The Soapbox: Cross-play, console exclusivity, and why companies won’t play nice

It's the installed base, Charlie Brown

    
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DULL SURPRISE

Let me tell you something: As the columnist who writes about Final Fantasy XIV I am so damn tired of hearing about crossplay. Seriously. Just so tired. It’s exhausting.

It’s not because I don’t want the game on Xbox One or Switch or whatever other platform people want it to be playable on this week. (Commodore 64, fine; I have no idea how you think that’s going to work but whatever.) I’m all for it. I distantly wonder about keeping the community where it is, but that’s not like a real concern. Communities change over time.

It’s because we’ve had the answer for a while now, and the reason that the game isn’t on the Xbox One entirely comes down to Microsoft.

Here’s the thing, though: A lot of people have gotten stuck on the idea that Sony doesn’t like crossplay, not Microsoft. And that’s not true… except where it is. The reality is that no one entirely likes crossplay outside of the publisher. Platform holders don’t like it, but sometimes they actually benefit from it. And explaining that requires diving into a lot of industry stuff about consoles, installed bases, and how these things work. Sounds fun!

First and foremost, let’s state something that is a simple economic reality: Console manufacturers want you to buy one console and never anything else. This isn’t subjective. Console exclusives, platform benefits, online functions, everything is there so that you buy this piece of hardware and not some other. Period end. It’s a value-neutral statement of fact.

This leads to an obvious derivation wherein anything that makes you more likely to buy this console is a good thing and anything that makes you less likely is a bad thing. The more you feel like you need to have a Nintendo Switch specifically, the happier Nintendo is. The more you feel like you just want some console and it can be any console, the more Nintendo makes a sad frowny face.

On this basis alone, there’s a pressure against crossplay being enabled. You know that if it were possible, Sony would love to be able to point to long-running franchises like Call of Duty and say, “Hey, losers, this is only on our console from now on.” You want to play FIFA ’20? Buy an Xbox One. Console exclusives are good; cross-platform titles are bad.

Yes, this is one of the few cases wherein EA kinda gets to be the good guys.

This does not happen because for publishers, the inverse is true. EA doesn’t care if you own a Switch or a PlayStation 4 or a Commodore 64; it cares that your money has been spent on EA games and now it belongs to the company. So it’s in the best interests of publishers to cast as wide a net as possible and in the best interests of console manufacturers to make sure that only one console gets the games people want to play.

There is a way past this, however, and that path is crossplay. Specifically, disallowing it.

Let’s take Fortnite as an example. You can get Fortnite on every single console right now. But so long as Fortnite is segmented by platform, that individual console basically just derives a benefit from its extant population. So you still get that sense of exclusivity because you have to go where the people are; even if you manage to get Fortnite running on an Atari Jaguar (I’m tired of picking on the C64), if you can only play with other Jaguar players you’re in miserable times.

Right now, the console players are in Camp Sony. The PlayStation 4 has outsold every other console in this particular generation. As of July 2019, all estimates put the PS4 at 100 million units solid worldwide. By contrast, the Xbox One is sitting at just under 47 million sold in the same timeframe. That’s across all editions and forms of the platform; in terms of installed base, the PS4 has more than double that of Microsoft.

Just basic math would tell you that if those trends continue, every year means another 16 million PS4s sold and another 8 million Xbox Ones. Obviously, this isn’t precisely accurate because that’s not how console sales really work, but the point remains. Camp Sony is so much bigger that even if the trends were inverted, it’d be a long time before Camp Microsoft had even reached parity.

The Switch is lagging further behind at around 41.5 million as of September, but the Switch also launched three and a half years later than the prior consoles. It’s got momentum just fine.

Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

Here’s where console manufacturers suddenly like crossplay. If you’re Microsoft, you aren’t going to be able to beat Sony on installed base. Even if you assume that the aforementioned trends are inverted and Microsoft is growing 8 million consoles per year more than Sony is managing, it would still take more than six more years before the two platforms are actually at parity.

