The so-called console wars have galvanised video game fans for decades now, hitting a fever pitch with Sega's Mega Drive against the Super Nintendo and continuing with two or three major players each generation.
These days, it's basically a two-company fight: Sony's PlayStation 4 against Microsoft's Xbox One, since the Nintendo Wii U failed to find much of a widespread audience. But this grand battle might get a whole lot friendlier now, with Microsoft announcing that it willl open up its Xbox Live network to not only connect to PC versions of supported games, but also games on other consoles.
It's something that console players have long dreamed of: the ability to hook up with friends on other systems, letting you match up online no matter which box you bought.
If it pans out, Microsoft will be hailed as a great uniter – the one that finally destroyed the wall that separates many gamers from their mates. And just as crucially, if Sony decides not to buy into this plan, it makes them look selfish and unfriendly. Either way, Microsoft wins.
Crossing out the limits
Cross-platform play isn't a new concept. We've seen multiplayer games that work between PC and console versions, PC and Mac versions, mobile and PC versions, and even across iOS and Android. Indeed, Microsoft itself has history here, allowing Square Enix to plug Xbox 360 players of Final Fantasy XI into the same servers as the PC and PlayStation 2 versions.
That was a one-time move, apparently, quite likely to try and make headway for the Xbox 360 in Japan years back. Microsoft wouldn't offer the same olive branch for Final Fantasy XIV or soon-to-close free-to-play shooter Dust 514, and the probability of seeing Xbox and PlayStation consoles living in network harmony long seemed like an unattainable dream.
Until today, that is. Kicking off the Game Developers Conference, Microsoft announced that it has cleared the roadblocks on its side of the equation: developers can now allow online play across platforms, including other consoles. Rocket League (shown), which just launched on Xbox One after a smashing debut on PlayStation 4, will be the first game to build in support for such cross-platform shenanigans.
But that's only if other console makers support the initiative. And given Nintendo's weakened state and total lack of third-party support on the Wii U, that announcement puts a big target on Sony's back alone for now.
Sony might have fumbled the launch of the PlayStation 3, with both the console's high price and the company's cockiness after two generations of industry dominance, but it absolutely nailed the PlayStation 4's debut – especially when Microsoft made its own early Xbox One mistakes. The PS4 was a cheaper, more straightforward gaming device, and Sony didn't try to block used games in the process. Gamers ate it right up.
As a result, they've run away with this console generation. While some expected the rise of mobile and falling PC prices to kill the console market, Sony has had stunning success with the PlayStation 4 – and it's still going.
Back in January, Electronic Arts CFO Blake Jorgensen suggested that 55 million consoles had been sold between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and based on Sony's most recent shipment numbers, that put PS4 sales around 36 million and Xbox One closer to 19 million. That same week, Sony said its tally was actually 37.7 million consoles sold. Microsoft hasn't shared its own hardware numbers, seemingly with good reason.
Sony's dominance comes with its kinder and friendlier image this time around, both to the average game player and also developers – particularly self-publishing indies. But with today's announcement, Microsoft has painted Sony into a corner: support this new, more open regime or face the wrath of angry gamers. Any move other than promptly buying into it will seem antagonistic on Sony's part, and potentially erase the goodwill it has built up this generation.
We all win?
It's a brilliant PR move on Microsoft's part, and one that shows a greater understanding of what players – and consumers on the whole – want from the company. Microsoft has long seemed like a rigid, closed-off company, but everything has changed under the leadership of Satya Nadella. Now Microsoft makes cross-platform apps that work across multiple devices, even ones they don't make, and releases experimental new apps for Android rather than Windows Phone.
Today's move fits right into that new mindset, and it joins other complementary Microsoft decisions of late, such as bringing Killer Instinct to PC to allow for cross-play with Xbox One, and announcing a free-to-play Forza game for PC. Microsoft also teased the possibility of Xbox One hardware upgrades, so disrupting the typical console paradigm is clearly on the company's agenda.
Still, it's a very unfamiliar position for gaming fans. Die-hard console aficionados are typically fierce advocates of their hardware, and take strong, hardline stances against rivals, with any sensible online discussion inevitably devolving into vitriolic name-calling within a few posts or comments.
If Sony agrees to allow cross-platform multiplayer between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games, it will be a significant milestone for industry. Not only will it remove the headaches that come with playing games with your mates, but it could lead to a more positive, hospitable tone for its consumers. Maybe that's too optimistic, given how toxic and horrible the online dialogue can be between game players, but in any case, this seems like a step in the right direction.
And if it pans out, Microsoft will reap the benefits of taking that first step and inviting rivals to get in on the fun. But if Sony says no, Microsoft still wins by taking some of the shine off of its biggest competitor, making Sony seem disappointingly short-sighted and hostile as a result.
That might not shift the balance in terms of hardware sales for this generation, but as we've seen over the years, perception counts for a lot in the console wars – and Microsoft just set itself up for a win here, however the chips may fall. Like we said: it's a brilliant PR move, if nothing else.