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Sony and Microsoft Playing Games with Holiday Console Sales Numbers

December 1, 2009

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Reading reports about Thanksgiving week game-console sales over the past day, people might have been left with the impression that Sony’s PlayStation 3 sold 440,000 units in the United States for the week — coming in just 110,000 units behind the Wii despite a $100 premium over the Nintendo console.

That impression was wrong. Sony’s message to the media disclosed the 440,000-unit sales figure but inexplicably didn’t say where the sales took place — which led many bloggers and reporters to assume, incorrectly, that the company was referring to U.S. sales, because that’s how video-game statistics are most often reported.

In fact, the number was for PS3 unit sales in North America, both the U.S. and Canada, company representatives confirmed in response to our inquiries today. Of course, North America is a much larger market than the U.S. alone, which makes the PS3’s sales figure less impressive than it might have appeared on the surface. It also renders invalid the comparisons that many news sites are making to the Wii’s U.S. result and to past NPD Group statistics for the U.S. market.

For example, Ars Technica put the 440,000-unit figure in context by explaining that, in contrast, Sony sold 378,000 PS3s last year in all of November. “That’s quite a year-over-year increase,” the site observed.

Well, it would have been, but that 378,000 figure for November 2008 was for U.S. PS3 sales only, as reported by NPD a year ago. Other big tech news sites making misguided comparisons included Barron’s Tech Trader Daily (comparing the PS3’s reported 440,000 units to Sony’s October U.S. result of 320,600 units) and CrunchGear (comparing the 440,000 units to Nintendo’s 550,000 in the U.S. last week).

To be sure, the PS3 may have done great in the U.S., but Sony didn’t give out that number. When I pointed out the widespread misunderstanding created by the message, a Sony representative said the company doesn’t plan to issue a clarification. Instead, it plans to clarify the issue for reporters who ask about it.

Then again, Sony wasn’t alone in making obtuse disclosures.

Microsoft, citing a longstanding policy against revealing internal sales figures, declined yesterday to say how many Xbox 360s it sold in the U.S. or anywhere else. Nothing wrong with that, that’s the company’s prerogative — but then Aaron Greenberg and other Xbox officials took to Twitter to trumpet the fact the Xbox 360 had its biggest week of the year, with more than twice as many sales as the previous week.

That might sound great, but in fact, it’s significantly less than informative. Console sales skyrocket during the holiday sales season, so the real story would have been if Microsoft didn’t see a huge increase in Xbox 360 sales last week. Without any year-over-year numbers for comparison, the statement is essentially meaningless.

So here’s a suggestion to the Xbox and PlayStation teams, keeping in mind that they’re each units of publicly traded companies. If you’re going to disclose important business information, please put the marketing strategies aside and issue the numbers in a way that actually informs the public, and the investors in your parent companies, and doesn’t risk leaving an incorrect impression.

In the absence of that, people watching the video-game industry would be wise to wait for quarterly earnings reports or monthly figures from independent researchers to get an accurate read on the market, in my best opinion.

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