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PlayStation’s new Discord integration is a key step for the cross-play dream

Enlarge / Cross-platform voice chat has arrived on the PlayStation 5.
Samuel Axon

This week, Sony rolled out Discord voice chat support for PlayStation 5 consoles, marking the first time a third-party OS-wide game voice call option has been available on Sony’s consoles.

Previously, PlayStation 5 users could display what game they were currently playing on their Discord profiles, but they couldn’t communicate with other players without using their phones, tablets, or computers.

The rollout follows a similar one on Microsoft’s Xbox consoles last fall. Discord voice calls had long been available on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. The only major gaming platform outlier is Nintendo’s Switch.

With PC, Xbox, and PlayStation support, Discord is poised to be the go-to voice-over-IP service for cross-platform multi-player games, which have started to progress toward ubiquity for the first time over the past couple of years.

That’s great for Discord as a platform and company, of course—and it would be great to see competing services follow so Discord doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of functionality.

That said, though, even having just one service achieve this is a big boon for cross-play advocates and a sign that the landscape for multiplayer gaming is very different from the previous console generation.

The cross-play dream

Players of online games have been asking for the ability to play with their friends on different platforms for at least two decades, but it has been a long, rocky road to get to the point that the dream is anything close to reality.

There have been some outliers over the years, of course. The Sega Dreamcast, which launched way back in 1998, took a couple stabs at cross-play, with game developers working with Microsoft to connect Dreamcast and Windows PC players in games like Quake 3 Arena and Phantasy Star Online.

Not too long afterward, Final Fantasy XI made headlines in 2002 by offering cross-play between PlayStation 2 and PC players.

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Valve President Gabe Newell famously attended Sony’s E3 press conference to announce that Portal 2 would come to the PlayStation 3 and that it would feature cross-play with PC. That’s how I played Portal 2‘s co-op mode; I played on PS3 with a friend who was playing on Steam on his gaming PC.

And Microsoft has spent many years gradually expanding cross-play options between Xbox consoles and Windows PCs in games like Minecraft or the Forza franchise.

But until very recently, cross-play between console platforms was practically nonexistent. Whichever console platform was the leader in sales in a given generation had a strong disincentive to support it. If Sony allowed PlayStation 4 players to play with their friends on Xbox One, some of the snowball effect of a console’s market dominance was reduced, as there was less social drive to purchase a PS4 instead of an Xbox One. The same went for Microsoft’s (at least initially) dominant Xbox 360 and the lower-performing PS3.

To break this, it eventually took a game so huge, so popular, so ridiculously zeitgeist-y that even in its uber-dominant position of the past several years, Sony had no choice but to acquiesce: Epic Games’ Fortnite. The game’s popularity combined with Epic chief Tim Sweeney’s controversial, outspoken activism and Microsoft’s calculated efforts to undermine Sony’s position with consumer-oriented messaging and policies bullied Sony into changing its tune.

To be clear, though, it wasn’t all resolved for developers and players in that moment; it was later revealed that Epic had to pay Sony to offer cross-play in Fortnite to offset Sony’s related losses.

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Fortnite wasn’t the first and only cross-play title, but it opened the floodgates like never before. While Sony didn’t provide all developers with easy-to-use tools and APIs for facilitating cross-play, it did start playing nice-ish with a growing roster of developers who had the power to insist, notably including Activision with Call of Duty.

Now, more games than ever—big and small—are making cross-play happen, even between the PlayStation and Xbox. It’s still not the majority of new games, but the trend is headed in that direction.

The voice chat dilemma

Having more options is a boon for random lobbies of players who don’t know each other, but players who know each other and want to hang out on voice chat regularly while playing were still better off sticking to one platform in most cases because there wasn’t a universal voice-over-IP service that ran on every platform.

For example, my wife and I started a weekly gaming night with her brother and three friends of ours in the depths of the 2020 pandemic quarantine as a way of getting some—any—social contact.

We started by playing Minecraft: Bedrock Edition and nothing else because the six of us were scattered across PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, and it was one of an extremely small number of games that offered true cross-play across all of those. Since then, we expanded to other games as more cross-play options rolled out. But those of us playing on console had to dial in to Discord on their smartphones and turn the game volume way down (so it wouldn’t bleed through) while they chatted on the phone.

It technically worked, but it was a real hassle, and it proved particularly suboptimal as we got into playing competitive games like Overwatch 2, in which audio cues are important.

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I have a gaming PC, and that’s usually what I play with the weekly group, but for some games, I either prefer to play on console or didn’t want to pay for it again on PCI since I had bought the game on console already before we agreed to play it. In one of those situations, I once resorted to wearing phone-connected earbuds inside my over-ear PlayStation headset while speaking into the phone microphone to get the full breadth of audio—a solution so ridiculously convoluted I had to think carefully about how to word the process clearly.

Now that Discord is on all three of the platforms that the six members of our weekly gaming group use, that sort of silliness will be a thing of the past. I’m quite certain we’re not the only group like that. For example, there are Final Fantasy XIV guilds of both PlayStation players and PC players, but the game doesn’t offer an in-game voice chat solution. It’s a game that requires detailed communication between teammates, and often at a pace that typing on a keyboard won’t cut it, so PlayStation players of that game have been opting for years for setups just as absurd as the one I just described.

All that said, it’s not great if Discord is the only shop in town with this kind of reach. Competition makes better products and puts consumers in a better position, and I’d love to see an alternative make headway. Given that voice chat on consoles is the very definition of a closed platform, though, and given Discord’s already well-established dominance in gaming communications, it’ll be an uphill battle for any upstart.