For the usually self-assured video games industry, it was a startling admission.
In an interview with Eurogamer last week, the head of Sony Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida – in effect the face of the PlayStation empire – confessed that he had no explanation for the success of PlayStation 4.
Since the launch of the console last November, it has sold 10m units worldwide. The PS3 had sold half that number by this point in its lifecycle, while the PlayStation 2 (the most successful console ever launched) took over a year to hit the 10m mark. And this is supposed to be an era in which smartphones and tablets have eaten into the core gaming market.
“It’s just beyond our imagination. We are so happy,” said Yoshida-san. “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?
“Are we exhausting all the core gamers? If we sell this number of units, there are no more consumers we can sell to. That’s a really terrifying prospect. So we want to understand who are these consumers who we do not necessarily consider core gamers, who are purchasing PS4 and why they are doing it?”
To help Yoshida-san out, we asked a variety of developers and industry insiders for their theories. Here’s what they came back with.
Theory one: it’s all about the launch and distributionIn previous console generations, major machines have tended to launch in one territory – usually Japan – months before rolling out across the world. For example, the PlayStation 2 launched in Japan in March 2000 and didn’t hit shop shelves in Europe until November. Meanwhile, the PS3 suffered various production difficulties due to its early implementation of a Blu-ray drive, which meant supply was strangled for several months.
PlayStation 4, however, launched in most of the major territories on its opening day, so more consumers had the opportunity to buy (or at least pre-order) the machine while the hype was at its most intense. And they’d waited a long time for the opportunity. “The last generation went on for a very, very long time,” says Chris Dring, editor of industry news site, MCV. “The pent-up demand for new hardware was at an all-time high. The last generation of consoles was really slowing down at the end, we were getting and endless stream of sequels… the market was, frankly, a bit dull. So when new hardware arrived, everyone upgraded incredibly quickly.”
Furthermore, the PS4 architecture is much more straightforward than the PS3, which means Sony has largely been able to keep pace with demand. It could be argued that PS4 is not actually more popular than its predecessors, it’s just that it’s been more readily available.
Theory two: it’s all about the failed launch of the Xbox One
Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox One is widely considered a disaster. The unveiling event last May concentrated on the console’s live TV capabilities, as well as revealing that the Kinect camera was mandatory and would need to be switched on continuously. It also looked as though the console would require almost permanent broadband internet access, and that the sale of pre-owned games would be heavily controlled. Consumers weren’t impressed. It’s possible many gamers bought PlayStation 4 consoles as an act of consumer defiance.
“I think the proposed restrictions on pre-owned frightened off consumers,” says Simon Byron, head of games at Premier Communications. “Months after the idea was canned, I still came across people from outside the industry bemoaning their lack of consumer freedom, with many saying they’d switch to PlayStation. Had the Xbox One been backwards compatible, it would have been a much harder decision to defect.”
Veteran developer Ste Pickford of Zee-3 agrees. “Microsoft pitched the Xbox One as a sort of out-of-date expensive TIVO for American sports, with an unwanted spy box on the top, so the gamers went for the PS4 which was, ‘more of the same, but with better graphics’ – a more familiar and more welcome message.”
And even though Microsoft quickly u-turned on its more controversial plans, the damage was done. “PS4 had already hit a critical social mass,” says Pat Garratt, editor of VG247. “People buy the consoles their friends own - especially now online play is so standard - and if you get a quick launch with little competition your growth can be exponential.
“There’s nothing particularly wrong with Xbox One, but I think the Microsoft team has been victim to a very unfortunate set of circumstances, some of it self-made and some not. PS4’s a great console, but it’s kind of difficult to screw up when there’s so much going against your main competitor.”
Theory three: it’s all about the failed launch of the Nintendo Wii U
For get Xbox One, for a moment. Wii dominated the previous generation shifting over 100m units and bringing a whole new audience into gaming. But the Wii U, with its difficult-to-explain GamePad has been a flop.
“PS2 was a fast seller and an astronomical success because it appealed to all audiences, hardcore gamers and more mainstream consumers alike,” says Dring. “However, during the life of Xbox 360 and PS3, those ‘mainstream’ consumers bought Wiis. This time around it looks like quite a few have returned to the PlayStation family.”
Theory four: it’s all about price
In most console generations, it’s the cheaper machine that prospers, rather than the most advanced or feature-rich. PlayStation 4 was cheaper than Xbox One. Game over.
“For the first time, both consoles launched at roughly the same time with – in consumers’ eyes – very similar features,” says Byron. “The battle was probably won thanks to the two most immediate differences: an in-box camera and the price – essentially the same thing. With pockets being squeezed ever tighter, the £80 price difference was magnified.
