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Can Microsoft unite the gaming industry?

Gamers test new games at the Xbox display at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Convention Center in Los Angeles.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Gamers test new games at the Xbox display at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Convention Center in Los Angeles.

The classic gaming question — Xbox or Playstation? — may soon become irrelevant, if Microsoft has anything to say about it.

The tech giant revealed this week that it has given developers the tools to enable cross-platform play between Xbox Live devices, personal computers and "other console networks."

That means you, Playstation and Nintendo.

"[Cross-network play] broadens the matchmaking pool and community for supported titles," a Microsoft spokesman told CNBC. "This is great for developers and gamers alike. Additionally, cross-network play can encourage new gameplay scenarios across devices and creative new ways to play together, as examples. We believe fostering creativity in the gaming industry is always a good thing."

The announcement teases a boon for gamers who have long wanted to battle friends and foes who use different gaming consoles.


But don't start trash talking your cross-platform friends just yet. The likelihood of actual Xbox vs. Playstation play remains slim, some analysts say.

"I have strong doubts that other network providers will be interested in participating," Scott Steinberg, head of video game consulting firm Tech Savvy, told CNBC. "Although it may be technically possible, the question of whether it is politically feasible or makes economic sense is really the one to be asked."

Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo no longer simply rely on selling consoles and games to make a profit. These days, major gaming companies make money from in-game microtransactions, such as selling additional downloadable content or perks, or subscription services, such as apps to stream music and TV.

"It's more and more important for those manufacturers to build brand loyalty by locking users into their ecosystem of games, services and online multiplayer components," Steinberg said. "Because once you are locked into that suite of services you are much more reticent, or much less willing, to change or move over to another gaming system."

Gaming companies benefit from players who actively build their online profiles and become involved in the digital community. Gamers who have robust friend lists for multiplayer games or have racked up a large number of in-game trophies and achievements, are much less likely to abandon their console in favor of another brand.

If other platforms were to agree to Microsoft's cross-platform play, Steinberg says that the companies would need to determine who is responsible for users' data.

"Protecting users' data and ensuring they have a safe and secure place to play is always a top priority for us and remains so as we enable developers to support cross-network play," a Microsoft spokesman said when asked if the companies would have to share users and their data.

That type information is richly valued, because companies use it to ferret out trends in gaming habits, shape marketing strategies and direct product development.

King Digital, the developer behind the "Candy Crush" series for mobile devices, changed the difficulty level of its free-to-play app after discovering that the majority of users stopped using the product around Level 65, according to the Toronto Star. Making the level easier enticed many users to play further into the game.

While game developers would likely love to attract players from different platforms, Steinberg said, "From a manufacturer's standpoint, there's not necessarily incentive to do it. In fact, there may be incentive to do anything but."

Sony, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Valve, Electronic Arts, Activision and Square Enix did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.