God of War reveals the creative freedom of console exclusives
The industry may be racing towards a cross-platform future, but console exclusives are the hidden engine that drives the entire industry
It’s easy to look back at God of War’s many wins over the last 15 years as the result of creative rainfalls.
Ambition and creative risk-taking in music, narrative, and game design certainly played a role in Sony Santa Monica’s ongoing success story, but there’s an economic secret to the God of War sauce. While we’d all like to believe that God of War is the result of auteurship gone beautifully right, it’s also about the platform paying the bills.
In the case of 2018’s game of the year, God of War, it was Sony. But what’s the point of funding an exclusive game’s development to begin with? What’s the appeal of an expensive exclusive when everything is going cross-platform these days?
The answer is both more and less complex than you think. Console exclusives like God of War have never been about selling the games themselves. Exclusives exist to sell consoles. By keeping this development in-house with first-party studios, developers have the freedom to experiment and be truly creative.
God of War Week is Inverse’s celebration of all things Kratos, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the first game (March 22) and the 10th anniversary of the third (March 16).
Exclusives matter, but only as a gateway
First-party games funded by platform holders are a necessary tool for moving consoles into living rooms. Once players have a PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo system in their home, it’s easier to get them to keep them playing, buying hardware, and signing up for online subscription services.
Exclusives sell consoles, which is why they’re so important at certain points in a platform’s lifecycle. They matter most at the beginning, when companies like Sony and Microsoft need to convince customers to pick one system over the other — expect a bunch of exclusives, perhaps even a new God of War, when the PS5 launches this year.
Exclusives also matter near the end of a console’s lifecycle, when hardware-makers are looking to onboard any late adopters to the console. This is part of the reason why The Last of Us Part II is still coming out for PS4 so close to the system’s obsolescence, much like The Last of Us did at the tail-end of the PS3’s lifespan.
(Nintendo lives in its own universe and makes its own rules. Whatever works for Ninty doesn’t work for anyone else, though that didn’t stop Sony from counter-programming against The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with another exclusive, Horizon Zero Dawn.)
God of War was Sony’s carefully crafted gamble
As a longstanding ultra-violent adventure-platformer, God of War was always well received by its core audience. At its roots, the game’s protagonist, Kratos, ran around murdering Greek gods and goddesses in his never-ending quest for revenge. But after 15 years and seven games (including some spinoffs), The Adventures of Angry Man just wasn’t cutting it anymore.
With the PlayStation 4 looking for shiny new exclusives and long-standing God of War creative Cory Barlog at the helm, the series could afford to be experimental. It could play with the characters and the world to see what other stories could be told about Kratos.
Had Barlog led this project from an independent studio, the risks he and his team took may not have been as profound. It likely would have been another small iteration, enough to get it up to PlayStation 4’s visual standards and polish the gory gameplay, but not enough to garner the critical acclaim that God of War (2018) came to enjoy.
Sony knew God of War on PlayStation 4 would make bank no matter what, but critics and fans agreed the game needed a fresh perspective. Barlog’s approach, as he told the Guardian after the game’s release in April 2018, was to take “an angry lump of muscle” and do something different. He opted to make Kratos “a struggling father,” instead.
As it turns out, Barlog’s vision was exactly what the series needed.
According to analyst firm NPD Group, God of War was the number-one title in its launch month (April 2018). It had the highest sales of a game in April since Grand Theft Auto IV in April 2008. In addition to being the best-selling entry in franchise history, it was the second-best-selling game from Sony in U.S. history, as well as one of the 50 best-selling launch months in U.S. history.
God of War has sold 10 million copies worldwide as of May 2019.
Console ecosystems and exclusives working in harmony
Sony isn’t the only company that learned a lesson from God of War’s success. As we hurtle towards the next console generation, Microsoft is positioning the Xbox brand as more than just a series of powerful small-scale gaming computers.
Xbox is an entire ecosystem now. Xbox Live is now available on Nintendo Switch. Xbox Game Pass, which was originally limited to the consoles, launched on Windows 10. Microsoft has also been on a spending spree, snatching up studios like Ninja Theory (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice), Obsidian Entertainment (The Outer Worlds), Playground Games (Forza Horizon), Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts), Compulsion Games (We Happy Few), InXile Entertainment (Wasteland) and more in the last couple of years.
By shoring up resources and intellectual property for Xbox Game Studios, Microsoft is poised to avoid the mistakes it made with the launch of Xbox One. (RIP Scalebound.) For Sony and Microsoft, a strong launch lineup is the difference between a console coming home and languishing in an Amazon warehouse. (Again, the rules don’t seem to apply to Nintendo.)
Even if the lines are being blurred across platforms, creating more inclusive communities and squashing the “console wars,” exclusives are still necessary. An exclusive’s role is to move consoles, after all, so even if the exclusivity is only timed (albeit for months or years, as is the case with Horizon Zero Dawn and Death Stranding), it’s all part of the plan.
Roughly six months from the launch of a new console generation, we’re in prime exclusive territory. It’s too soon to adequately gauge which system will boast the better launch library, but thanks to first-party exclusives like God of War, you can expect some incredible, risky, and bold releases.
And maybe even a new God of War.
- God of War III is still the furious, unflinching pinnacle of the series
- 15 years later, God of War is still one of the best feel-bad games ever
Amanda Farough is a freelance game journalist and co-host of the Virtual Economy podcast. Amanda has spent the bulk of her career writing about indie games, diversity & inclusion, and the business of making games. Follow her on Twitter.