Pushing Buttons: When we don’t know the true sales figures for consoles, players lose out | Games

The outgoing boss of Sony’s games division, Jim Ryan, who joined the company a few months before the launch of the original PlayStation, was interviewed by the official PlayStation podcast last week to mark his retirement. He talked up the PlayStation 5 as potentially Sony’s “most successful ever console across multiple vectors” – interestingly, he did not specify what those vectors actually were. Time spent playing? Individual player spend? Sales? It would have to go some to beat the PlayStation 2’s total of 160m – so far it’s sold about 55m.

As for that PlayStation 2 total: that’s actually the first time we’ve heard it, in this podcast, in 2024, despite the fact that the PS2 was discontinued in 2013. The last official number we had for the PS2 was “more than 155m” as of March 2012, a number that’s still quoted on Sony’s own website. Ryan claims that 160m was celebrated as an internal sales milestone, but Sony never actually announced it. Industry analyst Daniel Ahmad did some back-of-an-envelope maths that substantiates the total, but it begs the question: why did Sony never actually tell anyone how many PS2s it sold?

The entire games industry is terrible at telling anyone how much of anything has been sold to an actual person. Back in the old days publishers would announce “shipped” numbers for consoles and games, which was the number sold in to retailers, not the number bought by customers. Now all the publishers are performing Jim Ryan-esque feats of obfuscation across multiple vectors. Activision is a prime offender every year with its ridiculous Call of Duty metrics: fastest-selling, highest gross revenue in the first week, most player hours, most matches played in an opening weekend.

Xbox hasn’t told us how many consoles it’s sold for more than a decade: we had to look to 2K’s financial reports to discover that the PS5 has outsold the Xbox Series S/X by two to one. Instead Microsoft talks up user numbers and subscription revenue and “growth” (although that growth has been somewhat lacking lately, as Xbox, boss Phil Spencer, pointed out as justification for cutting thousands of jobs after spending $70bn acquiring Activision Blizzard.)

‘A prime offender’ … Call of Duty makers Activision are among the worst at reporting real figures. Photograph: Activision Blizzard

As for Steam, and other digital storefronts: who knows. Steam has never made it easy to find out how much something has sold; it’s left to third-party service Steam Spy to estimate sales by scraping data from user profiles. Occasionally individual developers announce numbers that are impossible to independently verify. Apps and mobile games are similarly a mystery, tracked by independent companies such as Data.ai (formerly App Annie) that charge enormous sums for access to their detailed data.

In the UK, ChartTrack used to report precise sales statistics for all games and consoles; it has been unable to do so since about 2008, when downloading games started to become the norm. In the US, NPD Group tracks both physical and digital sales, but it relies on the cooperation and self-reporting of game publishers. Now Nintendo is the only one of the three game console manufacturers that publicly, regularly and accurately, reports its own sales in its quarterly results.

You might think: who cares? What’s 5m PS2s between friends? And it’s true that I find this lack of transparency particularly annoying because I am a journalist, and I like to have answers. But the absence of reported sales figures allows companies to spin narratives that don’t line up with reality, to please the markets and their shareholders. They can claim success on whichever metric best backs up that story.

It is at the very least interesting to know how many games actually sell. It is a matter of historical import, part of the story of the industry. Sales tell you about taste, about trends, about shifting proclivities. And as the year or so in the games industry has shown, people’s livelihoods depend on these numbers.

Ten years ago, you could still argue that the games industry was in transition towards digital sales and revenue, and many developers and publishers simply didn’t have access to accurate numbers: they were still building their internal reporting. I find that hard to believe now, especially after Microsoft accidentally leaked tons of its own data while fighting its case against the US Federal Trade Commission last year.

It feels absurd that we don’t know how many people are actually buying the most (and least) popular video games and consoles in the world … and that we had to wait 12 years to find out how many PS2s were sold.

What to play

Just our cup of tea … a screenshot of Terry Cavanagh’s simple and surreal A Proper Cup of Tea. Photograph: Terry Cavanagh

Our games correspondent Keith Stuart wrote a wee while ago about Downpour, a simple game creation software that enables anyone to make a game on their phone using images and hyperlinks. This week’s recommendation is a five-minute-wonder on the platform: A Proper Cup of Tea by Terry Cavanagh, who also made the entirely perfect action game Super Hexagon years ago. (This fact delights me.)

The aim is simple: make yourself a brew. The various surreal outcomes made me laugh out loud on a train, twice. I was very amused by this game, but even more amused by my partner’s reaction to it: he made a cup of tea exactly once, in his own extremely specific way, and then retired, believing himself to have won the game.

Available on: Just tap this link on your phone (or click it in your browser)
Estimated playtime:
5 minutes

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What to read

Downing tools … Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker, whose servers will shut down next month. Photograph: Nintendo
  • You may be aware that Nintendo is shutting down the servers for its older consoles the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS on 8 April. In response, a group of ultra-skilled Mario players set themselves a seemingly impossible task: to beat all 80,000 user-generated levels of Super Mario Maker. Julian Benson spoke to them as the clock was ticking for this brilliant story.

  • Employees at Sega’s UK studios are the latest to suffer job losses: the publisher has cut 240 roles across Creative Assembly, HARDlight and Sega Europe, and sold Relic Entertainment (of Company of Heroes fame).

  • Namco Bandai has released three games made by students at its Employee Training Project for free, on Steam. One of them is called Doronko Wanko and casts you as a pomeranian trying to make as much of a mess as possible. (You may remember that Namco’s game design students were partly responsible for the excellent Katamari Damacy.)

What to click

Question Block

Keza’s beloved PS2 rhythm game, Gitaroo Man. Photograph: Koei

Reader Alex asks:

“You often talk about your (absolutely correct) love of Gitaroo Man on PS2, a game whose soundtrack is still lurking in the recesses of my brain more than 20 years later. If you were world emperor, what other hyper-niche /weird ’n’ wonderful games from the past would you have remade or remastered for a modern audience?”

Throughout the 2000s I was fascinated with rhythm-action games – bemani games, as they were known in Japan, named for Konami’s breakout arcade DJ hit Beatmania. I played every one I could get my hands on, sometimes at great expense, such as when I imported this mad piece of plastic to play Pop’n Music on the Dreamcast. My beloved Gitaroo Man (above) is one of these, of course. Another is Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, a beautifully unique rhythm game about directing a heavenly cheerleading squad to guide people through their problems. You inspire a ceramics master to create a grand new work. You help a ghost to communicate with his devastated wife that he still loves her (weep). You help a student not to flunk his exams. It is a series of emotionally hard-hitting manga-inspired narratives with a banging soundtrack.

Given Nintendo’s apparent commitment to re-releasing every game it’s ever had a hand in (including, finally, the first Earthbound game, which were not released outside Japan from 1989 until 2015), I would love to see this on Switch, perhaps packaged with its westernised adaptation Elite Beat Agents and its (again Japan-only) sequel. How’s that for hyper-niche!?

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected].

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