As the gaming world becomes more connected, Sony has firmly planted its flag in the fertile soil of isolationism. With games like Minecraft and Rocket League having crossplay functionality across multiple systems and PCs, the question of why the PlayStation 4 is taking its ball and going home continues to plague the company. Sony has found itself a victim of its own success and is now taking a public relations hit in their efforts to keep the PlayStation 4’s purchase value compelling.
This past E3, Microsoft and Nintendo metaphorically held hands during a candlelit dinner. Microsoft announced that Minecraft, unarguably one of the biggest games in the world, would be crossplay across all platforms that supported the Better Together update. This means that, whether you own Minecraft on Switch, or Xbox One, or PC, you can still play the game with all your friends regardless of where they own the game. The lone exception to this being the PlayStation 4.
It is somewhat of a modern problem with a modern solution. The idea of console crossplay was nonsensical when every system massively differed. Online gaming was nascent in the PlayStation 2 era and the acceptance of each console as its own island served as a defense against the few quiet grumbles about games not being cross-compatible in online environments. Now, however, with consoles built as glorified PCs, it is getting more difficult for players to understand why they have to own the same system to play the same game with friends.
Ironically, Sony may have been the one to start this conversation. By acquiescing to Capcom’s demands to have Street Fighter V work across PlayStation 4 and PC (a gaming environment that Sony has less financial stake in than Microsoft does), an implicit argument was made that limiting a player base to a single console would not be conducive to long term growth. This puts Sony in the prickly position of having to argue that their player base is enough for everyone now.
From a business perspective, Sony isn’t wrong. As the market leader, part of the momentum of selling consoles is the idea that friends convince each other to buy the same console so they can play online together. By ceding this advantage to Microsoft or Nintendo, two companies that have very little to lose by breaking down the walls, Sony is unable to argue that your Xbox One- or Switch-owning friends should buy a PlayStation 4 to play with you. For a game like Rocket League, this might not be the end of the world, but if those walls stay broken for Grand Theft Auto Online, it becomes a rather large problem.
But being right doesn’t always win you the war. Sony’s inability to find proper messaging for its stance is becoming more damaging to the company who has happily labeled itself as being, in their own words, for the players. It was only a few years ago when Jack Tretton stood on stage and gleefully hammered Microsoft with its stance on used games, citing the benefit to players as their singular goal. Yet within the same generation, Sony is hemming and hawing on the question of crossplay, invoking the image of a nervous small town country lawyer trying to loosen their tie while they stammer to avoid answering a question.
Jim Ryan, Sony’s Head of Global Sales and Marketing, insisted crossplay harms children by painting it as a wild west where they cannot protect anyone. Putting aside Sony’s inability or unwillingness to protect players on their own services, the idea of players playing Rocket League or Minecraft together is not especially different from the various Square-Enix or Telltale or Rockstar accounts they already use to play online. The only major separation is that their console rival is hosting one of these, which makes Sony looks spiteful rather than protectionist.
Short term, Sony is doing the only thing they can do right now, which is duck the question and hope it goes away. Long term, the dam has been broken and players are going to get increasingly frustrated by the idea that crossplay is being withheld arbitrarily. Third parties are aware of the types of gamers who would buy a Destiny or a Titanfall, but pass because they don’t own the systems their friends do. The publisher grumbles about these problems will eventually raise to a dull roar, then a pointing finger as Sony remains the singular holdout. Sony’s singular motivation of momentum is short-sighted, and it is better to plan around its loss now than be caught by surprise when it is forced to join the rest of the industry.