Videogame Consoles Still Selling Like Hotcakes, But How Much Life Is Left in the Aging Hardware?

Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii sold in record numbers last week as Americans kicked off their holiday shopping.

Experts Give the New Xbox Raves for Control, Creativity
(Dec. 6 2001)
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Microsoft sold more than 960,000 consoles last week, with a majority flying off the shelves within a single 24-hour period.

Nintendo also said the Wii had the biggest Black Friday ever, selling more than 500,000 units on the day after Thanksgiving.

At one point during the shopping madness, a shopper pepper sprayed a crowd at a Wal-Mart to get her mitts on an Xbox (although reports now say police are investigating the incident to determine the cause of the attack).

Sony declined to release sales figures for the PlayStation 3 last week, but it is likely benefiting from a recent $50 price cut.

Such strong sales are mind-blowing.

People are lining up for — and in some cases fighting over — hardware that is five to six years old. It’s difficult to imagine any other consumer hardware that could attract that kind of demand after such a long period of time.

All three are nearing the end of their life cycles. The Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 are both five years old, and the Xbox 360 is a year older.

Nintendo announced that it will release a new console, the Wii U, later next year. Microsoft and Sony have not said anything official, but they are both expected to follow with competing launches in the same time frame.

It has long been a pattern for all three rivals to release new hardware at the same time. A European PlayStation executive recently hinted that Sony’s plan was to continue that trend because it was “undesirable” to be significantly later than the competition, according to IndustryGamers.com.

Despite the odds, there are at least three reasons why sales continue to do well.

The lineup of games is as strong as it has ever been for the consoles; all three have tried sprucing up the hardware with accessories and adding downloadable content; and, finally, consumers don’t have a choice — the only alternative is to wait another year.

First, the games: This year, publishers waited until now to release some of the hottest titles of 2011; hardcore gamers in particular will have their choice of any number of blockbuster hits.

Activision’s Call of Duty game is already a runaway success, grossing $775 million in the first five days it was available, to shatter all entertainment records.

Also in the hardcore genre is Electronic Art’s Battlefield 3, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, PlayStation’s Uncharted 3 and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City, which are all going head to head this holiday season.

But the consoles don’t just serve the hardcore genre anymore.

Last year, both Sony and Microsoft released motion-controlled gaming systems to rival the Wii’s technology, which has always been considered more family friendly and easy to use.

This holiday season, Sony and Microsoft are offering the most games ever for the Move and Kinect, respectively. Microsoft will have 75 new Kinect games available for the Xbox this holiday, four times last year’s number. Sony said the PlayStation Move is expected to launch 26 titles.

In addition to being used to play games, the consoles are turning into entertainment systems for the living room.

It started with the ability to use the Internet-connected boxes to stream Netflix to TV screens. Now the consoles are turning into media hubs, playing video, music and other content that is readily available over the Internet.

Microsoft and Sony have made entertainment a particular focus between their respective online networks, Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.

Microsoft will make a huge push on Dec. 6, when it rolls out a free update to Xbox Live. Users will be able to conduct a Bing search to find games, music and video across several providers. To make it even more family friendly, the Xbox Live user interface will be controlled with voice commands, rather than by the game controller.

By the end of the year, Microsoft expects that nearly 40 TV and entertainment providers — including Comcast, Netflix, Hulu, ESPN and HBO GO — will be available on its system.

All of these reasons added up could keep the pedal on the gas for what in any other segment would be considered ancient technology.

In an interview, John Koller, director of marketing for Sony’s PlayStation, argued that there’s a lot left in the current generation of consoles.

As an example, he said its predecessor, the PlayStation 2, is 12 years old, but continues to be used in homes around the U.S. as a game player and DVD player. Similarly, the PlayStation 3 substitutes as a Blu-ray player.

Overall, the PlayStation 2 ended up reaching nearly half of all U.S. households.

If that can be used as a guide, then the PlayStation 3 still has a very long way to go. In fact, the goal may be unattainable if new hardware is coming around the corner.

To date, Sony has sold 18.7 million PlayStation 3’s in the U.S. That makes up just a fraction — less than 17 percent — of the 112.6 million households, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“We are nowhere near where we could be,” Koller admits.

Next year, the true testament will be how the hardware sells as we get closer to the release of Nintendo Wii U and consoles.


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