By the end of 2001, the console gaming landscape was set in stone. With the Dreamcast failing to gain any headway after the titanic launch of the PlayStation 2, the stage was set for the next three generations of console: Sony’s PlayStation and its iterations, Microsoft’s Xbox line, and Nintendo’s accumulative efforts of the GameCube, Wii, Wii U and Switch. For seventeen years the lines between the consoles have blurred in terms of gameplay experience. Arguably, it could be boiled down to three distinct types of consoles: the specialist Nintendo console, whose first party titles are of an unmatched calibre and renown; the social Xbox console perfect for playing online with friends; and the workhorse PlayStation filling the spaces in between.
Fast-forward to 2018, and these lines are blurring. PlayStation’s first party titles seem to go from strength to strength, Xbox has the functionality of an entire home theatre system in one package, and Nintendo’s latest console contains two controllers out of the box. There is a convergence taking place that makes the decision between the consoles almost inconsequential, with only the minor details determining where customer allegiances will fall. One of these details is that of cross-platform online multiplayer: the ability to play a game with someone not on the same console as your own. Microsoft have been surprisingly bold and allowed its players to play Fortnite, Minecraft, Rocket League and Paladins with Switch players, meaning that players from six different families of platform can converge. Yet Sony has not hopped on board, causing a backlash from both consumers and developers.
There are several reasons as to why Sony hasn’t pulled the trigger on a cross-platform utopia across all platforms. Perhaps surprisingly, most of them aren’t related to how difficult it would be to implement. In many interviews surrounding the subject, developers have said that it is as simple as checking a box in a web page. Heck, Fortnite had a very brief moment where the walls came down and players on the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One interacted with one another, only for the tech crews to quickly put the curtain back up and pretend you didn’t see anything. We know it’s possible and simple to achieve, so this seems like a conundrum with a simple solution: bang on Sony’s door until they allow it to happen. After all, Sony certainly looks like the grouchy neighbour with their veiled garden, not allowing anyone else to come play with their users.
However, like most things in the video game landscape, this is not a new issue. In 2011 a reporter from Kotaku went to the headquarters of Trion Worlds, the developer of the short-lived MMO Defiance. When he was there he witnessed the Holy Grail first-hand – a PlayStation 3 and a Xbox 360, linked together, on the same server, playing the same game. When pressed for comment, Trion global brand director Alex Rodberg stated that “Microsoft won’t let Sony players play against them,” before suggesting that the subject be changed to something less sensitive. This tells us two very important things: first, that the argument has been raging between Sony and Microsoft for years – turning a simple technological hurdle into an overtly financial and political one. Secondly, cross platform play is truly a straight forward task. Provided that the protocols match and the consoles and games are working to the same tune, it can be done rather easily. The poster child for this comes from Final Fantasy XI, where one of their leading marketing strategies was clean cross-platform play between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 2.
So what is driving Sony to wall off their side of the console market? It is possibly the same reasons why Microsoft walled off their side of the market six years ago. The gaming landscape of the previous generation was a lot more exclusive than it is now, and back then it was Microsoft that held the monopoly of online play. At the time of the aforementioned interview, Microsoft’s combined Xbox Live player base clocked in at 35 million exclusive users – numbers that, in the tight race between the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, they did not have the luxury to share with anyone else. It was their battle to lose, and it was in that small space they could cultivate the best landscape. Inserting other players from other consoles to their games would dilute the experience they had worked so hard to maintain, and to fix those problems would require ridiculous levels of hoop jumping.
Now, the ball is in Sony’s court. The unfortunate truth is, even with Microsoft finally letting the walls down and accommodating Switch players into their circle, the combined total player base of the Xbox One and the Switch – relying on units sold, since the Switch’s online user base is difficult to quantify – is still over 20 million less than Sony standing alone. Even incorporating the number of mobile users to these games – seven million downloads on the iOS alone, according to some estimates – Sony is still light-years ahead of every single one of its competitors. All of this number crunching is before the mention that Sony does in fact support cross-platform play between the PlayStation 4, PC and mobile devices.. The simple fact is, as long as Sony has this astronomical lead, it can do with its online service as it pleases. Cultivating its existing player base for a superior experience is more likely to bring people over to the PlayStation 4 than a nebulous Wild West where all consoles compete on the same space with one another.
This, of course, leads us to the wild card that sparked the discussion in the first place: Fortnite. The game that arguably snatched PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ formula and did it better now has accrued a staggering 125 million players, with two thirds of those appearing in the past six months, all logging in every month to run the gauntlet of 100-man battle royale action. Could this title be the deciding factor on whether or not Sony lifts the gates? After all, it has a big enough player base that could tempt Sony into pinching a portion of that to add to its growth. Except it already does, as the PlayStation 4 already supports cross-platform play with the PC and mobile versions of the game. On top of that, opening the door to one title for cross-play would open up the rationale that all of the cross-platform multiplayer titles should have it, and while that may be a massive win for the consumers, it is simply not in Sony’s best interest to let Microsoft and Nintendo have a slice of its pie.
Is this stance anti-consumer? It depends on whether or not you see Sony’s power play as a way to continue to devote time and attention to its existing players, or as a nefarious breeding of personal exclusivity to push new players into picking up their console. In either case, the entire debacle raises more questions than obvious paths forward, with the decisions in Sony’s hands.
Perhaps in the next console generation we may see more examples of cross-platform play. Of course, this may inevitably lead to less games being multi-platform and more exclusive titles that focus on their own section of multiplayer. The competition of these entities pushes them to be more forward thinking and continue the hunt to wow and impress their player base. What may seem to be the pro-consumer option now may have far-reaching ramifications on how developers and publishers market their titles, and could negatively impact the console market in the long term.
What seems a simple matter of bringing down the walls and allowing everyone to play together in a utopic multiplayer wonderland may have further reaching implications in what we see from developers moving forward. The act would bring an end to what we know as the console wars. The concern that drives Sony, and what stays their hand, is what happens afterwards.