At the last count, games industry analysts estimated Sony's PlayStation 5 was outselling Microsoft's Xbox Series X and S consoles two to one. Both tech giants released their latest machines in November 2020 at a similar price and with limited stock, as the pandemic affected hardware production. So it was a level playing field for both.
Despite this, the PS5 has raced ahead in terms of sales and has even managed to claim the "fastest-selling launch console of all-time" award. However, this head-to-head competition is a marathon, not a sprint, and at the virtual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2021, Microsoft showed it has all the pieces in place to win over gamers in the long-run.
In recent years, Sony has preferred to host its own PlayStation event away from E3. But Microsoft has stuck around and, by default, owned the show, capturing the imaginations of millions tuning in around the world.
One of the reasons Xbox Series X and S have fallen behind the PS5 is because of a lack of must-have exclusive games. Its initial offering was limp, but it has addressed this at E3 2021 with a slew of jaw-dropping titles. Games such as the photo-realistic racer Forza Horizon 5 showed the power of Xbox Series X as supercars raced around incredible Mexican landscapes complete with active volcanoes and quaint little towns.
A lack of family-friendly games is something else that has been levelled at Xbox over the years, but Party Animals – where you pick a beast such as a cartoon lion or rhino and fight each other – is a great step in the right direction.
Microsoft also showed off the fruits of its $7.5 billion acquisition of game developer Bethesda. The purchase further strengthened Xbox's coming games line-up. And with the highly anticipated Starfield – a vast role-playing game set in space – as an exclusive, only the most blinkered PS5 owner wouldn't have had pangs of sadness while watching its unveiling.
Sure, most of the games that were announced are slated for 2022, but Xbox is in a position to compete on the gaming front with PlayStation now. This is something you couldn’t have said about it otherwise over the years.
It wasn't only the new games that received high praise from the gaming community, though, as Xbox is also doubling down on its Game Pass service to provide even more value for money.
The subscription model gives access to hundreds of games from the Xbox back catalogue – think of it as a Netflix for games – but what impressed at E3 was just how many of the future titles will be available on the day of launch via Game Pass, so there’s no need to spend Dh399 ($108) for each new game.
Sony doesn’t currently have anything that can compete with this level of value for gamers and, in an age where every dirham counts, Xbox is the obvious choice of console for the thrifty.
That said, actual consoles may become a relic of the past, as Microsoft seems to be positioning its Xbox brand as something you can access without the machine.
Game Pass is available through various Apple and Android devices, and its next step is to become part of the line-up on smart TVs. This means you’ll only need an Xbox controller and a Game Pass subscription to get going. It’s an ambitious strategy, but if Microsoft can get it working properly, there are billions of televisions that can potentially become an instant Xbox.
Of course, all this being said, PlayStation is yet to show its hand on what's coming in the future. We already know there will be triple-A titles such as God of War: Ragnarok, Horizon: Forbidden West and Gran Turismo 7, and many more. There's also going to be an upgraded PSVR headset and controllers to dig deeper into virtual reality.
The advantageous aspect to the Japanese company skipping E3 and watching its competitor go first is to see what works and what doesn't, giving them an opportunity to potentially counter Microsoft's hits. However, unless Sony finds an answer to Game Pass, it's going to be much harder to recommend a PS5 over Xbox Series X, no matter what they try next.
For now, Microsoft has swung the console war back into its favour with its E3 showing and the future looks bright. The plan for world domination might not have been clear at first, but armed with Game Pass, a cloud-based gaming infrastructure and now, finally, some very good games, Xbox has a clear path to winning over the masses.