Something strange happened in September 2017, shortly after Fornite’s launch.
For a few brief hours, PlayStation 4 players noticed they were playing against people on the Xbox One. Epic quickly disabled the feature when news got out. “We had a configuration issue and it has now been corrected,” the company told Kotaku at the time.
Consoles are typically closed systems; for instance, a gamer on the Xbox One can’t play against someone on the PlayStation 4. Console companies operate their systems like walled gardens. But from the very start, Fortnite wanted all of its players interacting across platforms. Microsoft and Nintendo relented, but Sony said no. And players have a lot of choices beyond PlayStation — Fortnite is on the Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android, and PC.
When the veil lifted that September, 2017, PlayStation owners were already furious that they couldn’t play Fortnite with friends on other consoles. Epic’s apparent ability to turn the feature on and off with the flip of a switch only made things worse. The hashtag #BlameSony began to trend on Twitter, as PlayStation owners asked why they couldn’t connect with other systems, or at least carry their character progress over to different platforms.
Sony has offered a number of reasons for why it wouldn’t allow cross-play; everything from concern for younger players to a commitment to delivering a superior service. Both excuses amount to the same thing: Sony wanted to maintain control of its ecosystem and maximize profits.
“When I was at Sony, the stated reason internally for this was money,” former Sony developer John Smedley said in a now deleted tweet from June. “They didn’t like someone buying something on an Xbox and it being used on a PlayStation. Simple as that. Dumb reason, but there it is.”
Ironically, Sony would concede to Fortnite because of the game’s financial power. The game reached 78.3 million active users in August 2018, according to data provided to Medium by Epic. (Other games have been bigger, but not by a whole lot. In 2016, League of Legends, once the biggest PC game in the world, reportedly had around 100 million active players.) And Fornite makes a lot of money — possibly more than a billion dollars in a little over a year, according to one estimate — putting Epic in a position to negotiate.
Epic grew Fortnite’s player base by giving the game away for free. That may seem unusual, but the math works. Epic makes its money selling so-called microtransactions; for example, Battle Passes that unlock extra challenges and cosmetic upgrades in the game, as well as a virtual currency players can use to purchase loot within the game. Any platform willing to play ball with Epic will take a cut of the game’s outrageous profits.
Sure, Sony earned a cut of Fortnite’s loot sales through the PlayStation Network, but isolating players quickly became a liability. Given the option, a player had no real incentive to choose the PlayStation version of the game over the interconnected Switch or PC ones. Sony could lock its room, but Epic owned the house around it.
According to Daniel Joseph, a Marxist video game critic at Ryerson University and the author of various studies about the economics of game platforms, Fortnite established a new trend among video game makers. “There’s a new business model emerging, typified by Fortnite,” he said. “[Sony] is used to being the platform. And now it’s the platform that lets another platform operate on top of them with its own internal economy. I think that surprised them, and now they’re being dragged along by the changes.”
The fight for cross-play isn’t over, and #BlameSony is still active on Twitter. Fans now want to play Rocket League and the upcoming Fallout 76 with their friends on other systems.
“We will begin [cross-play] with Fortnite and are talking to other content publishers,” Sony told Medium via email when asked about its future plans.
“I hope we’re at a beginning of giant cross-platform revolution,” Bethesda design director Emil Pagliarulo said at the Fallout 76 roundtable. “But we’re not there yet.”