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

It's the installed base, Charlie Brown


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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