To claim the title of 'portable Xboxes,' Windows gaming handhelds MUST bolster cross-feature support

Image of Legion Go, ROG Ally, not in Xbox family
Until Xbox can solve the lack of cross-save and cross-play, Windows handhelds will never feel like part of the Xbox family. (Image credit: Microsoft, ASUS, Lenovo)

Are the ROG Ally or Legion Go good Xbox handhelds?

Windows Handhelds like the ASUS ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go are the best options right now to play Xbox games on the go. Still, outside of Xbox Game Pass and some Xbox Play Anywhere titles that aren't in Game Pass, most games must be purchased on both the Xbox and the Windows handheld and might not even support cross-save (we ranted about this back in 2020 when Minecraft Dungeons launched without Xbox and PC cross-save ability).

Make no mistake, Xbox should be applauded for its efforts to offer consumer-first features such as free cloud saves that instantly sync your saves between any Xbox console you use and Windows Store games on your PC. As well as the efforts by Xbox to make all of its 1st party games Play Anywhere titles, meaning if you buy it on Xbox, you get a license to play it on your PC as well. In a world where Xbox's main console competitor, Playstation, releases its games later on PC and for nearly full price, Xbox is far and away a better option for gamers who enjoy playing on PC and relaxing on the couch from time to time on a console. 

With all of that being said, most 3rd party games aren't Play Anywhere games, and to be able to play most games on both the PC and Xbox, we are forced to double dip and purchase the game twice. In a recent interview with Jez Corden, Phil Spencer discussed this and clarified that it is a focus for Xbox. 

I think a lot about product entitlement, and we have Xbox Play Anywhere. Xbox Play Anywhere has been a long term part of our strategy, though I don't think we've made as much progress as maybe we could have over the years that's been out. But as I see these handheld PCs come along, I think things like playing anywhere, and my ability to keep my games library with me and allowing me to play those on different devices, including cloud streamed at some point. We're looking at the ability to allow you to stream the games that you own."

Phil Spencer via WindowsCentral

As always, Phil Spencer seems to be aware of the issue these Windows Handhelds face regarding Xbox integration. I realize that the solution to this issue isn't as simple as "just fixing it" but will require new contracts, publisher deals, and complete buy-in from publishers, studios, and fans. 

Lately, there has been a push, with the amount of litigation going on, to open up the different walled gardens surrounding tech giants like the PlayStation Store, Apple's App Store, and Google Play Store. There could be a future where Xbox could help pave the way for us to purchase digital goods directly from publishers/studios and then be able to use that digital item anywhere. 

We are likely all guilty of double-dipping or even triple-dipping on some games. If you haven't purchased Skyrim at least 4 times, are you really a gamer? I purchased Hades 3 or 4 times so I could play it on my Nintendo Switch, Steam Deck, and Xbox. Unfortunately, while Hades supports cross-save between Switch and Steam, Xbox only has cross-saves with the Windows Store version of the game. 

This issue has been bothering me for a while, and a YouTuber and Podcaster @Boxenberger on X(Twitter) also mentioned it over the weekend:

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I don't see an incentive for Xbox to make a handheld, though, as Boxenberger suggests. Microsoft needs to continue to push for better product entitlement, as Phil Spencer said, as well as more ubiquitous cross-saves. 

How can Xbox work to make cross-save better?

The new Lenovo Legion Go Windows gaming handheld. (Image credit: Rebecca Spear / Windows Central)

Solving this problem won't be easy. Cross-save across platforms is usually handled by the studio itself. CD Projekt Red is one of the best examples of successful and universal cross-save implementation. The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 can share progression between Windows, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation.  

Xbox could work with publishers and studios to empower them, possibly with free or discounted Azure cloud services so that every game that comes out on Xbox could have developer-maintained cross-saves. As Phil Spencer said, this is something it is working on. Still, it's an issue hurting Xbox today as anybody who might have been willing to double dip and purchase a game to play on the couch with their Xbox will be much less likely to do so if their progress from their Steam save or Epic Games Store save doesn't carry over as I'm experiencing right now with Alan Wake 2

In a world where every game supports cross-save, everybody wins. The main issue is likely the cost of supporting the cloud servers that have to store and transfer the saves between platforms. Developers obviously want it since it improves gamers' likelihood of double-dip, and the same logic applies to platform holders. It seems a major limiting factor might be know-how and technology acumen to actually build out the feature in games, especially the smaller indie titles. This is something Xbox could definitely assist with. 

How can Xbox work to make cross-play, or Play Anywhere better?

