Seriously, enough with the hyperbolic console wars headlines, sales numbers and soothsaying. Unlike almost every other category of hot new thing, game consoles are all about building and sustaining sales.
The console generation led by the PS3 and Xbox 360 spanned eight years and it’s still going strong. In fact, Microsoft plans to continue support for the Xbox 360 for three more years, into 2016. In that time, you could easily cycle through more than four different smartphones on a traditional two-year carrier contract. But unlike smartphones, tablets and even desktop and notebook computers, video game consoles are designed to go the distance.
Like a fine wine or a pretentious cheese, video game consoles actually get better over time—and that changes everything, especially in how we perceive “the console wars.”
How Console Sales Behave
Launch day sales of a new iPhone will often predict the phone’s success over the coming year, given their truncated lifespan and Apple’s yearly update schedules. But what do early sales of a console mean? What compels people to buy new video game consoles, and when?
Given the stretched-out timeline for the previous generation of consoles, we have a solid eight years of buying behavior to look back on.
About this chart: It includes cumulative international sales numbers over time (not just U.S. sales like those published in most NPD reports). The numbers are culled from Microsoft and Sony’s official sales releases, mostly annual company press reports summing up the prior year. No, it doesn’t include Nintendo, but frankly, it did it need to—Nintendo is a discussion for another time, anyway.
What not to take away from this chart:
- Omg! The Xbox 360 and PS3 are neck and neck!
- The PlayStation 3 “wins” because it launched a year after the Xbox 360.
- Anything else hyperbolic or stupid.
What to take away from this chart:
- Sales built steadily over time and even picked up as the consoles matured. The PS3 had its best sales in 2010 (four years after the console’s initial launch) while the Xbox 360’s best year was 2011 (six years after its launch).
- The first few months of sales proves almost completely insignificant. Both consoles launched in their first markets late in the year and took a few months to expand worldwide.
- In spite of everything that happened prior, the PS3 and Xbox 360 ended up in the same place at the dawn of this console generation, each selling roughly 80 million units by late 2013.
- It’s not a zero sum game. Both consoles enjoyed healthy sales, neither to the apparent detriment of the other. In fact, both popularized console gaming into an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, arguably helping each other in the process.
Why Hurry To Upgrade?
The PS4 and Xbox One are both still in their infancies. Neither console has had time to build out a robust selection of games to display even an ounce of what this new console hardware makes possible. And thanks to routine software updates, five years from now, the consoles will run on software that’s barely recognizable (in a good way).
Really, there’s just no compelling reason for gamers to hurry and upgrade. Mature consoles are not only a steal, but they’re platforms for an endless back catalogue of awesome games. (See our list of 5 reasons to stick with a last-gen console.)
To date, Sony has sold roughly 7 million units of the PlayStation 4 and the last we heard from Microsoft was 3.9 million Xbox One units as of January. Xbox One sales surely suffered among the early adopter set thanks to the $100 higher price tag and early controversies, but over time, that effect could prove negligible.
During the course of their epic continuing lifespans, the Xbox 360 and PS3 moved roughly 80 million units to date. In the so-called “console wars,” the out of the gate effect just doesn’t matter as much. Sure, if either console were a total flop, it would indicate a big problem. But in the world of gaming hardware, a mature platform is actually much more appealing than a new one.
This Hardware Generation Could Last Even Longer
Late last year, Microsoft Canada’s Xbox direction Craig Flannagan suggested the Xbox One could survive for even longer than eight years:
” …It’s probably going to be a pretty long generation. We’re probably here for a while because we’re built for the future. This is a console that will last you, conservatively a decade, if I had to put a bet down today”
Hardware that lasts a decade? It’s hard to imagine such a thing in this fast-paced age of innovation; when you look back at the early days of the previous console generation—the one that started way back in 2005, with the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3—”cutting-edge graphics” looked a little different.
Call of Duty in 2005
Call of Duty in 2013
After a solid eight years of breaking console wars headlines, shortsighted U.S. quarterly sales reports and winner-take-all pontificating, the last generation of consoles all ended up in the same place. As a result, the gaming industry is flourishing like never before, graphics don’t look like that any more, and yes, sales numbers are locked in a vicious, unpredictable, but also perfectly even tie.