For the past several years, Activision's Call of Duty franchise has been the videogame industry powerhouse — dominating the sales charts not only during the critical holiday sales period, but also carrying that momentum well into the following year.
In 2012, though, the franchise is showing signs of weakness.
While it's still a powerhouse that any publisher would love to have on its books, the latest installment in the series — "Modern Warfare 3" — isn't leading the sales charts in the days leading up to E3, the annual videogame industry trade show, despite a fairly light slate of new releases so far this year.
And that's just one of several surprises in this year's list of the top-selling games at retail outlets, as ranked by The NPD Group. Rankings were taken from sales between January and April — the most recent reporting month. (Due to agreements with publishers, NPD does not publicly release hard sales numbers.)
By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 1 June 2012
The first game from 38 Studios, the game developer run by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, had a respectable showing this year. But in an industry that's more and more about enormous hits, "respectable" isn't enough. Since "Amular's" release in February, 38 Studios has laid off its entire staffand Rhode Island officials are concerned the company may be unable to repay a $75 million loan the state extended to lure the company from Massachusetts in 2010.
The UFC franchise is a bright spot for beleaguered THQ, which has been in the midst of a restructuring effort in 2012 (and fighting to avoid a delisting from Nasdaq). While the first year of the franchise was the strongest, the popularity of mixed martial arts — and the licensing rights to its biggest names — have kept this as a solid mid-level performer.
This fusion of physical toys and videogames was something of a risk for Activision-Blizzard last year, but it has proven to be a substantial hit with families. Rare toy figures for the game are selling on eBay for over $1,200. Activision may have initially underestimated the impact this series would have, but it's planning to correct that error soon. The company has already announced "Skylanders Giants," an extension that will feature eight oversized figures (roughly twice the size of the originals) that carry new powers.
Buoyed by the successful film franchise and with a loyal customer base, Operation Raccoon City is the latest hit in what has proven to be a critic-proof series. Reviews to the game weren't overly kind, but never underestimate the fan base for killing off virus-infected zombies.
Last October and November, the biggest question in the videogame world was whether EA's "Battlefield 3" would be able to unseat "Modern Warfare 3." No one really expected it to, but the similar themes of present-day combat and a striking graphics engine intrigued people. In the end, "CoD" bested its opponent, but EA saw a strong performance it could build upon for the next game in the series.
The winner of more “game of the year” awards than any title in 2011, "Skyrim" is the best-selling entry in the popular "Elder Scrolls" role-playing franchise — so it's not surprising to see it this high on the sale charts. NPD hasn't given out specific sales figures, but worldwide, the game sold 3.4 million copies in its first two days. Because of its numerous awards and improvements to the game by the developer, players have retained high interest.
Ubisoft's dance series takes a few knocks from some gamers, who would like to see the publisher focus more on core titles, but it has been an annual top seller since 2009 — and has become a cultural touchstone. (Singer Katy Perry even featured the game in one of her music videos this year.) In January, Ubisoft reported Just Dance 3's global sales had surpassed 7 million.
The threat of an NBA lockout at the beginning of the 2012 season put a lot of focus on Take-Two's big sports franchise, which seemed to help sales. The game also lured in casual players with its retro theme, offering modes where players could replay some of the biggest games of the sports' biggest players —including Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. In its most recent earnings call, Take-Two said it had sold more than 5 million units of the game, but didn't note if those sales were domestic or global.
"Modern Warfare 2" and "Black Ops" — the previous two installments in this blockbuster series — set sales records. The latest installment started strong, but tapered off after the holiday rush. And while no publisher would be upset with the year's second best-selling game under its belt, Activision-Blizzard is likely a bit frustrated that the latest installment of its most important franchise hasn't held up as well as its predecessors. That said, judging by pre-orders, "Black Ops II," the next "Call of Duty" game, is well positioned perhaps to take the crown for 2012's top-selling title.
The year's best-selling game (to date) is also one of the most controversial. Players eagerly awaited the final installment of this action role-playing series, which changes based on a player's actions — but many were upset with the ending. Complaints grew so intense that developer Bioware later announced it would offer a free downloadable content pack to give further clarity to the game's conclusion. Yet the complaints may have piqued interest in the game — and it was the highest profile release of 2012, which was enough to boost its sales ahead of "Modern Warfare 3.”