'Modern Warfare' Not 2012's Best-Selling Game to Date

There aren't a lot of sure bets in the videogame industry, but for the past few years the "Call of Duty" franchise was a pretty safe place to put your money.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

The past three installments of the game have set consecutive entertainment-industry sales records at their launch. And even after the holiday season ended, they've led the sales pack for at least the first few months of the following year — but not this year.

A study of the best-selling games of 2012 from Jan. 1 through the end of April found that "Modern Warfare 3," the most recent installment in Activision Blizzard's "Call of Duty" franchise, was in the runner-up spot. Topping the list instead is a game that irritated some players so much that one filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Electronic Arts' "Mass Effect 3" is, at present, the year's best-selling game. The concluding chapter in a series that has spanned this console generation, it has a loyal fan base, but one that wasn't especially pleased with this installment.

The game has always been one where the player's choices influence the game world, but many felt the conclusion to the trilogy did not reflect that philosophy. As a result, the complaints were vocal.

After listening to players air their grievances for a month, EA and Bioware announced plans to offer a free, downloadable content pack (due out this summer) that will give further clarity to the game's ending.

The NPD Group does not supply specific sales numbers in its data to nonsubscribers (including media), but a spokesperson noted that each of the year's top-selling games has sold between 1 million and 1.5 million copies.

Those in the fourth and fifth spots sold between 800,000 and 1 million. (The numbers are based solely on retail sales and do not incorporate digital downloads or sales of used titles.)

If those numbers sound low, that's not surprising. The year 2012 is on track to be a miserable one for retail videogame sales. Retail sales are down 27 percent compared to the same period in 2011 — marking a $1.3 billion shortfall.

With the exception of "Mass Effect 3," which went on sale in March, there have not been any true blockbusters this year. Only two other titles — THQ's "UFC Undisputed 3" and "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning" — made the list of this year's top 10 sellers.

THQ might have seen a beacon of light with UFC, but that hasn't helped troubles at the publisher, which has been forced to slash its payroll this year and is under threat of a delisting from the Nasdaq in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the developer of "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning," Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, suddenly laid off all its employees on May 24, and is having trouble repaying the state of Rhode Island for a $75 million loan the state extended to lure the company from Massachusetts in 2010. While the game was a moderate hit relative to other games this year, Rhode Island's governor dubbed it a "failure" — noting his staff, who had looked over the books at 38 Studios, believed it needed to sell 3 million copies to break even.

In truth, the biggest game of the year so far is one that would never appear on NPD's list. "Diablo III" recorded week one sales of 6.3 million copies, according to Activision. However, because the bulk of those were digital sales — and the game is PC-exclusive — it does not qualify for NPD's rankings.

While 2012 has been a dud so far for game sales, analysts expect a slight rebound in May and later in the year when anticipated titles, such as "Halo 4" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," are released. However, they note, the days of brick-and-mortar retail sales being the best arbiter of a game's success may be fading.

"Given the growing contribution from digital sales, we believe packaged goods sales are becoming less significant relative to overall sales," says Edward Williams, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets.

-By CNBC's Chris Morris
Follow Chris Morris on Twitter: @MorrisatLarge