How Much Does Game Console Power Actually Matter?

How can history inform us of who will come out on top in the battle between the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5?

Rohit Choudhari and Fabian Albert on Unsplash

Due to the parity of information that has been released about Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5, the discussion in recent weeks has been all about breaking down the differences in power between the two consoles slated for release at the end of this year. But, as we all know, numbers aren’t everything, and the most powerful console isn’t necessarily the one that will be at the forefront of the upcoming generation. So how have things gone in the past? And what does that mean for consoles now?

This will be the fifth major console release for Sony’s line of PlayStation consoles and the fourth major release of Microsoft’s Xbox. This will also likely be the last time those lines are so clear-cut because Xbox’s future strategy for their consoles appears to blur the lines between generations. There was a time before the Microsoft vs Sony rivalry as we know it today, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly focus on these two manufacturers.

Part 1 — Sony’s Debut

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Photo by Cláudio Luiz Castro on Unsplash

Sony’s first console, the PlayStation, was released as a part of the fifth generation of video game consoles. It was contemporary with the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64. Poor marketing and a higher pricepoint put the Saturn at a considerable disadvantage as compared to the PlayStation, which took full advantage. And although the N64 released two years later at a lower pricepoint, Sony had already run away with sales. Now, the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64’s 9 million and 33 million sales respectively don’t even come close to the PlayStation’s monstrous 102 million sales. And so Sony’s introduction into the consumer video game console world had begun.

Winner: Sony

Part 2 — Enter Xbox

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By Evan-Amos — Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11333075

Seven years later in 2001, Microsoft entered the fray with the release of their Xbox console. It boasted superior specs to Sony’s 2000 release of the PlayStation 2 and an equivalent price. But even still, not only did Sony win the generation, the PlayStation 2 ended up being the best selling console of all time with 155 million sales. Xbox’s numbers barely even chart at 24 million.

Winner: Sony

Part 3 — Hubris

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Photo by Nikita Kostrykin on Unsplash

Coming off of two huge victories in console sales, Sony was content. Xbox, on the other hand, was preparing for their own victory. The PS3 had far superior specs and a blu-ray drive to boot. But it released at an eye-watering $499, with an upgrade available for $599. And despite its power, it was notoriously difficult to develop for and offered a far less robust online gaming solution as compared to the Xbox 360.

Microsoft swept the floor with Sony for several years and they were the clear victors of this battle. Although the PS3 wound up selling marginally more than the Xbox 360, this is largely due to its prevalence in markets outside of the US, an area that Microsoft has never focused on.

It’s worth mentioning that there was a third player in this competition that was, comparatively, extremely weak. If these battles were decided on power alone, this console would’ve been laughed off of the stage. But its insanely fun and unique way to play in combination with its high pedigree and wonderful lineup of games, the Nintendo Wii was the real winner of the seventh generation of consoles with 20 million more units sold than either of its competitors.

Winner: Microsoft (but also Nintendo)

Part 4 — Return to Form

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Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

Now it was Microsoft’s turn to be conceited. Their “all-in-one machine” was meant to be the only box in everyone’s living room, replacing cable boxes. It was also the more powerful of the two machines. Leaving Microsoft to justify their $100 premium compared to Sony’s $399 PlayStation 4.

The new generation of consoles also represented Sony’s catching up on their previous short-sightedness by greatly improving their online multiplayer capabilities, and even going further to adapt to a generation of gamers that constantly want to share by including the ability to save gameplay, stream, share photos, and allow player spectating all built within their ecosystem. That ecosystem was then built on top of existing platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Although Microsoft offered some of these capabilities, their messaging was so muddled by their apparent all-consuming focus on creating an all-in-one box that important features were overlooked by potential customers. So, again, despite creating a more powerful machine, Xbox One sales paled in comparison to the meteoric sales produced by the PS4.

Winner: Sony

The result here is clear. Historically, it has actually been more likely that the less powerful console is the one that “wins” the generation. But of course, this could be a mere coincidence. The fact is, messaging, player-friendliness, and developability are far more important metrics. The more interesting and potentially impactful phenomenon here is seeing Microsoft’s concise and interesting early marketing as compared to Sony’s more unorthodox, and recently fumbling, strategy.

The pendulum-like nature of the rivalry between the PlayStation and the Xbox is what has made it so interesting. Every generation winner seems to get it wrong on their newest hardware. So will this be the generation that breaks the trend? Will Sony pull their message together and end up dominating the gaming mindshare? Or will Microsoft make their comeback? Only time will tell. But one winner is already clear: the gamer.

Written by

(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.

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