After months of explosive growth, the US game industry has officially hit a stumbling block. Today, the NPD Group reported that in March, domestic retail game sales decreased year-over-year for the first time since last September's 7 percent dip. However, the drop was more dramatic last month, which saw sales of non-PC game software, hardware, and accessories contract 17 percent from $1.72 billion in March 2008 to $1.43 billion in March 2009.
But though skyrocketing unemployment numbers and tightening wallets certainly played a part, NPD analyst Anita Frazier pointed out several other factors behind the drop. "First, Easter fell in March last year whereas it fell in April this year, and last March included the release of Super Smash Bros.: Brawl, which went on to become the fourth-best-selling game in 2008," she pointed out. Indeed, Electronic Entertainment Design and Research director of research Jesse Divnich called March 2008 a "perfect storm" for game sales, with the hits Rainbow Six Vegas 2 and Army of Two wooing more hardcore gamers uninterested in Smash Bros. Brawl.
Indeed, software sales mirrored the overall US game-industry shrinkage, falling 17 percent from $952.14 million (2008) to $792.83 million (2009). One reason for the shortfall was an event that Divnich also forecast --Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars selling only in the 200,000-unit range. Although one of the best-reviewed games on the Nintendo DS, the Rockstar Games offering didn't even crack the top 10, falling behind critically drubbed 10th-place finisher Major League Baseball 2K9, which sold only 205,000 units on the Xbox 360. [UPDATE] In fact, Chinatown Wars sold less that 90,000 units.
The month's software top wash was dominated by a game as violent as any Grand Theft Auto title, Resident Evil 5. The Xbox 360 version of Capcom's controversial horror-survival game took first place with 938,000 units sold, followed by the PlayStation 3 version's 585,000 units (4th) for a total of 1.52 million units--a series-best debut.
Coming in second place was the latest entrant in the Pokemon phenomenon, Pokemon Platinum. In third was the Xbox 360 exclusive Halo Wars, which overcame lukewarm reviews to sell an impressive 639,000 units. In fifth place was last month's top dog, Wii Fit, with 541,000 units, followed by two critically lauded PS3 games: MLB 09: The Show and Killzone 2, which sold 305,000 and 296,000 copies, respectively. Eighth place belonged to the Wii Remote-bundled Wii Play and ninth was all about Mario Kart Wii, which itself comes with the Wii Steering Wheel peripheral.
By Frazier's own account, hardware sales were March's weakest spot, sliding 18 percent from $552.04 million (2008) to $455.55 million (2009). "While it's not unusual for March hardware sales to be lower than February, I thought we'd see higher unit sales on most platforms," she said. "The Xbox 360 was the only platform to achieve a year-over-year unit sales increase."
Microsoft's console came in third for the month with 330,000 units, followed by Sony's three platforms: the PS3 (218,000 units), the PSP (168,000 units), and the now-$99.99 PlayStation 2, which only sold 112,000 units during the March reporting period, which lasted until April 4. "The PS2 price decrease occurred on April 1, so this month included only 4 days of sales as the new retail price," explained Frazier. "We would expect to see an increase in PS2 hardware sell-through in the April data."
Though much changed in March 2009 from the year prior, two things stayed the same. The Wii and DS were the top-selling hardware platforms once again, selling 601,000 units and 563,000 units, respectively. "It's important to keep in mind that the Super Smash Bros. Brawl effect from last year impacted hardware sales as well, so while the year-over-year comparisons are down for the Wii, the sales are still impressive," commented Frazier.
Although unnerving on their own, NPD's March numbers also signaled a more alarming trend. When taken into account, the month's numbers caused 2009's first-quarter game sales to go from solid growth to a near flat line. For the January-March period, the US game industry generated $4.25 billion, barely up from the $4.24 billion that it generated during the same period in 2008.
US VIDEO GAMES INDUSTRY - MARCH 2009
Software: $792.83M (-17%)
Hardware: $455.55M (-18%)
Accessories: $185.67M (-15%)
Total Games: $1.43B (-17%)
TOP-SELLING HARDWARE - MARCH 2009
Nintendo DS: 563,000
Xbox 360: 330,000
PlayStation 3: 218,000
PlayStation Portable: 168,000
PlayStation 2: 112,000
TOP-SELLING SOFTWARE SKUs - MARCH 2009
Title / Publisher / Units**
1) Resident Evil 5 (360) / Capcom / 938,000
2) Pokemon Platinum (DS) / Nintendo / 805,000
3) Halo Wars (360) / Microsoft / 639,000
4) Resident Evil 5 (PS3) / Capcom / 585,000
5) Wii Fit w/ Balance Board (Wii) / Nintendo / 541,000
6) MLB '09: The Show (PS3) / Sony / 305,000
7) Killzone 2 (PS3) / Sony / 296,000
8) Wii Play w/ Remote (Wii) / Nintendo / 281,000
9) Mario Kart Wii with Wheel (Wii) / Nintendo / 278,000
10) Major League Baseball 2K9 (360) / Take-Two / 205,000
** = Figures include Collector's Editions and non-hardware bundles.