Crossplay has been getting a fair bit of attention lately. Between Sony holding Epic Games accounts hostage to Bethesda making a statement (mostly symbolic) by threatening to withhold a new game from PS4 unless its crossplay capable to Microsoft and Nintendo teaming up to run ads touting their consoles being able to play games across platforms. Wow, this really feels like a Sony problem doesn’t it? On the surface it is, but digging deeper we see that the problem has existed since before this generation and hasn’t always been the fault of one particular console manufacturer.
Online play has existed in some form or another for decades but for most of its existence it was limited. Initially it used university owned networks or very expensive private systems that limited options. With the advent of affordable home internet it grew slowly and eventually began to gain some mainstream attention but was still considered a niche hobby. As with most things technological the growth accelerated exponentially until truly viable and accessible high speed internet was becoming the norm. Smartphones also hit the market and soon the internet was becoming as much a part of people’s lives as cable television had. Then, during the last generation, we saw online connectivity in games explode in availability and popularity. The PS3 and Xbox 360 offered an unbelievable variety of options for online competitive and cooperative play from Halo to COD to Madden and more. People were able to game with people all across the world the world in a way that no one could have predicted a generation before. It still had one last limitation holding it back from it’s true potential: players could only play with people on the same system as themselves.
When this began there were some legitimate reasons for crossplay being absent from the experience. Network configurations between the different services such as Xbox Live and Playstation Network made the concept difficult to implement from both a technical standpoint and from the business perspective of not wanting to have to share that amount of information with competitors. Console performance could affect gameplay when large portions of the games service were handled on the user’s end compared to dedicated servers. There were also issues stemming from real advantages held by PC players using mouse and keyboard configurations compared to console controls, though the extent of that is still debated.
In recent years most of these limitations have been shown to be easily circumvented or overcome. Console performance is at a point that most end user complications are non existent. Dedicated servers for online games are more prevalent than ever. Network compatibility is effectively a non issue. So why are some companies so reticent to allow cross platform services?
The primary answer is greed. The people running the platform manufacturers see the market as a zero sum game. Every purchase made with a competitor is a sale that they lost. Microsoft sees the purchase of a PS4 as a hit to their bottom line. Every time I boot up the e-Shop on my Switch, an executive at Sony sheds a single tear at the idea of the money they’re missing. Obviously this is absolutely stupid. I bought all three of the current gen consoles. The games I have for each are things I likely wouldnt have purchased on a different platform. Each piece of hardware serves a specific purpose for me and more often than not wouldnt have been something I would have chosen to do on another system. They don’t see it this way, and unfortunately the only effect that has on the market is a negative one.
Gating off connectivity has several unpleasant impacts on the player community. The most obvious is that it divides the player base. Having each ecosystem run independently affects the availability of other players and throws off balance as developers have to account for multiple user bases. It also negatively impacts games themselves as consoles vie for exclusive content in an attempt to lure players to their platform. This does nothing but breed an environment that leads to more fragmented content until you need a spreadsheet, two flow charts, and a bachelor’s degree in economics to decide what console you should play to get the most optimum collection of shiny pants for your avatar. There is absolutely no positive effect for the people actually playing the game.
The best way we can make an impact is voting with our wallets. If crossplay is restricted on a particular platform *cough cough PS4 Fortnite cough* then play on a different console. If a game is splitting its content between different sellers or consoles to hype a launch, don’t buy it at launch. When their tactics stop getting your money they will change. It’s the only time they do.
Throw it on the ground!