The biggest news out of Gamescom so far today is that next year, Rise of the Tomb Raider will be an Xbox exclusive. And the reason for that was revealed at the Sony press conference, where it’s become painfully clear just how important an early lead is in console sales.
Buried deep in Microsoft’s annual report was a breakdown of Xbox console sales, and the numbers are ugly. Well, for differing values of ugly; the Xbox One is quite handily the fastest-selling console Microsoft has ever produced, but while they didn’t lose $400 million on it like the headlines claim, it’s worth noting Microsoft is deliberately vague over how many Ones it sold.
For contrast, today at Gamescom Sony announced that they’d sold 10 million PS4s. Not “shipped,” mind you. Sold. For a little comparison, the PlayStation 2 moved about 1.3 million in its first year. The PlayStation 3 moved 6 million units in two years. No wonder Sony’s reaction to the Tomb Raider news boiled down largely to happy indifference; they don’t need it when they’re selling a million consoles a month.
However, even if the worst projections about Xbox One sales are true, and only three million units have actually been sold, that’s still easily doubling in less than a year what the 360 moved. The problem is really one of margins. If sales ratios and numbers hold, this means Microsoft has moved about 5.3 million units to Sony’s 10 million. This is generally the point where fanboys show up to whine that Sony is in more markets, as if Belgium or Japan are going to close this gap.
For Microsoft, this is a problem in that the more numbers Sony has, the more they get to define the market and dictate terms to publishers, and the more publishers are willing to go along with it. And that’s the only important aspect of the console war, really; the company with the clear advantage gets to define more clearly what games get released and how they get released.
Currently, for Sony, that’s a 3-to-1 sales ratio. Do the math, and if that ratio holds, by the time Microsoft hits ten million, Sony will have twenty-seven million consoles out the door. Microsoft has to cut that ratio down by any means necessary, or long-term, the Xbox One will be the last game console Microsoft produces. Hence the massive dump truck of money backed up to EA and now Square Enix’s doors.
Granted that console sales have blatantly caught publishers flat-footed; witness the absolute chaos that’s been the release schedule lately. And the fact that consoles are selling by the crate while games refuse to leave store shelves is a huge problem. But there’s no other way to put it: Unless something changes, and drastically, the latest round of the console wars has ended before it even started.