The ninth generation of console hardware has gotten off to a rocky start, and it’s not likely to let up until this summer.
The New York Times recently reported on how both Sony and Microsoft have had a hard time keeping their new consoles on store shelves, where diehard fans compete with scalper botnets to scoop up any available units.
For the last couple of months, finding a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X|S in a store for anyplace near their standard MSRP has been a gold strike. (They’re reasonably easy to find on online auction websites, especially the dodgy ones, where they’re typically bought for at least a 150% markup.)
Now, executives at both companies, as well as businesses in their supply chain such as AMD, are saying supplies may remain restricted until the second half of the year.
The fine news, as far as Sony and Microsoft are concerned, is that the demand means instant sell-through on any units they handle to get into circulation. While neither company is in the habit of regularly divulging their sales numbers, unbiased analysts estimate Sony with between 5 and 6 million PS5s bought since the systems’ launch week in mid-November, and Microsoft with between 2 and 3 million.
The demand can be credited for some of Microsoft’s record-high earnings from its Xbox division, but consumer frustration is visibly building. This leaves both Sony and Microsoft in a precarious position; right now, sales are high and they can’t hold any version of either console in stock, but there’s a point where consumer backlash is going to kick in.
In an interview with the New York Times, Microsoft’s Mike Spencer laid down some of the causes for the Xbox shortage. It’s an issue confronting most of the game industry’s manufacturing sector. Simply put: there are a lot of disruptions in the global electronics supply chain right now, and PS5/XSX availability is just 1 of the effects thereof.
A lot of it can be attributed to knock-on effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown measures in China, where most console parts are made, have created bottlenecks in the international supply chain, which makes it difficult for any company to place component orders at the moment. There’s also a chance that worldwide vaccine rollouts can impact shipping logistics, which makes it considerably harder to get a new console from its factory in mainland China to a store shelf in North America.
Both AMD and Nvidia have also been struggling through a global shortage of GDDR6 memory, a particular kind of RAM that performs a key position in modern high-end gaming hardware. (PC gamers have had a real issue for the last few months when trying to upgrade to the newest video cards, and that shortage is why.) Since both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X run off of custom AMD hardware, AMD’s problems are the console market’s problems.
This leaves both Sony and Microsoft in a precarious position at the moment. Both companies are currently enjoying the benefits of high demand, but another 5 months of shortages could have a substantial knock-on effect on how games develop in the ninth generation. There’s no point for studios, particularly third-party unbiased studios, to make games that fully exploit the particular features of the PS5 or XSX if nobody has either of them.
More importantly, there is a point where hype dies. Right now, there’s nonetheless a lot of enthusiasm for ninth-generation hardware in games fanatic circles, but it’s difficult to hold an viewers interested when they’ve got tiny realistic chance of ever buying that hardware themselves. Like a lot of other things in the 2021 games industry, this is a balancing act.