Every now and again, the topic of cross-play between consoles and PC comes up. And just about every time, the same argument gets rolled out: it's a nice idea, but console players will get stomped, so it's not worth doing. Still, that's not stopping Gears of War 4 from merging PC and Xbox One players in their competitive modes.
In a patch due out later this week, The Coalition will be enabling cross-play between Xbox One and PC players. It's not just for public matches, but for ranked competitive play as well.
It's a bit of a U-turn. Back in January, when Coalition announced cross-play was being introduced to social matches, the developers said that the "core and competitive [playlists] will remain platform independent". Back then, the reasoning was that "we always want to ensure our Ranked experiences are as closely matched and competitive as possible".
Back then, the implication was that combining the two platforms would result in unbalanced matches. How, pray tell, would console players be able to cope against the superiority of the mouse and keyboard? The feedback from a test earlier in the year was that they didn't need to.
Unlike other shooters, Gears of War competitively revolves predominately around the shotgun. Shotguns are pretty easy to aim whether you have a controller or not - it's all about getting close enough to get the kill. It's possible to sit back with a sniper or a pistol, of course, but on the whole the game is more about movement and movement techniques, such as wall bouncing.
Precision still matters, of course, but the general feedback since crossplay was introduced was that the gulf hasn't been so substantial that the player bases can't be merged. And that's come with a huge benefit to PC players: the Gears of War crowd is larger on Xbox, helped partly because the fanbase has always been there, but also because Gears 4 is only available on PC through the Windows Store.
But while Gears has been walking down this path for a while, there's a large difference between allowing crossplay for casual matches and competitive ones. Apart from the technical limitations, there aren't a great deal of games that cross the PC and console streams. Epic's Paragon and Street Fighter V come to mind, while Rocket League became the first Xbox One game with cross-play last year, but for the most part the challenges have been too difficult. A Psyonix dev also intimated last year that it has taken some time for platform holders like Sony and Microsoft to warm up to the idea of cross-play.
Xbox players can choose not to play with their PC brethren if they choose, but PC players won't have the option. It's unlikely to be a change that triggers a change in developer thinking, although at the very least it helps to establish a precedent for multi-platform games if the player base on PC is dwindling. And with more games relying on player-hosted matchmaking lobbies, sorted by various algorithms that factor in players' skill and location, having a large pool of players is essential to the experience.