Good Enough: Why graphics aren't number one

Rumors - News - Remarks by Russell Carroll

Good Enough (September 6, 2005)

In considering the upcoming Xbox 360 that has been on many people's minds, I've thought about why I may or may not get that system. (in fact, my next article will be specifically on that subject) While making this consideration I have thought a good bit about the value of graphics. It is a discussion that comes up from time to time, and really there isn't any resolution. However, there is a fair amount of data available in regards to system sales, so using that information, I thought I'd consider if better graphics leads to better system sales.

When making this argument, it is important to note that sales doesn't = profit. For example, the Xbox has a narrow lead on the GameCube in terms of sales, but is 2 billion in the red while Nintendo has never had a negative quarter with GameCube.  Profit is linked to what you do with the money you make, not just how much you make.  If you are selling your system at a loss (i.e. paying people to buy it) you will have a lower profit, while you may in fact have higher sales.

So instead of looking at profit, I choose sales as they show clearly what the public values.  Nothing speaks louder than where you put your money.  The hope I have is that the numbers will help show something that should be obvious. Graphics are not the most important factor in determining what we purchase.

A secondary goal is just to present system sales figures that are interesting in their own right and can be applied to many contexts.  Each of the figures below are listed in the order that the console was released.

I start with what I term '2nd Generation,' which is really the rebirth of video games with the NES and SMS after the game industry went belly up with the early systems such as the Atari 2600 and Colecovision (though notably the Intellivision and Atari 7800 had more of the market than the SMS did in my so-called 2nd Generation, but are not listed below).

After going through each of the console generations I also look briefly at the handhelds.  For those who just want to see the numbers, there are two charts at the end of the article that show things visually. 

Finally, appreciation goes out to the forum at PVC for focusing on the numbers.  Many of the numbers they collected were used as a basis for this article, though wherever possible I've confirmed them through independent research.  Nevertheless, due to the fact that game companies rarely release numbers, the numbers below may not be 100% accurate.

2nd Generation

First to Market: NES
Most Graphically Capable: SMS
Most Successful: NES

Nintendo firmly owned the 2nd generation, a generation that started very slowly as department toy stores, still hurting from the huge losses incurred in the 1st generation of games, had to be convinced before they would start carrying console systems again.

The SMS had better graphic capabilities than the NES graphically, but the Nintendo Entertainment System was a cultural phenomenon both in the US and abroad. Other than its handheld systems, Nintendo has not since enjoyed the market dominance or the sales that it achieved in this generation. This is the only generation where the first console to market had the most console sales for the generation. This generation also is the only time where the first to market survived to the next generation of consoles.



NES 62,780,000 83%
Sega Master System 13,000,000 17%
Total Sales 75,780,000  

3rd Generation

First to Market: TurboGrafx 16
Most Graphically Capable: Super NES
Most Successful: Super NES

I think the 3rd generation is perhaps the most interesting of the generations as it is possibly the most similar to the change we are currently seeing in the move from the current generation to the next generation. The quality in graphics jump from the previous generation to this generation was not as significant as it was from the 1st (Atari 2600/5200) to the 2nd (NES). There were also more players in the field with the addition of NEC and the pseudo home console Neo Geo.

The TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis both had a near 2-year jump on the Super Nintendo when it launched, but were beat out by a technically superior machine. Interestingly enough, this is the only time that the most powerful machine was the best selling machine. (as long as you don’t include the Neo Geo as a home console for this generation)

Among the losers the TG-16 or the Genesis was the more graphically capable of the two losers the Genesis beat it soundly in the market (based on some tremendous advertising that made the Genesis appear as the more graphically capable system).

Perhaps most interesting is that the number of consoles sold was only up 8.5% from the previous generation. The trend of the "first to market this generation, fail to survive to the next generation" begins here with NEC's TurboGrafx.



TurboGrafx-16 2,500,000 3%
Genesis 30,750,000 37%
Super NES 49,020,000 60%
Total Sales 82,270,000  

4th Generation

First to Market: 3DO
Most Graphically Capable: N64
Most Successful: PlayStation

Generation four saw the largest changes in graphic quality in any generation with the move from 2D to 3D. In addition, there was one more player in the market with the release of the 3DO. Notably 3DO was the first to market and continued the trend of the machine that was first to market being the worst selling of the generation.

