Five years ago a scintillating rumour crept across gaming news sites and forums – a rumour that satisfied deeply entrenched beliefs held throughout the industry.
The story goes that Microsoft was once considering introducing cross-platform play between PCs and Xbox 360s. It had the technology and the software infrastructure in place, and the idea looked like a nice way to boost the then-fading market for big desktop Windows computers.
But there was a problem. When the very best console gamers were pitted against teams of average PC owners in a series of gameplay tests, the Xbox kids were destroyed. A console controller, to paraphrase Han Solo, was no match for having a good keyboard and mouse combo at your side, kid.
The rumour of this abandoned concept was started by VoodooPC founder Rahul Sood and was repeated throughout the gaming press. It was popular because it confirmed long-held beliefs that console players just couldn’t cut it against PC players.
Ostensibly, this was about the differences in user interfaces: the mouse affords a level of directional freedom and accuracy that even an analogue joypad controller cannot hope to compete with.
Also, if we’re going to look at this in terms of technical specifications, then sure, a high-end or even middling modern PC will out-perform a current-gen console, both in terms of frame rate and graphical fidelity. But that’s not really what it’s about either.
PC and not PC, that is the problem
Let’s be honest: PC gamers just sometimes feel, well, superior to console gamers.
There is a sort of belief amid some computer owners (and I can’t stress the word “some” enough) that the PC is for people who are “serious about their hobby” while consoles are for people who like to play Call of Duty in their pants on a Friday night. When PC Gamer recently suggested that its readers should maybe stop self-identifying as “the PC Master Race”, a lot of people were really unhappy.
Whatever the case, the cultures are different. For 20 years, the console industry has been guided by the design maxims of Japanese manufacturers and developers. The likes of Nintendo, Capcom, Namco, Sega, Konami and Squaresoft once dominated the console industry, and built the success of the Mega Drive, SNES and PlayStation machines around arcade-originating fighting games, racers and hack-’em-ups. Even now, those dynamics – built around immediate accessibility, highly choreographed violence and hyper-real visuals – guide console game design to a degree.
In the PC world, however, the culture has largely been defined by Western developers. The long-dominant first-person shooter genre has mostly strived for increasing visual realism, rather than the aesthetic experimentalism of Japanese studios. And the real-time strategy genre has become complex and intimidating to many casual players. Although there are certainly big games that do well on both PC and console, there are often profound and complex differences between titles build specifically for console, and titles made only on PC. Divided many years ago, they have evolved along different lines, driven by the natural selection of their contrasting market places.
So now, Microsoft has revealed its plans to bring Xbox functionality and compatibility to Windows 10 PCs. Xbox Live will be “seamlessly integrated” into the Xbox Windows 10 app allowing cross-platform social communication – and gaming. The company has also announced that long-awaited role-playing sequel Fable: Legends will be the first title to support true cross-platform play. Furthermore, the Xbox Wire news site confirmed that PC developers can get full access to the Xbox LIve API so they will be able to create their own console-vs-PC titles.
Basically, is this peace in our time?
It should be pointed out that there have been experiments in this direction for a number of years. Veteran US developer Valve implemented cross-platform play into its first-person puzzler Portal 2 – although that was co-op focused. The developer also had the feature working on its famed online shooter Team Fortress 2, but chose not to widely release it. Other titles like the role-playing fantasy Phantasy Star Online and the shooter Shadowrun have implemented cross-platform play too; the latter, released in 2007, did a pretty good job, with developer Fasa Corporation introducing slight handicaps to PC interfaces as well as auto-aiming for Xbox players. Some computer users compained about their controls being “gimped”, but an active community grew up around the game, challenging long-held prejudices.
Of course, for many genres, including racing, third-person action adventures and moba titles like League of Legends, there should be no real interface advantage for either side. It comes down to the will of developers to make it happen – and those developers will have different concerns than us gamers.
“The ability to use the Xbox Live API on Windows 10 devices is certainly an exciting prospect and it does open up our games to a lot more possibilities,” says coder Byron Atkinson Jones, who has worked for EA, Sega and Lionhead. “My biggest question is if there is going to be some kind of approval system for cross-platform games like there is for Xbox titles where you have to go through technical requirement checks – I would imagine there would have to be, just in case there was a way to bring down an Xbox game though dodgy coding on the PC version.
“That adds an extra layer of complexity and it leads into asking whether the testing process is free or not. In other respects the technical difficulties would no different from trying to develop a network game for PCs playing against each other and having different specs. I’d also like to know where the games can be played from: is there going to be some kind of dedicated Windows 10 store or could we make a game that uses the service and can be sold on Steam?”
The age of open
Development issues aside, it seems incongruous in our era of “device agnostic” digital communications, that we can’t just play games with both our console and our PC-owning fiends. The big social media platforms have brought in expectations of compatibility and syncopation that make closed infrastructures seem delightfully old-fashioned. At the same time, the cultures are merging; traditional genres are fading, and open-world, super-social, emergent, persistent experiences are becoming the norm.
At the same time, it’s interesting that one of the first titles to support the feature – Fable: Legends – features asymmetrical multiplayer. In the game, while four players can join a party to raid dungeons and explore the landscape, another can compete against them as a sort of dungeon keeper, spawning enemies and setting traps. Perhaps in our glorious cross-platform future there could be different roles and experiences that align with the preferences of different sorts of gamers? Or maybe that’s too reductionist?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that while the idea of PC and console owners competing against each other was once seen as ridiculous and impractical, it now feels weird that they’re not. Can’t we all just get along and shoot at each other in peace?