Analyst augurs flat Sept. game sales

Electronic Entertainment Design and Research analyst Jesse Divnich believes last month saw just 1 percent US industry growth; Force Unleashed pegged as top seller.

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US retail software sales have been up significantly every month this year, but analysts have been warning for months that growth would be slowing toward the holidays. September poses the first big threat to that streak of year-over-year game sales bumps, as last year the month saw the launch of the highly anticipated and heavily hyped Xbox 360 blockbuster Halo 3.

According to Electronic Entertainment Design and Research analyst Jesse Divnich, this September's smattering of notable releases like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and the Xbox 360 edition of Rock Band 2 may have filled the hole left by Halo 3, but just barely. In his monthly sales preview, Divnich predicted the industry tracking NPD Group's US retail sales figures for September will show a 1 percent bump in software sales.

"Instead of relying on just one major release, September succeeded on the backs of numerous releases that were able to, when combined, target all the major demographic segments," Divnich wrote. "Regardless of your genre or game style preference, September likely had a release for you."

Divnich projected that The Force Unleashed would dominate the sales chart for the month, with the console versions of the game taking up four of the top 10 spots and the Xbox 360 edition claiming the top slot. He expects the remaining spots to be split evenly between EA offerings (Madden NFL 09, Rock Band 2 and Mercenaries 2: World in Flames) and Nintendo's trio of chart mainstays (Wii Fit, Wii Play, and Mario Kart).

While Divnich said The Force Unleashed "was well executed across the board," he suggested that the game's review scores limited its potential sales to existing fans of the action genre and the Star Wars brand. He estimates combined Force Unleashed sales of more than 1.35 million in the US (it sold 1.5 million worldwide in its first week), but suggests average reviews of 85 percent or higher would have pushed the game to the 2 million mark. The various versions of Force Unleashed carry Metacritic review averages between 61 percent (on the DS) and 73 percent (for the Xbox 360).

As Divnich noted, "quality still plays a crucial role in driving sales."

On the hardware side, Divnich expects the Wii and DS to lead the sales charge once again, with the Xbox 360 receiving a significant bump from its recent price cut and post its best monthly sales for the year to date. As for the PS3, Divnich has it bringing up the rear, and urged Sony to consider a holiday price drop for the system, saying the $399 price point is "simply too steep to entice the casual and mainstream markets, regardless of how great Resistance 2 and Little Big Planet may be."

While the current state of the US economy may have families thinking twice about adding a PS3 to the entertainment center, Divnich expects the effect of the market's troubles to be muted in the gaming sector.

"As was the case with previous economic scares earlier in the year, we expect the current economic panic to play a minimal role in hindering video game sales," Divnich said. "One could even argue that during these tough times, the video game industry benefits as more consumers look for cheaper forms of entertainment as no other industry offers a better bang for your entertainment buck.

NPD is expected to release its September sales data on Thursday, October 16.

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