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

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

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Just our cup of tea... a screenshot of Terry Cavanagh's simple and surreal A Proper Cup of Tea.

TThe 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 on the occasion of his retirement. He called the PlayStation 5 potentially Sony’s “most successful multi-vector console ever” – interestingly, he didn’t specify what those vectors actually were. Time spent playing? Individual player expenses? Sale? It would have to go a long way to beat the PlayStation 2’s total of 160 million – around 55 million have been sold so far.

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

The entire games industry is terrible at telling how much of anything has been sold to a real person. Previously, publishers announced “shipped” numbers for consoles and games, which was the number sold to retailers, not the number purchased by customers. Now all the publishers are doing Jim Ryan-like obfuscation tricks across multiple vectors. Activision is the main offender every year with its ridiculous Call of Duty stats: fastest selling, highest first week gross, most hours played, most matches played in an opening weekend.

Xbox hasn’t told us how many consoles it has sold in over a decade: we had to look at 2K’s financial reports to find that the PS5 outsold the Xbox Series S/X two to one. Instead, Microsoft is talking about user numbers, subscription revenue, and “growth” (although that growth has been somewhat lacking lately, as Xbox boss Phil Spencer noted in justifying cutting thousands of jobs after spending $70 billion on the acquisition from Activision Blizzard.)

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

As for Steam and other digital stores, who knows. Steam has never made it easy to find out how much something has sold; it is left to the third party service Steam spy to estimate sales by collecting data from user profiles. Occasionally, individual developers announce figures that are impossible to independently verify. Apps and mobile games are also a mystery, followed by independent companies such as Data.ai (formerly App Annie) who charge huge fees for access to their detailed data.

In Britain, ChartTrack reported accurate sales statistics for all games and consoles; this hasn’t been possible since around 2008, when downloading games started to become the norm. In the US, NPD Group tracks both physical and digital sales, but relies on the cooperation and self-reporting of game publishers. Now Nintendo is the only one of the three game console manufacturers to do so publicly, regularly and accurately reports its own sales in its quarterly results.

You might be thinking, who cares? What’s 5 million PS2s between friends? And it’s true that I find this lack of transparency especially annoying because I’m a journalist and I like having answers. But the lack of reported sales figures allows companies to fabricate stories that do not reflect reality to appease the markets and their shareholders. They can claim success based on the metric that best supports that story.

It is at least interesting to know how many games are actually sold. It is a matter of historical importance, part of the industry’s story. Sales tells you about taste, about trends, about changing tendencies. And as the past year 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 to digital sales and revenue, and that many developers and publishers simply didn’t have access to accurate numbers: they were still building up their internal reporting. I find that hard to believe now, especially after Microsoft accidentally leaked tons of its own data last year while fighting the US Federal Trade Commission.

It feels absurd that we don’t know how many people actually buy the world’s most (and least) popular video games and consoles… and that we had to wait twelve 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. Photo: Terry Cavanagh

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

The goal is simple: make yourself a brew. The various surreal outcomes made me laugh out loud twice on the train. 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 very specific way, and then withdrew, convinced that he had finished the game had won.

Available on: Just now tap this link on your phone (or Click It in your browser)
Estimated playing time:
5 minutes

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What to read

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

  • Employees at Sega‘s British studios are the latest to suffer job losses: the publisher has cut 240 roles in Creative Assembly, HARDlight and Sega Europe, and sold Relic Entertainment (known for Company of Heroes).

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

What to click

Ask Block

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

Reader Alex asks:

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

Throughout the 2000s I was fascinated by rhythm action games – bemani games, as they were known in Japan, named after Konami’s breakthrough arcade DJ hit Beatmania. I played every game I could get my hands on, sometimes at great expense, like when I imported it crazy piece of plastic to play Pop’n Music on the Dreamcast. My love Gitaroo man (above) is of course one of them. Another does Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, a beautifully unique rhythm game about directing a heavenly cheer squad to guide people through their problems. You inspire a ceramic master to create a great new work. You help a ghost communicate to his devastated wife that he still loves her (crying). You help a student not to fail his exams. It is a series of emotionally intense manga-inspired stories with a banging soundtrack.

Given Nintendo’s clear commitment to re-releasing every game it has ever owned (including, Finallythe First Earthbound gamewhich weren’t released outside Japan from 1989 to 2015), I’d like to see this on Switch, perhaps packaged with the Westernized adaptation Elite Beat Agents and its (again Japan only) follow-up. How’s that for hyper-niche!?

If you have a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – click ‘reply’ or send an email to pushbuttons@theguardian.com.

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