Following Jim Ryan's interview with Eurogamer on the subject of cross-platform play, I've had multiple thoughts on the subject. Why do we want this feature? Who is it for? And is it really risking players?
To sum up how this issue arose, both Minecraft and Rocket League announced cross-platform play during E3 for Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch - Everything but the PlayStation 4. This it turns out was a choice made by Sony as opposed to one forced by technical or competitor issues. The inference from Sony being that allowing cross-platform play would put players at risk.
The short version is that online communities at large cannot be controlled, and as global head of games and marketing Jim Ryan said to Eurogamer, "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 was immediately pointed out that Nintendo, an incredibly family friendly company, is on board with cross-platform play, which potentially makes the explanation from Ryan a little harsh on Microsoft and Nintendo. Indeed, my first thought was 'does that mean no other company can control their online community?'
It's a thought that head of Xbox Phil Spencer also picked up on. After a few days of friendly PR jabs with Sony over the power of the Xbox One X vs the PS4 Pro, Spencer referenced Jim Ryan's response to the issue on Giant Bomb live to which he said:
The fact that somebody would kind of make an assertion that somehow we’re not keeping Minecraft players safe, I found — not only from a Microsoft perspective, but from a game industry perspective — like, I don’t know why that has to become the dialogue. Like, that doesn’t seem healthy for anyone.
So what is the issue here then?
Rocket League developer Psyonix claims in an interview with Polygon that it could implement cross-platform play to the game within an hour. All they need is the go-ahead from Sony. So are there any technical issues that can be preventing cross-platform play?
Certainly not for Microsoft who owns Minecraft andits developer. Mojang. The game is also sold on Sony platforms. Sony has allowed cross-platform play before with Final Fantasy XI for the PS2 able to be played with PC users, and Valve release Portal 2 including Steam connectivity with the PS3 release to allow co-op play, which had users login to Steam on the PS3.
Speaking to Gamasutra last year, Sony Worldwide Studios president, Shuhei Yoshida commented on cross-platform play on PC, saying, "because PC is an open platform it's much more straightforward. Connecting two different closed networks is much more complicated so we have to work with developers and publishers to understand what it is they are trying to accomplish. We also have to look at the technical aspect - and the technical aspect could be the easiest. We also have to look at policy issues and business issues as well."
The Nintendo Switch, at present at least, is a bit of an unknown quantity when it comes to online play. It is there of course, but the communication options are very limited. There are no options for party chat or messaging on the console, so a lot of the risk is already mitigated by there being no avenue to allow abuse.
But technically, it is possible to play in a Minecraft instance with a PC, Xbox and/or Nintendo Switch player, the latter logging in via a Xbox Live account. Most of the development for cross-platform play is presumably down to the developer, rather than Sony to enable a network to support it. Even in the past twelve months, there have been four games released for the Sony PlayStation VR system that supports cross-platform play: EVE: Valkyrie, Star Trek Bridge Crew, Werewolves Within and Eagle Flight. In fact,Ubisoft has developed every multiplayer VR game to support cross-platform play.
FOR THE PLAYERS
It's obvious that Sony is happy to open up its network for cross-platform play when it suits them. So the conclusion has to be that Sony does not want to open up the network for these two games for commercial reasons. Or, because the communities for these games have become so huge, the risk level for opening up the network to other networks Sony has no security control over is too great.
But the people that are hurt by this choice are the players, at least those of Minecraft and Rocket League anyway. Take away any kind of exterior opinion on corporate perception, Minecraft and Rocket League are some of the most successful and most-played games of the last five years and champion this democratisation of play. But why should that be a priority for Sony?
The PS4 and PS4 Pro consoles are focused on generating great, visually stunning first party gaming experiences whilst enabling third-party developers to release great multiplayer content to gamers. The library and choice of games are huge and while these two game have a significant sized community of players, they aren't the 'be all and end all' of the PlayStation catalogue.
The problem here is the image. It is not great that Sony is not supporting cross-platform play with its competitors when they are ready and extending the olive branch to do so. But outside of the games discussed, Sony does not need to take part in any kind of inter-console support. It holds a commanding place in the console market and have a captive audience of gamers.
It would have been good though, wouldn't it? If we had a moment where every company and businessman put everything to the side, opened everything up and just said 'go and play'? Maybe we will see it, one day.