Several months ago, on a rainy evening in Birmingham, I loaded up Discord and called my university friends. "Ok guys," I said. "What can we all play together?"
The answer was: very little. With our group split between Xbox and PlayStation owners, the obvious answers were out the window. Fortnite, Rocket League, even Minecraft - all were impossible due to the great console divide. We ended up playing hours upon hours of Civilization 5, which was the only thing everyone could run on their laptops. It's a great game, to be sure - but there's only so much Civ one can take. We soon gave up our dream of playing together.
If we'd been playing today, however, the situation would have been different. As of yesterday, Sony has approved full console cross-play in Fortnite. In an official blog post, the company stated it wants to "open up the platform" - thereby hinting cross-console play could come to other games in future.
The move can justifiably be described as historic. It's the first time ever that the major console platforms - Xbox, PlayStation and the Nintendo - have ever been able to play together. Apart from that time it was accidentally enabled by Epic, that is.
But after the initial celebrations, I was left with several questions. What was the tipping point for Sony? How many games are going to get cross-play? What would universal cross-platform play do for the games industry?
Over the past few months, I worked on an investigation into why major players in the games industry wanted cross-console play. Before Sony's latest announcement, I had already asked several companies, including EA, Tencent Games, Psyonix, Hi-Rez, Daybreak, Id Software, Housemarque, Fatshark and Microsoft, about why they wanted the feature. Based on answers I received, it looks like the future of multiplayer games, for both players and developers, could be very bright. But this depends on exactly how far Sony is willing to extend cross-play. Are the floodgates open, or will cross-play be reserved for a select few?
First, let's consider the best-case scenario. In an ideal world where Sony extends cross-console play to all games, players could see significant improvements in their multiplayer experiences. Most obviously, as detailed by EA DICE's Aleks Grøndal, many people "can't buy multiple platforms," so cross-console play would be "a great way to unite gaming communities". According to FIFA's Matt Prior, these "bigger, more diverse communities" are also "more compelling" for players. If you think about how many game communities are currently divided by platform, imagine what unified forums could look like. Bigger is always better.
Hypothetically, players could also see some technical in-game benefits. Nearly every developer I asked - Fatshark, EA, Tencent Games, Daybreak, Hi-Rez - told me cross-play significantly increases the pool of players, and therefore the speed of matchmaking. Tencent Games' Edward Gan explained fast matchmaking is "one of the most important things in competitive online multiplayer games," and let's face it - nobody wants to be sat in a lobby for hours waiting for a match. In Hi-Rez's case, the developer told me it has solid evidence cross-play helps with matchmaking times. President Stew Chisam informed me the matchmaking quality for Paladins Xbox users "increased by tremendous amounts once [they] allowed cross-play with Switch users".
In addition to this, Prior also highlighted a larger matchmaking pool gives developers an increased "ability to match people of similar abilities". No more ridiculously easy FIFA matches, I guess - time to pull out those sweaty goals.
Then there's also the potential for entirely new content to be developed. Henri Markus of Resogun maker Housemarque imaginatively suggested developers could create "console versus console content" in the form of competitive events. Personally, I can't think of a more wholesome answer to the console war than turning it into a game mode.
But players aren't the only ones who will benefit. If Sony extends cross-console play, it could bring serious benefits to the games industry, to both big and small developers alike. As a smaller indie publisher, Fatshark (Warhammer Vermintide) believes universal cross-play would be "beneficial in so many aspects for a company with limited resources". Producer Robert Bäckström said it would allow them to "market in sync for all platforms," while "less sensitivity for player numbers" would allow them to "increase [the] number of matchmaking buckets," meaning the developer could support more game modes and levels.
On the other end of the spectrum, big developers could expect to see financial benefits. Psyonix's Jeremy Dunham - one of the most outspoken advocates for cross-play - told me the studio had found "players who play cross-platform also monetise at a considerably higher rate than those who don't".
If Sony intends to extend cross-play out to other games, the transition process could be fairly swift. Chisam told me Hi-Rez has "been moving its technology forward in that direction over the last year," and has been "keeping cross-play and cross-account progression in mind when starting designs and development of new games". Grøndal, meanwhile, informed me console to console cross-play would theoretically "be much easier" for EA to implement in Battlefield than keyboard to controller. And Fortnite certainly didn't waste any time turning the mode on again.
Yet this all depends on Sony. In the past, it's produced a variety of reasons to explain the lack of cross-console play. The reasons range from children's safety, to simply stating it's because "PlayStation is the best place to play" (via The Independent). The overarching theme, however, has always been money. Ex-Sony dev John Smedley once tweeted to say this was the given reason when he worked there. A source within Sony recently told Eurogamer that protecting the PS4's dominance over the console market, and retaining the sense the console is an essential purchase if you wanted to play with your friends, had remained the main motivation for blocking cross-play. It makes sense - when Xbox was market leader, it did exactly the same thing.
Sony likely believes public opinion has changed to the point where it could severely damage the company's reputation (and thereby sales). As I was conducting my research, I noticed developers were becoming increasingly confrontational about the situation, with Bethesda and Take-Two some of the most recent outspoken pro-cross-play voices. When I asked Hi-Rez whether PlayStation cross-play with Switch and Xbox would be beneficial for players and the company, I got a simple but brutal answer, "yes". Big names which had previously remained quiet about cross-play, such as EA, Tencent Games and Daybreak, were suddenly more willing to discuss the issue. With so many players and developers now in support of the feature, along with news cross-console play is available in Fortnite, it's easy to assume the whole gaming landscape will change immediately.
But we should bear in mind where this all started. Fortnite is one of the most popular and profitable games we've ever seen. Epic's influence is significant, and the storm around cross-console play only truly reignited when PlayStation-associated Fortnite accounts were blocked on the Switch. It took a giant to take on Sony, and there's no guarantee the company will roll out cross-play to all multiplayer games. Just observe the phrasing of the blog post: the current plan is to bring it to "select third party content," while it claims the communities "around some games have evolved to the point where cross-platform experiences add significant value to players".
It's not the most promising, and Sony may hope giving Fortnite cross-play (via an extended beta period) will eventually help take the pressure off. What happens to games with exclusive marketing and content deals, such as Destiny 2? Could Sony limit cross-console play to free-to-play games? In theory Sony could introduce exclusivity periods where cross-console play is unavailable: we just don't know. And while the company would have to defend itself against accusations of favouritism towards Fortnite, it's been stubborn in the past, and could be stubborn again in future. The situation may once again require Sony to evaluate its financial interests against public opinion, and it has typically been shown to favour the former. Sorry to be a party-pooper, but that vision of a platform-agnostic future may still be rather distant.
Despite these reservations, I still agree with the many developers who believe universal cross-play will happen in future. As Tim Willits of id Software told Eurogamer, "if you do not get on board with what everybody wants, you are going to be left behind," and this is a message which is slowly sinking in at Sony. Microsoft is eager to get the ball rolling, and told Eurogamer it would "love to bring players on PlayStation 4 into [its] Minecraft ecosystem". I'm not sure Sony feels the same way, but maybe this will indeed be one of the next titles to get cross-console play.
While we wait for that promised Sony update, and that distant dream of universal cross-play, I'll at least be able to pass the time playing Fortnite with my friends. All I have to do now is convince them to like it first.
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