesis, and Sega, a force to be reckoned with. More publishers than ever decided to port their games to both the Genesis and the SNES, even though Japanese developers like Squaresoft and Enix largely retained the loyalty to Nintendo they had established in the NES days.

The 16-bit era also saw a number of pseudo-exclusives for each console. While the SNES got Street Fighter 2 Turbo, the Genesis got Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition. The SNES gotContra 3: The Alien Wars while the Genesis got Contra: Hard Corps. The SNES got TMNT: Turtles in Time while the Genesis got TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist. The SNES got Super Castlevania IV, while the Genesis got Castlevania: Bloodlines. In each case, both Sega and Nintendo could claim another "exclusive" title, while third-party developers got to exploit the customer base of two consoles that were both very popular.

The PlayStation era and beyond

Enlarge / For about a decade, these buttons were synonymous with "video game consoles" for many major third-party franchises.

The next two console generations would see an NES-style return to third-party publishers overwhelmingly bringing their games only to one system: PlayStation. For about 10 years, the vast majority of games not published by Sega, Nintendo, or Microsoft themselves were only available on a PlayStation system. Everything from Final Fantasy to Tekken to Metal Gear Solid to Guitar Hero went almost by default to Sony's systems, which dominated the market through the first half of the 2000s.

Interestingly, while the Tomb Raider franchise would experiment with a few releases on the Saturn and Dreamcast, Tomb Raider IITomb Raider III, and Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness only appeared on Sony consoles (and computers) during this era.

By the 2000s, though, Microsoft was able to throw its weight (and its money) around to carve out a few third-party exclusives of its own on the original Xbox. That system has the only console versions of PC favorites like Thief: Deadly ShadowsKnights of the Old RepublicUnreal Championship, and the only versions anywhere of third-party games like Crazy Taxi 3 and Dead or Alive 3.



As we got into the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation, most third-party publishers decided to play it safe by porting their biggest games to both consoles instead of losing out on a significant chunk of the market. The Xbox 360 could claim big-name games like the Left 4 Dead series and the originalSaints Row to itself, while Sony could still point to Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Yakuza series as important third-party exclusives. But largely the last generation was where major third-party publishers decided franchises like Grand Theft AutoBioshockAssassin's CreedRock BandBattlefield,Elder ScrollsTomb RaiderFinal Fantasy, and plenty of others had to be on at least two major consoles to make an impact.


That trend is continuing into the new generation of consoles, aided by similar architectures that make porting games between the Xbox One, PS4, and PC easier than ever. While Sony is currently winning the sales race, the Xbox One's millions of sales make it far from easy to ignore for most publishers.

The third-party games most likely to show up on only one console family these days are the ones that either Sony or Microsoft is willing to pay for the privilege of securing it to its platform (TitanfallRise of the Tomb Raider), or titles aimed at Japan, where the Xbox brand continues to be a minor presence (BloodborneDeep Down). With fewer third-party titles to differentiate the consoles, Sony and Microsoft are likely to lean more heavily on any third-party exclusives they can get their hands on (as well as their own stable of first- and second-party exclusives) in the hopes of standing out.




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