Analysed: lifetime PS3 and 360 sales

Who's winning? Who cares? What now?

After a slow start, Sony's PlayStation 3 has closed the gap on Microsoft's Xbox 360 - global PS3 sales are 47.9 million and Xbox 360 sales 50 million.

Agonisingly close, but what will it mean if Sony overtakes Microsoft? Are we tantalisingly close to declaring a winner?

"A winner was declared over a year ago, the Nintendo Wii," retorted EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich to Eurogamer.

"But if we are talking about the PS3 vs. Xbox 360, it wouldn't be appropriate to declare anyone the winner.

"Both have an incredibly active install base, both are delivering large profit potential to the third-party, and both have a long life ahead of them.

"I believe that five years from now, when all the numbers are in, both Microsoft and Sony will still be arguing the results," Divnich prophesied. "One will claim they sold more hardware, the other more software. One will claim more registered online accounts, the other more active online accounts. It is a debate that will frankly never be settled."

The Xbox 360 launched at the end of 2005; the PS3 roughly a year later (Europe had to wait until March 2007). Xbox 360 had a clear early lead, but following the launch of the PS3 Slim in 2009, Sony's numbers revved. Kinect has bolstered Xbox 360's Christmas and early 2011 sales, but whether Microsoft can stave off PS3 looks increasingly unlikely.

"I certainly don't care who wins," declared Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter to Eurogamer.

"PS3 appears to have made a lot of headway in regions where Microsoft hasn't [Sony's] outsold Xbox 360 by 4.5 million in Japan and are about even in Europe - but they are almost 10 million behind in the US."

"My guess," he said, "is that [Sony] continues to outpace Microsoft in Asia, the Middle-East and Africa; continue to track relatively even in Europe, and probably continue to lag slightly (within one million) annually in the US. The two consoles should end up around even in a couple of years."

Billy Pidgeon, M2 Research analyst, reckoned "Sony is likely to maintain market dominance in these regions [EMEA] while working toward closing the gap in North America". And while Pidgeon noted the Kinect-powered Xbox 360 upsurge, he also said "PS3's brisk sales are somewhat more significant, as Xbox 360 has hit saturation points in North America while Sony is still building in".

With this generation shaping to last longer than those before it, the battle between Sony and Microsoft will rage for years. Exactly how long we don't know; Sony's stuck firmly to a 10-year vision for PlayStation 3, and Microsoft has warbled on about Xbox 360 only being mid-way through its life.

But, of course, it's Nintendo that leads the seventh generation of consoles with 84.6 million Wii sales.

Nevertheless, the feud between Microsoft and Sony spells only good things for you and I.

"As long as there is a battle there will be good things in store for consumers," asserted Pachter. "We've had at least a dozen models of PS3 and 360 combined, and it is likely that more models are coming.

"We haven't seen the level of price cuts that we expected, so there is room for both consoles to come down another $150 in price over time.

"That's the biggest lever left for Sony and Microsoft, and I expect each to strive to finish ahead of the other. The first one to cut price is the one who cares about winning more."

With those price cuts comes "a better opportunity to increase the base of console gaming" around the world, Pidgeon said.

Numerous developers spoke out recently about the onset of new consoles, not that any have been announced - not even a Wii 2, despite our best efforts to predict unveilings each summer at E3.

THQ core games boss Danny Bilson said a new generation now would be "horrible", and Irrational Games creative star Ken Levine has "no desire" for new machines. Why should they want new consoles? They have efficient and established engines and tools to use to build their games. This latter half of the generation could be a period of creative flourish.

Those tools help multi-platform games be barely distinguishable on PS3 and 360. The next big battle, said Pidgeon, will be fought between PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.

"Online session frequency and length on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are more important factors this cycle," said Pidgeon. "Where gamers play more online, sales of third-party software for that platform will increase.

"Xbox Live has been dominating online gameplay but PSN is gaining ground steadily, and Microsoft should not take the online lead for granted.

"Neither should Sony neglect to push for steep growth in PSN usage."

The gap between the two online services has noticeably closed. PlayStation Home wasn't the be-all-and-end-all as Sony had forecast, but it's a stable and impressive achievement now nonetheless. Sony also now has a subscription service for PSN called PlayStation Plus, although everyone with a PS3 can play online-enabled games free of charge, unlike on Xbox 360. The amount of content added to PSN has also rocketed up. Today's PlayStation Store update is perhaps the busiest we've ever seen it.

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