Source: Today's NPD March US sales preview report by Jesse Divnich, director of analyst services for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR).
What we heard: One of the bigger surprises at Nintendo's E3 2008 media briefing was the unveiling of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. After its suddenness wore off, the announcement of the first GTA game for the DS had as many supporters as it did skeptics. On the one hand, releasing a spin-off of 2008's second-biggest game* on 2008's most popular platform appeared to be a license to mint money. On the other, there were doubts whether the ultrafelonious game--which lets players steal cars, shoot enemies, deal drugs, and commit myriad other crimes--would translate well to the handheld's more family-oriented demographic.
Which position is correct will be determined this Thursday when the NPD Group releases US sales figures for March. But instead of being in near agreement, analysts are offering wildly diverging estimates on how the critically lionized Chinatown Wars fared. Wedbush Morgan Securities' Michael Pachter believes that the game sold 450,000 units in the two weeks after it went on sale March 17, a solid debut by any standard. By contrast, EEDAR's Jesse Divinch thinks that the game's sales were in the 200,000-unit range--a number seized upon by the game-industry blogosphere.
"It appears the industry may have been overzealous with initial expectations on how GTA: Chinatown Wars would perform based upon the news it had received one of the highest-quality scores for a Nintendo DS title," wrote Divnich in his report. "It is important to note that there have been many other titles that achieved a quality score above 90 on the Nintendo DS and have failed to sell over 300,000 units within three months in North America (irrespective of ESRB rating)." Speaking with GameSpot, Divnich stressed he believes the game's sales were between 200,000 and 300,000 units.
Divnich also contends that with the trigger-happy game's lackluster debut, Take-Two Interactive may have shot the M-rated DS game market in the foot. "EEDAR believes the results of GTA: Chinatown Wars confirms that attempting to release a major AAA title on the Nintendo DS, targeted at a mature demographic, carries significantly elevated risk," contended the analyst. "With the majority of publishers currently taking a risk-adverse stance, we expect this to slow the growth rate of future mature-rated titles on the DS."
The official story: Take-Two reps said they were looking into the matter and had not officially commented as of press time.
Bogus or not bogus?: The world will know for sure on Thursday, when NPD releases (and GameSpot reports) the March NPD numbers. However, the market seems confident that Chinatown Wars waged a decent struggle at retail. Take-Two stock has been rising for the past week, shooting up $1.05--or 12.5 percent--today alone.
Another factor to consider is how, unlike most games, often DS and Wii titles can start off slow but increase as time goes on. "From what we can tell from the retail channel, sell-through of the game started off more slowly than expected, but picked up," Lazard Captial analyst Colin Sebastian told GameSpot.
[UPDATE] Speaking with GameSpot on Tuesday, Divinch clarified his Chinatown Wars estimate as not being negative, but rather merely cautionary. "DS games definitely have longer lead-ins," explained the analyst. "Even if it only brings in 250,000 in the first month, it will continue to sell well month after month. I expect Chinatown Wars to sell well all the way into next year, but it's only Take-Two and Grand Theft Auto that can do this. I don't think something like Saints Row, which is one of my favorite games, could pull this off. It's definitely risky, though, and that [200,000-unit range] number might scare some people."
Ultimately, though, Divinch believes that Chinatown Wars will give Take-Two a "huge profit." He continued, "since this is the highest-rated DS title to ever come out, it will be a system-seller like Halo 3 or Metal Gear Solid 4 was. I also expect it to remain on store shelves throughout the DS' entire lifecycle for years down the line."
* = 2008 saw combined PS3, 360 GTAIV sales of 5.18 million units; Wii Play (with remote) sold 5.28 million during the same period.