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Column: Cross-Play is the future

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Platform holders want to have control over their network, players want to play together across platforms. Eventually both sides are coming together.

SEGA made history when Phantasy Star Online (PSO) was released for PC on December 21st 2011 in Japan. A year after the launch of the Dreamcast version SEGA let PC and console players adventure alongside each other. Therefore PSO is the first cross-platform MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing-game), despite Guinness World Records wanting you believe it’s Final Fantasy XI Online, as pointed out in the comments section of the listing.

PlayStation Vita – the Cross-Play machine

Ever since then there have been games that allow Cross-Play, even though they’ve been clearly in the minority. Since June 2008 Lost Planet: Extreme Condition – Colonies Edition allowed PC and Xbox 360 players to battle each other. Due to the fact that meanwhile Capcom’s 3rd-person-shooter has been released on Steam and has been made Xbox One-compatible this February, you can still use this feature. Around ten years after PSO, Portal 2 (April 21st 2011) brought Cross-Play to PlayStation 3. PC and PS3 players were able to make their way together through a smartly designed co-op campaign. Street Fighter V and DC Universe Online are also examples of PlayStation (on PS4 in these cases) and PC players being able to play together. With the release of PSP’s follow-up handheld PlayStation Vita (February 22nd 2012), Cross-Play became increasingly important to the PlayStation family. Almost every multiplayer-compatible game which was released on both PS4 and PS Vita at the time, featured Cross-Play. Even though Nintendo had been selling both home consoles and handhelds ever since 1990, console players were introduced to Cross-Buy and Cross-Save by Sony. While Cross-Buy allows to play the purchased title on different platforms for no additional cost, Cross-Save presents the opportunity to share your progress between systems, in Vita’s case to even take it on the go. PS4 (November 29th 2013) followed that trend up until PS Vita’s inevetible demise (production stopped March 1st this year), with a dissappointing amount of triple A games supporting these features.

PC – Cross-Play forever on Steam, competitors should cooperate

On September 12th 2003 PC gaming changed forever. On that day Valve launched Steam. Previously Valve was known for developing the revolutionary first-person-shooter Half-life an dmulitplayer hits such as Counter-Strike (CS) and Team Fortress. At first Steam acted as a multiplayer client and launcher for CS, but it quickly developed into the go-to platform to sell PC games. After long forgotten discussions concerning copy protection and property law, Steam is the prime platform for PC gaming. Cross-Play, Cross-Buy and Cross-Save have been part of Steam long before Sony made use of those features. After all you can play most of the games available on that platform on Windows, Linux and MacOS.

The variety of available platforms to play with your PC on is bigger than ever – Epic Games Store, Oculus Store, Microsoft Store, uPlay and Origin, to only name a few (RIP GameSpy and Desura). It’s counterproductive that some games, especially concering copy protection and VR system compatibility, limit multiplayer lobbies to particular PC platforms. In the day and age of low game pricing and viable subscription models such as Humble Monthly and Twitch Prime, piracy shouldn’t be a big of a factor as it still seems to be when gaming companies complain about lost sales.

Nintendo – from 6 to 45 Cross-Play games

Apart from PC and PlayStation there is another platform on which more and more Cross-Play titles are released – Nintendo systems. Pure Chess mixes up PC, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS players. In Monster Hunter Ultimate 3 Wii U und 3DS players can take on giant bosses together. Those are already two out of six Wii U / 3DS Cross-Play games. On the other hand the list of Cross-Play titles on the Nintendo Switch already contains 45 games.

Xbox Play Anywhere and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate

At E3 2016 (XTgamer published the presser with voice-over) Microsoft announced Play Anywhere. Ever since then most of their first party titles are Cross-Buy across Xbox One and Windows 10, e.g. Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 4 und Crackdown 3, but only if you purchase them digitally via Xbox and Microsoft Stores. Should you purchase Gears 5 on Steam or as a retail copy, then you’re restricted to that one platform. It’s a positive development that Microsoft is releasing more and more games on Steam, though restricting some copies to particular platforms doesn’t help to lower the confusion of costumers.

