Perhaps more than any other entertainment field, video games are seasonal. While an occasional blockbuster is released in the first or second quarter, the Sept.-Dec. timeframe is when publishers really make their bank.
The last four months of the year not only make up more than half of the industry's annual sales, but the titles released in that period can pay dividends well into the following year, as illustrated by the best-selling games of 2011 (through the end of August).
Despite the launch of some major games already in 2011, the year's two top selling titles were released in the fourth quarter of 2010. Overall, four of the 10 best selling games are from last year.
Leading the list, not surprisingly, is Activision-Blizzard's(ATVI) "Call of Duty: Black Ops". The game sold 7 million copies in its first 24 hours and topped $1 billion in sales within six weeks. And while demand has slowed a bit since then, "Black Ops" has held a regular presence at or near the top of monthly sales charts.
It bodes well, then, that pre-orders for the next installment in the series ("Modern Warfare 3") are trending higher, indicating that "Call of Duty" will once again set entertainment industry records. "Modern Warfare 3" is widely expected to be the top selling game of 2011, with Electronic Arts' "Battlefield 3" a prime contender for the number two spot.
The excitement surrounding both games is cause for celebration for the retail sector. Year to date, video game software sales (the most closely watched figure reported by the NPD Group) are 11 percent behind the 2011 pace. Overall, the industry is 6.6 percent behind where it was a year ago.
While on the whole, the numbers for the first two-thirds of 2011 are hardly cause for cheer, some individual publishers have plenty to celebrate.
Majesco is a publisher that has spent the better part of the past decade overlooked by gamers – and investors. But its "Zumba Fitness: Join the Party" title has been a breakout hit for the company. Its stock may still be below $3 per share, but has nearly tripled since the beginning of the year.
Similarly, LucasArts and Warner Bros have been largely stuck in the middle of the gaming pack, putting out quality titles that sell well enough, but don't tend to rule the charts. Both have titles among the top 10 so far.
The problems at Nintendo are underscored in the year-to-date rankings, though. At the halfway point of 2010, Nintendo has published four of the industry's top 10 games. This year, the company has just two titles on the list – the first two installments in the mighty Pokemon franchise, which is now entering its fifth year.
Missing from the list altogether are EA, Microsoft and Sony , though all have pending titles that could make the final list of 2011's best-selling games. EA is counting heavily on the aforementioned "Battlefield 3". Microsoft will release "Gears of War 3" on Sept. 20 and a graphically updated version of the seminal "Halo: Combat Evolved" on Nov. 15. And Sony's expecting big things from "Uncharted 3".
Also missing are any titles for Nintendo's 3DS handheld, which has had a very rocky launch. Sales have increased since the company's unprecedented decision to slash the retail price by $70 just months after it hit shelves, but some analysts indicate that surge is already slowing. Big titles are on the way for the system, but aren't likely contenders to be among the year's best sellers.
Even with whatever sales boost the holidays provide, it's a virtual certainty that 2011 will be the third year in a row that the video game industry records negative growth.
That's something that's unprecedented and likely to scare certain investors, but some publishers and analysts are already looking to 2012, which is expected to be filled with notable watershed moments, including the launch of new, high definition Nintendo hardware and the first new "Grand Theft Auto" title since 2008.
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