“I think it’s really telling that the PlayStation 4 camera was out of stock at launch – consumers like choice, rather than being forced into buying something they’re not certain they’ll need.”
Game designer Adam Saltsman agrees. “Bundled with Kinect, the Xbox was super expensive – PS4 launched with what seemed like a lot of games, indie or otherwise, and most AAA games are non-exclusive now anyway. I think anybody sitting around wanting some kind of sexy ‘next-gen’ hardware – are we still allowed to say that? – would have to stomach spending an extra few hundred bucks on a console with less games. I just think that’s a hard leap for people to make.”
Theory five: it’s all about games
From the start, Sony went out and sold PlayStation 4 as a games machine, which, if you really wanted it to, could do other stuff. The company realised that consumers are overloaded with gadgets – phones, tablets, set-top boxes, cable subscriptions, satellite services, smart TVs – that promise a wealth of multimedia features. Only PlayStation gives you LittleBigPlanet, Uncharted and the rest. The clarity of that message was appealing to consumers who just want to play.
“The variety on PS4 has also been very good,” says Dring. “Although there’s been quite a lack of content so far, there have been quite a few new IPs and quirky titles. And the quantity of original software appears to be having the same effect on hardware sales that a ‘triple AAA’ launch would.”
Games designer and coder Byron Atkinson-Jones puts it all very simply. “I got a PS4 because I wanted to play games, pure and simple – and the message to me from Sony was that the PS4 is a games machine.
“Can it do anything else? I don’t know. But I do know it can play games. The message wasn’t confused or mixed in with a bunch of other superfluous other stuff. Even the name, PlayStation 4, was a clear message: it has got to be better than PS3 because it’s the next number up. There’s nothing confusing about Playstation, it’s a brand with a clear progression. It’s not trying to reinvent itself each time, it’s remaining consistent – and in a world where there are thousands of new things trying to grab my attention and my cash, consistency can be a good thing - a bedrock, an anchor point.”
Theory six: it’s all about being cool
Cool is unquantifiable - there are whole creative agencies filled with bearded, skinny jeans-wearing brand gurus who can’t define exactly what it is. But maybe PS4 has it. Somehow. And that’s all there is to it.
“I don’t think any of these things are things that people are thinking about consciously – except maybe the price thing,” says Saltsman. “It seems more like a kind of... general overall sense, like the PS4 just has this weird aura of goodwill around it.”
Artist Dick Hogg, co-creator of experimental PlayStation game, Hohokum, has noticed a similar mood. “I have noticed that a lot of people I know who are not massive gamers seem to be very keen to have a PS4. I’m talking about the kind of people who perhaps have a PS3 but only play Fifa and perhaps a driving game. I have seen guys like this visibly disappointed when I tell them that Hohokum is out on the PS3 too because they were looking for an excuse to buy a PS4.
“I have no idea why but I think it is partly because the PS4 is kind of a sexy object. Literally it is a beautiful, classy looking console. If you think that is a silly reason for selling 10 million electronic devices look at what Jonathan Ive does for a living.”
Perhaps what it comes down to is a certain simplicity and style. Perhaps PlayStation is gaming’s little black dress. Sleek, pure, and we all know what it means and what it’s for.
“The PS4 looks like I imagine a games machine should look like,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If you were to walk into my living room and ask somebody to find the games machine they are going to point to the PS4 and say ‘that’s it!’ even though there’s an Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii also there. We like to think we aren’t shallow and that looks don’t really matter but when it comes down to it they really do, and the PS4 has it where it counts - it looks like it’s a games machine.”
Of course, the fight is far from over. Xbox One is selling well, too, compared to its predecessors, and we’re still only eight months into what is likely to be a ten-year lifecycle. Sales of Microsoft’s machine have surged after the arrival of cheaper Kinect-free bundles, and exclusives like Sunset Overdrive and Halo 5 will help.
The other, darker possibility is that the new consoles have already reached their ceiling – that all the people who were going to buy them have done it now. “The one worry for the industry is, will this sharp increase in hardware sales result in a steep decline in a few years time?” asks Dring. “That will depend heavily on Microsoft and Sony’s ability to broaden out and actually increase the number of console gamers.”
Yoshida-san then, is right to be concerned because the games industry is in uncharted territory. It’s in rude health at the moment, but the pace of change in the tech economy is breathtaking. Look at Blackberry, look at MySpace – the slightest hint of a dip and things go south pretty fast these days. There are no second acts in digital lives.
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