Xbox only hurting itself by refusing to share sales numbers

Fear of comparisons to PS4 is taking focus away from Xbox One's considerable successes

When Don Mattrick left Microsoft after the Xbox One's disastrously mishandled E3 reveal, the tone of the company's messaging changed. Policies for the new console seen as anti-consumer were changed, one after another. Incoming head of Xbox Phil Spencer said all the right things, from telling upset fans that the company heard them loud and clear to dropping the corporate talking points long enough to not just acknowledge the achievements of Nintendo and Sony, but welcome them as signs of a healthy industry.

"Xbox One has recovered nicely from a potentially catastrophic unveiling, but you'd be hard pressed to know that from the way Microsoft has handled its messaging."

It was a refreshing bit of candor and straight talk from the company, an olive branch to customers who might have been turned off by the previous months' PR concoction of aloofness and hubris. That tactic worked, and the Xbox One has recovered nicely from a potentially catastrophic unveiling, but you'd be hard pressed to know that from the way Microsoft has handled its messaging in the years since.

In the months following the Xbox One's November 2013 launch, Sony and Microsoft periodically shared sales figures for PS4 and Xbox One, respectively. However, it soon became clear that Sony had taken a solid lead in the generation's early days, and Microsoft got very quiet about Xbox One sales. The last official word the company gave out was nearly 10 million shipped just before the system's first anniversary. After that, it wrapped 360 sales in with Xbox One sales in its quarterly reports, then abandoned that entirely in favor of Xbox Live engagement figures.

Late last week, reports circulated suggesting that the Xbox One's installed base was about 18 million systems. That stemmed from the latest episode of Windows Weekly (around the 9-minute mark), in which tech journalist Mary Jo Foley discussed Microsoft's recent announcement that Windows 10 had been active on 200 million devices in the last month. In breaking down that number between PCs, tablets, smartphones, and Xbox Ones, Foley said, "I can tell you what one source told me and I can't verify this," before sharing that 18 million of those active devices were supposedly Xbox Ones.

"The Xbox One is tracking on par with, and possibly ahead of, Microsoft's most successful gaming device to date."

In the absence of any official word from Microsoft in over a year, this tidbit was widely reported and essentially treated as accurate and used as a stand-in for the Xbox One's installed base. The actual number may be higher given Xbox One owners who haven't played recently or don't typically have their systems connected online, but let's assume for the moment that we're in the right ballpark.

So in its first 26 months of availability, the Xbox One has apparently sold 18 million systems. If we're comparing it directly to Sony's installed base of nearly 36 million PS4s in the same time frame, that doesn't look too impressive. But if we're comparing it to the Xbox 360, the number looks a lot better. The Xbox 360 took 30 months to reach a worldwide installed base of 19 million. The Xbox One is tracking on par with, and possibly ahead of, Microsoft's most successful gaming device to date.

Clearly, Microsoft has backed away from reporting straight-forward sales figures of Xbox One hardware because it believes they won't look good compared to Sony's PS4. The company's right about that, but this tactic is just baking in the narrative that this generation has been all about Sony eating Microsoft's lunch. By keeping secret numbers it once publicly shared because of the PS4's performance, Microsoft is essentially forcing us to view this generation in terms of Xbox One vs. PS4, with one winner and one loser. One company is shouting its sales figures from the mountaintops with great frequency, while the other is hiding its figures in shame.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In 2013 and 2014, even as the PS4 was off to a historically hot start, the over-arching narrative of the generation was that consoles were back, that reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. Honestly, that should still be the case, and if Microsoft embraced a little more of the Phil Spencer-styled straight talk that helped the Xbox One turn around those bad first impressions, we'd have another possible lens through which to view this generation. But as long as Microsoft insists it's in a direct competition with Sony where there can be only one winner, it's going to be right about that.

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Latest comments (12)

Nick Parker Consultant 6 years ago
As somebody who has a dialogue with console manufacturers, I have noticed over the years that the underperforming brand tends to be more shy so not surprising really.
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Jordan Lund Columnist 6 years ago
Sony was the master at obscuring the numbers when the PS3 was on the bottom of the stack. Reporting shipped vs. sold, combining sales numbers for PS2 and PS3 as "Playstation Sales" (they did this for a long time with PSP and Vita sales as well).

