Why Cross Platform Gaming Isn’t as Hard as You Think

To preface this I am a software developer, not a game developer. When looking at the problem associated with cross platform online multiplayer I am approaching this based on my programming experience. My only experience creating games was in VB.NET when I took my second programming course in high school and when I had to create a game for my Software Engineering course during my junior year of college. This article is a direct response to an opinion piece from a writer over at IGN (1). In March, Nathanael Peacock wrote that reality of cross platform gaming is harder than you think. In the next few paragraphs I will try to prove him wrong.

The Dream of Cross Platform Multiplayer

At one point in time we have all wished that we could play our favorite online games with our friends that own a different console than us. At work there are a few people my age that I will occasionally play Star Wars Battlefont or Battlefield with; however, there is one co-worker that has the PS4. At various times we have all wished that the whole group could play together.

Cross platform gaming would not only provide the opportunity to play with our friends that own different consoles than ourselves, it would open up the player base. Instead of a player base consisting of a fragmented group of users across various systems it would unite the player base. This increase in player base would mean a higher opportunity to be matched for a multiplayer game. Imagine for a minute the 20+ million Rocket League players all being able to compete against one another. That is almost a possibility with the PC and console cross play that was implemented within the past year.

The Fog Begins to Clear

In March of every year the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is typically held. This conference provides an opportunity for developers to share what breakthroughs and pieces of gaming technology that have been developing or working with over the past year.  It also provides an opportunity to present what will be coming in the near future. GDC will also contain a few game announcements or some pretty cool new features. At GDC 2016 Microsoft set the internet on fire with their announcement of opening up Xbox Live for Cross-Network play between PC and even other consoles (2). Chris Charla wrote an open letter about the then upcoming features of Cross-Network Play.

First, in addition to natively supporting cross-platform play between Xbox One and Windows 10 games that use Xbox Live, we’re enabling developers to support cross-network play as well. This means players on Xbox One and Windows 10 using Xbox Live will be able to play with players on different online multiplayer networks – including other console and PC networks.

Of course, it’s up to game developers to support this feature, and Xbox Live players will always have the option of choosing to play only with other Xbox Live players. We’re thrilled to confirm that Psyonix’s Rocket League will be one of the first games to take advantage of this new capability by enabling cross-network play between Xbox One and PC players, with an open invitation for other networks to participate as well.

Microsoft later built on this with Windows Play Anywhere which would allow a player to purchase a game once and play it on both Xbox and PC. A few games have come out supporting this feature such as Gears of War 4. Gears of War 4 only supports unranked multiplayer matches between PC and Xbox One. Rocket League on the other hand does support competitive play between PC and Xbox One.

The Fog Returns

As of this time there are no games that support play between Xbox and other consoles. Unfortunately this is ultimately outside of Microsoft’s control. While Microsoft has opened the Xbox One up to cross platform play it is dependent on developers to code the functionality into their games and for the other console manufacturers to open their networks for this type of play.

Shortly after Microsoft’s announcement of cross network functionality and openness with working with developers and OEMs alike, Sony responded (3).  "PlayStation has been supporting cross-platform play between PC on several software titles starting with Final Fantasy 11 on PS2 and PC back in 2002,” reads the statement from the corporation. “We would be happy to have the conversation with any publishers or developers who are interested in cross platform play." While this sounds like a positive statement that there is a possibility of cross platform play no games have supported this functionality yet.

Why it isn’t as difficult as you think

The Gameplay Reasons

In IGN’s article the author uses Overwatch as the only example as to why gameplay inhibits the functionality of cross platform gaming. Game developers are extremely intelligent. The ability to create worlds that enable us to explore fantasies and tell stories we could never have imagined are at their fingertips. Small things such as gameplay mechanics can be tweaked and delivered in a fashion that allow us to enjoy cross platform play. Xbox players playing with those on Playstation or the switch would be on near identical environments and controller setups.

The hitch with this is of course when playing with PC players. A PC player can have an advantage with a more customizable visualization setup or higher performance inputs. There are of course remedies to this. The ability to “turn off foliage” as mentioned in the IGN article could be enabled on consoles as well. Gameplay is in the hands of the developer and designing a game with the intent of cross platform play would take “such difficult” factors into account.

A system is designed based on the current use case and potential future use cases. Attempting to take current games and applying our limited view onto what they would look like as a cross platform game is futile. We can guess and speculate all we want but ultimately our views would be vastly different than a developer's. Gameplay of existing games may have to be altered drastically or specific game modes excluded from cross play functionality.

