Psyonix led the race until the last chapter. Even at the finish line, they still scraped a silver medal – only trailing behind corporate goliath Epic Games. That’s impressive for an indie studio. I credit RL’s cross-play roadmap and community collaboration as a major reason for the Epic Games buyout.
Anyway, up until now, the story of how Psyonix paved the road for cross-play sits disjointed and scattered across the media. But, in the grand marathon, I believe the legendary impact of Rocket League cross-play will outlive her servers.
Before we can appreciate Psyonix’s accomplishments, we’ll need an outline of the corporate battlefield.
Up until the PS3/Xbox 360 era, low connectivity in gaming was self-explanatory. On PS2, you needed a fat adapter to latch to the web. To top it off, the capabilities felt prehistoric through a modern lens.
But why did we wait sixteen years for Sony and Xbox to cross wires in the virtual landscape? After all, Stephen Totilo at Kotaku stumbled into a tech demo with a Playstation and Xbox linked up as early as 2011. Since 7th generation, console internal processor hardware resembled PCs. They used standardized software libraries, game engines, and scripting languages.
The 360 and PS3 were practically twins.
To summarize a plethora of corporate jargon: Each independent online service hoisted conflicting terms of service and acceptable use policies.
Also, money. The answer is always money. I’ll elaborate with some juicy leaked documents later.
Psyonix CEO, Dave Hagewood, hints that Psyonix plotted to shatter console barriers from day one. In his earliest interviews, he spouts statements like this:
“We did a great deal of Rocket League’s online services ourselves… We tried to make a lot of it independent and platform-agnostic on our server side. From there, all we had to do was write interfaces to the various platforms so they all talked well together. By the time the data gets to the game’s server network, the network doesn’t care what platform anyone is on – it just notes ‘Oh this person is on Steam, this person is on Sony, and so on.”
(Heads up: I’m locked into a total quote nerd kick after interviewing the RL Garage staff about their history. I’ll stuff this piece to the brim with words straight from the mouths of devs.)
As Psyonix inched closer to achieving their intricate scheme, their Vice President of publishing, Jeremy Dunham, led the press release brigade. He spoke with Sony representatives daily from 2015 onward and fashioned bold claims to journalists like “Psyonix tested cross-play in closed environments with positive results.”
Jeremy is an interesting figure at Psyonix. He appeared late into the Rocket League development cycle – post-alpha testing and lagging behind the team vote for their catchy new game title. Dave onboarded Jeremy for promoting Nosgoth, so his interest in RL never ripened before release. He wasn’t too popular amongst fans because he always preached simplicity and consistency in gameplay. He drove away concepts like adding fun custom mutators to private matches. In interviews, he always mentioned moving on from Rocket League as Psyonix unveiled their next big thing.
In short, Jeremy was a marketer.
But we can’t deny the fact he piloted Rocket League to a booming launch. RL slayed its predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. He rebranded the game to match the simplified title. He led an overly-successful PS4 launch – the most downloaded free PS Plus promotion in history at that point. He navigated every crevice of early marketing campaigns, straight down to Psyonix’s social media presence and outreach… and he did it all on an ultra-tight budget.
So, Jeremy didn’t help make Rocket League, but he helped make Rocket League popular.
Anyway, Jeremy’s previous work history concealed a critical pocket ace. He was a chief editor for IGN’s PlayStation branch. On top of trekking a mountain of metrics that guided Psyonix on communicating with gamers, Jeremy boasted a full decade of learning who to contact in the fat corporate bureaucracy.
Let’s follow Dunham’s trail for a moment.
Here’s the earliest Jeremy Dunham interview on cross-play. (to Gamespot reporter Tamoor Hussain – March 22nd, 2016):
“Technologically, everything works. We’ve got it figured out. Just a little bit of time to get everything up and running. Right now, excitement is the best way to put it. We just want to get in there and make it happen. Elation is probably another word I would use. We’re just excited.”
“The only thing we have to do now is sort of find out where we stand politically with everyone, and then it’s full steam ahead to finish the solution that we’ve already started.”
We can also dig up Jeremy’s interview regarding Nintendo negotiations. In case your memory is fuzzy, Psyonix planned to neglect the Nintendo Switch. But, when Nintendo came tapping on the windows at Rocket League Inc., Jeremy seized an opportunity for progress. He held the port hostage.
