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Sony Loathed the Idea of Crossplay on the PS4, Leaked Docs Show

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Lawsuits occasionally offer fascinating windows into the internal debates within companies. The Apple vs. Epic lawsuit that kicked off this week has already given us a new perspective on Sony’s approach to crossplay between the PS4 and other consoles. While Sony occasionally made mouth noises about not enabling crossplay due to the PlayStation Network offering the best user experience, internally, the company was much more candid about its position: Crossplay was bad for the PlayStation business.

Court documents show that Epic reached out to Sony repeatedly before Sony blocked Fortnite crossplay, hoping to resolve the situation. Epic offered to go all-out for Sony when it came to announcing the actual deal, as the email below shows:

Epic’s email to Sony, via the Verge

Epic offers to integrate Sony’s eSports API into Unreal Engine 4 with Fortnite support, to “go out of its way” to make Sony look like heroes, and to offer an extension on Sony’s companywide UE4 license, alongside various other goodies. The Verge reports Gio Corsi, Sony’s senior director of developer relations, dismissing the idea, saying: “cross-platform play is not a slam dunk no matter the size of the title,” and “As you know, many companies are exploring this idea and not a single one can explain how cross-console play improves the PlayStation business.”

That single word is the problem here. Corporations like to pretend that every single decision they make is made with the best interests of customers top-of-mind. Allowing crossplay on consoles was something customers very much wanted. It was something developers wanted. It was absolutely a feature that improved the PlayStation business, if you believe Sony is in the business of selling customers the features they want. From Sony’s perspective, however, crossplay is a weakness. While the company eventually bowed to customer demand, it didn’t do so without exacting a toll on developers, who were forced to pay Sony royalties to enable the feature.

Sony’s royalty slide. Image via the Verge

If a game made $1M on Microsoft and Nintendo platforms and $900K on Sony platforms, and 95 percent of a game’s players were on Sony platforms, the developer owed nothing. It is not clear what “PS4 gameplay share” means, exactly. Developers may have been required to turn over data regarding how much their games were played on other platforms, so that Sony could compare it. Alternately, Sony could be defining gameplay share as “out of the total amount of time users spent gaming on the PS4.” Either way, the requirement would seem to penalize developers if sales were to pick up on other platforms while the PS4 lagged. If Sony were to see evidence that enabling crossplay hurt the PS4 business, this structure would make certain they were compensated for it.

Sony Isn’t the Only Company Playing This Game

Apple has recently been in the news for similar behavior. Back in 2013, Apple executive Eddy Cue wanted to bring Apple iMessage to Android. Craig Federighi shot down the idea on the grounds that “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.”

Federighi was right. From a consumer-centric perspective, that’s the point. No matter what defense Apple ever offered for why it kept iMessage to itself, the actual reason is simple: Apple saw no financial benefit in porting iMessage to Android, so it didn’t port iMessage to Android.

Software vendors have been locking people into ecosystems for as long as we’ve had software vendors and ecosystems, so it’s not as if this is a new problem. It is, however, an increasingly pervasive one. We don’t question many of these restrictions because we recognize that Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, and Hulu are competitors.

Gaming and messaging are different. The former is because there’s no good consumer-centric argument for why console players shouldn’t at least be able to play with other console players who have purchased the same game, even if keyboard and mouse support is a competitive advantage on PC. The latter is because message client interoperability ought to be the kind of thing customers can expect as a baked-in feature in the Year of Our Lord 2021, some few decades now removed from the widespread availability of text messaging.

iMessage was and is a superior solution to the SMS messaging still standard on Android phones. Google is still trying to push RCS through as a successor to SMS and it’s still facing pushback and near-zero help from AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile is a recent exception to this; Google signed a deal with T-Mobile in 2020 to make Google Messages the default messaging service on T-Mobile devices.

There’s not much any one person can do about these practices, but being aware of them can at least help you avoid nasty surprises. Apple, of course, has always been keen on walled gardens and Sony very much wants to hold on to its own. Nintendo isn’t exactly leaping up and down to port Mario and Zelda titles to other platforms, either.

Right now, the major company with the closest thing to a “Buy once, play anywhere” approach is Microsoft — and, of course, it sees cloud as central to everything, including gaming, and so is happy to sell you a subscription to services for Xbox or PC, so long as you subscribe. Is this more consumer-friendly? Arguably. It’s also directly aligned with Microsoft’s financial interests. The ongoing enormous success of Nintendo and Sony is evidence that lock-in matters less to people than top-notch first-party games or best-in-class performance, and the PS5 continues to lead the Xbox Series X in that regard.

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