Console wars

GamePro reports NPD sales data:

Console June sales
Wii 666,700
PS3 405,500
Xbox 360 219,800
PS2 188,800

Of note, these are sales to end users, not number of consoles shipped; Microsoft prefers to cite the latter.

The Wii is now the #1 console in the US by installed base. So it seems as though as predicted, the Xbox 360’s best days could be behind it.

Once Sony got their act together and shipped a bundle with the rumble controller packaged along with the console, sales took off. When the 80GB PS3 with rumble controller replaces the current 40GB package, expect sales to rise again. It won’t take long to erase the lead in installed base Microsoft has.

This week, people are making a big thing about the announcement that Final Fantasy XIII is going to be cross-platform, appearing on the 360 as well as the PS3–but only in the US, as nobody in Japan has a 360.

I don’t see the Final Fantasy announcement as all that big of a deal, when you look at all the former Xbox exclusives that are now on the PS3 or will be soon.

  • Saints Row was the Xbox’s supposed GTA-killer, and Saints Row 2 is going to be on PS3.
  • BioShock was the 360’s highest rated game of 2007 on Metacritic. It’s now coming to PS3, with "graphical improvements".
  • Half-Life ‘s developer Valve was always a staunch Microsoft supporter, with Half-Life 2 an Xbox exclusive–but The Orange Box came out for PS3 earlier this year. (I’ve picked up a copy–FPSs aren’t really my thing, but I want to play Portal.)
  • Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made it onto the PS3.
  • Dead or Alive 4 is being ported, and it’s rumored that the sequel may be PS3 exclusive.
  • Ridge Racer 6 was Xbox 360 only, Ridge Racer 7 switched to PS3 only.
  • Full Auto was Xbox 360 only, Full Auto 2 is on PS3.

So looking at the high profile well-reviewed Xbox exclusives, that leaves Command and Conquer, Project Gotham Racing, Mass Effect, Gears of War, and of course Halo. (Dead Rising is heading to the Wii, along with Beautiful Katamari.) It’s a good job Microsoft bought so many game companies, or they would hardly have any exclusives left at this point.

So the video game industry will avoid Microsoft domination for another generation. I think this is a good thing.

How to make a red ring of death

Ever wondered how Microsoft managed to launch a game console that routinely overheated, burned out, and had to be replaced?

EE Times has the story. Microsoft decided to try to save a few bucks by designing a key graphics ASIC themselves, instead of going to a company with experience in chip design. They sent their design straight to the fabricators. It was only when the console was in full production that they learned about the overheating issue. Oops.

The imminent death of the Xbox 360

When the Xbox 360 came out, it was portrayed as something everyone wanted, the amazing new console that was selling out everywhere. Yet the next week, when I walked into Costco they had a pallet piled high with the things.

When the Wii was launched, it became the console that was really selling out everywhere. But by then, Microsoft had moved on to their new story, that the Xbox 360 was the biggest selling next-gen console.

Except that it isn’t.

If you read the small print on Microsoft’s announced sales figures, you find that they’re not actually lying; but they count a console as sold as soon as it leaves the factory. Sony and Nintendo do the same, but there’s a big difference in how that figure relates to the number of consoles actually sold to gamers.

If you walk into any electronics store, you’ll probably see several dozen Xbox 360s piled up in the main store. You won’t see anything like as many PS3s, and you probably still won’t see a Wii. Think about that. Also, think about the fact that electronics stores don’t actually like to pile expensive items up in the middle of the store inside their boxes; it usually indicates that they’ve got even more piles of the things in storage out back, and have run out of space and are trying desperately to shift them. Have you ever seen a big pile of digital cameras in their boxes in Best Buy? A stack of dozens of Denon receivers in Circuit City? Nope. But you’ve probably seen a big stack of $30 Chinese DVD players on clearance…

Someone has put these observations together with some hard sales data. It turns out that the channel is absolutely bloated with unwanted Xbox 360s. Not only that, the 360 was almost matched for sales by the PS2, except during Halo release month, which is clearly visible as a statistical anomaly. When the release of a single game skews your sales that much, that can’t be a good thing either, can it?

In fact, Xbox 360 sales peaked in 2006. And with the PS3 now having a solid library of good games, I don’t see it improving. Also interesting is the analysis of how the 360 is actually more expensive than the PS3, once you factor in the add-ons to make it equivalent in capability.

It’s Schadenfreude Friday!

Microsoft’s Xbox division has announced their results for Fiscal Year 2006. Highlights:

  • Total loss of $1.2 billion.
  • Operating losses up 183%.
  • Revenues down 10% YTY in Q4 because of “decreased Xbox 360 console sales”; specifically‚Ķ
  • Sales dropped from 1.8 million units per quarter to just 700,000 units per quarter, YTY.
  • Revenue from sales of games down 28%.

This is awesome news, making it six years of losses to date.

Microsoft say they expect to make a profit in the upcoming year. O RLY? They couldn’t make a profit during a year in which they basically had no competition, so how do they expect to do better now that the Wii is outselling their console by a factor of 3:1 or more and Wii games are already outselling Xbox games? Nintendo makes a profit on every Wii console, while Microsoft has apparently lost money on every Xbox 360 they’ve sold, even after you factor out the huge losses from replacing broken consoles under warranty.

Added to that, the PS3 is going to see its first “must have” games ship towards the end of this year. Grand Theft Auto IV looks incredible, but the Xbox 360 version is apparently in trouble because it’s hard to cram the game onto a DVD. Demos to date have been the Xbox version, but there’s a good chance the PS3 version is going to end up looking significantly better. Then there’s Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, Heavenly Sword, the new Indiana Jones game, Killzone 2 (with its 2GB levels), LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and so on.

Basically, Microsoft have already been squeezed out of the low end of the market by the Wii, and the hardcore gamers are likely to start getting more interested in the PS3 soon. I suspect Microsoft has much less chance of turning a profit next year than it did this last year.

Wii in your living room

Nintendo’s web site has a hidden gem: filed away under Iwata Asks… you’ll find a series of lengthy articles talking about the entire design process behind the Wii. If that’s not enough Wii to float your boat, BusinessWeek are also getting in on the act.

Nintendo have gone in pretty much the opposite direction to the rest of the industry. Sony and Microsoft are in an arms race of graphical and CPU firepower. The Xbox 360 has a custom IBM PowerPC CPU which has 3 G5-like processor cores, each at 3.2GHz, with a 5.4GHz front-side bus to connect it to the graphics chip. The PS3 has a 64 bit PowerPC core for general purpose tasks, connected to 7 independent vector processor cores known as SPEs, all at 3.2GHz. (There are 8 SPEs on the chip, but to increase yield they are using chips where 1 is faulty, as well as the faultless ones.) For the tasks needed for video games—3D geometry and the like—each SPE is allegedly about as fast as a general purpose CPU of similar speed.

So, 3 CPUs for Microsoft, 8 for Sony, all 3.2GHz—what about Nintendo? Turns out the Wii has one 729MHz PowerPC, a 243MHz graphics processor, and…er, that’s it. In terms of raw power, it’s a souped up GameCube. Instead of counting on bleeding edge CPU power, Nintendo are counting on innovative gameplay, convenience, and a host of other subtle design factors.

I won’t bother to talk about the controller, because you can read about that everywhere. Suffice it to say, the idea is to dramatically increase the approachability of the system. If you can point, you can play, hopefully. The rest of the design is what interests me more, and doesn’t seem to have received as much attention.

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