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How Sony and the PS4 Won the Console War



On November 22nd, Sony announced that they’ve sold more than 30.2 million PS4 consoles through to consumers in roughly two years on the market. For those of you not keeping score, that makes it the second fastest selling console of all time behind Nintendo’s cultural phenomenon, the Wii. While the attach rate for the Wii was pretty poor, indicating that people were buying the console and then quickly abandoning it (hello, Gran!), software sales for the latest Sony console are impressive. The PS4 is a games machine that people are buying in droves, and spending a lot of time with, and not even Sony seems to know why.

Of course, sales aren’t everything. The Xbox 360 was arguably the best console of the last generation, with games galore that largely outperformed their PS3 counterparts and a strong, reliable online infrastructure, and by the end of the cycle it likely stood in third place behind the Sony and Nintendo offerings. But sales do matter. Especially if one company runs away with it. And two years into the eighth console generation, in terms of raw sales, with Sony holding more than a 50% market share, it looks like it’s all over bar the medal ceremony.

Around the two year anniversary of the launch of the PS4, it’s time to look at how Sony have, so far, decimated the competition, and why it’s unlikely they’ll be caught in terms of sales. How have they used the lessons learned from the PS3 to their advantage? How much do they have to thank their competition for their success? And just what does that mean for the gaming industry as a whole?

But the PS3 caught the 360! Can’t the Xbox One catch the PS4?


When talking about just how badly Sony are battering Microsoft in sales this generation, a common counter-argument raises the point that in the last console generation, the PS3 eventually caught the Xbox 360, and likely outsold it. That’s true, it did. But that doesn’t in any way indicate that the same thing will happen this generation, as the circumstances in this generation compared to the last are almost entirely different.

In the seventh console generation, the Xbox 360 was always ahead of the PS3 in total sales, but in terms of month on month sales, the competition was close, with the Sony console frequently outselling the 360 globally. How can this be? Well, because the Xbox 360 launched over a year before the PS3 did. In the first, unopposed year on the market, the Xbox 360 racked up a lead, meaning the PS3 was behind from day one. Sales between the two consoles once they were both on the market were comparative globally, with the Sony console often selling more, but after the head start gained by Microsoft at the beginning of the generation, it took Sony years to catch up.

Even after the year headstart the Xbox 360 had over the PS3, the gap between the two consoles after two years (one for the PS3) was still smaller than the gap between the PS4 and the Xbox One now. With the PS4 outselling the Xbox One at around two to one, if Sony stopped selling the PS4 today, and Xbox One sales continued at their current pace, it would still take the Xbox One two years to catch up. But that’s not going to happen. And the PS4 continues to outsell the Xbox One month on month, so the gap between the two is actually getting bigger, not smaller.

It’s not impossible for the Xbox One to catch up. Anything could happen. But current sales trends indicate that the Xbox One is going to continue falling further and further behind as the generation goes on. For the Xbox One to catch the PS4 at this point, I think either Sony would have to do something incredibly stupid, or Microsoft would have to come up with a killer app with a Wii Sports level of appeal to drive sales. History tells us that the former is more likely than the latter, but given the performance of both Sony and Microsoft this generation, and what we know Microsoft have in terms of future releases, neither appear to be on the cards any time soon.

What about the NX? Can Nintendo spoil the Sony party?

Nintendo could struggle to make an impression launching the NX mid-way through the generation.

Nintendo could struggle to make an impression launching the NX mid-way through the generation.

Nintendo are in an odd position. Their Wii was a runaway success, but while the hardware shifted units at an incredible pace, software sales were less impressive. Ostensibly, people bought the system in large numbers thanks to the cross-over appeal of Wii Sports, but they didn’t stick around for the release of Skyward Sword years down the road. In the back half of the cycle, while the PS3 and the 360 were hitting their stride, with quality titles releasing on a regular basis for the systems, interest in the Wii among core gamers had waned, practically to non-existence. Nintendo saw the iceberg on the horizon, and wisely, decided to pre-empt their competition by a whole year, and release a new console to kick-start the eighth generation. Unwisely, that console was the Wii U.

Featuring a baffling name, counter-productive marketing, a nonsensical user interface, outdated hardware, and a gimmicky, underutilized tablet controller, the Wii U has struggled to resonate with gamers, having already been outsold by both the PS4 and the Xbox One despite having an extra calendar year on the market. As Sony announced that their latest sales milestone for the PS4 was 30 million units, Nintendo announced that their Wii U had finally outsold the Sega Dreamcast; a console that was such a spectacular failure that it drove Sega to stop making hardware entirely and instead focus on making increasingly dreadful Sonic the Hedgehog games.

