Why the PlayStation 5 vs. Xbox Series X War Won’t Be Won With Console Sales

As PS5 and Xbox Series X fans prepare to battle over brand loyalty, Microsoft and Sony offer an enlightened perspective on the console wars.

PlayStation 5 Xbox Series X
Photo: Sony/Microsoft

In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, PlayStation CEO reiterated his belief that the PS5 can potentially break the PS4’s sales records but surprised many by noting that he doesn’t believe victory in the upcoming Xbox Series X vs. PS5 war will be measured solely by console sales.

“It’s become a lot more nuanced,” Ryan says of console sales figures. “For example, one reference point, we sold a lot of PS2s, but many of them were at $99, on a format that was very, very heavily pirated. Right now the metric is engagement, and that obviously can be judged across two axis: the number of people who engage with you, and the amount of time that each of those people spend engaging with you.

Ryan goes on to say that Sony is increasingly looking at other metrics (such as diversity) to better determine the value of their games and other endeavors.

“A lot of the work that we’ve done with female protagonists in gaming, we definitely see that resonating and resulting in increased presence of the female demographic within the PlayStation community,” Ryan explains. “And then there’s obviously geography. The PS4 generation saw us make huge strides in Germany and the Middle East, and I think there is further progress to be made in both of those areas. But equally, I think Asia — outside of Japan — has huge potential for us. And Latin America has huge potential for us.”

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We recommend you read the entire interview for Ryan’s perspective on this matter, as we strongly suspect that those who don’t will react to these quotes by writing them off as PR speak designed to control damage in the event that the PS5 does fall behind the Xbox Series X in sales. Others will say it’s just a form of humble bragging designed to help the PlayStation team stay modest following the PS4’s “victory” over the Xbox One in terms of raw hardware sales.

Yet, I don’t think Ryan’s statements are either of those things. In fact, I think they represent an increasingly popular mentality that fans need to learn to embrace unless they want to find themselves stuck in a past that saw console loyalists attack each other over a company’s sales figures.

In fact, it’s important to remember that these statements aren’t just coming from Jim Ryan. Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been one of the most vocal supporters of downplaying the significance of console sales and focusing instead on the success of the Xbox ecosystem.

“Our high-level goal inside of our team, of how we measure ourselves, is how many people are playing on Xbox,” said Spencer in an interview with GameReactor. “And when we say ‘playing on Xbox’ it doesn’t mean an Xbox console. It means somebody who is logging in and playing a part of our ecosystem, whether first-party or third-party. And it could be on an Android phone. It could be on a Switch. It could be on a PC. That’s how we think about it.”

Now, it’s worth noting that there’s been some debate about that last point as Microsoft has been coy about the exclusivity of upcoming Bethesda games as well as their previously suspected plans to bring Game Pass to Switch. In regards to that last point, though, Microsoft has remained consistent in their insistence that what they really want is to expand the reach of the entire Xbox network (which would include Xbox Live, Game Pass, and other Microsoft properties).

In any case, the word you keep hearing from Sony and Microsoft is “engagement.” At a time when a single device can offer unlimited entertainment through thousands of avenues, companies are starting to find that the real problem is that there’s only so much time in the day. That’s why Netflix previously said that they feel their biggest competition is Fortnite. After all, time spent playing Fortnite is time spent not watching Netflix (at least in many cases).

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Let’s look at the shift in philosophy another way. Would you rather run a successful online campaign that encourages 200,000 people to donate one dollar to you, one time, or would you rather run a service that sees 10,000 people give you $.50 cents a month for the next five years? While getting $200,000 at once could be more beneficial for some individuals, we’re talking about two multi-billion dollar companies who are always thinking long-term (or at least should be). They’re in a position to easily accept the $300,000 over five years.

Console sales are a one-time purchase. Our insistence that they are used as the primary metric for console wars dates back to a time when companies with vastly different philosophies and vastly different game libraries were competing to establish themselves in a comparatively smaller market.

We no longer live in those times. At a time of increased competition, mainstream marketplaces, homogenized game libraries, subscription services, and yes, even microtransactions, the real money goes to those who keep their players engaged and spending no matter how many players there may initially appear to be.

If that’s all too cynical for you and you’d prefer that the console wars went away so that we could just all enjoy our favorite games, then think of it like this. Sony and Microsoft increasingly believe that the victor of console wars shouldn’t be measured in units sold but time enjoyed. That “diverse” is becoming as valuable (if not more valuable) than “most.” That the hours you spend playing whatever your favorite game more important than the day you bought your console.

We have no doubt that Sony and Microsoft will brag about their console sales if they’re worth bragging about, but for the first time, you start to get the feeling that there are practical, fiscal reasons why these companies (and all of us) should be measuring console wars by how much fun we’re having and how much time we spend gaming.