It seemed too good to be true.
Users were wondering why, in Epic’s game Fortnite, they were seeing some strange names and formatting issues. Some assumed there was spooky stuff afoot, some assumed it was server issues – but no. What was happening, unbeknownst to all of them at the time, is that they were engaging in actual cross-play between the XBox One and the PlayStation 4. Hence why names and formatting were a bit askew – both systems employ different methods, meaning one can use spaces and the other… well… can’t. After a bit more testing, and a bit of co-operation between both sides in order to get into similar matches, it was made very clear that this was really happening.
… and then Epic just casually called it a “configuration issue” and turned it off.
Now, if you’re a cold, cynical and hard-hearted bastard like me – that looks really odd. So, Epic. You just so happened to have an actual system that enables cross-play in this game, and you just so happened to find out at the same time as your users that this was active, and then you just so happened to have an option on your server end that acts like a switch (a switch-switch, not a Switch-switch) meaning you can turn this function on and off at will?
Excuse me but that’s a lot of coincidence to swallow in one day. If you can take it, that’s awesome – your gag reflex is clearly much stronger than mine!
So no, I don’t think this was “accidental” – what it was, and what it showcases, is something very important and Epic is actually a big enough and important enough influence in the video game industry that they can genuinely get away with this kind of coquettish tease. It shows that cross-play is not only possible, but very easily possible and it was only noticed through name formats, which means this could have gone for days or weeks – or it might have been going for a while, who knows – without anyone genuinely noticing anything.
For Sony, this is bad news. The genie is so far out of the bottle at this point it’s romancing half of Hollywood.
I’ll break this down; first of all, Sony clearly couldn’t pick this up on their end. This means first and foremost, cross-play is now demonstrably proven to be of negligible impact to the PS Network (or XBox Live). If a server setup can simply provide the necessary data back to check achievements in the right way, and update user information on a basic level, then it’s clearly not causing any real damage or putting any genuine strain on the system. No-one was reporting any issues, and for once PSN didn’t crash – which is odd because as someone who has a PS4, the network has a habit of crashing for the most mundane of reasons. PSN is pretty volatile. So that this was possible without the thing crashing… yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say this doesn’t actually impact Sony’s network.
More than that, it also kind of makes a mockery of Sony’s pathetic attempt to suggest their lack of interest in cross-play was about “protecting young people” – if that was truly the case, Sony’s backend would have picked up very quickly that extraneous information was being fed through, or they’d have been paying a much closer eye on a relatively new online multiplayer game to ensure that everyone was having fun and behaving themselves accordingly. In short, Sony is and was talking bollocks. We all know the real reason is Sony doesn’t want to give competitors any consumer edge – anyone who believes Sony is protecting the kids… jeez, you slam Nintendo for being kiddy and that’s getting Doom. It also gave you the Resident Evil Remake. And survival horror on consoles as you know it back in the NES days. Can’t see the press mocking Sony for being bright and kiddy in the same way, can you?
And it also shows up that this is really very simple to do; Epic can turn it on and off whenever they want. That’s no accident. They have a ‘switch’ for this. This tells you this was not a casual slip-up.
It puts Sony in a very difficult position; any argument they had against this has just been blown out of the water.
Of course, what can Sony actually do about this? They can’t exactly penalise Epic Games here; Unreal Engine is one of the most widely-used middleware solutions out there, so imposing any punishment or sanction on them would be professional suicide since everyone from big-budget behemoths to industriously inventive indies (alliteration crits for 9,999 damage!) uses the damn thing. Heck, Sony can’t even make a public comment on this without opening Pandora’s Box, as it were, so the option to even embarrass or tut loudly at Epic Games isn’t even there for them.
And even if Sony did push measures in place to stop this happening in future… is that really a wise use of their time and resources? Clearly a lot of third-parties, which obviously includes Epic Games in that mix, do want cross-play. Of course they do, why even have servers where the option can be turned on and off at that point? If Sony goes out of its way to put these kinds of roadblocks in the way, it might quietly push third parties away from Sony and into the arms of… well, right now I suppose the buzz is behind the Switch, and the idea that some might consider debuting their new stuff on Switch in 2018 as a result of such moves is outrageous… but what can you do, eh?
So Sony can’t say anything about it. They can’t do anything about it. And the cat is out of the bag – users now know it’s possible, that it has been done, it’s been “tested”, it worked and aside any personal grievances Sony might have, it means gamers as a whole now know any problem Sony has with this comes down to a business choice and not a moral, technical or software issue.
In fairness, I didn’t think Epic should have turned it off… but in reality, I think that was the best move of all. “Oh look Sony… we can turn this on and off here, with immediate effect. What a shame if it just happened to… I don’t know… slip to the ‘on’ position again…”
Sony’s got nothing now. It didn’t cripple PSN. It didn’t turn its users into far-right warlords. It didn’t make every PS4 in the world spontaneously combust. What happened was users got into the game, got into a match and played with other people. That’s all. So any objection left by Sony frankly isn’t going to be washing for very long, not with its users – who know now that it is not only possible but has no negative impacts as of right now – nor with third parties, who can now see Sony has nothing. What will Sony do? Punish them? Force their games off PSN? Sony can’t afford to do any of that. It can’t afford to annoy or push away anyone.
So the question is… did Epic just call Sony’s bluff on cross-play?
If they did, I’d say Sony has been found wanting… and it’s going to find it very, very hard to keep people from asking very awkward questions now.