Over the holidays, I largely took a break from playing games and watched a lot of bad Stephen King movies, but I did spend hours with Assassin's Creed Valhalla in a unique way. Sometimes, I would be in my office and playing Valhalla on my fancy new 4K TV using an Xbox Series X. Other times, I'd be lying on my couch grinding episodes of Ozark with my wife and playing Valhalla on my iPad via Stadia. I wasn't playing on different saves—it was the same game on both. Two different platforms, yet one cohesive gameplay experience.
It felt like a glimpse into a unified gaming future, despite a fractured landscape that is likely to continue. Because competition is fine, I guess, and it's nice that companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are genuinely taking different approaches to making and releasing games. But it would also be really cool if you could buy a game once and...play it anywhere?
Porting games costs time and money, obviously, and one important obstacle to the dream of universal digital keys is how companies like Microsoft and Sony make money off each financial transaction on their service. They want you to buy the game over and over again, but the move to monthly subscription services throws this model into the air, and we're only in the early days of the individual industry players figuring out how to take advantage of it.
During the winter, no matter how much we turn the heat up, some parts of the house stay cold. One of those places is, conveniently, my office! (Tiny office heater makes my home's electricity bill go brrrr.) So during the holidays, I was also doing everything in my power to avoid spending more time there buried in a blanket. How was I supposed to play Valhalla?
Microsoft has promised its streaming service, XCloud, is coming to Apple's devices eventually, but it's not here yet. But Valhalla is already available on Stadia, and crucially, back in November, Ubisoft announced it was introducing "cross progression" into its upcoming games, which promised universal saved games that would work across platforms.
It seems like a service aimed at people who, over a long period of time, might switch from one platform to another, or purchase a game on sale down the line. How many people are paying $120 for two versions of a game, merely for the Ozark convenience factor? I am, admittedly, not that person, either; in both cases, I redeemed a free code to download Valhalla.
Absent this financial shortcut, I most likely would have stuck to doomscrolling on Twitter. Nonetheless, with Valhalla unlocked on Stadia, I was in a position to give this all a shot.
I booted Valhalla on Stadia, and voila, there was a "continue" option and I was suddenly playing a recent save game from my playthrough of Valhalla on Xbox. It was really trippy! This version of Valhalla wasn't running at 4K (which would be goofy on an iPad anyway) or running at 60 frames-per-second (because the Stadia version is locked at 30 FPS), but it absolutely delivered on the convenience factor of being able to play the game anywhere.
Valhalla, like many of Ubisoft's bloated open world games, has a billion little things for you to track down. Ticking off these objectives while an episode is running is a perfect marriage.
To be fair, it wasn't the precise moment I'd last played. I'd left Valhalla on the Xbox in a state of purgatory because the machine had been turned off while playing, which means a new "save" had not actually been created. What showed up on Stadia was a save file from a few minutes before. By winding down the Stadia version, running downstairs and manually creating a save on the Xbox, however, the issue was fixed and I was back up to speed.
The way Ubisoft handles saves with this feature is a little funky, though. Check this out:
"The synchronization of your cloud save and your local save may be affected by your upload and download speed. Triggering two consecutive saves too quickly will prevent the second one from uploading. Time allowance between saves: 5 minutes for manual saves, 10 minutes for quick saves and 15 minutes for autosaves. There is no time limit between episodic saves."
Er, what? This seems like a handwavy way for Ubisoft to explain some wonkiness, which happened when I booted up the Xbox version of Valhalla while writing this article and the save it pulled wasn't where I left off. This would likely be resolved by me making another manual save on Stadia…? I think? But it shows the limitations of an otherwise cool feature that's likely to become better and more straightforward as it's baked into more games.
It's also not necessary to spend $120 to mess around with this, either. Ubisoft has its own subscription service, which includes new games like Valhalla, and it lets you play Valhalla on PC and Stadia for a $15 monthly fee. (It also supports Amazon's Luna service, which I have access to but haven't had a chance to mess around with.) Sure, you lose access to those games when the subscription lapses, but $15 is more palatable than $60 on two platforms!
All of this sidesteps Microsoft and Sony, shifting power dynamics. Ubisoft is probably fine with giving away a game on multiple platforms in service of locking someone into a monthly subscription fee that, over time, is potentially worth a lot more than a one-time purchase. Amazon and Google are happy to play along with their streaming services because they're desperate for attention and interest. And how long until it's all paired with a proprietary streaming service?
It's not hard to squint and see this is where things are going.
A lot of balls are up in the air right now, but every day, one falls down into place and makes playing games a little bit easier and cooler.