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Xbox and Nintendo gang up on PlayStation in cross-platform row

Could console momentum switch because of an issue most gamers don't really care about?

"Who won E3?"

We all get asked it every time a show ends, but actually you can't really win E3. Not outright. There's no single winner because E3 is designed for all companies to win. That's the point. It's an expensive, noisy marketing vehicle to reveal your content and excite fans. As a result, this year, Bethesda won E3, and Ubisoft, and Capcom, and CD Projekt, and Square Enix and well, pretty much everyone.

Even if there was a company you thought underwhelmed, that opinion is typically subjective. I am not a huge Super Smash Bros aficionado, so was a touch disappointed by Nintendo. My brother loves the game, and is eyeing up Switch bundles as a result of its reveal. Nintendo won E3, too.

So you can't really win E3 outright. But you can lose it. These incidents are rare and usually linked to PR blunders or a game that simply disappointed. We can remember the famous ones, such as the Wii U announcement, Assassin's Creed Unity... and, of course, the most famous one of all (at least in recent years) the 2013 Xbox One reveal.

One company having a better (or more exciting) show than the other doesn't really bring about change, it's typically not going to be enough to convert millions of fans from one console or franchise to the other. But if one company excites its fans and the other one disappoints them, then that's when change can occur. That's what happened in 2013.

At E3 2018, Xbox probably had the best press conference. There are not too many big Xbox One games coming over the next year (but even then, Forza Horizon 4 looks fantastic), yet Microsoft did a great job of exciting its fans with those studio acquisitions, the reveal of big new games in its AAA franchises, and even ending on Cyberpunk 2077 - one of the most talked about games at the show.

Fornite and Nintendo provided Xbox with a means to hurt Sony

By comparison, Sony's show lacked surprises, yet you still couldn't say PlayStation lost E3. The games it showed looked great, there were original concepts, big exclusives, and some are due out quite soon. You might have left that press event a little dissatisfied, it was definitely a quieter show, but it wasn't a defeat. The promise of a Ninja Theory game on Xbox One isn't going to see floods of PlayStation owners switching machines.

That is why, when Fortnite got its full reveal on Nintendo Switch the next morning, fully cross-compatible with every console bar PS4, that Xbox pounced. Here was its chance to not just win E3, but also inflict a defeat on its competitor. With a new console fight due soon, this was a chance to turn the narrative in Microsoft's favour and have a 2013 moment but from the other side. It was something Xbox could also prepare for, because this isn't a new issue. It emerged initially with Rocket League in 2017, and Fortnite creators Epic Games talked openly about the issue at GDC.

The problem is, contrary to the angry Twitter commentators, cross-play isn't really that big of a deal. The genuine demand for it is limited. It only really involves games that are proactively seeking cross-play, primarily Rocket League, Fortnite and Minecraft, and these are games that perform strongly on PC and mobile - platforms that are cross-compatible with PS4. So it's only an issue for players of certain games on certain platforms - a subset of a subset.

And more to the point, most gamers simply don't care. We asked GameTrack - a consumer research project run by Ipsos Connect that is used by many major publishers - to ask its panel of European users how it felt about cross-play, and the responses were indifferent. 58% of respondents said they didn't care much about it. When asked if cross-play was a reason to buy a console, 54% disagreed with the statement (in fact, 38% strongly disagreed), while only 13% said it might be a consideration in which console or service they would buy.

"The data shows that most gamers simply do not care about cross-play."

48% of respondents disagreed that cross-platform play would be an incentive to buy a game they otherwise might not, versus 17% who agreed; and 49% of respondents disagreed that cross-platform functionality would make them more likely to play online than they currently do, compared to 17% who agreed. The data shows that although there are some gamers that find cross-play intriguing, the majority are simply not fussed.

When you consider how blurred console transitions are likely to become, Sony is understandably unwilling to give its competitors a chance to speak with and engage its audience. By the time the next generation finally arrives, we should be looking at over 100 million PlayStation customers. Sony will want them to stay with them onto PS5 and you cannot underestimate the power of: "I'm going to buy this machine because all my friends have one."

Cover image for YouTube video

There has always been this threat of a 'hard reset' whenever a new generation arrives, yet in the future the reset might not be so definitive. PS5 players will likely still be playing with PS4 owners. Friends lists and game libraries will likely transfer across. Enabling customers to switch to Xbox and still allow them to play with their PlayStation friends gives away a big competitive advantage. So why do it, especially if the majority of gamers are not actually asking for it?

Yet for Microsoft, it does make sense. This is a company that wants to knock down console barriers so it can attract people to its platform - and we're not just talking about a physical platform here. It's the challenger brand, so it has less to lose from opening its platform to its competitors and more to gain.

The big thing, however, is that the resistance to cross-play is not a good PR look for PlayStation. It cannot legitimately argue that its decision to block cross-play is for user safety, especially when Nintendo - a company that is perhaps a bit overzealous with protecting its customers online - is so open to the concept.

So Microsoft has attacked. Initially with a few cheeky comments at E3 and getting its execs to tweet about how much fun they're having with Fortnite on Switch, and then it escalated that to a full-on marketing video for the new Minecraft on Switch, showcasing the game's ability to connect with Xbox players.

It's quite something to see Nintendo and Xbox unite in such an aggressive and blatant attack on PlayStation. Whether it's a sign of a deeper bond between the two businesses, or a temporary alliance against a common enemy, it's not entirely clear. But it puts Sony in a tricky predicament. If it relents to cross-platform demands, then it's Xbox that will truly win, as it will paint Microsoft as the hero and take away one of the many reasons to own a PlayStation over any other device.

Stick to its guns, and Xbox and Nintendo will continue to paint PlayStation as anti-gamer.

All over an issue that most people don't really care about.

Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who