Game sales slump: Blame the games

The video game industry is experiencing a major slump when compared with 2008, and the reason might not be the economy.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

Correction at 8:30 a.m. PDT: The release dates for Fallout 3 and for The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena were incorrect. They have been removed from the list of 2009 and 2008 releases, respectively.

The video game industry is going through some tough times. When NPD Group released video game sales data for April last week, the results were disheartening.

According to NPD, total industry revenue was down 17 percent, year over year. Software sales for the month were down 30 percent, compared to April 2008. Wii sales were off 43 percent, PS3 sales slumped by 42 percent, and Xbox 360 sales were down 47 percent, compared to March 2009.

So what happened? Is the video game industry finally being affected by the recession? It's possible that it has some impact. But I don't think there's any better reason for the decline than the games themselves.

If the games aren't compelling, consumers won't be buying.

2008 release calendar
During the months of January 2008 through April 2008, the number of major titles that hit store shelves was shocking. It made 2008 one of the greatest years in the history of gaming.

Last January, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, Burnout Paradise, and Turok hit store shelves. And according to NPD, total software sales were up 11 percent over the prior year.

February 2008 saw the release of Devil May Cry 4, Lost Odyssey, Dynasty Warriors 6, and many others. It was a huge month for the video game industry. Software sales were up 47 percent, year over year.

March 2008 was another big month. Silent Hill: Origins hit store shelves at the beginning of the month. It was followed by Army of Two, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and many more. Software sales reportedly rose by 63 percent. Total video game revenue was up 57 percent. Three of the major releases that month--Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and Army of Two--topped more than 600,000 units sold. Nintendo sold 2.7 million units of Super Smash Bros. Brawl in March.

April 2008 saw the release of Okami for the Wii, and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. But no release was as important as the two that ended the month: Mario Kart Wii and Grand Theft Auto IV. The Xbox 360 version of GTA IV sold a whopping 1.85 million units, while Mario Kart Wii came in second for the month with 1.12 million units sold. Software sales in April were up 68 percent, year over year.

Resident Evil 5
Resident Evil 5 is one of the few major hits in 2009. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

To say that the first four months of 2008 were huge is probably an understatement. They were headlined by major titles for every console. And they helped the video game industry grow at historic rates.

2009 release calendar
But 2009 is a different story. During the first four months of the year, only a handful of major titles were released. And although total industry sales were up in January and February 2009, they've declined by 17 percent in both March and April, when compared to the same periods in 2008. Through the first four months of the year, total industrywide sales are down approximately 3 percent compared with 2008.

We can blame it on the games.

Between January and April, only a handful of major titles have been released: Rock Band 2 (in Europe. Late last year in the U.S.), F.E.A.R. 2, Street Fighter IV, Killzone 2, Resident Evil 5, Pokemon Platinum, Halo Wars, and Guitar Hero: Metallica. Every other game released in that time couldn't attract substantial consumer attention. And none of the top games, according to NPD, hit more than 1 million units sold in a single month.

The drought
So why is 2009's library of games so weak? There are a number of possibilities. For one, the industry is cyclical, and depending on development cycles, developers might be working on blockbuster titles for another year. I should also acknowledge that the economy could be playing a part. In the past year, the video game industry has shed thousands of jobs.

But whatever the reason for the subpar slate of games, I simply can't look at this year's sales in a vacuum. The 2008 lineup of games was inordinately strong. Last year's sales figures prove that.

With better games, the video game industry would be doing better. But so far, 2009 just isn't the year for gaming.

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