Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been a bona fide sales sensation, lighting up the charts on its way to 10 million units sold since launch — and amusingly enough, Sony’s own executives don’t actually know why the PS4 is selling so well. While the company’s sales trajectory is excellent, there’s some concern that an early burn could lead to a catastrophic flame-out at a later date.
Speaking to Eurogamer, president of Sony Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida spoke about the triumphs and challenges of the console, including the company’s investigation into what features, exactly, consumers are buying it for. This has been a bit confusing — thus far, there simply isn’t any single clear reason why gamers are buying in such numbers or opting for the PS4 over the Xbox One.
Multifaceted appeal is a sign of strength
A quick glance at sales charts seems to confirm Sony’s statements that there’s no clear single driver of the PS4′s popularity. Almost all its top-10 titles are available on other consoles. Historically, there have been times when a console was strongly associated with sales of a particular title — but the trend is not an absolute one.
When Yoshida says that Sony is concerned about exhausting the core gamer market, it’s not a ridiculous fear. The PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, and Wii U all debuted to strong initial sales only to fall off a cliff once early demand was met. Nintendo kept the 3DS alive with steep price cuts and game bundling, but the Wii U continues to lag. Sony lost billions on the early PS3 ramp — keeping the price up is an essential part of the console’s long-term strategy.
In retrospect, however, it may have been a mistake to read too much into Nintendo’s performance and what it said about the next-gen console business. Nintendo, by its own admission, is a software company that happens to make a hardware platform. Third-party titles are known second-class citizens in Nintendo’s eyes — you buy a console from them because you want to play Smash Brothers, Zelda, Metroid, or Mario — not because you’re interested in titles from EA or Ubisoft. That focus pays off when Nintendo delivers excellent games, but it leaves even the die-hard faithful with little reason to buy a console before the games are ready. There’s no point in spending $250 now for a paperweight until your favorite franchise releases a game.
With Sony and Microsoft, there’s a much greater sense of buying into a system — and while the PS4 doesn’t have any single game that seems to be driving sales, that could mean the floor is wide open for multiple console-defining titles to drop and seize the day.
PS4: A great success for pedestrian reasons?
My own theory is that the PS4 has succeeded thus far on its overall strength rather than a single killer feature. In 2006, Sony was the last, most costly console with an expensive bet on a then-unproven feature. It had abandoned defining features like rumble in favor of a new six-axis control scheme. It had a disastrous launch campaign and a miserable launch attach rate thanks in part to an incredibly difficult architecture and a weak developer support system. When the head of the company proudly attests that the console is supposed to be difficult to program because if it wasn’t it might threaten Sony’s revenue stream, it’s not a great way to build developer support.
The PS4, in contrast, had none of that baggage. As Microsoft floundered in repeated attempts to find and address a core market, Sony stuck to a dirt-simple message on price and focus. While Microsoft reversed course on Kinect (before finally killing the feature), Sony simply stuck to its guns. This time around, it was Sony out in front with indie announcements, Sony with more powerful hardware, Sony that had the more consistent message.
Before anyone jumps on me for being a fanboy, keep this in mind: I’m not declaring the PS4 a better console — I’m looking to explain why it has objectively sold more units. Unlike the PS2 and PS3, both of which debuted as new content delivery standards (DVD, Blu-ray) were coming online (and were rather excellent players), the PS4 doesn’t offer a new method of content consumption. Nor has its adoption spiked a jump in Blu-ray revenue (physical media remains a huge business but is sharply off its peak as shown below).
It’s not clear how many truly new sales Sony has driven. Yoshida says that “some of the early data was amazing in terms of the number of people who didn’t used to own PS3 have already purchased PS4… And some people never purchased any last-gen hardware: PS3, or Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.”
That’s two separate data points, and without percentages, we can’t really judge the impact. If 50% of the people buying PS4s owned an Xbox 360 but never a PS3, that would be a huge sign that Sony had seized market share from Microsoft. If 10% of the people buying a PS4 owned an Xbox 360, and 5% had never owned a previous-generation console, that’s still important — but the impact of the numbers is shaped by their size, and Yoshida didn’t reveal that data.
Absent reason to believe otherwise, we’re betting that the PS4 is firing on all thrustersrather than being propelled by any single feature. That’s got to be worrisome for a company trying to understand the appeal to new customers, but the fact is, gamers, en masse, appear to be buying into both platforms despite fears that game consoles were outdated or that neither system would be appealing.
That’s a win-win for everybody.