Stranger than fiction: Is PS3 about to win the console sales war?

Once an absurd notion, Kutaragi's final console could outsell the Xbox and Wii with a last-gasp flourish

PlayStation 3, the Sony system that has been lagging behind its competitors for seven years straight, might end up being the best selling console of the current generation.


Instinctively, it seems unfathomable. The games industry marked PlayStation 3 down as a multi-threaded $600 mess of a device back in 2007 when Sony was busy firing those responsible for it. In the years that followed, Sony spent much of its time trying to wring profitability out of the system more than anything else. Eventually, when the PS3 was finally making steady progress, any faint praise was drowned out by a year-defining catastrophe known as the PSN hack.

But here we are today, with an estimated 77 million PS3s sold worldwide, about 23 million units behind the market leader, the Wii - and enough potential in the console to carry on past Nintendo's high-flying system.

  • Annual sales comparisons show the Wii boomed then lagged while the PS2 and PS3 have grown steadily

Let's get the clearest fact out of the way: the Wii is not going to sell many more units.

Nintendo's revolutionary motion controlled device has performed in a polar opposite manner to the PS3; it sparked hysteria at launch (in one twelve month period it sold a staggering 25 million systems worldwide) but its momentum has slowed significantly.

Nintendo could only sell five million Wiis in the 12 months leading up to the Wii U's launch, and Nintendo has in fact downgraded its global Wii sales expectations for the current fiscal year to about 4 million units.

And an even more affordable new Wii Mini system has failed to pick up momentum, only managing to shift about 36,000 units since its release on December 7 across Canada.

Piers Harding-Rolls, a senior principal analyst at IHS Screen Digest, explained to CVG that said Wii sales "have stalled because the system isn't a connected media device so it doesn't tend to pick up long-tail sales".

"In addition, Nintendo relies on first party content and doesn't have the breadth of third-party support to sustain a console once it made the switch to Wii U," he added.

The benchmark is set

The Wii is weeks away from limping past the finish line and taking its place in history as the third only system to sell more than 100 million units (after PS1 and PS2). Once it does so, which will be about six months into the Wii U's launch, and Nintendo is not likely going to sell many more systems. Its priorities will be elsewhere.

But for Sony to surpass that number, it'll need to sell 23 million PS3s to hit the century, then several million more afterwards. Is it possible?

Look at it this way: The PS3 is currently selling for new at about £230 in the UK and around $250 in the US - there is still some way to go before the system's RRP falls below that psychological 200 barrier (amazingly when you think about it, the console still costs far more than what the Wii did at launch in 2006).

  • Graph shows longtail sales of the PS2 beyond the PS3 release

In April and August 2006, Sony reduced the price of its PS2 to $129 in the US and £99.99 in the UK - the console went on to sell more than 40 million units at this low price point. Then in 2009, the PlayStation 2 RRP fell below $100 in the US and at similar prices worldwide, picking up another 15 million sales thereafter.

Yet it's not just price point that gives PS3 an advantage. In the past three console cycles, Sony has become an expert in selling its system across territories outside of Europe, Japan and the US. In fact, of all the 155 million PS2 sales, 33 million was achieved outside of these big three zones - that's about a fifth of total sales.

Harding-Rolls says that Sony's knowledge of the territories across the globe will also be a key advantage in outselling Microsoft's Xbox 360 (while the Xbox 360 performs very well in the US and the UK, it's not quite the must-have device across Asia and the rest of Europe).

"Our internal forecasts put the PS3 ahead of the Xbox 360 sales, and this is understandable when you look at Sony's access to PAL distribution networks," Harding-Rolls adds.

It should also be worth pointing out that, in November 2012, Sony gained approval to launch the PlayStation 3 across China - a country where games consoles are technically illegal.

Can it outsell all?

Never one to shy away from making laughably grand statements, in a 2010 interview Kaz Hirai said: "The high point, looking back at our console business, has been PS2. For PS3, that is one level of success we'd like to emulate and hopefully surpass at the end of the ten-year lifecycle."

It's hard to believe that anyone aside from Hirai thinks that the PS3 has a chance to surpass 155 million sales, but what about the current generation record? What about the Wii's 100 million?

"Our forecast is that the PS3 will sell 94 million units by 2016," says Harding-Rolls.

"It's very close. There will obviously be some residual sales afterwards, so it does have a chance."

Clearly, the PS3 still has momentum and potential on its side. In the past three financial years (on top of the current one), Sony has sold about thirteen million systems into retail every twelve months.

With the PS3 still burdened by a high RRP (of which there will almost certainly be a significant price drop this year), and with Sony endowed with superior international distribution channels, there is a significant chance that the console that has been in third place for six years will, in the end, finish above the rest.