Now, if you’ve got someone new purchasing a console to play Fortnite, what’s the thought process without crossplay? “Hmm… PS4 has tons of players. Xbox One doesn’t. PS4 also has more exclusives that sell better. I’ll take one PS4, please.”

Crossplay means that you’re not actually at a disadvantage. “Hmm… if I mostly want to play Fortnite on this, the console is drawing from the same base no matter what. Xbox One has some bundles with games I want. I guess I’ll go with Xbox One.” It’s not a precise advantage, but it means that you’re at least deferring a weakness. And from the publisher’s standpoint, it’s neutral trending toward positive.

Who loses here? Sony.

Sony’s big installed base is a benefit for it, and allowing crossplay on Fortnite actually means giving up some of that benefit. It’s a selling point for that particular console. So while publishers and other console manufacturers might want it, Sony actually benefits if you have to buy a PS4 to play with your friends on PS4.

What about FFXIV, though? Well, here’s where we get into past rules, current rules, and the not-at-all-secret fact that all those arguments about consoles wanting crossplay go away as soon as the installed base grows. Put another way, if Microsoft and Sony were neck-and-neck on sales, neither manufacturer would really want crossplay.

You could also do what DCUO does, wherein there's no crossplay anywhere, everyone is off in their own little world, and also you are made by Daybreak and are completely terrible and no one should play you ever.

FFXIV first had its console launch during the prior generation of consoles, when Sony was struggling to catch up to Microsoft. At that point, Sony was hungry for online functionality. So a line in the sand and a set of edicts could be drawn up wherein FFXIV would have crossplay and no additional fee beyond the subscription service, and it would be using all of the same servers for everyone. Agreements were reached, and on light of the fact that Square and Sony have long had an amicable relationship, there were no real hiccups beyond that.

Microsoft, meanwhile, could issue a different set of edicts. Yoshida even laid those down during our media tour around Shadowbringers: Specifically, there is to be no cross-platform chat and Xbox-only communities. So long as those rules were in place, FFXIV couldn’t be on the console.

Obviously, I’m not in the business offices for these decisions, but I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that these rules were made during the prior era of consoles when Microsoft was on the top of the heap. With the company’s fortunes changing, those rules are finally being changed. Meanwhile, Sony’s agreement with Square is still in existence, so the rules FFXIV works by can’t be changed, but they’ve got no real incentive to allow for crossplay anywhere else.

At the end of the day, it’s not really a question of whether Sony or Microsoft or whoever hates crossplay; it’s a matter of who has financial incentive to make that a possibility and who is better served by keeping things exclusive. If you preferred narrative is that the Big Bad Meanie People at Sony won’t let crossplay be a thing, you have bought into a story being told by the people who have a financial incentive to have crossplay around for bolstering player counts.

Welcome to the industry side of the pool.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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Bryan Correll

Glad I don’t have to concern myself with petty console squabbles.

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Pandalulz

This is a bit of an interesting subject to me lately. I have a PS4. I have pretty much been a PS fanboi since the inception, just because I lived through the days where Xbox exclusives tended to just make it to my PC anyway. Those days honestly seem to coming back around, funny enough.

I have a daughter. She has friends. They own XBoxes. While something like Fortnite might be crossplay, how easy is it for her to jump into voice chat with her friends from the PS4, because that’s more important to her than the games themselves I think? I have zero idea. It’s never been a thing for me. And the only answer I seem to get is that it depends on the game and otherwise “it’s complicated.”

Crossplay or no, she’ll probably end up with an Xbox for her birthday (Christmas shopping is already done) anyway, because then I know she gets what she actually wants out of it.

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Axetwin .

*slams table*
THANK YOU!

I’ve been saying for a long time now that console exclusivity is a necessary evil. Especially in the face of this rising voice claiming “console exclusivity is an antiquated practice”. No, it’s not. That exclusivity is what literally sells one console or the other. It’s nice to see someone in this kind of position finally write about how necessary this practice still is.

rahkeesh
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rahkeesh

Microsoft has suffered so badly to Sony’s exclusives, that people who chose Xbox One rarely report exclusives as a reason they bought one.

