Fortnite cross-play on PS4 ushers in a new era of the console warsSeptember 26, 2018
Console players everywhere are rejoicing with the news that after months of bullish denials, Sony capitulated and will soon allow PS4 players to link up with people on Xbox, Switch, and mobile platforms — at least for select third-party games. While the cross-play beta for Fortnite gets most of the spotlight here, it’s worth remembering that this functionality has huge implications for how people purchase and think about consoles, potentially even eroding some of the distinctions we’ve built up over the years about existing platforms.
Console wars are all about differences, the things you can get on one platform that you can’t get on another. In the last console generation, the PS3 had a more sophisticated cadre of exclusives, the Wii U had that special Nintendo touch, while the Xbox 360 had a more robust online community thanks to Xbox Live. Each console operated within its own separate space, allowing each community to gain a specific reputation. PSN was a buttoned-up affair next to the rowdy and hectic Xbox Live, while Nintendo was hardly in the conversation at all — they’re still struggling to figure out online, even now.
As smartphones started colonizing our commutes, however, the idea of a “console war” started feeling antiquated. Sure, people on social media might still bicker about what console is better, but we live in a world where you don’t need specialty hardware to play games. You can be a ‘gamer’ without so much as ever touching a big-budget triple-A game with a controller.
The pillars that have upheld the console wars have only continued to erode during the latest console generation. Exclusives are more of a concern for online video game hobbyists than the average person, and even if you do care about them, half the time we’re talking about timed exclusives that will eventually appear on other platforms. It’s also harder to say which console is objectively “better” — the PS4 might have fantastic first-party games and a larger community, but lower Xbox One sales have fired up Microsoft to quietly provide better services, like backwards compatibility. The average video game fan is less likely to buy a console based on back-of-the-box bullet points than they are to just flock to whatever console their friends are playing, or whichever bundle has the best Fortnite skin. FIFA, Destiny, Overwatch, and Netflix are all likely going to be available to them no matter what.
Thinking about consoles in oppositional terms has increasingly become harder with the advent of cross-play, which allows people on different platforms to play with one another. Microsoft has pushed cross-play hard this generation, leveraging its dominance in the PC market to open up more gameplay opportunities for people on Xbox One. Cross-play has also become a big selling point for popular games like Minecraft and Rocket League, though historically, the feature has only been available for players on Xbox, Switch, and mobile platforms. Sony, ever-comfortable with the sales dominance of the PS4 and seeing little reason to give away its larger player base to its competitors, has been slow to adapt to the public’s new appetite for connectivity.
Fortnite has completely changed the conversation now. After all, the battle royale game is a worldwide phenomenon, so the mere idea of segregating the player base into walled gardens seems ludicrous. Fortnite doesn’t belong to anyone or anything. Everyone is playing it. Why pretend otherwise? All the same, Sony demurred for months, telling people that the PS4 was the “best way to play” the game. While the answer was nonsense, what got people riled up was that playing on PS4 meant making a separate Epic Account that couldn’t be synched with the Switch. This inconvenience, coupled with the knowledge that Fortnite cross-play was possible — Epic turned it on by accident more than once — made the public turn on Sony. Pressure mounted on social media and news sites. Weeks after the Japanese company dismissed the idea of cross-play, it has now announced that it will let people play together after all.
“For 24 years, we have strived to deliver the best gaming experience to our fans by providing a uniquely PlayStation perspective,” wrote Sony CEO John Kodera on the PlayStation blog. “Today, the communities around some games have evolved to the point where cross-platform experiences add significant value to players. In recognition of this, we have completed a thorough analysis of the business mechanics required to ensure that the PlayStation experience for our users remains intact today, and in the future, as we look to open up the platform.”
Epic did not respond to a request for comment, but the timing of this is noteworthy: we are one day away from the newest Fortnite season, which will undoubtedly spark the purchase of countless digital Battle Passes. Some of that money ends up in Sony’s pocket, so giving people more incentives to play — like connecting friends on other platforms — can only be a good thing for the company.
While it’s hard to suss out Sony’s motivations, the news is nonetheless huge: cross-play on this scale has literally never been possible before. Hardware distinctions are growing smaller and smaller as the years go by. Further blurring the lines is the fact Xbox, PS4, and Switch all let you hook up a mouse and keyboard, a feature that helps erase skill gaps between platforms. When your gaming ecosystem is borderless, distinctions between communities feels academic. Anyone can play with anyone. Welcome to the new era of the console wars. We’re all friends here.