Right now, if you download Minecraft on Switch, you can play with any of your friends who are on PC. You can play with any of your friends who are on Xbox, or even on their phones. There’s just one glaring omission on this list, and it ain’t the Ouya.
Sony, whose PlayStation 4 is the best-selling console of this generation, has spent the past few years embracing policies that now feel antiquated. Perhaps the most controversial of those policies is this: PS4 owners cannot play multiplayer games with players on the Xbox or Switch. Earlier this month came a new wrinkle: Sony had even blocked Fortnite PS4 players from using their accounts on the Switch. A few PS4 games, like Final Fantasy XIV, allow users to play with PC players, but cross-play with other consoles is forbidden.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the market, Nintendo and Microsoft have become BFFs, allowing third-party games like Fortnite, Paladins, and Rocket League to support cross-platform play on both the Switch and the Xbox One. The two mega-publishers are even teaming up to make advertisements, jabbing at Sony in a fashion reminiscent of the PlayStation 4's iconic “used game instructional video” from 2013. Five years ago, Sony had positioned the PS4 as the customer-friendly place to play games; now, Team PlayStation is the target of more forward-thinking companies.
For the past few years, as online games have become more ubiquitous, players have called for an end to the obsolete policy of walled play. If you’re shooting aliens in Destiny on PlayStation and your friend is playing on Xbox, why should you be restricted to separate servers? If you go on vacation with Fortnite Switch and want to team up with your friends who are at home on PS4, why wouldn’t you be able to? In a video game climate where shared cultural experiences are becoming more and more important, the idea of siloed consoles feels like a relic—a reality that both Microsoft and Nintendo have recognised.
Mounting pressure appears to be affecting Sony at least a bit. At a conference in Spain today, PlayStation boss Shawn Layden gave Eurogamer a vague statement hinting at some sort of cross-play option in the future. “We’re looking at a lot of the possibilities,” he said. “You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I’m confident we’ll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.”
This is a far more hopeful statement than the one Sony issued two weeks ago, telling media outlets that it was “always open to hearing what the PlayStation community is interested in to enhance their gaming experience” and that the company does “also offer Fortnite cross-play support with PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.”
From what we’ve heard from game developers, enabling cross-play is not technically difficult. In fact, it’s such a simple toggle that last year Epic Games briefly allowed PlayStation and Xbox players to team up in Fortnite before turning off the feature, telling press that it was a bug.
So why has Sony been so reluctant to let PS4 owners play with Xbox and Switch players? The company didn’t respond to a request for comment yesterday, but a now-deleted tweet from former Sony Online Entertainment boss John Smedley may shed some light on this. Smedley, who headed up online games like EverQuest, wrote on 19 June that “when I was at Sony, the stated reason internally for this was money. They didn’t like someone buying something on an Xbox and it being used on a Playstation. simple as that. Dumb reason, but there it is.”
With nearly 80 million PS4s sold, Sony has dominated this generation of video game consoles, to the point where Microsoft no longer publicly reports how many Xbox Ones it has sold. (The answer: Far, far less.) It’s fair to wonder: If Nintendo or Microsoft were in the same position, would they still be publishing pithy tweets about how cool it is to play together? Maybe not. But they’re not in that position; Sony is. And if the folks behind PlayStation stubbornly continue to stick to the past, even as we approach the next generation of consoles, they might not be on top for much longer.