The Technical Reasons

“Online multiplayer is hard,” says the IGN writer (1). Well yeah, and so is the majority of programming. If programming was easy there would be more developers and games with less bugs. “...when you add in the oversight of a platform holder like Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft it's easy to see why this process could get even more complicated.” This is a pretty valid point. When you add multiple stakeholders to a subject area things are bound to get more complicated. If you live in the United States I am sure you will agree that healthcare is a very complex subject with a huge amount of oversight. Government agencies, healthcare providers, insurance companies and many others are all involved in this area.

I spent a summer working for a Healthcare IT company. During this time I learned of a standard called HL7 (5).

HL7 and its members provide a framework (and related standards) for the exchange, integration, sharing, and retrieval of electronic health information. These standards define how information is packaged and communicated from one party to another, setting the language, structure and data types required for seamless integration between systems. HL7 standards support clinical practice and the management, delivery, and evaluation of health services, and are recognized as the most commonly used in the world.

If healthcare can be cross system I am certain that gaming can too. There are already standards in place for how information is transferred between networks. The ability for Rocket League to be played between Xbox and PC players is because of these internet protocols. I am not a  developer at Psyonix and the following  is purely speculation based on my programming experience.

Each player on Xbox and PC is assigned a unique id in the Rocket League system. This ID will uniquely identify each person that plays the game along with which system they are playing on and the network they are connected to. When a player is playing on Xbox, Xbox Live is their host server. The information will flow from their Xbox through the Xbox Live services and eventually to Rocket League’s own. Because of this unique ID, Psyonix knows what system a player is playing on and how to route the network traffic. This network traffic is distributed to both PC and Xbox players alike.

It is a possibility that you could party in a game and utilize in game voice functionality to communicate. The question though is how to connect players between environments. That functionality would have to be controlled by the developers. The developers would have the list of unique IDs and which system they belong to. Utilizing this list they could enable a search functionality where a user specifies the system of the person they are searching for. This would be a technical feat but I truly believe the only technical limitation between cross platform play is the skill of a developer.

The Business Reasons

Of all the reasons listed as a hinderance to cross platform play I see this as the largest barrier. Sony wants you to buy a PS4 and of course Microsoft wants you to buy an Xbox One. Cross platform play can potentially eliminate the need to purchase both consoles if the exclusives don’t entice you.

However, I see that as the perfect reason to enable cross platform play. Enabling cross platform play will drive innovation and increase the number of first party studios and console exclusives. The majority of games sold are available on multiple consoles. Very few of the NPD top ten games sold are console exclusives, and if they are it is typically only for a month or two. Enabling cross platform play would force console manufacturers to focus on console exclusives in order to drive console sales. This increase in console exclusives would drive competition and provide us gamers with more games to play and a reason to buy another console.

Developers Want It and We Want It

It isn’t that developers don’t want to have cross platform play either. Psyonix, the developers behind Rocket League have stated the functionality is currently in place to allow for cross platform play but politics are keeping it from happening (4).  "The only thing we have to do now is sort of find out where we stand politically with everyone, and then it's full steam ahead to finish the solution that we've already started," said Psyonix Vice President Jeremy Dunham.

Gamespot recently interview the boss of the Tekken Franchise (6). “Harada explained that it's not a technical issue that is holding back PS4/Xbox One cross-play, but instead security protocols and policies are keeping the multiplayer breakthrough from happening.” Microsoft has put the ball in Sony’s court but they haven’t responded positively. Seems like they afraid of a little competition

The Future

Cross platform gaming will come. It is only a matter of time until pressure from developers and gamers mounts and forces each OEM to enable cross platform play. Restricting developers is not the path forward for the gaming world. Enabling users to play with each other regardless of their console of is the future. It is only a matter of time. Trust me, one day we will be kicking butt and taking names of PC, Playstation and Nintendo gamers alike. That is a future I cannot wait for. Ultimately, I believe this comes down to own developer breaking through the barrier and creating a standard that future developers follow for developing cross platform games. I for one hope that day comes soon.

Do you think Cross-Platform gaming is the future? Let us know in the comments below.

Author Ben Gooding

Some say he likes to eat both the right and left Twix. Some say his favorite Star Wars movie is A Phantom Menace. All we know is we call him Zoolabus. You can follow him on Twitter @TheZoolabus, on Xbox @Zoolabus and his adorable dog on Instagram @ScarlettMaeCav.