It took awhile, but Microsoft's Minecraft Dungeons got "cloud saves" for cross-platform gaming many months after it was released. (Image credit: Future)

The most remarkable feat of the Xbox ecosystem is, by far, the ability to collect and gather an extensive digital library that has only improved over time. Whether backward compatibility brings our Xbox 360 purchases forward or Xbox's impressive push to improve older games through improving the resolution and framerate for a big batch of games. 

Xbox has quietly been increasing the list of Play Anywhere games as well. Most people know that if you have Game Pass Ultimate, most games in both Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass PC will support cross-save. Still, I thought that those games were just separately in the two services, and because Game Pass Ultimate included both versions of Game Pass, I could play on either subscription. However, several games are Play Anywhere and still support the feature after leaving Game Pass. You can check out the complete list of Play Anywhere games, but it's evident from the list that Square Enix and Sega support the program. Here are some of the standouts.

  • Hades
  • Sifu
  • Persona 5 Royal
  • Deep Rock Galactic
  • Vampire Survivors
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge
  • SCARLET NEXUS
  • FINAL FANTASY IX
  • Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name

Some of these are still in Game Pass, but some have left but are still Play Anywhere titles per Xbox, like Persona 5 Royal and Scarlet Nexus. As somebody who recently picked up the ROG Ally Z1 and thinks it's the best budget gaming handheld right now at $399, I'm now looking to purchase games as they leave Game Pass that are Play Anywhere as the cost-effectiveness of getting two licenses is too good to pass up.

It's also worth mentioning that there seem to be hidden Play Anywhere games. If you look for a game on the Xbox Store that says "playable on PC"  when you buy it on Xbox, you should also get a copy in your Xbox App on PC. I discovered this when I bought Octopath Traveller on my Xbox and saw it on my PC. The game is not included in the list of Play Anywhere games, but there seems to be some dual entitle-ship for it and seemingly hundreds of other games. 

Since this seems to be the case, Xbox knows how to make a deal with publishers and studios where an Xbox gamer can purchase the game once and then play it on either their Xbox, ROG Ally, or another PC. All that is left to do is get more developers, publishers, and studios on board. 

What does Xbox's future look like in the handheld space?

Lenovo Legion Go (left) and ASUS ROG Ally (right). (Image credit: Daniel Rubino)

I still hear fans nearly daily asking Xbox to make a bespoke Xbox handheld or some asking Xbox to copy the Nintendo Switch model and make a hybrid system. This isn't far-fetched from what we have seen from the ROG Ally with its external 4090 mobile GPU. There could be a world where Xbox builds a dock with a mobile 4080 equivalent, so on the go, you can get good performance, as seen in the ASUS ROG Ally, but when you dock it, you fully unleash the CPU and can push amazing visuals and performance. 

Unfortunately, I don't see them being able to make this at a consumer-friendly price point. Xbox has begun to understand that taking a loss of hardware is much less appealing than selling software on devices where gamers are already playing. 

If cross-save and -play support become the rule, Xbox could realize its vision to "empower everyone to play the games you want, with the people you want, anywhere you want."

I don't think Xbox is looking to exit the console business, but at the same time, I don't think it wants to increase its hardware offering either. Xbox has been iterating on the Xbox App to offer a compact mode. With the right vision and planning, there could soon be a bespoke version of Windows that could ship on future handheld gaming devices similar to Steam OS for the Steam Deck, making the entire experience easy and seamless. 

If Xbox can continue to push for cross saves between games on its platform and the multitude of PC storefronts, such as Steam, Epic Games store, EA Origin, etc., and find a way to entice publishers to allow Xbox gamers to have more product entitlement for 3rd party games, Xbox won't need to make a handheld. 

The more we move forward into the future of Xbox, the more Phil Spencer's new title of CEO of Microsoft Gaming makes sense. Indeed, Windows Handhelds might not ever feel like actual extensions of the Xbox ecosystem. Still, if cross-save and cross-play support becomes the rule with a handful of exceptions, there is a chance that Xbox could realize its vision to "empower everyone to play the games you want, with the people you want, anywhere you want."

Do you have an ASUS ROG Ally or Lenovo Legion Go? If not, would having more of your Xbox purchases playable on these devices make you want to pick one up? Do you think Phil Spencer can make good on his comments to improve cross-feature support? Let us know in the comments.  

Colton Stradling
Contributor

Colton is a seasoned cybersecurity professional that wants to share his love of technology with the Windows Central audience. When he isn’t assisting in defending companies from the newest zero-days or sharing his thoughts through his articles, he loves to spend time with his family and play video games on PC and Xbox. Colton focuses on buying guides, PCs, and devices and is always happy to have a conversation about emerging tech and gaming news.