It's been a huge year for gaming. Mainstream virtual reality is finally here, we have beefed-up versions of the PS4 and Xbox One, and there's a staggering selection of big new titles. But none of those things has excited me quite as much as Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere program, which has given me a ton of freedom in how I play my Xbox games while also bridging the gap between my PC friends and me.
More importantly, it's turned my library of Xbox games into an investment that I can confidently carry to my next gaming machine, whether that ends up being a powerful desktop or Microsoft's next console.
For the uninitiated, Xbox Play Anywhere lets you buy digital versions of Microsoft games, such as ReCore and Forza Horizon 3, once but then play them on both Xbox One and Windows 10. It essentially turns Xbox into a platform rather than a single piece of hardware, allowing you to keep your progress wherever you play and, on supported games, even compete with friends on both Xbox One and PC (though there are some non-Play Anywhere games that support cross-play, such as car-soccer hit Rocket League).
I had one of my first real aha moments with Play Anywhere recently while taking on Horde mode in Gears of War 4 with three friends. One other person and I were on Xbox One, while the two others were on PC. But because the Windows 10 Xbox app has most of the same social tools and features you'd find on Microsoft's console, wrangling together my cross-platform group of monster slayers was as simple as sending a single invitation.
Before long, all four of us were mowing down waves of slimy humanoids and robot assassins, and laughing together in party chat every time we got stomped out by a massive boss. You wouldn't know that we were playing on different platforms, even though I was pumping out shotgun rounds with my controller while my sniper picked off bad guys with his mouse and keyboard. It was magic.
Because I'm a console gamer with tons of friends who prefer playing on PCs, Play Anywhere has significantly widened the number of people I get to play some of my favorite games with. A close friend and I always struggled to find common games due to our console differences, but now that he's picked up Forza Horizon 3 on PC, we can recklessly drift through the Australian outback together whenever we like. Likewise, my PC-minded friends no longer have an excuse to duck my challenges in Killer Instinct.
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The other major benefit of Play Anywhere is the ability to, well, play anywhere. I recently had to ditch my Xbox One for a few days to travel across the country, but that didn't stop me from firing up my gaming laptop in a California hotel room and picking up right where I left off in ReCore. I even got to sneak in a few extra minutes of Gears of War in the office — which was for work, I promise — without having to lug my Xbox in.
I've been getting a ton of use out of Play Anywhere, and I'm not alone — the service is resonating well with members of the Xbox One community on Reddit.
"Considering I have my TV/Xbox in my room and my PC in another room, it gives me the flexibility and freedom to game on either system," said user Aussiehockeyman. "I love what Microsoft [is] doing right now."
Several gamers I chatted with are primarily console players who don't immediately benefit from Play Anywhere but still appreciate that Microsoft has future-proofed its games.
"If I ever upgrade my PC, I have a library of games I know I love," said user QUAIE.
Xbox Play Anywhere is still in its infancy, but by next year, we'll be playing major releases such as Halo Wars 2, Sea of Thieves and Scalebound on Xbox One, Windows 10 or a little bit of both.
The biggest complaint I've heard from the Xbox community is that Play Anywhere is focused primarily on first-party games, though Microsoft is working to change that. The program already supports a handful of small third-party games, such as Ark: Survival Evolved and Everspace, and you'll likely see more developers jump aboard soon.
"Our goal is to make as many Xbox titles as possible Xbox Play Anywhere, and we're working closely with our developers and partners," said Jenn McCoy, chief of staff for Xbox product marketing. "We'll have more to share in the future."
This is all great news for gamers, and something you should keep in mind when browsing Microsoft's bevy of digital game deals this holiday season. Play Anywhere is a big deal — not just because of cross-platform play, but because it makes Xbox games an investment in the future.
I don't yet have a tricked-out gaming PC for playing titles such as Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 at their mind-blowing best, and Microsoft's mega-powerful Project Scorpio console is at least a year out. But once I do decide to take the plunge for better hardware, I'll already have a healthy library of great games waiting for me. In the meantime, I'll enjoy shooting, racing and adventuring with my friends online — regardless of where they play.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.