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How Fortnite trapped Sony, and what happens next

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Things could change for the PlayStation platform in big ways

Sony’s response to the Fortnite account controversy is weak in a number of ways, most notably that it doesn’t even discuss the problem itself or offer any solutions for it. The statement doesn’t give much hope that a solution, or even a public decision, about the lockdown of Fortnite accounts that have been played on the PlayStation 4 is on the way. The only thing it does is acknowledge that Sony is aware people are talking about ... something.

But the lack of a substantial comment makes sense, and seems almost like a tacit admission that, yes, this is Sony’s doing. But why is addressing this situation in a direct way so hard?

Cross-play works fine, publishers want it, Sony is saying no

The first thing we need to get out of the way is that cross-play on the PlayStation 4 is a solved issue, at least in terms of technology.

There is no technical limitation, or challenge that needs to be solved, that’s preventing cross-play on the PS4 — outside of Sony’s refusal to let it happen. We know that the teams involved with some of the biggest games in the world want it to happen. Fans are certainly asking for it. The other consoles are offering it.

So why is Sony swimming so hard against the tide?

Well, the PlayStation 4 is on top, the best-selling home console of this generation, and Sony thinks that keeping its garden walled is an important factor in maintaining its lead. It doesn’t want to share its players with anyone else, for any reason.

“It’s certainly not a profound philosophical stance we have against this,” PlayStation global sales and marketing head Jim Ryan told Eurogamer during E3 2017. “We’ve done it in the past. We’re always open to conversations with any developer or publisher who wants to talk about it. Unfortunately it’s a commercial discussion between ourselves and other stakeholders, and I’m not going to get into the detail of that on this particular instance. And I can see your eyes rolling.”

Microsoft and Nintendo seem to see cross-platform play in games like Fortnite as something that benefits both their respective platforms. Sony seems to view it as a potential liability. So here we are. But why is dealing with this particular controversy, with this particular game, so challenging?

Xbox is involved as well, but fewer people care

There’s a detail about this whole thing that hasn’t gotten anywhere near the same level of attention: Similarly to the Switch circumstance, you can’t start a Fortnite account on the PS4 and then play that account on the Xbox One. You’ll get an error message and, again, it seems like this is part of Sony’s decision to not allow cross-play or any kind of portable account once the PlayStation platform touches it.

The reason this issue didn’t hit critical mass until the Switch port of Fortnite was released is that players are less likely to have both an Xbox One and a PS4, and even less likely to want to switch between them to play Fortnite. The positioning of the Switch as a hybrid portable/console system has resulted in many more people with a PS4 or an Xbox One and a Switch.

Sony may have thought the peculiarities of its decision to disallow cross-platform play had already been well understood or accepted by the audience when Fortnite was released last summer. But it wasn’t until this week, with the release of the Nintendo Switch version, that things really boiled over.

This is likely an all-or-nothing decision for Sony

This is the problem: Sony isn’t in a position where it can start allowing Fortnite players to play with people on another console, or unlock this account issue, without admitting that these limitations were a bad idea to begin with. And it won’t change the rules for a single game, because everyone else in the gaming industry would scream bloody murder.

Sony would have to reverse its entire policy against cross-platform play to give Fortnite players what they want, and that’s a huge shift in strategy for a company with so much to lose in the console space. Changing that rule would make everyone else happy, but there is a risk that it could be one of a series of factors that erodes Sony’s lead this generation.

PlayStation 4 Pro Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The executives who will ultimately make this decision are paid to worry about things that aren’t likely to happen, and to play things very close to the vest when they feel like they have a competitive advantage. Shifting the cross-play strategy is a huge deal, and Sony is likely looking at it from every possible angle right now before saying or doing anything to make this current issue better.

But as we noted, this issue isn’t going away, and that in itself is important. Sony is probably hoping that players will stop caring in a day or two. But that feels very unlikely right now due to the ongoing nature of the complaints and the popularity of Fortnite. Every time they use their Fortnite account on another platform, players will be reminded of losing out on playing the Switch version with their paid items.

This cross-play and account situation is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the history of the gaming industry, and part of that has to do with how much pressure the fans are putting on Sony right now. Here’s someone’s response to an official PlayStation tweet about the upcoming Spider-Man game. The player complaints show no sign of letting up.

Which brings us to the next point.

This could be the controversy that forces Sony’s hand

Keeping players from even accessing their accounts on a different platform as a consequence of using that account on Sony’s platform first feels wildly petty coming from this generation’s console sales leader. This isn’t even about cross-console play as much as it’s about how Sony is seemingly poisoning its customers’ Fortnite accounts so they can’t be used on a competing platform.

The amount of pressure Sony is feeling right now to fix the problem is immense. The backlash from the nothing statement that the company already released was immediate and massive, and doesn’t seem to have let up.

Sony has to figure out how it’s going to address this, and that’s going to involve either apologizing and reversing its stance on blocking cross-platform play — which would be huge — or look its players in the eye and say, “We know you hate this, but tough shit.” Sure, the company would put it in prettier terms, but that would be the gist of the message. Sony officials are in the horrible position of being asked to rethink a policy that seems very important to the PlayStation platform, and to do it while the clock is ticking and everyone is yelling at them.

Neither answer is palatable to Sony right now, but it has to do something. If there was ever a time we could hope that player pressure changed how a console holder felt about an issue, this would be it.

The next few days are going to be very interesting.