Since the beginning of this console generation, the three major game machines have sorted themselves into a neat hierarchy: The Wii on top (88 million sold), followed by the Xbox 360 (55 million sold), and at last the PlayStation 3, which after years of effort is finally getting close to second place (52 million).
This ranking is interesting for three major reasons.
One, it's the perfect opposite of the previous generation, where the PlayStation 2 won big (153 million), the Xbox trailed by a huge margin (24 million), and the GameCube narrowly missed second place (22 million). This means that when people decided which machine to get, they didn't pay too much attention to what was best last time around.
Two, it corresponds to price. The Wii was the cheapest, followed by the Xbox 360, and finally the expensive PS3. This indicates that gamers preferred to save money, rather than shelling out big bucks for better hardware.
And three, the release date might have mattered, at least as far as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were concerned. Xbox 360 jumped out ahead of the field with a 2005 release, whereas the other two consoles didn't hit shelves until late 2006.
So, here's an interesting question: What would have happened if the PS3 came out first?
One thing is for certain: It wouldn't have topped the Wii. Regardless of how disappointing it looks today, the Wii was a stroke of genius for Nintendo; it introduced a completely new control scheme to gaming, it brought new and lapsed gamers into the fold, and it did all of this at a great price point. It even gambled, correctly, that it would take a few years for HDTVs to catch on. While the system's 480p graphics look a little pathetic on a modern television, they're fine on older models, and many gamers were happy to save the money.
The Wii broke gaming out of a serious rut, despite its lack of third-party support. The last generation's consoles were virtually identical (just look at the controllers—each has two joysticks, four face buttons, shoulder triggers, and a D-pad), and Nintendo is the only company that started this generation with something besides an HD remake of its previous offering. Moving up the PS3's launch date does absolutely nothing to change any of the things that made the Wii a smash hit. There's no way an earlier launch would close a sales gap of 35 million.
When it comes to the Xbox 360, however, it's a closer call. There are a few reasons to think it wouldn't have made much of a difference. The most important is the notoriously high initial price point for the PS3; even the bare-bones model cost $500, and even then, Sony was losing an unusual amount of money on each console sold. It's hard to believe that many gamers would have spent that much for an HD console at a time when HD displays were just getting started.
Also, the main difference between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 is the selection of first-party titles. While LittleBigPlanet might have given Sony an early foothold, the legions of Halo and Mario fans would still have held out for their favorite company's console. Consumer loyalty isn't all powerful (otherwise, SEGA would still be making consoles), but it counts for something.
Then again, there are some real advantages to going first. "Early adopter" types—the people who have to have the newest technology right away—would have flocked to the PS3 rather than the 360. Since its graphics would have put the last-generation consoles to shame, and it would have been the only option for people who'd already bought HDTVs, it probably could have picked up a few million extra sales. And since there's only a 3 million console gap between PS3 and Xbox 360 today, the PS3 might have even come out ahead.
Also, if the PS3 had picked up some early adopter sales, along with licensing fees for games, Sony might have been able to use the money to finance an earlier price drop, which would have made the console competitive once the other two devices entered the market. And don't forget that the PS3 is a little more powerful than the Xbox 360; if the 360 had come out second, and at less of a price advantage, it might have looked underpowered. This perception would only have strengthened when the Red Ring problem surfaced.
My own guess? If you flipped the release dates of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, the 360 would still have won for most of this generation, simply because it was cheaper and had Halo and Gears of War. By today, however, the two would be close, and perhaps the PS3 would have the edge.
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*