For years now, gamers have argued that letting PC and console players face each other in first-person shooters would result in a ridiculously unbalanced playing field—that the superior precision and quickness of mouse aiming would utterly dominate the competition using slower, touchier analog sticks, all things being equal. This weekend, Microsoft is rolling out a public crossplay test for Gears of War 4 that could help settle that argument once and for all.
Community Manager OctusTC posted in the Gears of War forums yesterday that cross-platform play would be open between Friday, December 2 and Monday, December 5. The event is being referred to as a “special test weekend… conducted to evaluate the potential of a more permanent crossplay solution in the future to allow Windows 10 and Xbox One gamers to play together in Versus outside of Private Matches” (cross-platform play is already allowed in public co-operative matches).
“Crossplay is divisive in any Versus experience, and Gears of War 4 is no different,” OctusTC continues. “From the beginning, we stated our intention to keep both platforms separate in non-cooperative game modes in order to preserve competitive balance. Conserving a fair, competitive environment remains a top priority for us.”
This will not be the first time in the debate between handheld controllers and the PC’s keyboard and mouse that they have been directly tested in the real world of FPS competition. Back in 2014, an Xbox One-based Titanfall team decided to use their trusty controllers to take on some keyboard-and-mouse PC players in a high-level tournament. That attempt led to a vociferous debate over the use of aim assist to help correct for the imprecision of a controller’s analog stick. Some see that game-provided assistance as a necessary tool to balance out the disadvantages of the analog stick, while others see it as an unfair advantage for controller users that cripples mouse-based players. For what it’s worth, Gears of War 4 lead multiplayer designer Ryan Clevin told IGN in August that his team “definitely work[s] from the controller out… We do play [with] mouse and keyboard, but the core of the game is around a controller.”
This isn’t even the first time Microsoft has considered the question of pitting PC and console players against each other in an FPS. In 2010, Voodoo PC President Rahul Sood publicly discussed rumors that Microsoft had internally tested a bridge between Xbox and PC players. The result, according to Sood, was that “the console players got destroyed every time. So much so that it would be embarrassing to the Xbox team in general had Microsoft launched this initiative.”
In a response to that report, Microsoft Senior Director of PC and Mobile Gaming Kevin Unangst told PC World that Sood’s comments were “not an accurate generalization” about Microsoft’s efforts. “Game design choices can balance or tip the scales, much in the same way that a PC game can be built to use a gamepad or keyboard and mouse, and can implement either or both well or poorly,” he said. “It’s the developer’s job to find the right balance.”
Unangst added that during the 2006 development of Shadowrun—one of the first modern shooters to allow for direct competition between PC and console players—Microsoft created an entire white paper for its developers to reference on the subject of balancing shooters for cross-platform play. At least one developer on that game told GTtv at the time that the balance in that game was naturally tilted differently than you might expect. “The console players actually owned the PC players way more,” he said. “We had to do a lot to make the PC experience fair, frankly.”
Of course, one simple solution to this competitive imbalance would be to just let console players use a keyboard and mouse, if they prefer. But despite Microsoft’s Phil Spencer promising in June that Xbox One support for keyboard-and-mouse controls was mere “months away,” we’ve had yet to hear any more details about official efforts to let console players use anything but a standard handheld controller. (In October, a Microsoft spokesperson told PCGamesN that such support was still planned for the future, “but we have nothing further to share at this time.”)
Controls aside, there’s also the possibility that a PC player with a high-end rig could benefit from improved resolution and frame rate over their console cousins, who are stuck at a target of 1080p game and 60fps. This is already becoming an issue even in intra-console play, where Battlefield 1 players on the PS4 Pro seem to have a clear advantage over those playing on older PS4 hardware.
The cross-platform test comes at a time when Microsoft has tried to strengthen the links between the Xbox One and its Windows gaming platform, from “Play Anywhere” cross-platform game sales to in-home streaming from the Xbox One to the PC (and even the Oculus Rift VR headset). The cross-platform gameplay initiative announced back in March has also put some additional pressure on Sony to open up its PlayStation network and allow for players to challenge each other between the Xbox and PlayStation ecosystems.