Nearly 18 years ago, Microsoft entered the gaming market with its Xbox brand. This move sparked a decades-long rivalry between the company and Sony, which owned PlayStation. Over the years, the so-called console wars have prompted gamers to take sides, with some even voicing passionate defenses of their choice console.
To better understand Sony's and Microsoft' deep-rooted competition, it's important to first establish what signifies a new console generation.
At first, one might think that it has to do with the time period in which the consoles launch. However, it actually relates to shifts in hardware and software. For example, the NES, an 8-bit console, is part of the third generation while its successor, the 16-bit SNES system, is part of the fourth generation. The original Xbox and PS2, both 128-bit rate consoles, are known as the sixth generation, as they each doubled the bit rate of previous fifth generation consoles.
Sixth Generation – Xbox Versus PS2
The PlayStation 2 and the Xbox debuted almost a year apart.
Upon its release in the Japan on March 4, 2000, the PlayStation 2 touted backwards compatibility with PS1 games and could play DVDs. These two features led it to sell 10.6 million units worldwide by March 31, 2001.
The Xbox launched on November 15, 2001. The system included improved software and hardware capabilities, with nearly double the memory and processing power of the PS2. Consumers purchased one million Xbox units within only three weeks of the console's launch, though its success wouldn’t last. The Xbox sold poorly outside of North American markets, leading to worldwide sales of only 24 million.
The PS2 fared much better, shipping 100 million units by late 2005. It was the fastest-selling game console of all time until the release of the PlayStation 4. It's perhaps most impressive that Sony sold 55 million additional units after 2005, bringing total console sales to 155 million. A series of exclusive titles contributed to the console's overall success.
In terms of units sold, Microsoft lost the first console war. However, it changed the gaming landscape through its Xbox Live feature and the fact that it contained an internal hard drive, which sold separately as an add-on for the PS2.
Seventh Generation – Xbox 360 Versus PS3
Xbox 360 had a head start for the seventh generation of consoles, launching a year before the PS3. Microsoft released the Xbox 360 on November 22, 2005. Despite an initial console shortage, the Xbox 360 shipped 1.4 million units worldwide by the end of 2005. In addition to being able to stream both music and video from a player's PC, the Xbox 360 could play games either from a physical disc or directly from its hard drive. As for backwards compatibility, it could play most original Xbox games, but users needed a hard drive and an internet connection to update the console.
Things would only improve for Microsoft as the release of Halo 3 would help the Xbox ship 30 million units by May 2008. As console sales increased, so too did Xbox Live's userbase. In January of 2011, Microsoft reported that it had over 30 million active users. Microsoft sold 76 million Xbox 360 units worldwide, making it the eighth best-selling console of all time. It also shipped 24 million Kinect sensors.
Sony's late start with the PS3 meant it wouldn't enjoy game exclusives like its predecessor. Additionally, with a reported $840.00 break-even PS3 console price, Sony eventually conceded and sold each system at a loss. In some cases, this loss amounted to more than $240 per unit, depending on the model. However, with the PS3, Sony also introduced players to PlayStation Plus, something that remains a cornerstone of the company's service package to this day.
The original PS3 consoles played PS1 and PS2 games, though later models did away with PS2 compatibility entirely. The PS3 was also the first console with a Blu-ray drive, making it possible for game designers to store more data on individual disc thanks to the Blu-ray disc's increased capacity.
Due to the high cost of its hardware, it was two years before Sony could report that its gaming division was profitable. It continued to sell PS3s at a loss until late 2010. When Sony discontinued the PS3 worldwide on May 29, 2017, it had sold just over 83 million units, significantly below Sony's original 140 million projection.
In the end, both consoles had problems. Early PS3 console owners reported hardware issues, coining the the term "yellow light of death" to describe a blinking light that indicated a serious malfunction. Early Xbox 360 owners encountered similar issues, which players called the "red ring of death," referring to a ring-shaped red light that appeared on an unusable console.
Overall, Sony sold more seventh generation consoles than Microsoft. However, given that Sony took a major hit on each console sold for years, Microsoft likely topped the earnings charts. Ultimately, the Wii was this generation's real winner as it beat both by a large margin.
Eighth Generation – Xbox One Versus PS4
Sony and Microsoft released their respective eighth generation video game consoles within a week of one another. The PS4 launched on November 15, 2013, and the Xbox One followed days later on November 22, 2013. While launch dates were similar, price tags were not. The PS4 retailed for $399.99 while the Xbox One cost $499. The consoles included similar hardware, though the Xbox One contained a slightly faster processor. Additionally, the Xbox One was backwards compatible with select Xbox and Xbox 360 titles, while the PS4 handled PS1 and PS2 games through emulation.
Microsoft sold a million Xbox One units within just 24 hours, ultimately shipping 2 million units worldwide within just eighteen days. By November 12, 2014, Microsoft reached 10 million worldwide Xbox One sales. However, this milestone also signified the beginning of a downward trend for the system. As of late 2018, sales numbers indicate that the console has only shipped 41 million units worldwide, falling well behind the PS4.