Outselling the PlayStation 2 Isn’t a Pipe Dream

The world's hardly getting smaller.

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Sometimes we ask questions we probably shouldn’t, because they’re questions with replies so barefaced obvious that you might as well ask a person whether they’d like to win the lottery. (Spoiler: Most won’t say no.)

Japanese games site Inside Games asked Sony Computer Entertainment Japan and Asia president Hiroshi Kawano just such a question: whether he hopes the PlayStation 4 might go on to PlayStation 2 sales levels someday. Dual Shockers translated the interview, so bear in mind I’m reacting to that translation, which cites Kawano as replying thus:

As we all know, unfortunately the sales of the PS3 didn’t even get near the sales of the PS2. It [may] be difficult for a home console now, but I think we shouldn’t say it’s impossible unconditionally. However, I believe it’s possible to expand the popularity of the PS4 by providing a rich gaming experience and making use of the fusion of network service and high performance that is possible only on home consoles.

What kind of answer would anyone expect Kawano to give? Don’t count on it? Very doubtful? No? Who ever aimed low before they had reason to?

Let’s consider the question from a less obvious angle.

The PlayStation 2 had lifetime sales in excess of 155 million units, maybe more (I’m looking at the Wikipedia number dated to March 2012). That was selling to a global population sitting at about six billion in 1999, right before the PS2 launched, and granting only a fraction of the planet access to the system (China, for instance — the world’s most populous nation — banned sales of the PS2). That’s to say nothing of all the places worldwide that the console’s never been officially available.

There’s a humbling thought: Of the total number of people occupying the planet, Sony’s bestselling-in-the-history-of-forever games consoles only managed to court something like 2.5%. Contrast with a service like Facebook, which in roughly half the time carved out an audience of over 1.2 billion users.

We’re now up to a world population count of more than seven billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the USCB predicts we’ll be in the vicinity of nine billion by 2044. In the U.S. alone, the population’s grown from about 281 million in 2000 to an estimated 317 million in 2014. India and China’s near term growth projections are even higher, and China recently rescinded (albeit with conditions) its longtime ban on foreign console sales. Don’t worry, I’m not going to argue population growth automatically engenders platform audience growth, but it does impact audience potential.

The new consoles (PS4 and Xbox One, if not Nintendo’s Wii U) are off to the best start, sales-wise, of any generation to date. That flies in the face of conventional thinking wherein consoles/PCs blah blah dead and casual/mobile gaming blah blah dominant. No one has precise, actionable figures here, but at this point, the notion that mobile’s killing the set-top experience (as opposed to complementing it) looks increasingly premature, if not flat misguided.

Who can say whether this early-stage momentum peters out in a year or two, or whether a player like Sony’s going to have to share as much space with Microsoft’s Xbox One as the PS3 did the Xbox 360. Microsoft threw a wrench into Sony’s plans for world dominance with the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live (and Nintendo threw a whole bucket of spanners into both companies’ strategies with the Wii).

But if we assume the number of potential gamers in the world is on the upswing, indefinitely, and that the age threshold for gaming, generationally speaking, is still rolling forward (video games didn’t loom large until the 1970s), it stands to reason that a 155 million-unit audience, assuming all the other pieces come together, soup to nuts, is just scratching the surface. A 155 million-unit base needn’t be some fond, pre-atomized memory, like NBC’s, ABC’s and CBS’s before-cable viewership levels for network shows like M*A*S*H or Cheers or Seinfeld.

One last thing: If you sum the worldwide sales of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to date, bearing in mind that both platforms are still active as ever and expected to sell millions more before they’re put to pasture, you’re at over 160 million units. If we can agree that smartphones and tablets and mobile gaming in general is going to be a complementary as opposed to cannibalistic force in gaming, there’s every reason to view that fabled PS2 sales high watermark as fleeting instead of fixed.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full