These days, cross-play isn’t exactly a winning issue for PlayStation. While Nintendo and Microsoft have opened up their online networks to welcome in players on any console, PC, or mobile device in games like Fortnite and Minecraft, Sony is keeping the PlayStation Network walled off from other consoles—and catching plenty of flak for it. The fans aren’t happy. Ninja, the biggest Fortnite streamer in the world, isn’t happy. Bethesda isn’t happy, and may even keep one of its upcoming games off PS4 as a result.
But one of the craziest things about this entire controversy is the fact that Sony was an early pioneer in the world of cross-play. It even help usher that term into mainstream usage.
Sure, a Sony platform didn’t bring us the very first cross-play game. That honor appears to go to 4×4 Evolution, a mediocre racing game for Dreamcast that shared online servers with PC and Mac versions. (Quake III Arena, another early Dreamcast cross-play title, launched earlier but only enabled the feature months later.) But Sony’s PlayStation 2 certainly got into cross-play early, and in a very high-profile way. Final Fantasy XI, the first MMORPG entry in what was at the time one of PlayStation’s biggest exclusive franchises, had a unified playerbase across PlayStation 2 and PC as early as 2002. When the Xbox 360 version eventually rolled out in 2006, those players joined the existing servers. Yes, at one point Sony was cool with PlayStation gamers and Xbox gamers teaming up online.
While Sega eventually got out of the console business and Microsoft hastily abandoned its own embryonic cross-play initiatives (see: Shadowrun), Sony kept at it with experiments like Dust 514, a PS3 shooter that interacted directly with the PC MMO Eve Online, and a partnership with Valve that let Portal 2 players on PC and PS3 team up for co-op, even allowing a version of Steam to run on the console. That’s to say nothing of the countless games that offered cross-platform functionality between its own consoles and handhelds, or the many PS4 games that allowed open cross-play with PC. Of the big three gaming companies around today, if you were to call one of them historically open to the idea of cross-platform play, it would have to be Sony.
And while it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Sony invented the term “cross-play,” it did play a significant role in popularizing it. Dig back into the distant past of 2011 and earlier, and you’ll find a pretty standard, stuffy way to refer to the feature in news coverage: “cross-platform play.” That was the preferred term, especially on first reference. I dug up a handful of professional articles that did use “cross-play,” along with some commenters and forum posters that did the same, but they pale in comparison to the near-universal usage of “cross-platform play,” in articles about the failed Xbox 360 initiative, Portal 2, and many more.
Then, in 2012, Sony made its own version of Cross-Play a key part of its early branding push for the PlayStation Vita, tying it to a series of similar initiatives like Cross-Buy, Cross-Save, Cross-Controller, and Cross-Goods. Sony wanted a snappy way to list all the ways PS3 owners could benefit from also buying a Vita, so it streamlined everything into a consistent brand. The company started boasting about the features before the Vita’s February 2012 launch, and drew attention to them long after. A Gamescom 2012 trailer ran down all the “Cross-” options available to Vita owners, and to this day a FAQ on the official site still references Cross-Play. (Curiously, the Vita’s store page once used the branding, but Sony has since updated that section to read “Cross-Platform Games.”)
All this helped to take cross-play from a slangy, less popular way to refer to cross-platform play and into a standard way for gamers and writers refer to the idea. A bit like Kleenex and Dumpster, the capital-letter Cross-Play gradually became a much more common term for the broader concept, even when it had nothing to do with Sony. I mean, just take a look at this Google Trends chart I captured a couple days ago:
The data is a little noisy, sure, but it’s pretty clear that there was a sharp uptick in searches for the term in February of 2012, when Sony first announced its Cross-Play initiative for the Vita, and interest in the term stayed more or less constant until the current kerfuffle bumped it up sharply. Tellingly, that search volume stayed comparatively high even as Vita sales, well, didn’t.
In coverage of the current backlash against Sony, news articles everywhere are more likely to use “cross-play” than the once-standard “cross-platform play” to refer to the concept on first reference or in a headline. It’s everywhere you look.
And it’s clear the Vita’s launch helped introduce the concept into the zeitgeist regardless of any specific terminology preference. Here’s a Google Trends chart for “cross-platform play,” that older, more generic name:
Yet again, there’s a sharp uptick right around the Vita’s launch, with search volume staying elevated through to the current discussion. With the benefit of hindsight, one could certainly argue that Sony’s big Cross-Play push with the Vita, built atop its earlier efforts, became a turning point in how people talked and thought about the feature. Rather than an occasional, game-specific exception, cross-play could be part of a platform’s identity and something worth bragging about. Consoles didn’t have to exist in a bubble. Over the ensuing years, companies like Microsoft, Epic, and Pysonix took up the idea, expanded upon it, and here we are.
Now, to state the obvious, the fact that PlayStation helped pioneer cross-play and popularized the term doesn’t mean it’s somehow required to support the feature, especially on rival consoles. The history does, however, lend some interesting perspective to the current debacle, not to mention a little irony. As Sony continues to makes excuses and vague statements in the hope that this will all blow over, it’s amusing to realize the company is hiding from a monster at least partially of its own making.