With two brand new consoles launching this year, the "numbers game" of teraflops and disk speeds has begun – but Xbox Game Pass could be Microsoft's secret weapon for the Xbox Series X.
The full stable of next-gen games has not been revealed by either camp, but we do know that Microsoft already has Xbox Game Pass up and running on Xbox One and PC.
The Xbox Game Pass service, which connects users to heaps of games for a low monthly price, could just win the console war. Here's how...
New Consoles, Old Comparisons
Cast your mind back seven years, before global pandemics and Brexit, when the gaming world was prepping itself for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
While Microsoft made a lot of noise about the ability to watch TV through their new console, Sony handily dunked on them at every turn. The PlayStation 4 was cheaper, more powerful, more consumer-focused and with a larger focus on indies than its competitor.
In the early years of this console generation, Microsoft was playing catch-up. The Xbox One S boosted the clock speed of the console, while the Xbox One X eventually negated the PS4's (and it's Pro counterpart) power advantage.
Kinect was ditched, stage presentations gained a new focus on gaming, and Microsoft did its best to bury the Don Mattrick-led initial reveal and launch of the Xbox One.
And yet, despite all of that, we still measure each console against the other using the same metrics. The PS5 and Xbox Series X prices have not been revealed yet, but the specs are in the open and there's not a great deal to separate them.
But for the most part, it's a zero-sum equation – both consoles will play the majority of the same third-party games, and any extra bells and whistles to take advantage of teraflops or the PS5's custom SSD will require extra work from developers to take advantage of.
If we're playing plenty of the same games, surely the focus moves to how we find and play them.
Read more: PS5 vs Xbox Series X specs
Console War? I'll (Games) Pass
Launched back in 2017, Xbox Game Pass is loosely referred to as a Netflix for games – and that's a pretty solid, but not perfect, analogy.
Just as with the world's most well-known streaming service, a flat fee provides access to plenty of games to play as much of or as little of as possible, although unlike Netflix, Xbox Game Pass doesn't stream games (more on that later).
At current count, there are over 100 games you can play, as well as a separate PC-only library for Microsoft's Windows platform, all for £7.99 per month.
That's great, and anecdotally I've had plenty of people ask me about the service in the last few weeks of lockdown simply because there's a little something for everyone.
Of course, the real kicker is in Xbox doubling down on Game Pass, both in terms of price and in terms of content.
Xbox Live, Game Pass and Game Pass for PC can be rolled into one "Xbox Game Pass Ultimate" membership for £10.99. That's a lot of value for the price, especially factoring in Xbox Game Studios Games launching in the service.
Much has been said about Xbox's lack of exclusives this generation, and with Sony shipping the likes of Spider-Man, God Of War, Bloodborne and more, the differing first-party lineups have been thrown sharply into focus.
That's not to say there haven't been some glimmers of hope – both Ori games were well-received critically, while the Forza Horizon sub-franchise has grown exponentially in popularity on the back of its critically-lauded third and fourth instalments.
Sweetening the deal further has been the fact that these titles are available on launch day in Game Pass, nestling in alongside a wealth of third-party titles and indies (and backwards compatible Xbox 360 games, don't forget).
With Microsoft's confirmation that the same will hold true for the Xbox Series X, you could theoretically buy the new console and have access to any first-party launch games right off the bat as part of your existing membership fee.
Imagine plugging your console in and being able to download Halo Infinite, a new Forza, and Series X versions of Gears 5 and more. No more humming and hawing about which game you can afford alongside your console.
Read More: Xbox Series X controller design evolution
To their credit, Sony has reacted to the success of Xbox Game Pass in their own way.
Their PlayStation Now service, arguably more akin to Netflix than Microsoft's offering given its streaming-focused nature, has taken steps to alleviate criticism from early in the console cycle.
Sony slashed the price down to £8.99, making it a much more attractive counterpart to an existing PlayStation Plus membership (although there's no way to bundle the two together).
They also enabled downloads of certain games, preventing input lag in those titles and allowing them to be played natively.
For the gaming populous, though, has it been enough? PlayStation touted 1 million subscribers to PlayStation Now at the tail end of 2019, but with over 100 million consoles sold, that's less than one per cent that subscribe to the service.
Once upon a time, PlayStation Plus launched with a lineup of games that would rotate in and out.
This "Instant Game Collection" included both first and third-party titles, as well as discounts on other games and DLC. Sound familiar? We'd love to see a return of the idea, especially since Microsoft seems to have taken inspiration from it.
Microsoft has been undeniably sheepish when it comes to releasing numbers of consoles sold and subscriber counts for its various services, but simply through the sheer weight of its advertising, we'd imagine it's reaching plenty of people.
Game Pass trial codes are bundled with boxes of cereal, plastered over social media, and the service forms its own part of the console's (admittedly convoluted) home screen.
Sony has taken steps to increase their share of this emerging market, but will it take a few more? Could we see God Of War 2 included in PlayStation Now on launch day?
Perhaps not, and there's no denying at this point that the company's collection of IP is worth more than Microsoft's, but it's still tough to take a £50 hit on each new release.
Read More: PS5 pre-order notifications now open
Cross The Streams
Where Sony bet big in the early stages of the generation is game streaming, and while the rest of the world seems to have pushed ahead with the idea in the year's since, PlayStation Now quietly offers a sizeable library of games that you can stream to your box.
With Microsoft's upcoming Project xCloud being positively received in its beta testing, and with the company's insistence that the service will dovetail with Xbox Game Pass, we could theoretically live in a future where we can jump into the next Fable on a phone as part of our existing subscription, or enjoy Halo Infinite co-op missions on an iPad.
It could crumble under the weight of expectation, but this next-gen evolution of Xbox Game Pass is a tantalising prospect, which could decide the console war. Has Sony fallen too far behind on the services side of things? Only time will tell...