Jeremy Dunham (to Red Bull reporter Ben Sillis – October 30th, 2017):
“The very first thing I asked Nintendo when we spoke with them was ‘Will you allow us to do cross-platform-play?’ They told us ‘Sure, whatever you need’. The fact there was no hesitation, they told us yes immediately the very first time we asked, was a really good olive branch. It showed us they were serious about Rocket League and the platform, and that we should take them seriously.”
Seeing Microsoft and Nintendo representatives shaking hands and broadcasting new pro-gamer slogans placed millions of disheveled eyes on Sony’s unwavering policies. So, in a way, Psyonix’s haphazard, staggered release schedule proved itself as a blessing in disguise.
In the end, as is a theme littered throughout history books, Psyonix’s missteps anchored one of the most iconic achievements in gaming history. Is anyone else visualizing Bob Ross grinning at the phrase ‘Happy Mistakes’?
The short answer is that cross-play adds financial stability/longevity.
Luckily, you don’t have to take my word for it. Let me hurl some more developer quotes and statistics your way.
I can clip some Corey Davis quotes from a 2020 interview with Gameindustry.biz:
“Cross-play has a direct and meaningful impact on matchmaking speed and quality for online games. And it’s so much easier to play with friends when you don’t have to worry about who owns what device or console. You might stop playing a game entirely without an online friend to play with. Making every friend accessible to you – even if they’re playing on a different platform – is a huge improvement to the user experience.”
“Multiplayer games require a healthy player base to survive and grow. Cross-platform features allow us to unify all of our players and create a much better experience than you’d see with each platform walled off into its own silo.”
“Cross-platform play also enables smaller and more experimental features and gameplay to survive. Alternate modes that might not have the population to support them on a single platform can thrive in a cross-platform ecosystem.”
When a game grows as popular as Rocket League, further populating playlists might sound like splitting hairs… until you factor in how awesome it is to play with your work or school buddies on grandma’s old laptop or outdated consoles.
But Mr. Marketing Lead detailed their reasoning further.
Jeremy Dunham (to Gamespot reporter Tamoor Hussain – March 22nd, 2016):
“There’s this weird psychological thing that happens with people if you let them know that their community is small, even though they’re enjoying the game and playing it.
“There’s this weird effect where sometimes it encourages them to stop playing if they think nobody else is going to play with them, which creates a snowball effect where other people stop playing because they don’t think anyone’s going to play.”
“The more people you have to throw in there, the less likely that psychological anomaly will kick in. Then you have the actual reality of it, which is, more players, for everyone, means more games, and more games means more participation and community feedback, which we can then put into the game as a whole and not have to worry about siloing off certain features of certain platforms because this version doesn’t have it, or whatever the situation may be.”
Jeremy Dunham then quantified his belief that “players who play cross-platform also monetize at a considerably higher rate than those who don’t” with hard statistics.
And, if you still aren’t sold, here’s a direct statement posted to the Epic Online Services blog in 2021.
To all my indie developers scrolling along, those numbers are worth the hassle. I mean, I’m not blogging about Crash Team Racing right now – despite hailing it as my all-time favorite. It’s a graveyard online.
To all my normie Rocketeers, free-to-play titles only profit when engagement numbers spill long enough to produce green digits. Online games parade that spotlight when friends enter the mix.
“The biggest problem is we can’t mix friends lists or anything like that. Also, there are certain rules on Sony’s platform about age restrictions and content restrictions, things like that,”
“We have to uphold those, and normally Sony can kind of control who on their platform can say what and they can ban people and stuff, and they don’t on a cross-platform game. So we have to make sure there’s nothing that can cross that barrier of liability to either side. That’s been one of the biggest challenges, figuring out how to make it so players can communicate without breaking any of those rules.”
According to Dunham, Rocket League’s code intertwined Sony with all other systems as early as 2016. He mentions that RL’s servers progressed in the exact regard Dave intended:
“We run all the servers. The way that it works is we connect everyone through our own system, we handle everything ourselves.”
That’s a blunt, PR-friendly statement that translates to, “We simplified the process as much as possible for platform holders.”
So let’s dive into the gritty truth of what curbed Psyonix from beating Epic’s Fortnite to the achievement of full cross-platform functionality.
Jeremy Dunham (to Polygon reporter Ben Kuchera – July 13th, 2017):
“The honest answer is PlayStation has not yet granted us [cross-play] permission. We are hopeful that being able to play cross-network is still something we can go for. We think we’ve been big champions of this for the last two years – trying to get people behind the idea.”
“We believe [cross-play is] the future of the industry, and we’re hopeful that maybe the community and the media can actually help get around the idea of pushing it forward and doing what we can to make it reality. It’s our dream.”
