Microsoft and Sony directly compete in the video game market, where the PlayStation 4 has a commanding lead over the Xbox One in hardware sales numbers.
Starting in 2017, Microsoft has been pushing the concept of "cross-platform" play — the ability to play games like "Minecraft," "Fortnite" and more with friends on PC, smartphone, and even Nintendo's Switch.
Sony refuses to allow games on the PlayStation 4 to work with games on Microsoft's Xbox One and Nintendo's Switch.
Both video game fans and game makers are publicly pushing back on Sony's stance — and now, "The Elder Scrolls: Legends" publisher Bethesda Softworks has issued an ultimatum.
The massive video game publisher Bethesda Softworks — the company behind franchises like "Fallout," "The Elder Scrolls," and "DOOM" — just issued a major ultimatum to Sony.
The issue at hand is seemingly simple: Bethesda has a game coming to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch called "The Elder Scrolls: Legends." Bethesda wants "Legends" players on all consoles to be able to play the game with each other, and for their progress to carry over if they change platforms.
"The Elder Scrolls: Legends" is a competitive card game, similar to Blizzard's "Hearthstone" — it's the same game across all platforms, visually and gameplay-wise, whether you're playing it on an iPhone or on a PC. The game is turn-based, so it doesn't require precise, reaction-based controls.
In so many words: There's no technical reason it couldn't work across competing platforms, like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
"The way the game works right now on Apple, Google, Steam, and Bethesda.net, it doesn't matter where you buy your stuff, if you play it on another platform that stuff is there. It doesn't matter what platform you play on, you play against everyone else who is playing at that moment," Bethesda senior VP Pete Hines said in a recent interview with Game Informer.
Sony, however, won't allow publishers like Bethesda Softworks to enable this type of functionality in their games.
If the biggest game in the world isn't getting around Sony's blockade, how will "The Elder Scrolls: Legends"? Potentially by skipping Sony's PlayStation 4 altogether.
"It is our intention in order for the game to come out, it has to be those things on any system," Hines said. "We cannot have a game that works one way across everywhere else except for on this one thing."
By saying as much, Hines and Bethesda drew a line in the sand with Sony's cross-platform policy: Allow cross-platform play and progress, or we'll skip the PS4 altogether.
It's a small move in the short term, but it's part of a growing wave of backlash to a long-held policy in the video game business.
It all started with "Minecraft"
The Microsoft-owned blockbuster is available on pretty much everything that plays games, from consoles to phones to handhelds.
Microsoft — maker of the Xbox One, and direct competitor to Sony's PlayStation 4 and Nintendo's Switch — publishes "Minecraft" on Sony and Nintendo (and Apple and Google) platforms in addition to its own Xbox consoles.
More importantly, even though Microsoft owns "Minecraft," the game can be played across competing devices. "Minecraft" players on Xbox One can join up with players on iPhone, Nintendo Switch, Android, and PC/Mac — even if you're playing in a virtual reality headset! But Xbox One can't play with PlayStation 4, and vice versa.
That same situation applies to "Fortnite," which launched on Nintendo Switch earlier this summer. Xbox One players are able to play with iPhone/iPad, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Mac players — but not with PlayStation 4.
Any of the stuff you've unlocked, and the Battle Pass you paid for? None of that shows up on other platforms if you unlocked it on a PlayStation 4, despite the fact that the game uses an Epic Games account separate from your PlayStation Network ID.
That isn't the case for players on other platforms, and it's the latest example of Sony's PlayStation 4 taking a surprisingly exclusionary stance with multiplayer gaming.
When Microsoft announced the "Better Together" update to "Minecraft" — uniting "Minecraft" players across all platforms — it seemed for the first time ever that there was hope for competing game platforms finally playing nice together.
In the perfect world scenario Microsoft was trying to create,"Call of Duty" players on PlayStation 4 could play with "Call of Duty" players on Xbox One, for example, — something that's still not the norm even if it makes perfect sense. Why can't "Call of Duty" players on any console play together? Not for a good reason.
It's because Sony and Microsoft are competitors with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Unfortunately, nearly a year later and there's been no movement on the plan to unify multiplayer gaming across the Xbox and PlayStation platforms, despite the number of parties that want it to happen. That's what Xbox lead Phil Spencer told Business Insider in an interview this past June at the annual E3 video game trade show in Los Angeles.
"It's impossible to answer this question without saying the name of a competitor. And as soon as I do that — I don't want to throw stones at anybody," Spencer said in a clear reference to Sony's PlayStation 4.
Instead of directly speaking to Microsoft and Sony's respective consoles, Spencer offered an example:
"Say you're not into gaming, and it's your kid's birthday. You buy them a console. I buy my kid a console. We happen to buy consoles of different colors — you bought the blue one, I bought the green one. Now those kids want to play a game together and they can't because their parents bought different consoles.
I don't know who that helps. It doesn't help the developer. The developer just wants more people to play their game. It doesn't help the player. The players just want to play with their friends who also play games on console. So, I just get stuck in who this is helping."
When asked directly if there's been any progress, Spencer offered only, "No, no."
But with publishers like Bethesda pushing back on Sony's policy in such a direct way, perhaps progress can begin again.
Competing home video game consoles have never been able to play with each other, going back to the days of Nintendo versus Sega, but that makes less sense as they've become more alike. The current Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are very similar consoles capable of outputting very similar results. They even offer similar services, and the world's biggest games are identical on both — look no further than "Minecraft" and "Fortnite" to see that.
And that's before we start talking about smartphones, which are increasingly capable of running the same games that home game consoles can.
"The Elder Scrolls: Legends" is just the latest example of the entire gaming medium becoming more accessible across devices.
Whether you're on a phone, or on a home game console, you're playing the same game. You play against people on other platforms, and your progress carries over from your phone to your home conosle or PC. "There's no 'Oh, it's easier to control, or it has a better framerate on this system.' It's a strategy card game. It doesn't matter," Hines told Game Informer.
There's a sense of inevitability to the concept of cross-platform play and progress tracking, as Sony continues to look like the bad guy for keeping the PS4 siloed off and even third-party game publishers pubicly push back. The company has only made a few statements on the matter, most recently saying, "We're hearing it."
Sony representatives didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.