I had a revelation recently. I was streaming Mortal Kombat 11 on my Twitch channel, when a viewer asked if they could play a few rounds with me. I was happy to oblige, of course, except for one problem: I was on PS4, and they were on Xbox One.
But then it hit me: NetherRealm Studios recently implemented cross-platform play into its latest bloody fighting game, meaning I was able to set up a lobby and trade some blows with my new internet friend despite us being on different hardware. It was seamless and simple, and something I want to see become standard by the time the PS5 and Xbox Series X roll around this fall.
Cross-platform play has slowly become more prevalent over the past few years, and the explosion of Fortnite in early 2018 was arguably the big catalyst. Epic Games' wildly popular battle royale shooter had already allowed PC, Xbox, Switch and mobile players to play together by the time it hit those platforms, and the game's massive success even spurred Sony to reverse its infamous anti-crossplay stance and let PS4 players join the fray by late 2018.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the list of crossplay-enabled games has grown fairly large. Titles such as Minecraft and Rocket League have long allowed console and PC players to all play together, and even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds joined the crossplay party in late 2019. That's to say nothing of Microsoft's entire first-party catalog, which has allowed for cross-play, cross-save and even cross-buy between Xbox and PC for titles such as Gears 5, Sea of Thieves and Forza Horizon 4 for quite some time now.
“What [these games] share in common is that online multiplayer is a critical piece if not the core element of the gameplay experience,” said Lewis Ward, research director for gaming and VR/AR at IDC.
“The bottom line is that indie studios generally make more money from their game as the pool of monthly gamers rises. There’s kind of a network effect that happens as the total pool of gamers that can play against or with each other rises. These studios have a vested interest in cross-play as a result.”
By the time the PS5 and Xbox Series X hit shelves late this year, cross-platform play should be the rule, not the exception. You can text your friends regardless of whether they're on iOS or Android, just as you can shoot an email or start a Discord chat with PC and Mac users alike. Why should game consoles work any differently?
Ward isn’t convinced cross-platform play will be a standard by next generation, but he does see more big-budget titles embracing it on the new consoles over the next few years.
"It does require ongoing resources to make cross-play happen and there’s always reluctance on the part of platform holders to in effect share information about their gamer bases with any external party,” said Ward. “There are competitive and security implications to work through. So I think the big AAA will get there next-gen, but a lot of smaller games won’t get cross-play out of the gate.”
Sure, we already know that the PS5 and Xbox Series X will deliver tons of great features like ray tracing, insanely fast load times and dazzling 8K visuals. But none of that will matter much to me if I'm not able to play the games I want with the people I want to play them with, regardless of which platform they're on. Now that's next-gen.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.