Something interesting may be happening in the gaming world.
Sega gave up the ghost on coming out with a viable console in 1999, and since then there have been three main competitors: Nintendo (currently with its Wii-U), Sony’s Playstation, and Microsoft’s Xbox—plus, of course, the option of PC gaming. So there have been, for the last nearly twenty years, these four big ways to game, and for all that time they have remained separate camps. Even after game titles started coming out on multiple platforms, there was no crossover of any kind. If you wanted to hop on the multiplayer version of your favorite game, you could only join with people on your same platform—Xbox played with Xbox, Playstation with Playstation, PC with PC, etc.
Because most of us don’t suffer from the deep burden of massive disposable income, this means we’re usually forced to pick a side. If you can only afford one platform, you’re going to have to stick with it, stick with the games that come out for it, stick with the people that have also chosen your platform. In our Coke-verus-Pepsi culture, this has meant even more entrenched camps. Xboxers hate Playstationers, Playstationers hate Xboxers right back, both pity Nintendophiles, and PC gamers (like myself) look down on all of them as vastly inferior.
But like families torn apart by the American Civil War, there are emotional casualties in this perpetually escalating platform battle. Two friends enjoying each other’s company suddenly find a chasm between them when one buys an Xbox and the other buys a Playstation. A longtime friend of mine and I can no longer game with each other, because his PC died—until he builds a new computer, he’ll have to rely on his Sony box, which is incompatible with my (cough far superior cough cough) computer. I write him letters during this trying time, and I hope he finds them well; but I fear the Nintendo ninjas are shooting down the passenger pigeons I am sending from the front lines, and that my dear friend thinks I have forsaken him.
But from higher up the chain of command comes hope that we may be able to one day mend our gaming Union, and no longer pit brother against brother. Both sides may be willing to negotiate! This week Chris Charla, director of ID@Xbox announced that the company will begin to support “cross-network play”:
First, in addition to natively supporting cross-platform play between Xbox One and Windows 10 games that use Xbox Live, we’re enabling developers to support cross-network play as well. This means players on Xbox One and Windows 10 using Xbox Live will be able to play with players on different online multiplayer networks – including other console and PC networks. Of course, it’s up to game developers to support this feature, and Xbox Live players will always have the option of choosing to play only with other Xbox Live players. We’re thrilled to confirm that Psyonix’s Rocket League will be one of the first games to take advantage of this new capability by enabling cross-network play between Xbox One and PC players, with an open invitation for other networks to participate as well.
This was interesting news, but obviously meant to put the ball in Sony’s court. Now, there has been things like this suggested before, so we were all assuming this news would just fade away again, and we would still be stuck in the trenches. So it surprised many people when Sony responded the same week:
PlayStation has been supporting cross-platform play between PC on several software titles starting with Final Fantasy 11 on PS2 and PC back in 2002. We would be happy to have the conversation with any publishers or developers who are interested in cross platform play.
Suddenly we are all abuzz with possibility. But can such a thing really happen? Let’s discuss the likelihood.
First, it’s important to realize how difficult this would be to implement on a technical level. There are games that exist for all four major platforms (PC and the three consoles), but each version of those games has to be designed specifically for what’s running it. All four platforms have entirely different architecture. Sure, in the old days it wasn’t so terribly difficult to port a game from one thing to the next, but code was simpler then. The consoles have since evolved away from each other pretty mightily (especially when you contrast the performance capabilities—the Wii-U is far outmatched by the other two consoles, while the PC sits on a whole different level).
Take Nintendo out of the equation just to make things easier for now: still, all three version of the same game, one for each platform, would have to integrate with one another flawlessly. Sure, the basic gameplay more-or-less looks the same, but its built on different bones. It would require assimilating the various multiplayer networks as well, and any infrastructure considerations that comes into play there. It’s probably a massive undertaking, costly and timing consuming.
Additionally, Sony doesn’t have a lot of incentive to go for this. The PS4 is outselling the Xbox One by a pretty wide margin: and historically Sony has been very stingy with its games. Pretty much since forever, if there’s a game on the Xbox, you can get it for the PC, but that’s because Microsoft has roots in both. Most of the titles Sony is known for are proprietary. Not that it’s a multiplayer game, but for example The Last of Us is supposed to be a brilliant and amazing omg you must play it sort of game, and I still haven’t caught up because it’ll never be released for the PC. So, unless I want to shell out for a PS4, I’m just never getting my hands on it.
This model has proven very effective—for both Sony and Nintendo, in fact (many point to the fact that nearly all Nintendo titles are playable only on Nintendo platforms as one of the primary reasons the company is still viable). Of course, the titles we are talking about for crossover play obviously must exist among the various platforms anyway, but the point is that not cooperating has worked in Sony’s favor so far. Some see this magnanimous attempt by Microsoft to promote cross-platform gaming as a sign of the company’s struggle keeping up.
Another potential obstacle in this endeavor is Steam, the PC-based company that has brought a new model to gaming. Steam began as sort of the Netflix of gaming—you shop for and open your games in Steam. It’s a great model that allows me to manage all of my games in one place, and know that they will all be compatible and run well on my machine. But recently, Steam has branched out beyond that: Steam Machines are PC-like consoles that open up new possibilities. Steam Machines house all of their games internally (just like a PC), but connect independently to your television (like a console) and have their own controllers and set ups. There are a few non-Steam versions of this sort of evolution, but Steam is making the most headway with the option. This adds another layer of complexity for crossplay.
And maybe most importantly, no one knows how balance will be achieved with this kind of crossover. All of the platforms work differently, but this also means they have different strengths and weaknesses, and managing all of those idiosyncrasies will be difficult. Developers of anything competitive will struggle to ensure that no one platform has an unbeatable advantage compared to the others (for example, headshots are remarkably easier to achieve with a finely-tuned mouse than any controller’s stick or trackpad). PC hardware far outstrips anything that the consoles have, so you’d expect framerate and other PC-based throttling to occur—which would effectively nerf the PC experience to make it more fair for the console peasants to keep up.
All of this makes the dream of totally open crossplay seem unlikely, but the news that talks may begin is exciting. Let’s hope that Sony allows a developer or two to experiment with taking Xbox up on their offer. Perhaps over time, little by little, we can reach over the rifts that have grown between us and begin to heal.
As President Lincoln said:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better gamers of our nature. Lol, oh no I’m pwned, headshot, no-scope.
An even loftier incentive, too: if the console wars follow American history any farther than this single metaphor, then maybe if we can finally stop fighting among each other for hardware superiority, we can grow up enough to be more inclusive of women in our gaming culture. We’ve still got such a long way to go. For now, I will continue PC gaming, and miss my friend. I hope my letters reach him. I hope we may find peace on the other side of this great divide.