Gamers and developers have been privately and publicly screaming at Sony for years to open the cross-play floodgates to their platform. Finally, that battle might be over.
Sony CEO Jim Ryan gave an interview to Wired earlier this week, and for the most part the discussion centred on cloud gaming and Sony's best service that still isn't available in Australia, PlayStation Now.
PlayStation Now is a big deal, not only because it gives users a way to play the PS3's excellent back catalogue that won't work natively on the PS4, but also because it's currently one of the best responses Sony has to Microsoft's growing Xbox Game Pass library.
But as good as that is, something gamers have been screaming for more is universal cross-play. Fortnite helped drag most of the major players to the table, and while Sony opened the door early on when Rocket League first launched as a PS+ free game, the company began adopting an increasingly obtuse approach. The stubbornness reached its zenith in 2017, when Jim Ryan (then the head of global sales and marketing for PlayStation) told Eurogamer that crossplay was a "commercial discussion" and he raised concerns about exposing children "to external influences":
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.
It wasn't Sony's best moment, and Xbox's Phil Spencer neatly hit the nail on the head in a Giant Bomb interview by musing out loud about why a platform holder would even suggest such a thing. "The fact that somebody would kind of make an assertion that somehow we’re not keeping Minecraft players safe, I found — not only from a Microsoft perspective, but from a game industry perspective — like, I don’t know why that has to become the dialogue. Like, that doesn’t seem healthy for anyone," he said.
That was in 2017. As Fortnite continued to become a global juggernaut, and Sony's stance looked increasingly stupid because families in particular were moving to other platforms because it was the only way they could all play together, the company began to relent. The company announced an open beta for the service in September 2018, saying that they would announce more on "other titles going forward". Sony themselves were fairly quiet since, with developers instead taking public potshots at the platform for still being stubborn about it all.
"We made many requests for crossplay (both through our account manager and directly with higher ups) all the way up until release month ... we were told in no uncertain terms that it was not going to happen," the chief executive of Wargroove's creators Chucklefish, Finn Brice, said in April this year.
After constant pressure - and the threat of losing millions of Fortnite players - Sony announced last year that they would be letting select games have cross-play with any platform. But the company hasn't exactly opened the floodgates since then, and developers are calling them out on that.
The problem isn't technological, but one of policy. Sony didn't want to relent its position as the champion platform of this generation, and it mirrors moves back in the PS3/360 era when Microsoft shut down similar experiments. But as everyone else has come on board, it seems Sony is finally there too. In that same PlayStation Now discussion with Wired, the company writes that PS4's cross-play support has officially moved out of beta, although Sony isn't making a big deal about it:
Which makes growth the magic word—and which is why PlayStation Now improvements aren't even the only move Sony is making, despite handily winning the sales battle this console generation. While it's not announcing the news explicitly, the PS4's cross-play efforts have officially moved out of the beta stage, meaning that the console can support cross-play on any titles that studios provide the functionality for. This month's Modern Warfare may be the first major title to take advantage of it at launch, and likely won't be the last.
Jim Ryan goes on to say that incumbents don't usually win back-to-back console generations. Having universal cross-play, particularly as more games are now developed with mobiles and other platforms in mind, makes sense in a world where Sony's business is increasingly dependent on a strong and prosperous PlayStation platform. Plus, literally every gamer has been demanding Sony add cross-play since the feature became public knowledge.
I reached out to Sony Australia for comment, as well as a clarification on the status of PlayStation Now in Australia. I personally wouldn't expect to see the latter become available until next year — the service still doesn't have the amount of local data centres to make it worth it, and it'll take another year or two for Sony's strategic partnership with Microsoft and Microsoft Azure to fully get going.