Since 2017 Xbox One players can play a lot of first and 3rd party titles via Xbox Game Pass for €9.99 per month. In recent months Microsoft is extending that offer with 100 games to PC for €4.99 per month (currently on offer for €1). Since many of the available games on Xbox Game Pass have been supporting Play Anywhere, many first party games were already playable on Windows 10 via the original Game Pass, without additional cost. Now both Passes are sold seperately and there’s also the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, combining Xbox Game Pass, Game Pass for PC and Xbox Live Gold for €12.99 per month (currently €2 for the first two months, any remaining Xbox Game Pass and Gold subcription runtimes can be turned into a Game Pass Ultimate sub free of charge). Should you own a powerful PC, but also want to play on your Xbox One X at times, this offer can make a lot of sense. Most of the titles also support Cross-Play between PC and Xbox One, for example Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 – even on Steam. We hope that Microsoft will keep going into that direction with upcoming projects such as the PC port of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, xCloud and Scarlett.

Cross-Play today

This year marks a turning point in console makers’ approach to Cross-Play. For years Psyonix has been trying to enable Cross-Play for their successfull eSports title Rocket League and since January 15th players on Switch, XB1, PS4 and PC can play together in 2v2 to 4v4 matches. Due to the fact Rocket League doesn’t feature an account system, the cross-platform friends list can get pretty convoluted since you have to add each friend for each platform, but at the benefit of playing with everybody on any platform definitely outweighs any irritation. We’re still waiting on Cross-Play Voice Chat, but the developers confirmed to us that they’re working tirelessly on making that feature happen.

Sony is mostly in the spotlight when it comes to Cross-Play. In the case of Fortnite Cross-Play features had to be disabled only to be reinstated once they had the platform holder’s approval. Absurd when you see Sony’s role in pushing Cross-Play forward within their own console architecture. Cross-Play is definitely a trend within free-to-play multiplayer titles. Dauntless, SMITE and Paladins: Champions of the Realm support cross-platform play on PC, PS4, XB1 and Switch (if available). As developers are striving for providing their audience a similiar opportunity on winning, they now themselves restrict play on different platforms. In Fortnite Switch players can only compete with mobile players since pC, PS4 and XB1 players experience a better performing game. Popular games Realm Royale (PC, Switch, PS4, XB1) and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG; XB1, PS4) will get Cross-Play abilities added on next month.

Cross-Save is also increasingly more important. After Activision separated from Destiny 2, Bungie enabled Cross-Save accross PS4, XB1 and PC, in order to let players continue their journey no matter which platform they’re on. As first major RPG Divinity: Original Sin 2 – Definitive Edition enables you to share your save games accross Steam and Nintendo Switch Online between PC and Switch. Square Enix’ Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is supposed to also support Cross-Save via PS4 and Switch.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is most talked of in terms of Cross-Play these days. The most popular video game brand is rebooting its Modern Warfare branch and will support upon release next month cross-platform play accross PC, PS4 and XB1. Until tomorrow you can try it out yourself in the Open Beta. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare supports not only Cross-Play but also enables console players to play with mouse and keyboard, supported with a variety of options. Players remained sceptical for a long time, if players using a controller really stand a chance against someone with mouse and keyboard. Developer Infinity Ward tried to make sure to balance the game in a way that players have equal chances. Our experience with the beta is exactly that: In any given Team Deathmatch (TDM) match, players with controllers and those with mouse and keyboard take turns in having the best kill/death ratio. Transparently you can see before and after each match if they’re using mouse and keyboard or controllers. In our sessions we experienced that a player used mouse and keyboard despite being displayed to be playing with a controller, so the system isn’t 100% to be trusted. As with Cross-Play you can disable to play with players using other input devides than yourself to customize your experience.

Looking ahead and seeing how cloud and streaming services such as xCloud, Google Stadia and PlayStation Now are increasingly important, Cross-Play is without a doubt the future of gaming. Everybody should be able to play their favourite games together with their friends, no matter which platform they’re on.

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