Cross-play used to be a term synonymous with Sony. Games would release across all three of their platforms (PS4, PS3, and Vita) and the cross-play functionality would allow any of those players to play together. Cross-play was a marketable feature. Cross-play was a feather in Sony’s cap. Now, cross-play is Sony’s latest controversy.
Let’s do an analogy, because I love analogies.
Back in the early 2000s, Razor scooters were all the rage. Imagine that your parents give you a Razor scooter, along with a bunch of other cool toys, but they won’t let you out of your own yard. Out in the street, you see the other kids riding scooters together. You want to go play with them, but your mom tells you to stay here in your own yard, where you have a bunch of toys the other kids don’t. Also, you can’t take your scooter out of your yard. If you want to ride with the other kids, you have to get a whole new scooter. If they want to play with you, they can only do it in your yard.
It’s not exactly a subtle analogy, but it works. PlayStation gamers are being kept penned in their own yards. Sony is chucking some great toys our way, sure. God of War, Detroit, Horizon, Spider-Man, Ghost of Tsushima, Dreams, the list goes on and on. Sony’s got a bunch of great exclusives. But while we play with these great toys, we can’t help but envy the fun our other friends are having together, just outside of our little fenced-in playground.
It’s strange to me, coming from E3 where games and gamers are meant to be celebrated together, that there remains this very clear console divide. Each of the consoles are trying to do something vastly different now, and those gaps are likely to grow farther apart next generation. It’s not so much a competition between platforms anymore, as much as each console fulfilling specific wants and needs.
Maybe holding fast to a “no cross-play” stance made more sense last generation. Even early this generation, I took the same platform. Sony’s winning, right? They are on top. They don’t need cross-play. It would only diminish their sales. But that’s some pretty faulty logic. In fact, I think I’ve found a pretty sound argument for why Sony embracing cross-play would actually increase their sales now more than ever, and put them in a power position going into the next generation.
From the Players’ Perspective
Gaming is not a cheap hobby. Consoles are expensive. Games are expensive. Then there’s TV, internet, and online play subscriptions. All of these pieces factor into the cost of gaming. A lot of people only have one console because of this. The choice for which console to buy comes down to a few factors which are assigned different weights by various gamers.
- Where your friends play. If your online ecosystem is Xbox, you are probably going to get an Xbox. The exclusives look nice on PlayStation, but friendships are important to gamers. You go where your friends are. Again, for some this doesn’t matter, as they get multiple platforms, but from a business standpoint, you have to consider the wider marketing angle that some people have to make that choice.
- The exclusives. If you love games like God of War, Horizon, Uncharted, and more, you are going to get a PlayStation. If Halo and Gears of War are your thing, you will buy an Xbox. Smash Bros. and Zelda more up your alley? I’m willing to bet you have a Switch.
- Raw power. Some people just want whatever can run their games the best. Most frame rates and big fidelities, they want all of that raw processing power, even if the game has to work with the lowest common denominator. Some people just love their graphics.
- Console features (portability, virtual reality, etc.). The Switch is quite popular due to its portability. Sure, you can play Skyrim on nearly any platform, but to be able to play it on your TV and on the go?
- History within the ecosystem. If you have somebody like myself with a high number of trophies or achievements, they probably aren’t going to easily abandon their platform of choice.
Now let’s consider the games we’re talking about cross-play for. The recent controversy arose due to Fortnite cross-play not only being blocked, but Sony restricting Epic accounts that had been used on their platform. Nintendo and Microsoft then turned the screws again with Minecraft.
Fortnite and Minecraft are both mass appeal games. If kids are buying consoles for these games, there’s a good chance that is all they are interested in. Instantly you start to lose some of those factors where they might consider another console. Where their friends are playing will probably by the biggest determining factor. By offering cross-play, you break down that barrier.
