Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be talking about Sony’s handling of the ongoing crossplay drama.
It’s the story that won’t die. If you’ve somehow missed the whole crossplay fiasco so far, allow me to sum it up for you. Back in 2016 when Rocket League made the jump to Xbox One, Microsoft wanted Xbox players to be able to play cross-platform with PC and PS4 users. PS4 and PC players could already play Rocket League together, and so throwing Xbox into the mix seemed like the next logical step. Sony, however, wasn’t interested, and then when various Sony executives were asked about the matter in interviews, they all gave vague answers about wanting to be in control of the safety of their own playerbase which they couldn’t guarantee with Xbox players, as though CumSponge69 telling you that he did your mum in the wrong ‘un via voice chat is a problem confined entirely to Xbox Live. It was a bullshit excuse and we all knew it. Since then, game after game has been released that could facilitate cross-platform, multiplayer gaming: Microsoft has asked, Nintendo has joined in, and Sony has refused.
The latest development in Sony’s ongoing crossplay debacle is that Microsoft and Nintendo are releasing joint advertisements for Minecraft, making sure everybody knows that whether you’ve bought an Xbox One or a Switch, gamers can play the popular mine ’em up together, no restrictions, via the power of the Internet. Of course, these aren’t just advertisements to tell you that Nintendo and Microsoft offer crossplay, but due to the conspicuity of their absence, they’re also advertisements to remind you that Sony isn’t part of the big crossplay circle jerk, having refused to join in since Microsoft head Phil Spencer first suggested it a couple of years back. And this comes just weeks after popular battle royale game Fortnite has launched on Switch, only for players who’ve played on PS4 but want to try it out on Nintendo’s handheld to find out that their account is locked to PlayStation 4. Cripes.
It’s like one big exciting night out, and the crew is almost all here. The Jägers are all lined up. Da Funk by Daft Punk is on the Juke Box. The sun is out and the beer garden’s are heaving. Sony’s been invited but they’re not coming, and they didn’t even have the common courtesy to come up with a good lie for why they’re staying home. At least have the decency to spin us a yarn about how it’s your mum’s birthday or something. So Sony has no showed, the first round of shots have been downed, and just like any get together when someone is invited but doesn’t turn up, you spend the first couple of hours of the night bitching about the absentee. It’s practically a social law. Everyone is friends, sharing selfies together and holding each other’s hair back while they’re sick on their shoes, except for the leper that didn’t turn up, and in the morning they’ll all make thinly veiled passive aggressive Facebook posts attacking the outcast without ever actually overtly expressing it.
This has been a tale in which consumer friendly Microsoft just wants everyone to have a good time, and evil Sony is jealously not letting their player-base join in the fun, like that mean old witch in Tangled keeping Rapunzel locked up with that little lizard dude. While the truth of the matter is nothing quite so nefarious, the fact is, this has been a PR nightmare for Sony, and it isn’t getting any better any time soon. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft are all playing a game here and it’s certainly a lot more nuanced than it might outwardly appear, but the end result – regardless of the intention – is that the user is the one getting the shaft and it’s Sony doing the shafting. Whether they’re doing it by coincidence or design, Sony’s leaving their own players feeling like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: on the outside of the sweet shop gazing at the other kids having fun and wishing that they could join in.
First, I think it’s important to understand exactly why Sony is refusing to allow crossplay on the PlayStation 4, because let’s be honest, I think we all know it’s not because they want to give their users the safest, and most controlled experience. The only company doing anything to keep their users away from hateful online practices is Nintendo, and that’s only because they’ve made their voice chat so unwieldy, and so cumbersome, and so shit, that nobody can be arsed to fuck about with all the wires just to call someone they don’t know a racial slur over a game of Splatoon 2. I’m sure Sony does want an online community that’s safe and welcoming to all and sundry, but that’s not why they’re refusing crossplay. Just like George Dubya Bush invading Iraq, we can pretend it’s all about doing the right thing, but really, as always, it’s all about the fucking money.
The real issue here is that if all gamers could play together, regardless of what console they bought, it could damage the console that’s leading in sales while helping the ones that are trailing in terms of units sold. The logic is that one of the factors that determines which console you’ll buy – if you’re a multiplayer gamer – is that you’ll be swayed towards picking up the one your friends have knowing that you’ll be able to play online with them. Hypothetically, you love a game of Overwatch. It’s your best thing. All your friends play on PS4. What are you going to do? Buy an Xbox One and play with CumSponge69? We’ve already established that he’s bad news. It’s a no-brainer. Follow the herd.