Now while they sold half as many console as PS5, you have to wonder how they managed to do even that if good exclusives are literally the only draw.

Let’s not even get started with the Switch, which has like 70% overlap with Xbone/PS5 ownership and manages to move large number of multiplats despite such a huge portion of said owners having access to vastly “better” hardware.

So in the end, yes exclusives are hugely important, but they clearly aren’t everything, and it is possible to move the industry to a different place.

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Bhima Jenkins

The Switch is largely successful because of its exclusivity of unique games.

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Robert Mann

Except that economically speaking there are studies that show the companies spend more on the pursuit, marketing, and damage control related to exclusives than they gain from having them. In short, if they all simply chose not to, and stopped spending all that extra effort… they wouldn’t lose anything, and stand to gain.

The exception to that is if they can drive the other consoles out of the market entirely to gain more share.

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Bhima Jenkins

The only console exclusivity that sells a console are games made ONLY for one specific console–not games made for every platform which is where the idea of an “antiquated practice” comes from. Not sure we have a problem with say, Horizon Zero Dawn being exclusively made for PS4. We all get that they need some sort of competitive advantage and exclusive titles is that advantage.

The practice of not allowing a game to be cross-platform, even though its available on every device is one designed to strengthen one console maker at the detriment of the gaming community. Its a lazy, punishing incentive to stick with a specific console, instead of the more rewarding incentive of actually having a few unique titles specifically for a console making it worth the purchase.

But the console industry will continue to wall of gardens of universal platform games. Its why I hope Google Stadia largely succeeds, as the barrier to entry is VERY low, so even if you can only crossplay with Stadia and PC, everyone can at least just buy the game on Stadia if they don’t have a PC (that’s the only barrier, buy the game for that platform, no console cost).

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Eamil

https://www.gamespot.com/articles/final-fantasy-14-is-coming-to-xbox-one-at-long-las/1100-6471467/

That said, you’re right. Microsoft was terrible about crossplay last generation and Sony was nice about it to score PR points. Now that Sony’s on top, suddenly it’s the other way around, though Sony has been running into more bad PR based on the fact that they’re going back on the things they did to generate goodwill in the past. But when it comes to FFXIV specifically, Yoshi P has been pretty clear that it hinged on negotiations with Microsoft, not Sony.

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Schmidt.Capela

Put another way, if Microsoft and Sony were neck-and-neck on sales, neither manufacturer would really want crossplay.

True. But since if they were neck-and-neck the effect of crossplay would be neutral for both, and since the public seems to favor cross-play, it could lead to a situation where one of the manufacturers pretended to like cross-play just to gain brownie points (and, thus, free positive coverage).

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Robert Mann

Truth. The companies are either in the power loop, or playing P.R. “Please like us!” with the topic. Nothing new there.

In the meantime, I… I’m actually in the “I don’t really care, SO LONG as it doesn’t change how the game runs on PC.” This is the kicker to me. So many games aimed at console compatibility that they lost some interesting elements in the trade. That, to me, is where I find there to be a problem. A problem that becomes a vast chasm without a bridge when ‘mobile’ is added to the mix, even without the almost meme level of atrocity in monetization that is mobile’s M.O.

Simply put, I am fine if people prefer something else to play on, but I also want to be able to enjoy more complex options for controls, mechanics, and so on that are often limited in the titles aiming at cross play. Graphics are rarely the problem, as that’s usually more system specific for each platform, but the rest is something that changes the games themselves. Where sometimes a simpler approach is good, at other times it is not. I find myself at a point where many games are aiming for simpler to fit to consoles, proclaiming it as some wonderful thing, but I am not feeling it. It’s not fun when it is too simplified, just like it isn’t fun for people when there’s 50 things that have no explanation and all have sliding scales of importance based on how much of each you have. AKA, there’s somewhere between too simple, and too complex, wherein “FUN” exists.

