By Adam Guy
In a move that seemingly came out of nowhere, Microsoft recently announced that it would start to allow cross-platform play between Xbox and other gaming networks. This includes “other console networks”. So presuming Microsoft are not in secret talks with Nintendo for a port of Mario Kart it seems likely other console networks is aimed squarely at Sony. The idea of unified cross-platform play between PlayStation and Xbox is the stuff of legend. An ideal seemingly as unlikely as early 90’s Sonic and Mario teaming up to bring down Bubsy the cat.
So why now? And how likely are Sony to play along?
The first thing we need to understand is that Xbox is not in the same position as it was last generation. The final sales figures between the PS3 and Xbox 360 were impressively close. But in North America Xbox was the dominant platform, and Xbox Live was widely considered the better choice for online play. And rightly so. The original Xbox was the first platform to really show that consoles could hold their own against online PC gaming. By the time the 360 came to market Xbox Live was a stable and capable service. PlayStation Network was technically available on PS2 but it wasn’t until a couple of years into the PS3’s lifespan when PSN started to provide a service comparable to what Microsoft had built. Because of this, games like Modern Warfare, with an emphasis on competitive online play, almost always sold better on Xbox. And if all your friends were playing COD on Xbox Live then that’s where you’d play too. It’s hard to overestimate how important the success of Xbox Live was to the overall sales of the 360.
This generation though things have changed. While Microsoft busied themselves by repeatedly attempting to sabotage their own brand, Sony had learnt from their previous mistakes and on the back of a lot of consumer goodwill and a better initial price point managed to push the PS4 towards a dominant sales lead over the Xbox One. Now more than two years later Microsoft have regained some momentum, but as a lot of gamers have already moved over to PSN there is still an incentive for their friends to follow. On top of this Sony have also been able to secure PS4 as the primary platform for some major titles, Black Ops III for example, has it’s downloadable content arriving first on PlayStation. All of this proves a problem for Xbox Live.
So to make it clear. The suggestion of cross-platform play between Xbox and PlayStation doesn’t mark the start of a new socialist, altruistic ideological shift for Microsoft. It’s a play – an educated gamble. They know that people are moving from Xbox Live to PSN because in a lot of cases that’s where most of their friends are now playing. The bigger the PSN community gets the more mass appeal it has. By suggesting the two networks open their doors to each other Microsoft are hoping they’ll be able to remove this incentive. People who have always favoured Xbox can still stay using Xbox Live even if most of their friends own PS4’s. For Microsoft it’s actually a fairly shrewd move. They can casually toss the idea around. If Sony doesn’t bite Microsoft won’t lose anything, and by forcing Sony to make the decision they can potentially instigate some bad press if they decline.
For Sony the situation is obviously reversed. They currently have the advantage of the better selling console and a growing market share of PSN over Xbox Live. If they allow cross-platform online play they run the risk of losing this momentum. But they are also unlikely to openly reject the idea through fear of a backlash. Which means the most likely move for Sony is to vaguely suggest they’re thinking it over while quietly hoping that everyone forgets about it. In a recent and candid interview with Eurogamer, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida mentioned potential technical issues with connecting two closed networks, but added “The technical aspect could be the easiest. We also have to look at policy issues and business issues as well.”
So there’s a chance that Sony will genuinely explore the idea. And cross play between the two platforms (and even Nintendo if the NX proves a success) would benefit everyone at the consumer level. Bringing the networks together, even if only for a few select games, would help unite the communities and keep games active for longer. If everyone playing a new release could play together regardless of what platform they’re on it could potentially have a huge impact on the future of online gaming. Although, the idea of seeing a notification to say you’re friend has just signed into Xbox live when you’re on your PS4 would definitely take some getting used to.
Only time will tell how this all plays out. But, if Sony really are “For The Players” then allowing cross-platform online play with Xbox would be a good way of proving it.