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Analysis: Sony's Game Hardware Conundrum

Analysis: Sony's Game Hardware Conundrum

May 18, 2009 | By Matt Matthews

May 18, 2009 | By Matt Matthews
More: Console/PC

[With Sony's combined PlayStation hardware sales significantly down year-on-year, Gamasutra's Matt Matthews examines where the firm goes next, suggesting PS3 price cuts and PSP digital moves are in the firm's near-term future.]

In 2007 and sometimes in 2008, Sony would refer to sales of the PlayStation hardware family " grouping the PlayStation 3 together with the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable (PSP) " to draw attention away from faltering sales of the nascent PlayStation 3.

Not even that artifice would have reduced the discomfort of Sony's paltry hardware sales in April, sales which reached a mere 415,000 systems across the three platforms.

While PlayStation 2 sales were bolstered significantly by a price drop to $100, the PSP and PS3 both looked extremely weak.

Also, PlayStation 2 software did not see a corresponding increase, and in fact software sales for the aging platform were down 47% from the same time last year, according to Wedbush Morgan's Michael Pachter.

At 127,000 systems for the month (31,750 systems per week), the PlayStation 3 had its worst showing since October 2007, right before the introduction of the 40GB system at a lower $400 price.

Moreover, since Sony has made no moves on price in May, it is quite likely that when results for this month are reported in mid-June, the figures will be even lower:

PlayStation Family Hardware Sales

To understand just how attractive the $400 model is relative to the $500 model, the average sale price for the PlayStation 3 hardware suggests that the cheaper model is outselling the more expensive one by a ratio of about 9-to-1.

Consequently, Sony faces a PS3 hardware price cut. Publishers and retailers alike have been asking for it, and Sony's Dille made what could be construed as a veiled reference to a near-term price drop in a recent interview. (Such expectations, regrettably, could depress May sales even further.)

The key questions about the PlayStation 3 price drop are “When?” and “How much?”.

According to Sony's latest financial results, it believes it can sell 13 million PlayStation 3 systems globally from April 2009 through March 2010.

That's up from the 10 million systems it sold in the previous fiscal year, and the 30% increase in PS3 sales will happen in a tougher economic environment (with higher unemployment, at least in the United States if not globally, and reduced consumer spending).

Yet we already know that United States PS3 sales will be significantly down for at least two months of this new fiscal year (April and May). Even if sales in May are equal to those of April, the PlayStation 3 would be down almost 50% for the first two months of Sony's current fiscal year.

For this reason " to make up for lost sales then increase them year-on-year in adverse economic conditions " we believe Sony will announce a $100 price cut at E3 2009. The longer Sony delays, and the smaller the cut, the harder it will be to make the fiscal year hardware sales target.

We note that others believe the cut could come later, and that it could be only $50. If recent reports are true and Sony still loses $40 on each $400 PS3 unit, a smaller price cut would certainly be gentler on Sony's bottom line.

PSP's Digital-Only Possibilities

On the PSP, it is hard to tell what Sony has planned. The recent download-only release of Patapon 2, along with increasing rumors of a hardware revision that nixes the UMD drive, suggest that Sony will drop its current retail-focused model and consider using its PlayStation Store as a primary software outlet.

Even the PSP hardware bundles that had previously been so attractive to consumers have lost their appeal, with three core systems at a price of $170 sold for every two $200 bundles (estimated from average sale price figures provided by the NPD Group). A shift to core-only models and online software distribution might make sense.

Consider that the top 10 software titles on the PSP in April 2009 showed only two games released in March 2009 (and first-party games at that), three from 2008, three from 2007, one from 2006, and one from 2005.

Given the anemic sales of new PSP software releases, what would Sony and third-parties lose on a relaunched system and an online store? No one appears to be making much money on the PSP as it is, and removing retailers from the chain of software sales might make the system more attractive to publishers.

[This editorial was excerpted from Gamasutra's in-depth NPD U.S. game industry sales analysis for April 2009.]

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