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New consoles don't spark retail run on game sales

Video game hardware is hot once again. The games themselves? That's a murkier picture.

Retail sales of game systems are up 51 percent in 2014 compared with a year ago, according to data from The NPD Group. Excitement over Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One and the potential of the next generation has revived interest in console games, which is welcome news for traditional gaming companies.

On the other hand, sales of game software at brick-and-mortar retail stores is down 27 percent year over year—a $372 million gap. But even as the overall game sales figures lag, there are already a few standouts in 2014—and some of last year's biggest hits still have momentum.

While the "Call of Duty" franchise continues to flex its considerable financial muscles, the series' most recent entry is not the best selling game at the midyear point. Instead, that honor goes to "Titanfall," a new series created, ironically, by the developers who first envisioned "CoD."

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The Electronic Arts published action title, in which two teams of six players fight online in gigantic robotic machines called Titans, has topped the sales charts this year, but there are already questions about its staying power.

EA hasn't given a lot of color about overall sales for the franchise, something that publishers regularly do in earnings calls. The game sold 925,000 copies in its launch month of March in the U.S., but beyond that is a mystery. And there has been no insight from EA about global sales.

John Howard | Digital Vision | Getty Images

"Titanfall" has certainly helped sales of the XboxOne, however, says Edward Williams of BMO Capital Markets.

"One out of every two Xbox One systems sold in April was bundled with [Titanfall] and we believe more than 65 percent of Xbox One owners in the US have the game," he said in a note to investors.

Sony's big PS4 exclusive - "inFAMOUS: Second Son" ranks much lower on the NPD year-to-date charts, but nine days after the game hit shelves, global sales had already topped one million units.

Overall, though, the early days of this eighth generation of consoles show people buying fewer games than they did in the early days of the Xbox 360 and PS3. The combined life-to-date tie ratio (the amount of games sold per system) for the PS4 and Xbox One was 2.7 games versus 3.8 across the prior consoles.

Further clouding the waters on software sales is the ongoing shift to digital distribution. Both the Xbox One and PS4 allow players to download full games at competitive prices. Gamer enthusiasm for this is high, but hard numbers on how digital sales compare to retail sales are hard to come by, as neither Sony nor Microsoft reveals digital sales numbers to NPD (or any other source).

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NPD analyst Liam Callahan estimates retail sales represent just 50 percent of the overall gamer spending (and notes that year to date,spending on digitally formatted content--including full games and downloadable content - is up 4 percent versus 2013).

Some publishers, though, have indicated that retail still makes up a much more sizable percentage of their revenue.

"We're very excited about what digital distribution allows us to do," says Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software. "Among other things, it has allowed us to build this significant recurring revenue model - but typical retail is still (up to) 80 percent of the market."

Williams agrees, noting that BMO estimates digital sales currently represent approximately one out of every five games sold on the PS4 and Xbox One.

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