Is The UK Still a PlayStation Stronghold?

By Keza MacDonald on at

Bewildering fact: at the height of the PlayStation 2 era, Sony had 80% of the video game market share in the UK. 80%. It's a crazily high figure. Another fact: at one point the official UK PlayStation magazine was selling 500,000 copies a month (it sells less than a tenth of that now, though obviously other factors than console preference are at play there). There was a long period in the 90s and early 00s where the UK was a PlayStation nation. NES-mania never took hold here like it did in the USA, thanks to the prevalence of home-grown computers and games in the 80s; the PS1 was really the first console that ever took us by storm.

When you consider how dedicated the UK was to PlayStation, Xbox's sudden rise to dominance in the mid to late '00s was shocking (certainly for Sony, whose complacency in that era knew no limits). The Xbox 360 became the best-selling home console ever in the UK last year, overtaking even the Wii. The PS3 was a distant third for most of the last console generation. Worldwide, the PS3 slightly outsold the 360, but here in Britain the situation looked rather similar to the USA - Sony had just 23% of the console and handheld market in 2012 (and that was after some strong gains on previous years). At its nadir, it might have been closer to 15%.

The launch of the PS4 has turned things around again, though. PlayStation's market share now sits at 40% according to Fergal Gara, Sony's UK and Ireland MD. But can Sony ever get back to the total dominance of the PS2 era?

"Well, no," acknowledges Gara (smartly; to assert otherwise would have been madness). "And you know, part of our role in the industry is to promote a healthy industry for all that are in it. Of course we’d love to remain the lead player, but competition is good for the market, it’s good for developers, it’s good for the market size, and it’s good for retailers, too."

That might sound magnanimous, but it's informed by the realities of the modern games industry. 80% would be impossible nowadays. There are too many competitors, and that's just within the console space (start getting into PC and phone gaming and there's just a giant pool of people fighting for market share). 40%, in this context, is a pretty big achievement, though it's clear that PlayStation is shooting for more.

The uptake on the PlayStation 4 was a great deal quicker than anyone at PlayStation UK anticipated. "Absolutely. It was unprecedented," says Gara, when I ask if the launch's success came as a surprise. "We got a lot of stock together but we could have done with more! I was delighted what we DID manage to get together, especially compared to my early forecasts which were... well, typical. The demand was atypical. It really was off the scale."

Despite the attractive numbers, the  PS4 launch has caused its own problems. Sony has just about kept up with demand for actual consoles, but it's not done so well fulfilling early adopters' appetite for new games. There's been an extended period of calm since launch that looks likely to stretch on towards the end of 2014.

"The second year in any console cycle is exactly about that – I’ve got this shiny new tech, I’ve got some good games, but nobody’s pushed the boundaries quite as far as I wanted yet, prove it to me," acknowledges Gara. "It’s absolutely to be expected.

"The biggest challenge it presents is, if you can’t satisfy your customer, what’s going to happen? Are they going to go to another platform? Are they going to wait it out? There’s going to be lost sales, there’s retailer frustration, there’s a whole pent-up demand… also you see certain traders starting to price up the console to take advantage of demand, which isn’t, y’know, for the players. It causes a whole lot of market distortion."

The UK wasn't just a sales stronghold for PlayStation in the 90s/00s - it was a development stronghold, too. Some of the biggest successes that PlayStation has ever seen were developed here: Wipeout, Singstar, LittleBigPlanet. I see two of those franchises represented in PlayStation's E3 lounge - some grinning dudes in t-shirts are playing through the LBP3 demo, and two girls are gamely singing "Call Me Maybe" into their phones in front of Singstar. But Psygnosis - or Sony Studio Liverpool, as it was rebranded in 1999 - was closed in 2012, and meanwhile Sony's American studios have grown both in number and stature.

Fergal reckons that the UK is still helping lead PlayStation development, though. "Shahid [Kamal Ahmad, one of the key figures in Sony's indie relations] has been engaging developers particularly on the indie side, but a lot of our key first-party content is developed in the UK," he says. "Whether it be the Project Morpheus demos that have come out of the UK studio, Driveclub here from Evolution, LittleBigPlanet 3, Driveclub. There's a very strong UK representation in this room."

PlayStation is unlikely to ever regain the dominance over the UK that it held in its golden age - but it's good that the console giant is having to work harder for the country's affections. The Xbox 360's disruption of Sony's nicely sewn-up market led to an intensely competitive scenario that benefits you and me; it's brought us things like PlayStation Plus, for one, and has forced Sony to improve quickly in areas where it's been lagging behind, like online services.

Pop culture moves fast, but I think the UK still has a soft spot for PlayStation, a hangover from the time when it was synonymous with video games here. The PS4's marketing has traded on this nostalgic affection (the For the Players vid above, with its evolving London skyline and Blur posters, was aimed squarely at British hearts).

Perhaps, behind the marketing, PlayStation still has a soft spot for us.