In a surprise move, Crystal Dynamics today announced that the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider will be an Xbox One exclusive.

Crystal Dynamics’ Darrell Gallagher took to the stage at Gamescom during Microsoft’s press conference this afternoon to announce the move, which has understandably upset a large number of the fans that bought into last year’s reboot. He later posted a blog entry to the game’s official tumblr account in an effort to shed some light on the move. Follow the link for the full story, but I’ve quoted a particularly relevant paragraph below:

Tomb Raider in 2013 was a success due in large part to your continued support. Our goal has always been to deliver something truly special with Rise of the Tomb Raider. Today’s announcement with Microsoft is one step to help us put Tomb Raider on top of action adventure gaming. Our friends at Microsoft have always seen huge potential in Tomb Raider and have believed in our vision since our first unveil with them on their stage at E3 2011. We know they will get behind this game more than any support we have had from them in the past – we believe this will be a step to really forging the Tomb Raider brand as one of the biggest in gaming, with the help, belief and backing of a major partner like Microsoft.

There’s a couple of things worth looking into here. Immediate reactions were that Microsoft had simply money-hatted themselves an exclusive, essentially paying for a game not to appear on their rival’s console. This may well be the case, but the text quoted above suggests, to me at least, that Microsoft may actually be helping to fund development in some way.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part, but let’s look a little closer. You’ll no doubt remember that Square-Enix were initially disappointed with the game’s sales – this, despite it moving an impressive 3.4 million copies in its first month on sale. Most games don’t get anywhere near that number, but it was a far cry from the 5-6 million the publisher wanted. Indeed, it would take the game until the end of 2013 to achieve profitability, suggesting that Square-Enix had pumped an enormous amount of money into its development and marketing.

Now, here’s where the speculation comes into play. Crystal Dynamics are going to want to build on the success they had with their previous title – Gallagher says as much in today’s blog post – and that suggests that the sequel will require a bigger spend than the first game if the developer is to realise their ambitions. Square-Enix will surely be loathe to pump as much money into the game this time, so perhaps they went looking for an external developer to prop up development?

It’s an interesting scenario – a third-party looking to a platform holder to complete a project – but it’s similar to what we saw with Titanfall. According to Geoff Keighley’s The Final Hours of Titanfall, the project was in dire straits; Respawn needed more funds to keep the project moving, funds that publisher EA was unwilling to give, with John Riccitiello, then-CEO of EA, referring to the project as “a massive economic problem”. Respawn shopped the project around, with Sony asking them to create a Vita game, before Microsoft stepped in and provided the funding that the studio needed to continue. That investment, of course, resulted in Titanfall being an Xbox/PC exclusive.

Of course, I’m not about to claim that Rise of the Tomb Raider was on the verge of being cancelled before this announcement – there’s absolutely nothing out there to support that – but perhaps Crystal Dynamics’ ambitions for the franchise are such that Square-Enix just don’t want to lay down the kind of money the developer is asking for. In this scenario, Microsoft stepping in to help nets them a big exclusive to tout on their platform while empowering Crystal Dynamics to realise their vision for the game.

Now, again, this is all speculation on my part, but it’s also the only scenario that really makes any sense to me. Keza MacDonald over at Kotaku points out that 69% of the sales of the recent Definitive Edition were on PlayStation 4, meaning an exclusivity arrangement with Microsoft essentially cuts out the vast majority of the series’ fans. Would Square-Enix really be happy with cutting out so many potential sales just to get a large chunk of change from Microsoft? I don’t know; while they’d have guaranteed income from such a deal, surely Crystal Dynamics wouldn’t be pleased about having their new game available to a subset of their potential fans, and a massive fall-off in sales between the first game and its sequel would surely damage the image of the series. It’s entirely possible that this is the case (and we’ll likely never know the level of investment from Microsoft), but I feel neither publisher nor developer would have gone for this deal if it didn’t benefit them both in some way other than a short-term cash injection.

Perhaps somewhere down the line it’ll all come out in the wash and we’ll find out for sure. For now, Microsoft will be hoping that Rise of the Tomb Raider will prove to be a system seller when it goes toe-to-toe with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End when both games release next year.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings