Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is the latest casualty of Sony’s refusal to open its platform and allow players from every platform to play together on a common set of servers. This situation, of course, is nothing new — Sony has been blocking cross-play this entire generation and offering up mealy-mouthed excuses about its reasons since 2013. What’s different is that now, publishers are finally and straightforwardly laying the blame directly where it ought to be, as opposed to “technical difficulties.”
Last week, Bethesda’s Todd Howard was open and honest about the problem with Fallout 76 and its causes. “You cannot do cross-play in 76,” Howard told GameStar.de in an interview. “We’d really love that but right now we can’t… Sony is not as helpful as everyone would like.”
As battle cries go, “Sony is not as helpful as anyone would like,” does not sound like an authoritative and ringing declaration that immediately betokens the collapse of a lock-in empire. But the momentum in this fight does not favor Sony and it’s possible that gamers may similarly shift their own positions over time. The greatest danger for Sony isn’t what could happen today, but what might happen to it in the next console generation.
Twelve or 13 years ago, Sony was riding high off the PlayStation 2 and viewed itself as having no serious competitor in next-generation gaming. “The next generation doesn’t start until we say it does,” Sony’s Kazuo Hirai, now chairman of Sony Corporation, told the world at E3 2006. Sony’s Ken Kutaragi also remarked at the time that he wanted the average consumer to look at the PS3’s $ 600 price tag and think “I will work more hours to buy one.”
Instead, the world looked at the PS3 and mostly went “nah.” While the two consoles eventually wound up in relatively the same place in terms of total unit sales, the PS3’s sales figures were crushed by the Xbox 360’s early in its life cycle. To-date, the PS4 has turned the tables on the Xbox One, outselling it by a greater-than 2:1 margin. The lesson here is simple: While loyalty absolutely plays a part in overall product sales, gamers also re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of platforms with each successive product shift. Sony led the PS2 generation by a huge margin, lost huge amounts of money on the PS3 as a whole (the console lost so much money in the early years, it never recouped its initial losses even if the business unit was profitable on a yearly basis later), then took the lead again with the PS4. And if they stick to their guns on the cross-play issue, they could risk that position again, possibly not with the PS4, but definitely with the PS5 and especially if every Xbox, PC, Nintendo, and microconsole gamer is used to playing together while Sony sits, defiantly on the outside looking in.
The account lock-in issue that prevents people with Fortnite accounts from playing on other platforms if they’ve ever played on the PS4 is emphatically gamer-unfriendly, and there is some evidence that Sony is aware that its own position is increasingly untenable. In a recent interview with Eurogamer, Shawn Layden, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America and chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios, said: “We’re hearing it. We’re looking at a lot of the possibilities. You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I’m confident we’ll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.”
That’s not a promise Sony will figure out the need to provide this service. But it’s closer than anything we’ve gotten yet.