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Three Horse Race

Can any of the contestants in this console battle can be ruled out?

The launch of PlayStation 3 in Europe, and more specifically in the United Kingdom, has been everything that it was expected to be. That's both a good and a bad thing, and moreover, it's definitely an inconclusive thing.

On one side, it was expected to be a huge launch in terms of unit numbers, and it was; PS3 is the fastest-selling home console ever, with figures in its first weekend which are almost equal to Xbox 360 and Wii's first weekend figures combined. On the other hand, we also expected that PS3 wouldn't sell out, with significant amounts of stock being left on the shelves - and this, too, has come to pass.

Neither of these facts is deniable - although we've seen some frankly shameful attempts to discredit Chart-Track's figures for the launch in the last week, occasionally from people who should really know better. It's perhaps worth reiterating that Chart-Track is an independent body which bases its fantastically reliable sales figures on sell-through to consumers alone - not on shipped units, not on pre-orders, but on provable, solid, over the counter sales.

The UK industry has relied on Chart-Track's figures for years, and has never found grounds for serious complaint about their accuracy. If they say 165,000 units of the PS3 sold through across the retailers which they cover, there's absolutely no reason for anyone do disbelieve that. Can we bury that argument now, please?

Compare and contrast

Equally, though, anyone can see that the PS3 hasn't sold through its launch allocation - a week after launch, you can still walk in off the street and buy a console at almost any electronics, media or videogame retailer.

Since both the Xbox 360 and the Wii were restricted not by demand but by availability, it renders the comparisons between opening weekends utterly useless; but since almost every hardware launch in the industry's history has had far lower supply than the PS3 did, it's impossible to say whether Sony's sell-through rate is actually good or bad.

In other words, we've got the figures now, but we're still totally in the dark about how the PS3 is actually faring because we lack any kind of useful context for those figures. We could debate the merits and failings of the price point, the PR campaign, the software line-up and the PlayStation brand strength endlessly, and still not have any real idea of where the PS3 stands with British or European consumers. At least, not until we start seeing figures for the first month on sale, the first quarter on sale, even the first year on sale.

The message we can take away from this launch - which was neither good nor bad, neither a complete triumph nor an abject disaster - is really that the flame of competition still burns brightly in this console war. No winners or losers have been decided, and the three players are all really still in the early stages of a battle which promises to be an extremely exciting time for the videogames market.

Fighting fit

After all, it's a fact of life that we make our greatest advances in times of conflict - and have no doubt, the conflict now being joined in earnest by the console manufacturers will result in fantastic steps forward for videogames products and services.

Microsoft's Xbox Live, Sony's Game 3.0 and PlayStation Home concepts and Nintendo's controller innovation are only the beginning. As these firms fight to differentiate themselves from one another and to boost their market share, we can expect online services, content delivery systems and innovation in the content itself to become key weapons in the fight.

The winners will be consumers - and the industry at large. All of the companies involved in this battle know that just winning the hearts and minds of existing gamers is vital, but not enough to secure victory.

We can expect massive drives to "recruit" new gamers, just as products such as Eye Toy, Singstar, Brain Age and Nintendogs have done in the last few years, which will expand the potential market for every company in the sector. We can expect brand new opportunities to arise for providing content and services over the network, with the full blessing and encouragement of the platform holders. If the going gets tough, we can even expect to see serious money being thrown at innovative, high profile platform exclusives once more.

Even our best predictions for what will happen to the three consoles in the next few years are flawed due to lack of hard data - but rather than simply concerning ourselves with who will win this war, it's important to step back and look at the wider picture.

Regardless of who wins the war, there's absolutely no doubt that this time around, a war will be fought; this will be no PS1 / PS2 style walkover victory. Serious competition has returned to the console space for the first time in over a decade - and for publishers, developers and most of all, consumers, it almost certainly brings with it a fantastic few years for the videogames market.