Sony’s cross-platform beta for Fortnite — launching today — feels like a white flag flown in the face of the future. The PlayStation platform was the last holdout on cross-play, fighting the idea that software is more powerful than hardware. But right now, nothing is more powerful than Fortnite.
This is a very big deal.
Sony has been in a unique situation as the sales leader during this console generation, while also being the only platform holder not to embrace cross-platform play. It made sense for the company to want to keep PlayStation fans in a walled garden for as long as possible. Sony seemed to assert that its hardware dominance would keep players willing to put up with a lack of freedom to continue playing, and buying virtual currency for, their favorite games on their favorite platform.
That tune has changed dramatically, and Fortnite may only be the beginning.
“We have no plans to announce at this point, but our goal remains to take a more open stance with cross-platform support that’s aligned with our mission to deliver the best consumer experience,” Sony told Polygon in a statement. We’ve reached out to a variety of developers and publishers to ask if their games will offer cross-platform play now that Sony has left the door open, and will update these posts when we hear back.
Keeping those doors closed until now has less to do with Xbox versus PlayStation and more to do with Microsoft versus Sony. Remember: Microsoft isn’t the Xbox company. Microsoft is the Windows and Minecraft company, and the Xbox One is a distant second to the PS4 in terms of sales.
Microsoft’s lax borders make for a good selling point, especially compared to Sony’s secured ones, and they likely do very little to hurt Microsoft’s long-term goals. Meanwhile, Nintendo is one of the few pure video game companies left that sells its own consoles, but it also had little to fear from cross-platform play, since first-party games are such a dominant force on the Switch. Many fans would argue that Nintendo isn’t competing with Microsoft or Sony at all. Whether you agree or not, it’s clear that Nintendo isn’t playing the same game as Sony or Microsoft when it comes to money or market share.
But PS4 is on top of the video game hardware world. Sony has a lot to fear from a future where consoles are just dumb boxes that let you access whatever games-as-a-service are huge this year, as well as bring your purchases and content with you from system to system.
This is why big third parties like Bethesda were putting so much public pressure on Sony about cross-platform play. Publishers and developers are fighting for a future where they have the power to hurt the console business if platform holders don’t do what they want. And what they want is console-agnostic cross-platform play. Sony seemed to think that giving players the chance to mingle with competitors would be a dangerous move for its PlayStation business. Why admit that the software companies have more power and influence than the hardware companies if they didn’t have to play along?
But Sony has given in, because Fortnite is now dominant. You can play it on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC, iOS devices or on certain Android devices. And anyone can either play against the community on their device, or join the huge pool of players in cross-platform play. Only Minecraft rivals it in terms of games that have become part of the gaming monoculture.
It’s not like Sony is the only company from which Fortnite has been able to extract some sort of concession; this is the game that doesn’t require Nintendo’s silly smartphone app for voice chat on the Nintendo Switch, nor does it require Nintendo Switch Online at all. You don’t download Fortnite from the Google Play store, because Epic doesn’t want to give Google a slice of the pie. Fortnite plays by its own rules, wherever it goes.
So what does this mean for the future?
For Sony, it means that, although the company has surrendered some control, it won’t lose players who may want to leave the PlayStation platform for more accommodating systems. It also means that other developers and publishers see an opening and will begin to ask for the same freedoms granted to Epic Games and Fortnite.
If we’re going to live in a world where the question of which console or platform on which to buy a game is suddenly meaningless because all the big games play together despite your console of choice, suddenly platform exclusives and hardware power become much more important. This means that Sony is still in the stronger position, since you can now play Fortnite on PS4 against Xbox One players, but Xbox One players still have no way to play The Last of Us Part 2. Sony is still winning the battle of exclusives, and it’s not a close call.
The future just became a bit clearer, gaming just became a bit more inclusive, and PlayStation became a bit better for the players — at least for those who are playing Fortnite right now. The balance of power continues to shift toward the developers and publishers of software and away from the platform holders. If this is part of the battle between Sony and Microsoft, I’d even argue that Sony won in the end; Microsoft now has one fewer thing to differentiate the Xbox One from the market leader.
If consoles are headed toward a future where they’re just dumb boxes for the next biggest free-to-play game or subscription service, Sony needs to make sure it has the best dumb box. And that helps everyone.