“Christmas creep” begins stealing up on the games industry in September. After shaking off the sleepy summer months, developers begin trotting out their holiday wares, and gamers peer over each others’ shoulders for a look.
September 2010–the beginning of the year’s end–launched the 2010 holiday season with notable releases such as PlayStation Move, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and Halo: Reach. And, if the NPD numbers are any indication, it seems as if nobody’s quite in a buying mood just yet. Metroid: Other M was the ninth best-selling game in North America through September, but given the amount of marketing hype Nintendo stirred up for the title, that’s a pretty subdued buyer response. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock moved 86,000 copies in its first month of life, which Cowan & Company’s Doug Creutz called “a fairly dreadful” number. Halo: Reach sold 3.3 million copies, though Cowan & Company and originally predicted that the game would sell 3.75 million copies.
Some of August’s big releases lost also steam with the onset of fall, including Madden NFL 11, which dropped its sales by, appropriately, 11%.
So, what’s going on? Are these numbers indicative of a quiet Christmas season and/or general consumer apathy?
It’s hard to say for sure, given people’s tendency to leave Christmas shopping until the last possible second. Still, Creutz has lowered expected overall sales for the rest of the year according to September’s slump, though he does predict things will pick up a bit in October.
There’s never one single reason for a bad month, nor is this necessarily a sign that the industry is going to crash and burn. But it does provide some interesting insight into what gamers are thinking. For starters, game sales were considerably higher at this point last year–and 2009 was not a good year, economically. It stands to reason that people are cutting back their retail game intake in favor of, say, purchasing the iPad and downloading double-handfuls of titles from the App store in lieu of buying one retail-priced game.
That’s not to say gamers are utterly losing interest in what’s hot at GameStop, but this may be the start of a turning point for the industry: In the coming years, blockbuster titles are going to have to work particularly hard to really wow their audience.
That’s easier said than done, though a start would be to cook up some innovative must-have titles. Guitar Hero is arguably past its sell-by date, with the exception of downloadable content. Activision might have whacked open the golden goose at last, despite its promises to reform the franchise.
Any game that sells 3.3 million copies in a month is no slouch–but Halo is the franchise that defines the Xbox 360, and there’s no doubt Microsoft wanted to move more copies. However, the first-person shooter market is packed shoulder-to-shoulder; some previously loyal Halo fans have no doubt moved on to titles that offer (in their opinion) favorable multiplayer options. Though some undoubtedly purchased Halo: Reach, others were probably content to keep playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with their friends, or hold out for Medal of Honor and Call of Duty: Black Ops‘ arrival.
It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong with the sales of Metroid: Other M. Reviews for the game were mixed, though generally positive. Word of mouth, however, may have scared off some potential buyers who didn’t want anything to do with drawn-out, unskippable cut scenes. Metroid is also a tricky franchise to market, at best: Though Samus certainly has her fans, she doesn’t carry the recognition of Pikachu or Mario.
Interestingly, this Christmas season may well end up belonging to Sony’s PlayStation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect. Gamasutra’s Matt Matthews broke down the sales numbers for the Move’s first two weeks at retail, and found a modest response that matched Sony’s modest marketing efforts. Microsoft is trumpeting the Kinect for all its worth, and is reportedly selling through its preorder stock with little problem. Sony and Microsoft mean for their hands-free controllers to extend the life of their systems; over time, both Kinect and Move might demonstrate considerable endurance.
And what about this year’s washed-up September? Game developers understandably stress out over the initial performance of their big titles, but nothing is as unpredictable as the holiday season. True, downloadable titles are finding favor with a bigger audience, but when it comes to gifts, there’s no replacement for a video game wrapped up tightly and sealed with a big red bow.