Since PlayStation 4 is currently miles ahead of the competition in sales, it stands to reason that, statistically, if you’re looking for a console right now and you’re a big fan of multiplayer games, you’re likely going to know more people with a PlayStation 4 than an Xbox One or a Switch. And so unless you’re such a huge fan of a Microsoft exclusive like Halo or Forza that you can’t swallow picking up a PS4, PlayStation is your safest bet. More users you know, more users period. If there’s no barriers stopping everyone playing together, then that advantage is gone. You love Overwatch and all your friends play on PS4 but you really like the Xbox One controller? In a world in which cross-console gaming reigns, you can buy an Xbox One over a PS4 without feeling like a second class citizen.
Personally, I don’t think there’s too much of an issue with any of that. It makes sense business wise to hold on to the advantages you have. And despite how coy Microsoft is acting at the minute in regards to why Sony won’t just join in the fun, it’s a business practice that they should know very well since it’s exactly the same one they employed during the last generation when Sony was the first console manufacturer to embrace cross-platform gaming, and Microsoft refused to join in. That’s the reason that Final Fantasy XIV isn’t on Xbox, while PS4 and PC players have been enjoying the MMO for years. And I’ll just take this opportunity to remind you that when Microsoft wanted no part of cross-platform gaming in the last generation, Xbox 360 was ahead of PlayStation 3 in sales – a role reversal of what’s transpiring today, only PS4 is way further ahead of Xbox One than 360 ever was of PS3.
But for all that one can understand the business reasons why Sony might not want to allow cross-platform gaming with Xbox and Switch, what’s bizarre is how badly they’re dealing with the whole thing from a PR perspective. Perhaps someone back at Sony HQ thinks that just coming out and saying that they don’t want to potentially lose any money makes them sound anti-consumer, and it should, because it is. But many business practices are inherently anti-consumer, and many have to be or they wouldn’t make any money. No matter how anti-consumer it might sound, at least it’s a reason that makes sense, and whether you like it or not, whether it changes your opinion of Sony and the PlayStation brand or not, it’s a decision steeped in some kind of logic that you can’t really deny.
Lying about why you don’t want to allow crossplay wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible idea if the lies were at least any good, but the ones Sony is trying to sell us are a crock of shit. When asked about why Rocket League players on PS4 couldn’t play with their Xbox One buddies, Sony’s veritable foot-in-mouth expert Jim Ryan spewed this unconvincing, meaningless drivel in a vain attempt at deflecting the question, and hoping everyone would just stop asking about it forever: “Exposing what in many cases are children to external influences we have no ability to manage or look after, it’s something we have to think about very carefully.” And yet Nintendo – a company so fastidiously family oriented that their shit online infrastructure makes PSN look good – has managed to see the benefit in crossplatform gaming. Pull the other one, Sony.
The PR management of this whole situation has been fucking dreadful, and it’s mind boggling to me that it’s still going on at all. Sure, maybe the first time someone asked about crossplay and Sony fobbed them off with a hogwash fairy tale about “external influences,” maybe they thought they’d gotten away with the whole thing. But then after the second, and the third, and the twelfth, you can’t just cross your fingers, close your eyes, and wish real hard that people are going to stop asking you. Nobody buys the nonsense you’re peddling, and so either step up and admit why you’re really blocking crossplay, or just allow it like everyone wants. It’s that simple. This drama only exists because of Sony’s lack of a definitive, genuine answer on the subject, and so the whole controversy is, largely, one of their own making.
The real stinger here, of course, is that while Sony’s business strategy makes sense fundamentally, it’s likely that allowing crossplay with Xbox One and Nintendo Switch would have virtually no impact on their sales whatsoever. When Microsoft wanted no part of cross-platform gaming in the last generation their Xbox 360 shared many of the same games as PlayStation 3, and they had – roughly – a comparable number of exclusives. This generation, while most of the big third party games are on both PS4 and Xbox One, Microsoft has very little in the way of compelling exclusives, and Sony’s machine is – when considering the base units – the more powerful console. With Nintendo Switch not really functioning as a direct competitor to PlayStation 4 due to a lack of overlap in the majority of big games, it doesn’t stand to reason that Sony would lose many sales by allowing their customers to play online titles with users of other consoles. Crossplay or no, PS4 is still the best console to pick up if you want a robust line-up of video games. There are other factors in play besides the online multiplayer component, and most of those leave Sony with advantage over the competition.
Ultimately, Sony’s ongoing crossplay drama is a public relations nightmare of their own orchestration, and the longer they drag this out with insipid, hollow answers and bullshit reasoning, the worse it’s going to leave them looking. And frankly, I’m just bored of the whole thing. Stop being dickheads, Sony. You won this console generation before it had even started because you were the consumer friendly option in an increasingly hostile environment for the end user. What’s that thing about living long enough to see yourself become the villain?
Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. If you want more from Counter Attack then perhaps check out Should Everyone Just Copy Nintendo Directs? or The Rise And Fall Of SEGA.