There’s a glaring flaw with modern video games that’s staring us all in the face — something that we accept as normal only because it’s always been that way: not being unable to play online games with friends across platforms.
For example: Every year, a new “Call of Duty” game comes out, and every year, millions of people buy that game. Many of those customers buy the game solely to play it online, but those people are siloed off in their own consoles for online multiplayer. Your Aunt bought “Call of Duty” on Xbox, but you got it on PlayStation? Too bad, friend!
It’s the same game, yet you can’t play together.
It’s not technically impossible, of course, though there are some logistical issues getting in the way. Chat, for instance.
If you’re playing a game on Xbox One, you can’t chat with players on PlayStation 4, nor can you team up with players on PlayStation 4. So, even if you got both Sony and Microsoft to sign off on the idea, implementing it would mean an imperfect compromise that game developers don’t want to allow. “If we were to suddenly say, ‘Oh yeah, you can play cross-platform. But you can’t group up with or talk to any of your friends.’ I think more of our players would be like, ‘This is broken, it doesn’t feel right,'” said “Overwatch” game director Jeff Kaplan of Blizzard Entertainment in an interview earlier this year.
Stuff like that can be fixed, and would make a huge difference for literally millions of game players.
“It requires real deep work,” Microsoft’s head of Xbox Phil Spencer told me in an interview this week during the annual E3 video game trade show. Spencer and the Xbox team revealed this week that “Minecraft” — one of the most popular games in the world — is becoming cross-platform. If you’re playing it on any platform, from iPhone to Nintendo Switch to Xbox One to the Oculus Rift VR headset, you’re playing with everyone else who’s playing “Minecraft.”
Every platform, that is, except for the PlayStation 4.
The “deep work” Spencer is referring to is short-hand for “work between competitors.” Sony’s PlayStation group and Microsoft’s Xbox group would have to work together to make games that are available on both platforms work together.
Maybe they would create a new piece of software that enabled a core set of functions between both platforms, 0r maybe they’d adapt one of their own services to function on both. It’s not clear how the issue would be solved, but that doesn’t matter anyhow: Talks between the two companies are at an impasse.
When it comes to games like “Minecraft,” played by millions of teenagers and children, there’s another important consideration to make: parental controls. Here’s Spencer explaining in more detail:
“If I go and I set parental controls on Xbox, and I say my daughter can only play with people who I’ve approved to be on her friends list. I don’t want her to see any user-generated content [content created by other human players, potentially lewd].
As a parent, I want to make those decisions — you need to know that that doesn’t go away when she starts interacting with somebody who might be on a different platform. So that kind of interaction requires a collaboration between the platforms so that — even forgetting about messaging and voice chat and all of that — I think there’s just kind of a base level of security that we want to be able to support.”
In the case of “Minecraft,” Microsoft worked with each platform-holder individually to make sure that was handled. But things didn’t work out with Sony.
“Yeah, you should probably ask them,” Spencer said when I put that question to him. He quickly added, “I don’t mean that to be snippy. We’ve shown our intent on what we want to go do. And I’d love for ‘Minecraft’ players to get to play ‘Minecraft.'”
For Sony’s part, Eurogamer spoke with PlayStation global sales and marketing head Jim Ryan. His answer also focuses on parental controls and safety.
“We’ve got to be mindful of our responsibility to our install base. ‘Minecraft’ — the demographic playing that, you know as well as I do, it’s all ages but it’s also very young. We have a contract with the people who go online with us, that we look after them and they are within the PlayStation curated universe. 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.”
Also of note in his response: “PlayStation curated universe.” In the case of “Minecraft” — on all platforms — a login to Xbox Live is required. Xbox Live is Microsoft’s online service, which includes an online storefront and an optional paid membership.
Using Xbox Live does guarantee a uniformity of experience across platforms (in terms of services like chat and parental controls), but it also hooks more people into Microsoft’s online service. And Sony would rather people keep using its service, PlayStation Network, instead of Xbox Live. Even without making the financial argument, Sony has a justifiable interest in maintaining a level of control over games played on its consoles.
In the case of “Minecraft,” the situation is unfortunate at worst. But the bigger picture of this is galling: being unable to play the same game across platforms because of an inability of competing companies to work together for the good of their consumers. It’s the kind of thing that makes less and less sense as more games become platforms unto themselves, playable on multiple devices.
“Minecraft” is almost there. Here’s hoping Microsoft and Sony can work something out.