Sony stepped into the game at this point with the Sony Playstation, launching long before Nintendo as Nintendo continued its strategy of being last to market but packing the biggest punch in its hardware. However, this time the much more technologically advanced machine was trounced as the PS1 soundly beat out the N64 leading to the argument that 'people don't care about graphics.'

Furthermore, 2 of the most critically acclaimed games of all time were released on the N64 (SMB 64 and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time the later of which is still ranked number one all time based on review scores at Game Rankings), but Nintendo's market share plunged from 60% to 23% of the market, which could perhaps begin a 'the quality of the game doesn't matter crusade,' but then we would really have to fess up to the fact that in the end it is all about marketing.

Notably, with the advent of 3D gaming and the large change in graphic quality that went with it, not to mention a little Sony marketing power, the number of systems sold increased 74% over the previous generation. Notably PS1 sales are still continuing to increase as the system is still available.



3DO 700,000 0%
Saturn 9,260,000 6%
PS1 102,490,000 70%
N64 32,930,000 23%
Total Sales 145,380,000  

5th Generation (Current)

First to Market: Dreamcast
Most Graphically Capable: Xbox
Most Successful: Play Station 2

Following the continuing trend of 'first to market, fail to make it to the next generation' Sega released the Dreamcast ahead of the pack and though sales were above that of the Saturn, they left console business (noting the lackluster Xbox and GameCube sales, Sega may have pulled the plug on Dreamcast too quickly). Sony followed Sega to market with the PS2, Microsoft entered with the Xbox and Nintendo entered with GameCube, a system that fell a half step behind the Xbox technologically, but a full step above the PS2.

This generation also continued the trend of the strongest system technologically (graphically) not finishing first, though the graphic improvements were not as significant as in the previous generation (when gaming went from 2D to 3D.

With the expected end of production of the Xbox in Spring of 2006, the expected price cut, but continuation of the PS2 and the release of Nintendo's Zelda (perhaps sometime in 2006) this generation is not over yet. Due to the expected cessation of sales on the Xbox, it is likely that the most graphically capable of the systems will in the end finish 3rd in sales (though both Nintendo and Microsoft have very small shares of the market).

The sales figures when the generation is over should be even with or slightly above the previous generation, showing that the home console market may have reached saturation.



Dreamcast 10,600,000 7%
PS2 91,390,000 64%
Xbox 21,900,000 15%
GameCube 18,800,000 13%
Total Sales 142,690,000  

6th Generation (Next)

With the increasing costs in creating games and graphically competitive systems the cost of the systems and games will increase in the next generation, which could lead to further contraction in the number of consoles available in the following generation.

Based on the information provided so far by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, it the difference in graphic quality improvements in this generation will not be as great as in the past.  The most similar comparison may be found in the differences between generations 2 (NES) and 3 (Genesis) in terms of the jump in technology between one generation and another, which perhaps foreshadows a more equal market share among the different console makers in this upcoming generation than in previous generations as the third generation saw the smallest margin between the number 1 and number 2 company.


  • Trend 1:
    Generations 3, 4 and 5 saw the first console to market stumble and the company creating the console either left the gaming industry or stopped creating console systems. (NEC TurboGrafx-16, Panasonic 3DO, Sega Dreamcast).
    Trend 1 application:
    Microsoft will be facing a tougher road than those that follow it and will need to work hard to survive through the current and into the next generation.  Road blazing is dangerous as the majority of the market doesn't immediately convert to a new system and in the past has chosen to purchase a console made by a later entrant to the market.
  • Trend 2:
    Generations 2, 4 and 5 saw the winner of the generation come from a technologically inferior system.
    Trend 2 application:
    There is currently a toss-up between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 as to which of the systems will be more technologically advanced. Based on previous years, the more technologically advanced system will have less success in the market. In generation 5, there was a close race between Nintendo and Microsoft for the most technologically advanced, and ultimately they finished a distant 2nd and 3rd. If that trend continues, both Sony and Microsoft will be at a large disadvantage in the next generation.