Right here I’ll pause to point out he admits each press release was an intentional marketing beat designed to apply pressure to Sony. He then expanded on software irrelevance:
“So far Microsoft had the highest and ‘most complex’ requirements for security, so meeting those barriers made it easier to deal with the requirements of the other platforms. The hard work has been done.”
“It’s literally something we could do with a push of a button, metaphorically. In reality, it’s a web page with a checkbox on it. All we have to do is check that box and it would be up and running in less than an hour all over the world. That’s all we need to do.”
“Technically it’s possible. There are no technical limitations. Right now it’s just a political barrier we need to help figure out how to crack.”
According to Jeremy, Sony executives continued to bicker about their terms amongst themselves. It’s easy to picture a heated board room blasting graphs about how they could best monetize the decision.
“The only thing that we know is that we can’t do it yet. I can tell you this: From Psyonix, we would do whatever we would need to do to make it possible to be cross-network play with all the other platforms and PlayStation 4. They just need to tell us what that is.”
Jeremy sealed the interview with a direct shout to Sony’s suits, with the entire world on speakerphone. But his cry wouldn’t reach its desired audience for another year.
On the day that Epic Games outpaced Psyonix to full-fledged cross-play, Dave Hagewood rallied support on a Reddit post. Not long after, Psyonix jostled the final thrust to pour PSN players into the melting pot with Xbox Live and NSO.
Epic’s influence proved catastrophic to Sony, and the storm around cross-console play only truly reignited when Sony blocked access to PSN Fortnite accounts on the Switch. The gaming community backlash became insufferable. They lost heaps of active players who just opted to play their addiction on other platforms. It’d be like the equivalent of trying to pull One Piece off of Crunchy Roll.
Above, I linked an article by Eurogamer’s Emma Kent. In it, she contacted dozens of industry leaders about cross-play. The standout statement was from EA DICE’s Aleks Grøndal. He stated that keyboard-to-controller parity makes cross-console implementation look like a cakewalk. Most view the former as an industry standard.
I can’t understate how simple the coding process really is.
So, let’s discuss that ‘money is king’ bit I mentioned earlier.
Epic Games CEO, Tim Sweeney, unveiled cross-play hurdle galore in his ‘Project Liberty’ court cases with Apple. ‘Open platforms’ fulfilled a key role in the narrative. First, he testified that nobody but Sony required cross-play compensation. Sony taxes an extended royalty cut. Tim even admitted he almost sued Sony over neglecting cross-play.
If PSN profits look significant enough, Sony scrapes a little off the top to “offset revenue reduction.”
Sony’s concerns ring true. Cross-play offers no inherent gain to console dealers. Sony absorbed heat for their reluctance to unclog the pipeline, but playing Rocket League with Nintendo Switch buddies affects their sales figures. Little Alice doesn’t yearn for an extra console anymore.
Sony flaunted a monumental install-base lead throughout the PS4 era. We’re talking a 2:1 lead over Xbox. They leveraged serious numbers. If Nintendo or Microsoft landed in their position, they’d mirror the sentiment. (Actually, Xbox already did on the 360.)
Of course, Sony parroted the “for the children” chorus, claiming they can’t regulate interactions off their platform. That’s the spicy lie that stirred up mistrust and nasty press.
When Microsoft and Psyonix brewed a cross-play revolution, it looked like a fad. But when Epic Games joined the fray, Sony took the hint. The gaming industry evolved. And, at the end of the day, only those who adapt survive.
I don’t think cross-play could exist today without the tireless siege that Psyonix contributed. We needed to pitch a full three strikes to prove our resolve. We needed the threat of outside deals to add offensive pressure to the pitch.
Sure, Epic had the resources to threaten Phil Rosenberg with lawsuits. Sure, Tim Sweeney chucked an aggressive virtual letter that read:
“Please inform Kodera-san, and please be clear, that Epic will enable full interoperability between all platforms in Fortnite at a timely point in the future … we are prepared to pursue this course with all available resources, wherever it leads us, and for however long.”
Sure, Epic Games could sweeten their deal by offering cheap renewal fees on Unreal Engine 5. And, their former Vice President, Joe Kreiner, could pitch Emails that looked like this:
Without Psyonix pressing the same envelope, the corporate titans at Epic would look about as foolish as they did grandstanding Apple and Google. The silent protesters picketing along the sidelines helped the radical extremists look sane.
And, for that, I commend the original ragtag development crew at Psyonix. As always, thanks for reading!