Thursday, August 02, 2007

What if it isn't Sony's fault?

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Bear with me.

So, we know where we are. Sony have done everything they could wrong, with their enemy-crab-infested, triple-delayed, masturbation-sanctioning, Spider-Man-branded, over-priced, loss-generating, truth-economising, cathedral-desecrating super-console.

And Microsoft have done everything right. They launched first, with a well-priced, good-looking machine, a top-notch online service, a steady stream of decent games, smart branding, likable PR, and a nice clutch of exclusives to look forward to. So, apart from the tiny matter of every single console so far sold being fundamentally unreliable, they could hardly have handled it better.

And so we have a situation where the 360 is selling double the PS3 in the US, the Wii is outselling it five to ten times over most weeks in Japan, and around the world the PS2 remains many times over the more popular of Sony's home consoles. Stupid, stupid Sony.

And for Microsoft, there must be a double dose of schadenfreude, because it wasn't too long ago that they were the ones doing everything wrong. Their initial arrival into the games industry was treated with hostility and skepticism. Their console was amazingly ugly. Their print adverts were close-up pictures of pubic hair, and their TV adverts were banned. Their controllers were too big for normal people's hands (are you saying I'm not normal?). They arrived late into a battle which Sony had already won. And so this time, having done everything right and watched their competitors do everything wrong, they must be reaping their rewards.

In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft sold 9.4 million Xboxes.
In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft shipped 11.6 million 360s.

That's an increase of 23%. Not a bad uplift. But, as ever, the trick is in that little word shipped. Microsoft also announced that it cut shipments from 1.8 million in the last quarter of last year, to 700,000 in the first quarter of this year. What that means is that retail channels are already well-stocked with 360s, which means that it's certain the number of 360s sold is considerably lower than 11.6 million. And considerably lower than 11.6 million is in the region of 10 million, which is in the region of what they managed to sell last time.

I am the only one perplexed by this? The first Xbox was all about establishing the brand and learning the ropes. It's a policy that seemed to have worked, and yet here Microsoft are, reaching no more people now than they were first time out.

Who could explain that? Well, Satoru Iwata could. He's been telling everyone who'll listen for the past two years that the stagnant, collapsing conditions which hit the Japanese market a few years ago would wash out across the world before long. And maybe, distracted as we all are by Sony's continued foot-swallowing, we're allowing ourselves to overlook the fact that the Western mainstream games market also seems to be at saturation point. So while Sony still has a lot of explaining to do (rough figures: it's taken PS3 eight months to sell around four million. It took PS2 twelve months to sell ten million), they could well be facing tougher market conditions than we've yet realised. Think about it: is there really anyone left in the developed world that wants to play videogames who isn't already?