“Super Mario” is an anomaly compared to most modern video games.
Not the character himself — video games are rife with cartoonish characters — but the franchise. Nintendo is a rare exception in the modern era, since it keeps its blockbuster franchises locked to its platforms. Other than that, most video games come out on most video game platforms. Games like the wildly successful “Overwatch” are so wildly successful in part because of their accessibility. If you have an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4, or a PC, you can play “Overwatch.” And that means hundreds of millions of people are potential players.
That’s a crucial part of why over 30 million people played it in the last year (the game launched in May 2016).
In the US, that player base is largely playing on two game consoles: the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
Unfortunately, players on those two consoles can’t actually play the game with each other online. That’s not because the games are different on the two consoles, and that’s not because the games control differently on the two consoles. The reason is far more banal, and it’s representative of a problem at the heart of modern console gaming.
“It’s a mix of technical and business reasons,” game director Jeff Kaplan told me in an interview this week at a New York City event for the game’s one year anniversary. “Right now, the two platforms — in particular, Xbox to PlayStation — is not an open ecosystem. They’re very closed-off ecosystems, and it’s very hard to cross those boundaries.”
This is a long-running issue with video games, for as long as online gaming has existed on game consoles.
Every year, a new “Call of Duty” game comes out. Every year, millions of people buy that game — many of those people buying it solely to play the game online. And those people are siloed off into console-specific online multiplayer. Your Aunt bought “Battlefield” 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.
One game bridges the gap between Xbox and PlayStation players — it’s called “Rocket League.”
But “Rocket League” has some major caveats in this respect. If you’re on Xbox One, you can’t chat with players on PlayStation 4, nor can you team up with players on PlayStation 4. It’s an imperfect compromise that players put up with, and one that “Overwatch” developer Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t want to allow with its team-based online shooter. “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.'”
So, what gives? Why won’t Sony and Microsoft work together to make cross-platform multiplayer a reality? The reason, largely boils down to one word: Business.
Microsoft and Sony are competitors (at least when it comes to Xbox and PlayStation), and they want you to keep using their platform. Enabling cross-platform play — online gameplay between Xbox and PlayStation players — further blurs the line between the already very similar consoles. And neither company wants you to think of their console as interchangeable with the competition.
Of course, that doesn’t matter if you’re the average person who wants to play a game with your friend. I certainly understand the business reasons behind this, but as a consumer I still think it’s junk. And if you’re the man in charge of a massively popular game like “Overwatch,” it’s pretty frustrating as well.
“We’re very respectful, and we understand our partners and why they’re not allowing it at this time,” Kaplan said. But? “We’ll use whatever influence we have to keep reminding them, ‘Hey, this would be cool. It’s something our players really want. It’s something your players really want.’ That seems like a win to us.”