Sony finally bit the bullet and made the organizational change players had been waiting for. This morning, the company decided on a "major policy change", allowing cross-play on the PlayStation 4. Sony had stood firm for more than a year, charging that the company couldn't allow cross-play because it didn't control the other platforms.
"We've got to be mindful of our responsibility to our install base. Minecraft—the demographic playing that, you know as well as I do, it's all ages but it's also very young. We have a contract with the people who go online with us, that we look after them and they are within the PlayStation curated universe. Exposing what in many cases are children to external influences we have no ability to manage or look after, it's something we have to think about very carefully," said PlayStation global sales and marketing head Jim Ryan to Eurogamer last year.
The problem was one of growing scale, though. Sony found itself as the lonely island in the midst of connected platforms, especially when it came to the industry's biggest games. The owners of Minecraft, Rocket League, and Fortnite all want to allow players to enjoy their games on any platform. For developers, it's better if a player can purchase, say, the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and iOS versions of a game and transition smoothly between them; it's about the continuity of the customer. PlayStation 4 not allowing cross-play means whatever you have on that platform stays there.
This came to a head earlier this year with Fortnite's release on Nintendo Switch. That version of the game was compatible with the Xbox One, PC, Mac, and mobile versions, but not the PlayStation 4 version. The big problem was that players' Epic accounts wouldn't transfer over, even though that system was technically outside of the PlayStation Network. Epic accounts linked to the PS4 were stuck on the PS4; if you wanted to play on Switch or another platform, you needed to make an entirely new account. Driven by the most popular game at the moment, fan outcry against Sony rose precipitously.
For Sony, holding back against cross-play was a power move. Sony opposes the feature because it current leads this console generation and it behooves the company to make it difficult for players to jump to other platforms. The PlayStation 4 has shipped 82.2 million consoles, and for Sony, it's better if every single customer only wants to play on PS4.
Jump back a generation and you see this in reverse. The Xbox 360 was ahead in terms of sales for most of the last generation, so Microsoft was the one looking to prevent cross-platform play. When Valve Software launched Portal 2 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, only the latter version connected with the PC and Mac releases. According to Valve, that was because of restrictions on Microsoft's side.
"I defer you to Microsoft to find out what their thoughts on [cross-platform play] are. We offered it to everybody; our goal is to have folks be able to access their games on whatever platform they’re on and as much as we can deliver that through Steam, the better," Valve's Doug Lombardi told AusGamers back in 2011. "It’s worked really, really well on the Mac; we’re going to deploy our first experiment with Portal 2 on the PS3 and folks seem really, really excited about it. So we’ll see where it takes us. I mean, again, our goal ultimately is that folks pay for a game and then whatever platform they sit down in front of, it’s there for them."
Here's a Kotaku preview of Defiance, a shooter MMO released by Trion Worlds in 2014. The preview space had PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 development kits working together in the same environment, with the developer noting the real issue was on Microsoft's side. "Microsoft won't let Sony players play against them," explained Trion global brand director Alex Rodberg at the time. And Microsoft offered an answer at the time that mirrors Sony's above.
"Xbox Live delivers the best entertainment experience unmatched by anyone else, with 35 million actively engaged members. We have a high level of expectation for our game developers to ensure that all Live experiences remain top notch. Because we can't guarantee this level of quality, or control the player experience on other consoles or gaming networks, we currently do not open our network to games that allow this cross-over capability," a Microsoft spokeperson said in 2011.
Again, it's a power move. The current winner doesn't want to make it easier for you to move to a competing platform. On the other hand, the platform holder that's behind wants to make it a reality, because that makes it easier for players to pick up and move to their console if the conditions are just right. When Microsoft was ahead in the last generation, cross-play was a problem. Now that the Xbox One is playing catch up, the company is doing everything it can to play up cross-platform play.
This is why I tend to prefer the lead switching hands from generation to generation. The current market leader has no reason to make changes that benefit consumers, because it already has many of the consumers. It's the platform holder coming up from behind that is willing to change and shift to win players over. The Sony coming off the best-selling PlayStation 2 was the one that released the PlayStation 3 for $599, believing that consumers would say, "I will work more hours to buy one." The Microsoft coming off a strong Xbox 360 tried to offer always-online DRM for the Xbox One. The Sony that had to claw and fight to bring the PlayStation 3 to parity was able to capitalize by making games work like they always have.
The loser is the one that changes for the better; so for us as a consumer, you always want the loser to be shifting between Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Cross-play benefits Microsoft and Nintendo for now, which is why both companies were amazingly open to the prospect. In the previous generation, Microsoft was the one making the arguments against cross-platform play.
Regardless, today is a big first step for Sony and the gaming community.
"For 24 years, we have strived to deliver the best gaming experience to our fans by providing a uniquely PlayStation perspective. Today, the communities around some games have evolved to the point where cross-platform experiences add significant value to players," said the company in its statement earlier today.
It does add value. And I look forward to games like Rocket League, Gwent, and Minecraft full opening up the floodgates to cross-platform play.