It doesn't surprise me that Microsoft does this.

What we need is a return to the NPD reporting monthly hardware sales the way they used to, that way there's nowhere to hide.
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Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 6 years ago
When a lot of which console you purchase today depends on where the players are, rather than just where the games are, it's understandable you wouldn't want to be specific when your main competition has twice as many players.
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Show all comments (12)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
March 31, 2009, for the last time Microsoft reports 360 numbers in their official reports: 17.3 million
May 2010, the 360 has now allegedly sold 40 million units.

Same pattern here. At 10 million unit sold, the official reports stop. Sometime later inofficial reports start to suggests it's twice the amount now.

Basically all you have to do to boost sales is start reporting them. Fool me thrice, shame on...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 11th January 2016 6:41pm

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University6 years ago
My grandma used to tell me, if you have nothing good to say then ...don't say anything at all. MS is listening to my grandma. ;)

Also I feel like the X1 is doing worse than the 360 even if unit sales are currently greater at the same pt in their respective lifecycles.

The 360 sales comparisons are going to get alot tougher in the next year or two. 360 sales ramped up alot after the S model hit. The S model quelled all the RRoD fears. and then Kinect came along and gave those sales another shot in the arm.

And the 360 was selling better than the PS3 in the US whereas PS4 is beating the X1 in the US. So in terms of beating your direct competitor, the X1 is doing worse.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 11th January 2016 7:37pm

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Casey Anderson Product Manager, Big Fish Games6 years ago
Xbox is clearly in an untenable messaging position, however, I would suspect the extra control they get over their messaging by not publishing sales figures far outweighs the negative perception of the brand the average consumer would get from those numbers.

In this age of social media, headlines drive significant consumer perception of and behavior towards a brand, and editorializing sales numbers makes for easy, high impact, click bait titles. Not publishing those sales numbers makes it much harder for journalists to generalize the success of the Xbox One vs PS4, which I imagine has a larger impact on consumer behavior than articles that compare the success of Xbox One vs Xbox 360.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
I would say a sizable number of those players have both, and many of them still spend a lot of time on their Xbox.

So the question is where their time and dollars are being spent. By my anecdotal experience, it's not as bad a split as these numbers indicate

Casey is right on. How do you think Sony got game sharing, the digital ecosystem, and Kinect slimed and buried?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeff Kleist on 11th January 2016 11:38pm

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Paul Jace Merchandiser 6 years ago
I seriously doubt not reporting official Xbox One sold through numbers is hurting Microsoft at all. The system still sells, has a ton of exclusive content and Xbox One customers are a lot more supportive of the brand with Phil Spencer in charge than they were when Don Mattrick was at the helm. Microsoft will probably just report milestone numbers such as when they get to 25 or 50 million units sold, etc. But them not reporting regular sales figures doesn't seem to be affecting their bottom line at all.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital6 years ago
In my opinion, nobody really gives a damn... Players buy consoles based on whether they prefer Halo or Uncharted, or based on what their friends have. Publishers invest in games based on how much they are making on each device and what kind of deals happened behind the closed doors.
The only one who actually cares is the press, so that they have something to report and speculate about. Microsoft is keeping the numbers secret because they don't want the press to tear them apart for doing sightly better then they did with X360.
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Nick Parker Consultant 6 years ago
Installed base numbers are crucial for publishers as they provide volume forecast weightings by platform. Furthermore, regionality of installed bases provide publishers with valuable localisation planning. Publishers usually have close contact with the console manufacturers who provide analytics just for these sales planning requirements.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up6 years ago
Investors give a damn, as should developers. Revealing negative news could have an impact on the share price and growth if they don't seem attractive. It also impacts what platforms you would target first as a developer, since you want to ensure your own survival through as many sales as possible. Lets face it would you make a game for something that looks like sales are declining or stagnating? No, you would target the platform on the ascendancy with gamers. That's generally why it matters.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes6 years ago
It's sold enough that a quick port from the PS4 is a no brainer. Job done. But as Nick says, important for building models and such, but the Publishers are more than aware of the install base and sales.
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