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Video game sales fall off a ledge in October

With total industry sales down 19 percent from a year earlier, things are looking bleak as the holiday season gets under way.

U.S. video game industry sales plunged in October, dropping 19 percent from a year earlier, and 16.4 percent from September, according to data released Thursday by the NPD Group.

But with the tremendous, record-breaking, out-of-the-gate performance of Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the coming holiday season, NPD is bullish on the industry's fortunes for November.

Still, the $1.07 billion in total sales turned in by the industry in October were paltry, compared with $1.32 billion in October 2008 and $1.28 billion in September 2009. NPD analyst Anita Frazier tried to soften the blow a little bit in her monthly report, noting that while sales were down precipitously in October, it was still the third-best October sales report turned in by the video game industry.

"The continued economic turmoil, and in particular the troubling unemployment rate, is undoubtedly impacting industry sales," Frazier wrote in a statement. "Our latest Economy Tracker indicated that although consumers' general opinion about the economy is improving, their outlook on their own personal situation is worsening. If consumers' personal outlook continues to erode, they could very well be much more conservative with their holiday shopping this year."

That last sentence is no doubt one of the most chilling group of words imaginable to the honchos at companies like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Activision, and many others involved in putting video game hardware and software in consumers' hands, especially as their most important sales months of the year are now at hand.

As always, regardless of the monthly results, the big console makers each had some things to celebrate in the NPD numbers.

For Nintendo, which has seen sales of its once-high-flying Wii dip and perceptions that the console's days of seeming infallible may be over, the numbers had some hope: in October, the Wii took back first place among the consoles--respectively the Wii, Microsoft's Xbox 360, and Sony's PlayStation 3. In October, Nintendo moved 506,900 Wiis, beating out the PS3 (320,600) and the Xbox (249,700).

Sony was coming off the first month the PS3 won since being launched in the fall of 2006, but while the console was beaten out by the Wii, there must certainly be some measure of gratification in having the PS3 come out ahead of Microsoft's console offering.

"In October, we saw continued momentum [for the] PS3, with nearly 70 percent growth, when compared to last October," Peter Dille, Sony Computer Entertainment of America's senior vice president of marketing, said in a statement. It was "the only console to see any growth year over year."

NPD itself touted Microsoft's chief bragging point for October: "Across all categories, the Xbox 360 platform contributed the greatest portion of total industry sales, representing 27 percent of total industry sales for the month," Frazier wrote.

Yet despite the record-smashing first-day sales posted this week by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the video game industry as a whole is facing a very painful reality: If sales don't improve quickly, there will be layoffs, slashed budgets, canceled games, and more.

Electronic Arts, for example, announced this week that it is planning to lay off 1,500 people as part of a major restructuring--the company's latest--and as a way to stave off growing losses.

And while the industry may have hoped that console sales--especially with prices for next-generation hardware now at their lowest levels ever--would help it rebound, Frazier did not offer much hope.

"Year to date, the hardware category has experienced the sharpest decline in the industry, with unit sales down 10 percent compared to the same time period last year," Frazier wrote. "Recent price cuts helped spur a one- to two-month increase in unit sales, and this month's Wii sales reflect that boost, but the other platforms have not sustained the sales momentum [after] price reduction."