The evidence is piling up. Sony’s grip on the console business with the PlayStation 4 is starting to look unbreakable. Microsoft has to start worrying about whether it must accept and acknowledge its fate of being permanently stuck at No. 2 in this generation. And Nintendo can’t move to its new NX game console soon enough.
Sure, anything can happen. December is still a critical month for video game sales, and the console war won’t be over for a few years. But in November, Sony came out on top in terms of game console sales in the U.S., according to a report yesterday by market researcher NPD. The momentum is clear, as Microsoft has not outsold Sony even when it had the odds in its favor.
Sony outsold Microsoft in November, when the Xbox One had its strongest line-up ever. Microsoft launched exclusives for the Xbox One including Halo 5: Guardians (on October 27) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (November 10). Sony had no major exclusive releases.
The one piece of good news for Microsoft was that Call of Duty: Black Ops III sold more units on the Xbox One during November than it did on the PlayStation 4. That happened even though Sony now has a timed exclusive on downloadable content for Black Ops III for the next year. Black Ops III is an important game because it was No. 1 for the month.
But on the rest of the top 10 games of November, the PlayStation 4 versions of the cross-platform titles outsold the Xbox One versions, according to NPD. That means that Fallout 4, Star Wars Battlefront, Madden NFL 16, NBA 2K16, FIFA 16, Need for Speed, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate all sold better on the PS4 than on the Xbox One.
Microsoft’s Halo 5: Guardian’s was No. 8 on the top 10 list, and Rise of the Tomb Raider didn’t make the top 10 at all.
It could be worse. There were no Nintendo Wii U titles in the top 10. And Just Dance 2016 actually sold better on the old Wii than it did on the Wii U.
Sony said that before Black Friday, it had sold 30.2 million PS4 consoles to date. Microsoft hasn’t said how much it has sold, but a fair bet it is about half of that. (VGChartz’s ballpark figures show the Xbox One at 17.1 million units and the Wii U at 11.2 million.
Clearly, Microsoft was hoping to do much better this season. It had the advantage of launching backward compatibility for a number of Xbox 360 titles, which are now playable on the Xbox One. That was supposed to motivate Xbox 360 owners to finally take the plunge and buy an Xbox One. So far in the console war, the impact seems negligible.
Microsoft is taking some action. It cut $50 off the price of its bundles, reducing the total from $350 to $300, through the end of the holiday season. Price cuts only come as a last resort, when the platform owner decides that it has to take down the price to move inventory.
Microsoft also had a winning accessory in the Xbox One Elite Controller, designed for esports fans and pro gamers. That was a smart move to make, as it will help the company make more money on hardware at a time when overall sales aren’t huge.
This holiday season was the time when Sony had taken a breather, giving Microsoft its best chance to make a dent in the PS4’s lead. Sony staged a successful PlayStation Experience (PSX) event to show off games that are coming to the PS4. Its next big titles include Street Fighter V, arriving on February 16. After that, the Sony exclusive Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End debuts on March 18. And sometime in the first half, Sony will release its PlayStation VR virtual reality platform.
I was impressed by the games that Sony showed off at PSX. Many of the games — either Sony exclusives or cross-platform games — looked very impressive. VR titles are coming from bigger companies like Ubisoft, not just startups. And the sheer numbers of indie titles was very impressive.
Microsoft executives are already talking about big plans for 2016. That’s good, and it shows their commitment. But it also suggest that they know that Sony has taken 2016. Microsoft is placing its bets on Quantum Break, State of Decay, and Crackdown 3.
Meanwhile, there are little things nibbling away at the console market. Apple TV already has more than a thousand games. And the Samsung Gear VR, priced at just $99 for those who already have high-end Samsung phones, has some pretty cool games on it.
Perhaps Microsoft’s ace in the hole is the integration of Xbox One and Windows 10. PC gaming is going strong, and Microsoft is still dominant on that platform. Xbox features on Windows 10 will help make the audience more social and connected. And Minecraft, which has sold 70 million units to date, is an exclusive Microsoft property that Sony should definitely worry about.
It’s also worth noting that Microsoft’s game business has been very profitable, even though Microsoft has been stuck at No. 2 for this entire generation. That’s a far better financial situation than the original Xbox effort, which lost Microsoft somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion. This time around, profits give Microsoft the chance to fight another day.
As I noted in my headline, it’s time for Microsoft to worry. But it doesn’t have to panic. The company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do what it can to improve the Xbox business. Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, isn’t talking about selling off Xbox. He’s doubling down.
As The Verge noted, Microsoft’s fall from grace has been pretty breathtaking, and Sony’s recovery with the PS4 is remarkable. That’s what I like about the console wars. You never know from one generation to the next who will be David and who will be Goliath. Clearly in this generation, Sony is Goliath, Microsoft is David, and Nintendo isn’t even on the battlefield.