So, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is now official – with the return of some familiar faces, a rebooted story and the welcome return of the single-player campaign. A CoD announcement is always big news, as illustrated by the millions of views across various major channels, but what grabbed my attention was not actually anything about the game itself. It was the confirmation that this new, I guess modern, Modern Warfare will support cross-play across all three platforms (PlayStation, Xbox and PC). And, though relatively buried within a game announcement, that is massive news.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare won’t be the first title to offer cross-play between Xbox and PlayStation platforms with Rocket League, Fortnite and Dauntless having already paved the way. But, as the first traditional, AAA game announced with the feature I see this as a watershed moment and expect companies like EA and Ubisoft to follow suit rapidly. That way, the announcement goes from one game to being the point at which cross-play on consoles become a standard feature. And it would mean that, finally, console gamers on each of the main systems will be able to play together.
It’s been a long time coming. Since the start of the last generation, online gaming has become increasingly common on consoles and we’ve seen the near death of offline multiplayer experiences. Outside of Sony’s first-party portfolio, it seems nearly all major releases have had some form of online component, from games like Destiny or The Division which revolve around it through to games with much more subtle implementations such as online leaderboards or user-set challenges.
It’s meant anyone failing to poll their friends before buying into the current generation has risked not being able to play together. Rather than make a decision purely on the features of each console, price and the exclusives available, more recent buyers have needed to prioritise which system maximises who they can play with or easily compare performance to. It’s inevitably led to some people missing out, whether they jumped into the generation early, play on a family member’s machine or have split friend groups which span across the two main brands. And for multiplatform gamers like myself, it’s meant either picking and choosing which friends to play with for any given title.
Since Phil Spencer took over at Xbox they’ve been championing the cause of cross-play as a way to bring gamers together. The more cynically-minded might suggest that it’s easy to take this position when you are behind the competition – and there may well be something to this given how much they have to gain from the feature. Having cross-play in major third-party titles like Call of Duty removes one big incentive for new customers to pick PS4 over Xbox.
But it’s also been helpful for Microsoft to have had developers regularly calling out Sony as the one blocking cross-play. The Xbox One launch was a long time ago, but gamers have long memories so their support for cross-play (along with other gamer-centric policies like back compatibility and play anywhere) has been a smart PR move.
However, from a business standpoint at least, Sony’s resistance to cross-play with Xbox has been equally understandable – why do it when you are in front and the status quo is helping you sell more and more systems and take the far greater share of the profits from paid DLC and cosmetics. What isn’t a good look has been their insistence that they rejected cross-play to maintain a consistent gameplay experience for players – an argument so obviously disingenuous and which was rightly ridiculed. However, it feels like last year’s Fortnite cross-progression dramas were the thing that finally forced a change. And, after a near-year delay, or “beta” if you are being generous, Sony finally appear ready to deliver on cross-play – “for the players” as they say.
So why is CoD going cross-play such huge news for gamers? Well, let’s start with this generation. For exclusively PS4 gamers, it might appear less than transformative. Indeed, when the whole Fortnite thing kicked off last year, a small survey on Push Square showed only 16% of their readers saw it as “a big deal”, 22% where indifferent and a whopping 63% “couldn’t care less”. With a massive user base, it’s likely that your lobbies are fully populated and many of your friends are already playing on PS4. However, for more niche titles (or as cross-play compatible games get older) cross-play means potentially more players, better matchmaking and longer and better support.
It also means that your Xbox and (if the game supports it) Switch owning friends can finally join in your gaming sessions. Sure, this is mostly going to benefit them but it’s also better for you as a group. As prices fall and the next generation arrives cross-play would also open up the possibility of current non-gamers being able to jump in, say, via an Xbox One S bundled with Game Pass but still be able to play with PS4 owning friends. With cross-progression intrinsically linked to cross-play, it means being able to pick up where you left off on a friend’s machine, even if they own the “other” console. And it means multiplatform households able to play co-op from different rooms. It means flexibility. It means choice.
And when I think about the next generation of consoles, the benefits just multiply further. Having cross-play means gamers can choose the console which best suits them, not just what their friends are playing on. Early adopters can buy-in without fear and, via backwards compatibility still play against their friends on either current generation system. It should help to level the playing field and should drive competition between Xbox, PlayStation and whatever Nintendo does next. That should lead to more quality first-party games and better services like Game Pass to help the companies differentiate themselves. In turn, it can help control prices.
So, yes, I’m extremely excited for cross-play becoming standard but what isn’t clear is how gamers as a whole feel about it – at least, not today. GameTrack surveyed gamers in the UK, France, Germany and Spain but only back in Q4 2017. They found that the most common feeling was indifference (58%) and, although the remaining group were four times as likely to see it positively (34%) as negatively (8%), this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. I suspect a lot has changed in the past 18 months but, if not, I hope I’ve at least made a strong case for anyone reading!
Combined with streaming and 5G, I see cross-play as another important step towards a brighter, more open and flexible gaming future. Will it lead to total convergence eventually? Who knows. But I’ve got great fun and value from Microsoft’s brilliant Game Pass. I’ve experienced the thrills of PSVR and Sony’s first-party exclusives. I’ve loved the portability and sheer joy of my Nintendo Switch.
One day it would be great to combine these into one system but I’m not sure I see this happening (and can understand the concerns). So, in the meantime, at least gamers on all systems may now have the chance to play together.