Nintendo are now in the unenviable position of launching the follow up to their least popular console in the middle of a console generation in which their competitors are two of the fastest selling video game consoles of all time. With third party support for Nintendo being at an all time low, the NX is going to have to come out of the gates with some huge first party titles to have any hope of success in appealing to enough people to convince third party developers to work with the platform. Without third party support, the console is likely doomed to a similar fate to that of the Wii U.

It would be foolish to write off Nintendo without seeing what the NX actually is, but given everything that’s going against them, it’s hard to see a future where their next console makes enough of a splash to dethrone the PS4. The hardcore Nintendo fanboys will buy the NX no matter what it is. Nintendo could announce that the NX is a cardboard box containing nothing but polystyrene packing and a dead dog, and their hardcore faithful would likely still try and explain it away as a thought provoking critique on the state of the gaming industry. But Nintendo need to appeal to more than their dwindling fanbase who’ll love whatever they release if they have any chance of regaining the market share they’ve lost to Sony and Microsoft. Their hardcore fans aren’t enough. If they were, the Wii U wouldn’t be such a colossal failure. Nintendo need to convince non-Nintendo fans to buy their hardware. But even with cross-over appeal, even if the NX sells at the same pace as the Wii, the PS5 would be out long before it caught up to the PS4. The NX could very well be a successful console for Nintendo, but it seems the odds are against it slowing the PS4 down.

Nintendo are turning up late to the party and they have to play catch up. As someone who has done that frequently in the past, I can tell you it usually only goes one of two ways; you’re either sober and bored, or you drink so much you’re sick on your shoes.

The PS4 is basically an apology for the PS3

The PS3 would have been more use to me at launch if it could grill chicken.

The PS3 would have been more use to me at launch if it could grill chicken.

The start of this generation will long be remembered for a series of PR disasters from Microsoft, and how Sony deftly used those blunders to their advantage. But if you’re old enough to remember the beginning of the seventh generation, you’ll recall that Sony were the ones taking the battering back then. Arrogant, nonsensical, and almost entirely consumed by hubris after the success of the PS2, Sony probably couldn’t have done a worse job with the launch of the PS3 if they’d handed control of their company over to the Marx brothers.

The Sony of 2005 and 2006 were an entirely different beast from the Sony of today. They made absurd claims about the power of their new console. They outright lied to consumers. And they patronized their own fans. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote from Ken Kutaragi at TGS 2006:

“The possibility of creating a GMS, a global map system, users will be invited to upload their data. Users will start with all the pieces of information in their living room, their favorite restaurant, their school…. This is not just a pipe dream. You can enjoy the data in real time. You can fly through the landscape in real time.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Do you? Not even the team that cracked the Enigma Code could get to the bottom of that techno-babble. And yet that’s a real quote about what the PlayStation 3 was capable of made prior to launch. Does that sound like your PS3? I couldn’t even get my PS3 to launch the store without coughing and spluttering like a heavy smoker with emphysema, and old Ken here was talking about it like Kanye West talks about Kanye West.

Last generation, it often felt like Sony were laughing in our faces.

Last generation, it often felt like Sony were laughing in our faces.

Remember how much the PS3 cost at launch? $600. When Sony announced that launch price, you could practically hear the journalists in attendance flipping through their calendars to make sure it wasn’t April 1st. But our old friend Ken Kutaragi wasn’t worried about the price tag. This is what he had to say on the matter:

“It’s probably too cheap… For instance, is it not nonsense to compare the charge for dinner at the company cafeteria with dinner at a fine restaurant? It’s a question of what you can do with that game machine. If you can have an amazing experience, we believe price is not a problem.”

Unfortunately, for Ken and Sony, price was a problem. The PS3 was more expensive than the competition, and games consistently ran better on the Xbox 360 than they did on Sony’s console, as the propriety Cell processor within the PS3 led to complications in development. The system was badly designed and badly marketed, and worst of all, Sony didn’t seem to give a fig because they thought they could release any old tripe after the success of the PS2 and gamers would eat it up.

Fast forward to the reveal of the PS4, and it was evident from the offset that Sony had learned from their mistakes with the PS3. The PS4 was a no-nonsense gaming machine. No gimmicks, no fancy arm waving controllers, no absurd launch price, and no weird architecture holding back developers. The PS4 was billed as a games machine made for the players, and after having to endure the Wii, and the increasing focus on Kinect from Microsoft, that’s exactly what many gamers wanted to hear.

