When You Hear "Exclusive," Guess What It Means

The recent announcement of a PlayStation 3 release of Fallout 3 content that was previously announced as exclusive to Microsoft sent us searching for answers about what constitutes an "exclusive."

Last July Todd Howard, lead designer at Bethesda Softworks, took the stage during the Microsoft E3 press briefing and did a rather un-extraordinary thing. Like so many developers, publishers, marketers, and media outlets in gaming before him, he announced an "exclusive."

Specifically, he said: "We're going to be doing substantial downloadable content for Fallout 3 and it will be exclusive for the Xbox 360 and Games for Windows."

What exactly he meant by that we can't say, as a Bethesda representative declined to comment for this story.

But what's just as important as what Howard meant is what you, the gamer, thought he meant — then or now. After all, this week, Bethesda announced that that content would be coming to the PlayStation 3.

Exclusivity, in this case, was not forever. Was it ever meant to imply it was? Bethesda won't say.

There is a difference between the idea that a piece of gaming content will only ever appear on a given console or that it is just appearing on one of them first. Such a distinction could impact the purchasing decision of a gamer looking to decide which version of a game to buy or which gaming console to support. And there are a variety of ways to telegraph which version of the word "exclusive" is meant. Witness Microsoft's Shane Kim, in the same E3 2008 press briefing as Howard, announcing that Rock Band 2 would "premiere exclusively" on the Xbox 360 in September 2008. The implication that Rock Band 2 would show up on other platforms later was obvious.

We contacted Microsoft, hoping to glean the company's take on what the announcement of an "exclusive" should mean to gamers. We wondered if, in this instance, there was reason for the company to have felt gamers were mislead.

A Microsoft spokesperson took our request as an opportunity not to look back to past uses of the word "exclusive" but as a chance to hype the future of the next two Fallout 3 DLC add-ons: "Again coming first to Xbox 360, the upcoming releases of 'Point Lookout' and 'Mothership Zeta' for Fallout 3, mean we're continuing to bring the biggest and best Game Add-ons to our customers before anyone else," the spokesperson wrote back to us via e-mail. "Xbox LIVE is hands down the most popular destination for Game Add-ons. Publishers and consumers recognize this fact and will continue to turn to Xbox 360 first to extend the lives of their games with great Game Add-ons."

That word Exclusive isn't so easy to pin down. But with Bethesda mum and Microsoft changing the topic, we needed to find an expert on these things.

Who better to ask than the gaming media's chief purveyor of exclusives, the man whose reference to them could form the basis of a weekly drinking game?

We contacted GameTrailers TV host and former Kotaku guest-editor, Geoff Keighley.

Over e-mail, Keighley made clear what no one else would be explicit about: "In this day and age, unless otherwise specified, you have to assume 'exclusive' means a timed exclusive. In other words it is 'exclusive' to one platform for a period of time, or "first." Of course no one will tell you about the length of exclusivity....This is similar to world exclusives on GTTV or in Game Informer. We have the 'exclusive' on a game for a period of time, but other outlets ultimately receive the assets. "

Keighley's analysis makes explicit what some gamers suspected all along. Still, this expert of exclusivity had to put things in more colorful context: "The one wrinkle is whether Todd actually THOUGHT the content was exclusive, only to later realize he wanted to re-evaluate his decision. When you get married you think you're in an exclusive relationship, but sometimes I guess it turns out to be a timed exclusive."

So much for the dictionary definition of the word "exclusive," though it's not precise either.

Is the English language letting the gaming industry down? Or is the gaming industry letting the English language down?

Get ready to hear and read that word "exclusive" a lot come E3 2009. We submit our exclusive request: Let it finally be clear what it means.