PlayStation 4 ended 2018 with 91.6 million sold and a huge 'Spider-Man' win
Image: Insomniac games

Sony's gaming division had a stellar 2018.

The PlayStation 4, which launched just over five years ago on Nov. 15, 2013, finished last year with 91.6 million consoles sold to date. For comparison: The PlayStation 3 and its last-gen competitor, the Xbox 360, were on shelves for more than a decade. Neither one sold more than 85 million in double the amount of time.

So, yeah: it's fair to say that the PS4 has been pretty successful. And it sounds like Spider-Man played a big role there, at least in terms of Sony's 2018 fortunes.

Despite the fact that PS4 hosted a number of major exclusives in 2018, including the triumphant return of God of War and the bar-raising update to a classic game in Tetris Effect, only Spidey gets a shout-out by name in Sony's news blast.

Between Sept. 2018, when the Marvel adventure from Insomniac Games launched, and Nov. 25, 2018, an impressive 9 million copies sold. A good number of those copies likely accompanied newly gifted consoles; during the 2018 holiday season, Sony reports 5.6 million PS4s sold worldwide.

These are some big numbers, especially the total consoles sold to date. Don't forget that the PS4 is still a relatively young machine. It launched in Nov. 2013, just over five years ago. In typical hardware cycle terms, that's middle aged.

Unfortunately, there's not any comparable measurement in the market to hold the PS4's success up against. Microsoft hasn't been diligent about sharing Xbox One sales numbers (purposefully so), and Nintendo's Switch only launched in 2017 — though notably, it had more than 22 million sold as of July 2018, a year and a half after launch, and it surely added many millions more during the busy holiday season.

As of now, PlayStation 4 is believed to be the sixth best-selling game hardware of all time. It's likely to break into the top five by the end of 2019, with the original PlayStation and Nintendo Wii currently in the four and five spots, respectively, with 102.5 million sold and 101.6 million sold. PS4 could even make it to the top three; Nintendo's Game Boy/Game Boy Color occupies that position, with 118.7 million sold.

There's a good chance the next wave of console announcements disrupts what we've traditionally come to expect from new reveals.

Any higher than that is harder to predict. The top-selling gaming machines of all time are the PlayStation 2, at number one with more than 155 million sold, and the portable Nintendo DS, the long-lived 3DS precursor that sold slightly more than 154 million.

Those numbers aren't completely unattainable for PS4. But importantly, any speculation on the PS4's eventual lifetime sales performance assumes that future console releases and hardware cycles are going to look the same as they always have. That's no sure thing at this point.

Let's consider the bigger picture for a moment. The traditional console hardware cycle is in a state of flux right now. The big three companies — Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony — are increasingly aware of the fact that marking a new console release as the breaking point between an old library of games and a new one doesn't go over well with consumers.

Microsoft's emphasis on bringing backwards compatibility to Xbox One for Xbox 360 games has gone over well. But it's the current generation of games the presents the most challenges for releasing new hardware that leaves old stuff behind.

"Live" games are all the rage right now; these are largely online experiences that evolve and grow over time. Some of the latest and most popular releases (think Fortnite) have the potential to outlive the current generation of hardware. Games that aren't likely to just get a spruced-up sequel, because the original game is still propelled by an active and excited community.

Then there's the hardware itself. More frequent and dramatic upgrades to graphics, displays, and processing on the PC side of gaming have made it tough for older, longer-lived console cycles to keep up. That's why we've seen Microsoft and Sony release Xbox and PlayStation updates during the current generation (Xbox One X, PS4 Pro) that boost performance as well as storage capacity.

All of which is to say: We don't really know what's coming next. Speculating on the lifetime sales of something like the PS4 at this point is a fool's errand because there's a good chance the next wave of console announcements disrupts what we've traditionally come to expect from new PlayStation and Xbox reveals.

None of that changes the fact that PlayStation had a great 2018, of course. But it's helpful to look at the big picture when we think about these sales milestones. The so-called "console war" isn't what it used to be.

WATCH: Nintendo Switch becomes America's fastest-selling console

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