With the PS4, Sony were essentially apologizing for everything they did wrong with the PS3, and by listening to developers and gamers alike, they managed to build a system that is attractive to consumers, and forge a reputation as the console manufacturer that cares.

Microsoft did a better job promoting the PS4 than Sony did

Don Mattrick did so much damage to the Xbox brand that he might as well have been working for Sony.

Don Mattrick did so much damage to the Xbox brand that he might as well have been working for Sony.

After Sony revealed the PS4 in February 2013 to generally enthusiastic responses from gamers, all eyes were on Microsoft, and what they’d have to counter the latest PlayStation console. In May of the same year, Microsoft revealed the Xbox One – a gargantuan black box bearing an uncanny resemblance to a VCR only without any of the retro charm, and set out to show the world just how revolutionary their new console was. Or at least that was the plan. The problem was that Microsoft spent so much time blathering on about all the non-gamey things the Xbox One could do, that it seemed like they’d forgotten about gamers entirely.

The big new thing with the Xbox One was that it could function as a set-top box, piping live television through it, and using your voice as the remote control via the power of Kinect. Upon reflection, live television seems like an odd feature to champion so heavily in a gaming console. Who actually watches live television in this day and age beyond sports and the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Since the proliferation of on demand services like Netflix and Amazon, especially among the demographics most closely associated with gaming consoles, live television was a strange thing to focus so much on. Gamers certainly thought so, and the gimmicky Xbox One was viewed less enthusiastically than the previously revealed PS4.

This mixed response only became more acerbic once rumours began swirling that the Xbox One would require an Internet connection to function, and that it would block used games. The rumours wouldn’t go away, and when Microsoft employees chimed in on social media, they merely exacerbated the problem. Finally, the week before E3 2013, Microsoft confirmed what gamers had feared; the Xbox One would block used games, it would put barriers between people lending games to their friends, and it would require some form of Internet connectivity every 24 hours or it would become useless. Predictably, gamers didn’t think the ability to watch The Price Is Right through their Xbox One was an acceptable trade-off, and the shit hit the fan. The days leading up to E3 were tense.

Jack Tretton was the face of the Xbox One's doom at E3 2013.

Jack Tretton was the face of the Xbox One’s doom at E3 2013.

E3 2013 will long be remembered as the show that killed the original vision for the Xbox One, as Sony’s Jack Tretton stood on stage and systematically dismantled Microsoft’s policies for their new console while the audience cheered on. What few will remember is that the Microsoft conference was actually pretty good. It was likely better than the Sony one. But such was the failure of their PR department to communicate the message of the Xbox One to consumers, that Microsoft came across so badly, so miserly, so anti-consumer, that one could be forgiven for expecting Don Mattrick to try and steal the sugar out of your tea. Once the dominoes were lined up, all it took was Sony to come out and announce that they weren’t going to be evil, and the original Xbox One was dead in the water.

The Xbox One was badly designed from the off-set. It was a console designed for a demographic that didn’t exist. It offered solutions to problems that nobody has. It was marketed as a casual machine at a hardcore price, simultaneously offending both markets. But for all the failures of the system as it was originally designed, it wasn’t the console itself that was the problem, but how Microsoft delivered that message.

When gamers balked at required Internet connections, Microsoft mumbled on about magical cloud computing or instructed their fans to just buy a 360 instead. When consumers were concerned about lending games to their friends, Microsoft failed to truly convey the benefits of an all digital game sharing scheme. Gamers were concerned, and Microsoft underestimated the level of that concern, either ignoring the questions outright, or simply dismissing them. Their petulant attitude to legitimate issues people had with their proposed policies meant that the straight-talking, seemingly gamer friendly Sony swayed public opinion in their favor, and they became the de facto good guys in this console war story.

Sony did a good job on PR with the PS4, but Microsoft handed it to them on a silver platter. Subsequent policy reversals and excellent work from Phil Spencer since he took over Xbox have helped rehabilitate the image of the company, but the damage was already done. Microsoft handed Sony the ball, and so far, Sony haven’t dropped it. The sales of the two systems are still reflecting that.

Games. Games. Games.

Resogun launched with the PS4 and remains one of the best games on the system.

Resogun launched with the PS4 and remains one of the best games on the system.

Sony made it clear that their focus would be on games from the moment that the PS4 was announced. Motion controls had left a bad taste in a lot of gamers mouths, and Microsoft were getting some flack for their decision to make the Kinect an integral part of the Xbox One. Sony marketed the PS4 as a simple games machine, and after waving their arms around with the Wii, and repeating the same phrase over and over again to the Kinect hoping it would actually work, the “all about games” mission statement from PlayStation was exactly what many gamers wanted. They didn’t mention television, the PlayStation Camera was relegated from a part of the standard SKU to an optional add-on, and PlayStation Move was banished to the realm of forgotten peripherals where it rightly ought to be. The PS4 was launched as a serious console, for serious gamers.