Handhelds: Generation 1

The first two generations of handhelds I'll report here as a single generation as the generation dividing line (moving from the Gameboy to the Gameboy color) is difficult to track statistically. (the numbers below include both Gameboy and Gameboy color) In addition, considering the dominance that Nintendo had on the market it is of little value to split the generation into segments.

The first Gameboy was grayscale, but attracted a market share that no system has since been able to show. Despite what were considered 'inferior' graphics, the Gameboy outsold all its competitors including the 8-bit Sega Game Gear and the 16-bit Atari Lynx and TurboExpress (which played the entire TurboGrafx card library) not to mention the Sega Nomad that played all Sega Genesis games, while making few changes to the hardware, later simply adding color.

The handheld market has been less focused on graphic quality than even the console market. While the console market hasn't had the most graphically capable machine win the generation since the early 90s, the most graphically capable handheld has never won in the handheld market.



Nintendo Gameboy 118,420,000 93%
Atari Lynx (estimate) 750,000 1%
Sega Game Gear 8,650,000 7%
Total Sales 127,820,000  

Generation 2

There have been a few handhelds that have come and gone in this generation including the Zodiac, Pocket Neo Geo and Wonderswan, most without the majority of the public becoming aware of them. The Game Boy Advance, including the later SP revision and soon to be released Micro revision have dominated this generation, and the sales numbers for the Gameboy advance are far from finished as it continues to sell very well, rivaling a console from the next generation, the PSP in Japan.



GBA Advance 67,740,000 98%
Nokia N-Gage 1,300,000 2%
Total Sales 69,040,000  

Generation 3

The 3rd generation of handhelds started off with the release of the DS, which was followed soon after by the Sony PSP, a machine that graphically is a generation ahead of the DS. Early PSP sales show promise of capturing a healthy share of the market, though beating Nintendo seems unlikely at this time.

Over the past 4 months the DS has outsold the PSP 3:1 in Japan, while the US market numbers are thus far holding fairly even (in Japan the PSP is currently struggling to outsell the GBA on a weekly basis).

Certainly the end result is not yet in on this the newest of the game system battles (the PSP only recently was released in Europe), but based on the trend it appears that generation 3 will again show the most graphically advanced system falling to an inferior system (which explains the recent tirade of one Sony executive). Though notably neither of the two systems has yet sold as many systems as the Game Gear, which could point to a potential slow-down in the handheld market or indecision by the public on which system to purchase.

Console Sales %
DS 6,650,000 57%
PSP 5,060,000 43%
Total Sales 11,710,000  


The argument of how important on graphics are won't be solved here, but the data is rather interesting. While there is certainly a segment of the market that purchases the most graphically powerful system, the majority of the market has rarely purchased the system that has the best graphics.

For indie developers this is good news and bad news. The good news is, graphics are not the most important thing. This is really pretty obvious as mentioned before. No-one says 'you've got to buy this game that sucks because the graphics are great!' Instead people say 'this is a great game, and the graphics are awesome, you should get it!' With tools such as the Torque engine at their disposal, indie game developers can create graphics that are 'good enough.'

What does 'good enough' mean? That means that the game is good-looking enough that the customer doesn't think about the graphics and instead just focuses on how the game plays. Clearly from the console data the VAST majority of buyers are satisfied with games with lower quality graphics and don't feel that they are settling for something less by choosing a game that don’t have top of the line graphics. This may create some issues for the next generation of consoles, which by all accounts don’t show as big a jump in graphics as has been made in previous generations, but it should be a boon to indie developers.  Many game players may feel that their current system is ‘good enough’ and not feel initially inclined to upgrade. 

On the Indie game side, Indie developers are at a golden period where the graphic tools available allow for games to look 'good enough' to compete with the average console game. From the growing number of people playing indie games, it is clear that the people playing games are taking notice and agree that graphics aren't everything. When you are playing a good game, graphics just need to be good enough to make you want to play.

This article comes from Game Tunnel

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