Sony released voice chat support for Discord on PlayStation 5 consoles this week, 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 list the game they were playing on their Discord profiles, but they were unable to communicate with other players without using their mobile devices.
With support for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation, Discord is poised to become the voice-over-IP service of choice for cross-platform multi-player games, which have made their first steps towards ubiquity in the past couple of years.
Obviously, this is great for Discord as a platform and business, but it would be even better if competing services followed suit, so that Discord does not have a monopoly on this type of functionality.
Nevertheless, even a single service achieving this is a huge boon for cross-play advocates and a sign that the landscape for multiplayer gaming is vastly different from the previous generation of consoles.
The Cross-Play Dream
At least two decades have passed since online gamers began requesting the ability to play with their friends on different platforms, but it has been a long, arduous journey to get to the point where this dream is close to becoming a reality.
Certainly, there have been outliers over the years. In games such as Quake 3 Arena and Phantasy Star Online, game developers collaborated with Microsoft to connect Dreamcast and Windows PC players. The Sega Dreamcast, which debuted in 1998, made a few attempts at cross-play.
Gabe Newell, president of Valve, attended Sony’s E3 press conference to announce that Portal 2 would be coming to the PlayStation 3 and would support cross-play with PC. I played the co-op mode of Portal 2 on PS3 alongside a friend who was playing on Steam on his gaming PC.
Microsoft has spent years expanding cross-play options between Xbox consoles and Windows PCs in games such as Minecraft and the Forza series.
Cross-play between console platforms was practically nonexistent until very recently. Whatever console platform led in sales during a given generation had a substantial disincentive to be supported. If Sony allowed PlayStation 4 players to play with their friends on Xbox One, there would be less social pressure to purchase a PS4 over an Xbox One, reducing the console’s market dominance. The same was true for (at least initially) Microsoft’s dominant Xbox 360 and Sony’s underperforming PS3.
Epic Games’ Fortnite, a game so massive, so popular, and so ridiculously zeitgeisty that even in its ultra-dominant position over the past several years, Sony had no choice but to concede, was eventually required to break this record. The combination of the game’s popularity, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney’s controversial, outspoken activism, and Microsoft’s calculated efforts to undermine Sony’s position with consumer-oriented messaging and policies forced Sony to change its tune.
To be clear, however, the situation for developers and players was not entirely resolved at that time; it was later revealed that Epic had to pay Sony to offer cross-play in Fortnite in order to compensate for Sony’s losses.
Fortnite was not the first or only cross-play game, but it opened the floodgates in unprecedented fashion. While Sony did not provide all developers with easy-to-use tools and application programming interfaces (APIs) for facilitating cross-play, it did begin to play nice with a growing roster of developers with the ability to insist, notably Activision with Call of Duty.
Now, a record number of games, both large and small, support cross-play between the PlayStation and Xbox. Currently, it is not the majority of new games, but the trend is in that direction.
The Voice Chat Dilemma
There wasn’t a universal voice-over-IP service that ran on all platforms, so players who knew each other and wanted to hang out on voice chat regularly while playing were in most cases better off sticking to a single platform.
In the midst of the 2020 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I started a weekly gaming night with her brother and three of our friends as a means of establishing any social contact.
Six of us were scattered across PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, and Minecraft: Bedrock Edition was one of the extremely few games that supported true cross-play across all three platforms. Since then, we have expanded to additional games as more cross-play options became available. Those of us playing on console were required to dial in to Discord on their smartphones and turn the game volume down significantly (so that it wouldn’t leak through) while they conversed over the phone.
It technically functioned, but it was a hassle, and it was particularly suboptimal once we began playing competitive games such as Overwatch 2 in which audio cues are crucial.
I have a gaming PC, and that’s typically what I play with the weekly group, but for certain games, I either prefer to play on console or didn’t want to pay for it again on PC because I had already purchased it on console. In one of these situations, I resorted to wearing phone-connected earbuds inside my over-ear PlayStation headset while speaking into the phone microphone in order to hear the entire audio spectrum. This solution was so ridiculously convoluted that I had to carefully consider how to describe it.
Now that Discord is available on all three platforms used by the six members of our weekly gaming group, such antics will no longer be tolerated. I am certain we are not the only group in this situation. For instance, there are both PlayStation and PC guilds in Final Fantasy XIV, but the game does not support voice chat. It’s a game that requires detailed communication between teammates, and often at such a rapid pace that typing on a keyboard is insufficient, so PlayStation players of that game have opted for absurd setups for years.
The fact that Discord is the only store in town with this kind of reach is not ideal. I’d love to see an alternative gain traction, as I believe that competition creates superior products and benefits consumers. Given that console voice chat is the very definition of a closed platform, and given Discord’s already-established dominance in gaming communications, any upstart will face an uphill battle.