While I’ve already bemoaned the lack of real technological advances in the past console generation, not every innovation of the PS4/Xbox One era had to do with visuals or framerate. One of the quieter revelations, and one of the most forward-thinking, has been the slow adoption of cross-platform gaming, aka crossplay.
For as long as there have been video game consoles, it was long just assumed that they were locked down. That was the point. You were buying into a closed ecosystem, one controlled entirely by the platform holder, and in return for that control you were expecting a certain level of consistency and quality from the experience.
That was true of Atari, it was true of Nintendo, Sega, and later the PlayStation and Xbox. As multiplatform games became more common in the 21st century, though—or at least multiplatform games of similar design and performance—that assumption started to look a little shaky. If I’m playing FIFA on my PlayStation, and my friend is playing FIFA on his Xbox, and they’re basically the same game, why can’t we play against each other?
The initial defence, of course, was just because. PlayStation gamers could play against PlayStation gamers, Xbox people could play Xbox people, and never the two should meet. Because that’s how it always was and changing it would be hard and they both had their own dedicated multiplayer networks and...
This past console generation, that changed. Microsoft, finally waking up to the possibilities of releasing its games on both Xbox and PC, found ways for players to go up against each other across these two platforms, on games like Killer Instinct and Gears 4.
Sony, meanwhile, had also been exploring the ties between console and PC gaming with stuff like Final Fantasy XIV, and even earlier than that had worked with Valve to get Steam running on the PlayStation 3, something that seemed monumental at the time but which ultimately didn’t really go anywhere.
This stuff worked! And if it worked there, then...maybe it could work anywhere. And so after a quiet few early years of this past console generation, where not much progress was made on turning crossplay into a thing, in 2016 Microsoft started taking things a bit more seriously.
Microsoft led the way in getting first Rocket League working in crossplay, then Minecraft. In both cases they were aided by Nintendo opening up the Switch in 2017, allowing gamers to play with/against each other across the Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch.
And where was Sony? Initially, dragging their heels. By June 2018 the PlayStation’s crossplay situation was bad enough we’d write blogs about it, but pressure from fans—and the emerging importance of some of the biggest games in the world being cross-platform titles, like Fortnite—eventually forced the company’s hand, and in September 2018 Sony relented and allowed crossplay on the PS4 for “select third party content”.
That was only two years ago, and we’re still a long way from achieving crossplay’s ultimate end goal, which—for fans at least—would be playing any multiplatform game you want on any system you want. But now that all three console platform holders are on board, along with Microsoft’s PC efforts and Epic’s cross-platform tools, it feels like that end goal is something we can actually see, and not just dream about.
What I love about this advance is that it’s more than just technological. Sure, a lot of work has to be done behind the curtain to get games working across entirely different consoles in terms of code and networks, but crossplay’s first confident steps have required diplomacy as well, not an endeavour that usually comes to mind when thinking about rival platform holders.
Console generations have long been associated with console wars, so bringing all three companies together like this might end up being one of the past generation’s greatest achievements. Here’s hoping the efforts continue through the PS5/XBS era, and in a few year’s time we’re all playing Destiny and FIFA together, regardless of the box sitting under our TV.