Attempting To Understand How On Earth Sony Has Sold 18.5M PS4s

Posted: January 6, 2015 in Game Articles

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by Paul Tassi

Sony just released its latest set of hard numbers for sales of the PS4, and those looking for signs of a slowdown won’t find it here. After reporting 10 million consoles sold to consumers in August 2014, Sony’s new figures have them selling 18.5 million PS4s. And yes, that’s still sold to consumers, not shipped to retailers, a metric often used to put a positive spin on lower sales.

Sony has used “shipped” data a handful of times, but it’s practically standard procedure for Microsoft’s Xbox One figures at this point. The latest data we have for the One is 10 million consoles shipped to retailers in mid-November. And we don’t have any hard sold-to-consumers data since Q1 of 2014, when Microsoft said 5.1 million Xbox Ones had been sold, not just shipped. And since we shouldn’t leave it out, Nintendo’s Wii U, with its year-long head start, that console has sold just under 7.5 million units to consumers by last count.

The picture is clear, and it’s not even close. Fanboy camps aside, Sony is absolutely crushing its competition this console generation in terms of sales, and its strong start didn’t just last through the release window, as it’s now over a year since launch. The PS4 is approaching a quarter of the total sales of the PS3 in just the first year, dramatically outpacing the last-generation console’s launch. It hasn’t quite reached Wii levels of sales insanity, but that was a console sold to everyone from toddlers to grandparents, and the PS4 has no such “fad appeal” to non-gamers.

This past August, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida famously said that even he didn’t fully understand why the PS4 was selling so well:

“It’s just beyond our imagination. We are so happy. But I for one am a bit nervous because we do not completely understand what’s happening. You need to understand why your products are selling well so you can plan for the future, right? It defied the conventional thinking.”

And it’s hard to imagine that same sentiment doesn’t hold true today. While Microsoft will probably see something of a bump to Xbox One sales after crafting deeply discounted holiday bundles, moving from 10M units shipped this November to anything even close to Sony’s sell-through numbers is near impossible. I’m not sure when, if ever, we’ll finally hear those numbers, but if Microsoft has more than 12M units Xbox One’s sold to consumers, I’d be amazed. Frankly, I think we would have heard about it if they’d crossed 10M sold through, but we haven’t. And 4.1M of PS4′s new sales have come this holiday season, so it’s not as if Sony did poorly on the back of big Microsoft sales.

If even Sony can’t comprehend why their system is selling so well, I’m not going to pretend like I have all the answers. To some extent, it does defy logic. Despite the PS4 being a perfectly great piece of hardware, it certainly hasn’t done anything to distinguish itself in terms of exclusive games since launch. Games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son have been their highest profile exclusives, which is to say the system hasn’t had many big titles to itself at all. Those are perfectly fine games, but Microsoft has an equally adequate exclusive roster (Sunset Overdrive, Halo: MCC when it works), and both of them were very obviously trumped by Nintendo this year between Mario Kart, Smash Bros. and Bayonetta.

Rather, the rest of the biggest games of the year were all multiplatform, ie, available on both PS4 and Xbox One, sometimes PC, and never Wii U. These are games like Far Cry 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Destiny, Shadow of Mordor, Wolfenstein: The New Order and more. What then happened was that the PS4 simply became the “default” console for many of these titles, and it’s because of the momentum of the system which has snowballed since launch.

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We can’t ignore the dual launch of the Xbox One and PS4 over a year ago, as its effects are clearly reverberating today. While the Wii U was fixated on a gamepad it would later prove it had no idea what to do with, and the Xbox One had fused with Kinect and turned into a mutated, pricey, monster console, the PS4 played it straight. It was the console for games, and it played them with no gimmicks. The result was a lower price, a little more power, and the adoration of fans who didn’t want the change the competition was trying to inflict on them.

The rest is history, which has now very much shaped the present. Right now, the Xbox One and the PS4 are functionally identical in almost every way, but it was a long, slow crawl for Microsoft to walk back huge issue after huge issue with the Xbox One, first turning away from a mostly disc-less future even before launch, and then eventually surgically removing the borderline useless Kinect from the system resulting in the lower price the One should have always had. Throw in your preference for exclusive games and a lower bundle price, and right now, the Xbox One might even be the more attractive option.

But these changes took the better part of the whole year, and by that time, many fans had already made up their mind to go with the system that really hasn’t had to change anything at all over the past 13 months, and the stigma of Xbox One’s past misdeeds still lingers like a poison fog among the undecided. The PS4 got it right the first take, and have been reaping the rewards ever since. Its success hasn’t been warranted by any fabulous technological breakthrough or a stellar line-up of must-have, exclusive games. Rather, Sony won by simply not losing, and they’re continuing to do so to this day, as Microsoft still can’t rid themselves completely of scandal, most recently the disastrous Halo: MCC launch which should have been their proudest moment of the year.

I can’t discount the fact that the PlayStation Experience was also a fabulously timed show right before the holiday that demonstrated how the PS4 was going to finally get all those fantastic exclusives in 2015. Games like Bloodborne, The Order 1886 and Uncharted 4 were all anyone was talking about in December, and some of that enthusiasm had to translate into holiday sales, even without very many highly discounted bundles on store shelves.

As successful as the PS4 is at the moment, the current video game landscape may not see the system ever pass the original PlayStation (102M sales) or the all-time great PS2 (155M sales). The market may just be too fractured now for that to be possible. But right now, in this current race, the only one that matters, Sony is doing almost impossibly well, given the lack of an obvious advantage other than their competition simply dropping the ball in various ways. It’s really something the console wars have never seen before. It’s easy to see why systems like the Wii and PS2 sold so explosively, but for the PS4, it’s a more blurry picture.

The PS4 is a great console. Is it twice or three times as good as its competition? Absolutely not. But Sony capitalized on the initial mistakes of Microsoft and Nintendo in brilliant, simple ways. I’m not sure the PS4 is a triumph of technology or game design as of yet, but it’s one of the more fascinating product development, branding and messaging stories of our time.

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