Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the most popular video game console in the world.
Over 80 million PS4 consoles have been sold across the past five years, which puts Sony ahead of both Microsoft’s Xbox One and Nintendo’s Switch by tens of millions of units sold. But that dominance also puts Sony on the defensive as Microsoft and Nintendo both attempt to compete.
Nintendo’s answer has been the wildly popular Switch console: It’s less of a response to the PlayStation 4 than a brilliant evolution of the failed Wii U. Nintendo, as ever, is doing its own thing.
Microsoft’s answer, however, has been a direct offensive — a multi-faceted one with massive, precedent-breaking impacts:
1. Cross-play, the most important change to the game industry since polygonal graphics, is now a reality.
If a game is nearly identical on multiple game platforms, why can’t all of its players play together? The technical hurdles to overcome are minor, and game developers would prefer not to split up their players.
Microsoft and Nintendo have both made major pushes towards allowing cross-play in the past year, but Sony refused to play ball.
The reason why, of course, is money.
With over 80 million consoles sold, Sony is ahead of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Nintendo’s Switch by tens of millions of units. And, as the market leader, there’s little business incentive for Sony to work with competitors like Microsoft and Nintendo. So, for the past year, Sony has repeatedly refused to allow cross-play on the PlayStation 4.
But public sentiment on cross-play has shifted dramatically, and that sentiment forced Sony’s hand. As of this week, Sony is officially giving in and allowing “Fortnite” players across competing game consoles to play with PlayStation 4 players.
That’s a huge, precedent-breaking shift.
Since the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System, game console manufacturers have refused to let their users play with the competition. But that stance has made less and less sense as games become increasingly similar across competing platforms. It’s the logical endpoint to multiplayer gaming.
If the same “Call of Duty” game is released on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, it stands to reason that everyone playing that game should be able to play together — regardless of their console. And now, the public seems to agree.
When Microsoft enabled this functionality in 2017 in one of the biggest games in the world, “Minecraft,” it opened the floodgates.
Suddenly, “Minecraft” players on Xbox One could play with iPhone and PC and even Nintendo Switch players. There was just one notable exception: Sony’s PlayStation 4. It continues to be the exception, and it’s not a measure of Microsoft not working with Sony — Sony apparently halted talks.
But with “Fortnite,” Sony is taking the first steps toward allowing broader cross-platform functionality on the PlayStation 4. “This represents a major policy change for Sony Interactive Entertainment,” Sony’s announcement reads. “We are now in the planning process across the organization to support this change.”
2. Netflix-like subscription services that offer massive game libraries for download.
One of Microsoft’s smartest moves since introducing the Xbox One in 2013 has been the introduction of Xbox Game Pass. The service, which costs the same price as a single video game for a full year’s subscription, offers access to over 100 video games — including brand-new games published by Microsoft.
Subscribers can simply download whatever games they want directly to their console. It’s a heftier lift up front — you have to download files that can be as large as 100GB — but it provides a much more comfortable, standard gaming experience.
It’s quite a deal.
And the service is apparently popular enough that Sony just introduced its own version: PlayStation Now.
In the past, PlayStation Now streamed video games to your console. That could result in some choppy gameplay moments, or input lag, or any variety of other issues.
But Sony, having seen the success of Game Pass, has recently altered its PlayStation Now service. The service, which costs $100 annually but offers a larger library than Microsoft’s Game Pass, now allows games to be downloaded directly to your console.
Microsoft is making smart moves that endear it to the most dedicated gamers, while Sony is bleeding goodwill.
Being in second place has forced Microsoft’s Xbox division to be scrappy and innovative. Instead of chasing Sony’s lead, Microsoft has taken smart steps toward appealing to game console buyers — and those steps have been effective.
They’ve been so effective, in fact, that Sony’s being forced to respond with its own version of the same services.
What Sony is missing, however, is Microsoft’s bigger play with Xbox Game Pass and cross-play: An overall move away from dependence on the Xbox as a hardware platform, and a move toward Xbox as a service available on a variety of devices.
Back in June, at the video game industry’s annual trade show E3, Xbox leader Phil Spencer spoke about the future of Xbox. “Our cloud engineers are building a game streaming network to unlock console-quality gaming on any device,” Spencer said. “Not only that — we are dedicated to perfecting your experience everywhere you want to play. On your Xbox, your PC, or your phone.”
Services like Game Pass and cross-play are building blocks of this future, where you simply play games on whatever device you’ve got.
Meanwhile, Sony has spent the last year arguing against cross-play with head-scratching statements like, “I’m confident we’ll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.” While Sony is far ahead in terms of console sales, the company has been losing in the court of public opinion, specifically with the cross-play issue, for the last year-plus.
Regardless, the competition is great for consumers, especially now that cross-platform play is finally being embraced by all of the major game console manufacturers.