The topic of cross-platform play was thrust into the spotlight once again this past weekend thanks to Epic Games’ Fortnite. A “configuration issue” on the developer’s side meant that Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players were cropping up in the same Battle Royale sessions and even able to specifically team up. The fact that Xbox gamertags allow spaces while PlayStation Network IDs do not led users to investigate further until it was finally confirmed.
Having spent a couple hours in Fortnite’s Battle Royale, I honestly didn’t notice this strange phenomenon. All I knew was that, for a pre-release mode in an early access game, finding 100 players to drop into a match took next to no time at all.
Epic’s supposed accident has stirred up the debate once again. What’s perhaps most important here is that they make it sound trivial, as if someone at Epic Games HQ simply flipped a switch or forgot to uncheck a box. Previously, I had thought cross-network play would require meticulously planning and reworks when it comes to server tech and creating a forbidden gateway between Xbox Live and PSN. Yet here it was, fully operational with both tribes of gamers united for a weekend-long affair.
It didn’t take long for people to latch onto the story, reaching out to Fortnite devs and execs/reps from both Sony and Microsoft. The most interesting response came from Xbox frontman Phil Spencer who, when asked what he thought about the joined Fortnite servers said, “I would have liked to see them leave it on”.
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has wanted to play ball, only for Sony to turn them down. Rocket League currently allows cross-platform play between PC and consoles, independently between PC and Xbox One or PC and PS4, developer Psyonix having mentioned how easy it would be to connect the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 communities.
Then, of course, there was Minecraft, where its own Better Together patch released earlier this week, letting Xbox One, PC, Mobile and VR players group up – the Switch update has been delayed for the time being. Sony are sitting this party out, despite stating that they’re all in favour of cross-platform integration. Jim Ryan pointed to the need to police the content allowed on their platform for younger eyes, while there will also have been objections to needing a Xbox Live log in to participate.
To me, the actual answer behind this cross-play conundrum is straightforward though Sony won’t come out and say it themselves. Since the start of the current console cycle, the PlayStation 4 has been number one with no signs of letting up. Sony’s install base is big enough as it is, without needing to join hands with its leading competitor and sing kumbaya around the campfire. In other words, cross-play doesn’t mean as much to Sony as it does to Microsoft right now.
However, this sucks for both gamers and developers alike. By closing the gates, Sony is effectively putting a cap on the maximum playerbase for various online games. Even when it comes to newer releases, we’ve all sat there staring at matchmaking screens, wishing there were more players to connect with. This is perhaps a bigger issue for developers, especially with so many games having online features nowadays. Being able to group users together in a single bloc could be a huge benefit to them and create a more active community as a whole.
Conspiracy theorists will tell you Epic Games had a similar notion when it “accidentally” united House PlayStation and House Xbox. Fortnite is great fun, but it hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm and would definitely prosper from cross-platform play. Epic’s slip-up and comments such as those from Phil Spencer have only put more pressure on Sony, but it’s unlikely they’ll give in. At least not right now. The backlash isn’t quite strong enough to force their hand.
If cross-network play between Xbox One and PlayStation 4 does ever happen, it will need to be on Sony’s terms. It seems like a real no brainer, but there’s no doubt a degree of internal bureaucracy at Sony as well as a corporate culture that may not approve of potentially given their rivals a leg up.
It’s also worth considering if Microsoft were in Sony’s current market position, would they adopt the same stance?