So, personally, I find the lack of willingness to add cross play to be a pretty minor factor. It might split people who I might otherwise play with, but with cross play it is likely the game has chosen a path that makes it less appealing to me in the pursuit of fixing that. Even in the MMO field, where people are a huge factor in playing, fun remains more important. This is where I find cross play lacking, not in that there is no potential, but in that the current setup pushes away from what I look for in games.

rahkeesh
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rahkeesh

Most of what you said has nothing to do with crossplay, and everything to do with devs putting low value on developing unique features for their least profitable platform.

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Robert Mann

I disagree. It is far more common for games with crossplay features to simplify much farther. Thus I contend that where there is smoke there is fire.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

But if I have an Aquarius I should be OK, right?

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Michael Fuchs

I feel like there’s another portion of the argument that is also missing. That gamer’s, generally, will be drawn to platforms that enable crossplay because it allows to compete with their friends. If fortnite has no crossplay on PS4, but does on PC, Switch, and Xbox — chances are you’re not going to play the game on PS4, and thus not going to get a PS4 to play it (if you don’t own it already).

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agemyth 😩

…there is to be no cross-platform chat…

There are Xbox games with cross-platform voice and text chat. Maybe there are some technicalities specific with FF14 right now that complicate it, but in general cross-platform communication is a thing now. Maybe the details have also changed since the Shadowbringers interviews you referred to.

First and foremost, let’s state something that is a simple economic reality: Console manufacturers want you to buy one console and never anything else. This isn’t subjective. Console exclusives, platform benefits, online functions, everything is there so that you buy this piece of hardware and not some other. Period end. It’s a value-neutral statement of fact.

I wouldn’t say that is incorrect, but I think this has become a bit less of a simple fact recently with the surge of interest in “services” over hardware platforms. For example, Microsoft has published and plans to publish numerous titles on Switch and PlayStation platforms.

With the traditional console maker mindset you would think big franchises like Minecraft would be leveraged as an Xbox exclusive, but old and new titles are released on PS4 and Switch.

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Rodrigo Dias Costa

You should look into this matter a bit more. Even considering that some Microsoft games are showing up on other platforms, when you see which ones and where, you see what are their true intentions.

Starting with Minecraft, they already had it on Sony platforms before the Mojang acquisition, so they couldn’t just pull the support from it, it would hurt they shiny new IP’s popularity. Also, with it they could also push more pro-cross-play propaganda when saying that PS4 is the only platform not getting cross-play. It’s a PR weapon in of itself.

Then you consider the smaller games they’re releasing on another platform. Single. Only one other platform actually saw those games. The Switch is not considered really a competing platform for them right now. It is competing, I know, but is competing as much as smartphones and Netflix are competing with the XBone. The PS4 haven’t seen any of those games, and probably never will. Also, see all those games they announced this month from those recently acquired developers. All of them exclusives.

They do plan to publish more games on Switch, I’m sure, but they’ll not put them on same day launch on both platforms, and I’m really doubtful they’ll ever release any of them on the PS4. I’m hoping to be proven wrong, but nothing they’ve done even slightly makes me think that’ll happen.

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agemyth 😩

My point was just that it is not as straightforward anymore as Eliott had written it. Minecraft Dungeons is a title that has been built 100% under the Microsoft banner yet will get simultaneous releases across all 3 console platforms.

Of course Microsoft does this because they believe they are getting more out of it than the competition even if Sony/Nintendo are getting 30% of the Minecraft money on those platforms. The traditional console makers’ cutthroat business tactics would not release a Minecraft game (one of MS’s core franchises) on Sony and Nintendo platforms at all. They would have cancelled PS4 development on games like Psychonauts 2 and Wasteland 3 after they bought inXile and Double Fine.

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Roger Edwards

Cross play. An opportunity for a whole bunch of other players on different platforms to annoy you and generally get under your feet. Some may even be called Colin.

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Bhima Jenkins

Or, an opportunity to play with a few friends that do not have a gaming PC.