Despite this focus on gaming first, detractors of Sony this generation have oft made the claim that the “PlayStation 4 has no games!” in response to the relative lack of first party exclusives in comparison to the Xbox One or the Wii U. But a quick gander over at Metacritic reveals that the number of quality titles to play on PS4 is impressive even without first party exclusives like Uncharted or Gran Turismo on the console yet.

Number of games rated 80 or above by system:

Wii U: 52
Xbox One: 69
PS4: 110

Octodad was just one of the many indie games given conference time by Sony.

Octodad was just one of the many indie games given conference time by Sony.

While Sony’s first party game this generation has been largely irrelevant, their focus on exclusive content with third party developers, as well as securing exclusive second party titles like Until Dawn and Bloodborne, and doubling down on indie developers to make the PS4 the home of smaller, downloadable titles, has paid dividends. What Sony have is an incredible variety of games, stretching from ultra-hardcore slash ’em ups like Bloodborne, to addictive, arcade shooters like Resogun, and the biggest budget, AAA blockbusters like Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid V. Exclusive content with games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 4 and Destiny make the PS4 the logical home of multiplatform games, and the steady stream of indie titles releasing week after week means that there’s always something new to play between the biggest games of the year.

While Sony concentrated on games right from the start, their competition suffered from mixed messaging, poor marketing, and a lack of focus. Nintendo’s Wii U was more of a core gaming machine than the Wii, but the confusing name led many people to believe the console was just an add-on for the Wii, the bizarre, underpowered hardware contributed to a lack of third party support, and the tablet controller drove up the price without ever really being given a reason to exist. Microsoft, meanwhile, were still trying to convince us that Kinect was the future, as though saving us the two seconds it takes to extend our index finger and press a button on a remote control by talking to our consoles instead was anything but an expensive, irrelevant gadget. Sony’s “for the players” approach was a refreshing change of tune.

After two years on the market, my PS3 was essentially an ugly, noisy, blu-ray player that I occasionally played games on. Conversely, the PS4, in the same space of time, has built an impressive library of games spanning genres and price points, and the importance of that can’t be overstated. Sony are killing off the competition, and they’ve yet to release their Halo 5, or their Super Mario 3D World. Once the first party exclusive games like Uncharted 4, Gran Turismo Sport and Horizon: Zero Dawn start to arrive, their fortunes can only improve.

So what does this mean for the future?

Not even Mystic Meg could have predicted how well the PS4 would sell.

Not even Mystic Meg could have predicted how well the PS4 would sell.

Sony and their PlayStation 4 are absolutely dominating this generation so far. The Wii U is already done, and Microsoft are no longer releasing sales numbers for the Xbox One. For all intents and purposes, in terms of pure sales figures, the console war is over. But what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, if you’re Sony then it’s tremendous news. For everyone else? Not necessarily.

The last time that Sony dominated a generation, they walked out on stage, announced that the PS3 would cost $600, dismissed concerns of consumers by telling them to get a second job if they wanted to afford one, and laughed at the notion of rumble in controllers as a relic of previous generations before sheepishly adding it back into their pads at a later date. Overwhelming success can often breed complacency, while stiff competition is the mother of value. PlayStation Plus and the Instant Game Collection are wonderful ideas that exist not because Sony felt like doing something nice for their fans, but because the Xbox 360 was eating into their market share and they needed to come up with something to get one over on the competition. Conversely, Microsoft, the company that thought it was okay to put subscription services like Netflix behind another paywall on their system while they were winning, have recanted on that, and have also now introduced their own “free games” initiative called Games With Gold since the Xbox One started getting pasted by the PS4.

Competition is good for industry, and more importantly good for consumers. When there’s only one bar in town they can charge what they want for a gin and tonic. And nobody wants overpriced liquor.

Sony have done a lot right this generation, and their competition have done an awful lot wrong. Now they’re reaping the benefits. But as consumers without a stake in any of these companies, we should be hoping for Xbox One sales to improve, and Nintendo to come back strong with the NX. Competition is important for the industry to grow, and for consumers to get the best value out of what they buy. So while it’s important to congratulate Sony on their successes, and applaud their consumer friendly and humble outlook on this generation so far as a step in the right direction, we should also be hoping for their competition to step up their game, and really make Sony work for our affection in the years to come.

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John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at