For example, let’s say that Peter wants to play Fortnite with his brother Henry, who has an Xbox One. Peter actually has two choices of console. He could get an Xbox One just like Henry, but he actually is really interested in some of those Nintendo exclusives, so he picks up a Switch. He can still play Fortnite with his brother, but also gets to enjoy some of the Switch exclusive games and features. Considering Sony, perhaps Peter was also interested in some PlayStation exclusives, but his primary reason for getting a console is the social play. Sony’s closed platform means that PlayStation isn’t even a consideration for him. Where mild interest could have nabbed them a sale, they aren’t only barring entry into their VIP lounge, they aren’t letting anybody in the lounge out onto the dance floor either. We’re gamers. We just want to dance.
By closing off their platform, Sony actually risks more people abandoning them in favor of moving to the more open platforms. As we head into a new generation of consoles, that’s a poor move to make. That’s a transition point where Sony could easily lose players as they jump from the PlayStation ecosystem over to Microsoft and Nintendo, where cross-play is welcomed and celebrated. We’ve seen other tech companies try desperately to hold onto closed platforms, to detrimental effect.
Imagine for a moment if iPhones only allowed you to call other iPhones. Do you think people would flock to their platform? People would leave Apple behind in favor of more open platforms. The choice of hardware should be up to the user, not forced by some synthetic need to be on the same platform your friends are playing on. If I’m a big PlayStation guy and my friend is an Xbox diehard, I shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice either my platform of choice or the ability to play games with my friend.
I cannot see a scenario where Sony opening up PlayStation to cross-play with other platforms would result in them losing market share. I only see it as making themselves a part of the conversation, and potentially breaking down a barrier where somebody may not purchase a PS4 otherwise. Now, more than ever, when Sony is on top and releasing exclusive hit after hit, is when Sony could benefit even more by allowing cross-play with the Xbox One and Switch. Sony has a stellar library of titles, some great system features, and many other great reasons to buy a PS4, and if they were to lean on those selling points, cross-play would remove the possibility of somebody buying something else just because their friend doesn’t have a PlayStation.
Empowering Third-Party Developers
It’s all too common for game servers to die off and get shut down. Only the biggest games have any real staying power, and as more and more games come out, those playerbases get more and more diluted. Players are not only divided among the games that they are playing, but the platforms that they are playing on. Maybe a company sets a minimum player threshold before deciding to shut down a game. For sake of the hypothetical, let’s say that number is 1000. If there are 650 players on the PS4, 378 on the Switch, and 302 on the Xbox One, none of those meet the threshold and the servers would have to shutter. Combine all of them, however, and you have a thriving, healthy playerbase that would justify continued support of the game.
As somebody who has seen game servers become ghost towns and shut down due to low player counts, I support anything that can be done to retain decent player counts on the games I love the most. Allowing for cross-play would take one major concern out of the hands of the developer. We’d see more risks from the developers as dwindling player counts would be an issue much farther out on the calendar. Another benefit would be to leave cross-play up to the people making the games. I understand the concern on allowing for cross-play between PC and console on first-person shooters, for example, but the integrity of the game’s online should be at the discretion of the developer instead.
We know that technical issues aren’t holding cross-play back. Epic already “accidentally” enabled Xbox and PS4 cross-play once, seemingly at the push of a button. We also know its possible because Xbox One and Switch players are actively playing together at this very moment. Not only have they enabled cross-play, but they’ve embraced the fact that they can play together. Meanwhile us Sony kids sit in our yards playing with our cool toys, always painfully aware that the other kids are having fun out in the street.
Allowing for cross-play is a win for everyone involved. Sony removes one barrier of entry that might keep players from getting their console. Gamers get to play with their friends and stay on the platform they love. And developers get more thriving playerbases that last for a longer time. Sony needs to rethink their stance and quickly, otherwise they risk losing their power position as we transition into the next generation. We’ve already seen this arrogance have a negative effect as they moved from the PS2 to the PS3. Sony might be on top now, but as fast as technology, society, and culture moves, that’s a precarious tower that could quickly come tumbling down.
Let’s get back to that place where cross-play is a marketable feature, a feather in the cap. Because games are better together, and this industry thrives under unity.