Minecraft has been a pioneer in numerous ways, but since joining Microsoft, it has become something of a focal point for cross-platform play. Minecraft is the only game that allows gamers from Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile, Windows Mixed Reality, Xbox One, Android, iOS, and now Nintendo Switch, to all play together in a shared world. It's the culmination of Microsoft's "intelligent edge" philosophy, where the company focuses on providing services to any compatible device you own, regardless of the platform or form factor.
Of course, there is one major player who refuses to play ball.
Microsoft and Nintendo vs. Sony PlayStation
The new marketing collaboration between Microsoft and Nintendo showcases cross-platform play and could indicate even more collaborative marketing this holiday season. Ultimately, the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch aren't in direct competition with one another. The Switch offers portability, something the Xbox can't, and the Xbox One (and especially the Xbox One X) offers high-fidelity "AAA" gaming, which the Switch often misses out on due to its specs and form factor.
Highlighting the fact that Nintendo Switch and Xbox can play nice together gives the impression of a wider, more flexible ecosystem.
The partnership here is smart, in a console industry that sees PlayStation with the largest current install base. Highlighting the fact that Nintendo Switch and Xbox can play nice together gives the impression of a wider, more flexible ecosystem than that of Sony's PlayStation, which has been in the press multiple times for refusing to allow cross-platform play.
Sony made mainstream news with its "hijacking" of players' Fortnite accounts, which get locked out from Nintendo Switch and Xbox cross-play the moment they become connected to PlayStation Network. Sony responded by championing its install base, which sits around a reported 80 million, while highlighting the fact that Fortnite isn't truly "free to play" on Xbox since it requires an Xbox Live subscription.
Sony is stuck between a rock and a hard place over this Fortnite issue. By allowing cross-platform play, it is potentially giving up the powerful purchase argument of "my friend has this console, which means I need it, too." Sony's headstart in 2013 snowballed granting it pole position, and while it might seem like a solid business strategy now, its refusal to budge could give Microsoft a killer advantage as we move into the next generation.
A massive opportunity for Microsoft and Xbox
Microsoft is setting up a cloud streaming service to bring "console-quality" gaming to your devices, whether that's a phone, a tablet, or a Nintendo Switch. If Microsoft can lock down game streaming to the Nintendo Switch, Xbox might be the only way you can experience some of those "AAA" games on Nintendo's svelte handheld platform. At that point, the ideal console setup might be to have both an Xbox One and a Nintendo Switch, or at least a Nintendo Switch and an Xbox subscription.
These early collaborations between Microsoft and Nintendo could be the tip of a much larger strategic iceberg.
The PlayStation ecosystem would be locked out of a far more pervasive intelligent edge cross-platform gaming world, which incorporates not only Nintendo but also iOS and Android. The size of that ecosystem would utterly dwarf PlayStation's 80 million-strong install base, potentially reaching hundreds of millions (or more) people. Developers prioritize the ecosystem with the most reach, after all.
Sony has its own game streaming service in the form of PlayStation Now, but it hasn't really achieved much headway when it comes to mainstreaming this technology. And frankly, it probably can't. Microsoft has more than 50 data centers around the world, dedicated undersea cabling, and billions of dollars worth of investment in cloud delivery technology and research to bring game streaming to the masses.
I'd say these early collaborations between Microsoft and Nintendo could be the tip of a much larger strategic iceberg that will reveal itself in the months and years to come. And I know, for sure, which ecosystem I'd rather be invested in right now.