Sales of video games plunged 17% in March as shoppers found fewer blockbuster titles to choose from this year than last, according to a report Thursday from the NPD Group Inc.
"This industry is driven by hits," said Jesse Divnich, director of analytical services with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research. "It just so happens that there were fewer hits last month than there were [in March] last year."
Among the top sellers in March were Resident Evil 5, a survival horror game from Capcom, which sold more than 1.5 million copies, research firm NPD said. Another top seller was Halo Wars, a follow-up to Microsoft Corp.'s hugely popular science-fiction shooter franchise, which racked up 639,000 units. Kids snapped up Nintendo Co.'s Pokemon Platinum for the DS hand-held console, putting the title in second place with 805,000 units sold.
Those titles helped propel game software sales to $792.8 million last month. That was up 8% from February but down 17% from $952.1 million a year earlier, when one title alone, Nintendo's Super Smash Bros: Brawl, raked in $122 million.
The software sales drop was the industry's sharpest since May 2006, when revenue fell 10%. But analysts said there was little reason to worry.
December is always the biggest month of the year for video games. But among all the other months, March 2008 ranked third-highest in the industry's history, said Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities.
"In that context, March 2009 doesn't look that bad," he said.
Another mitigating factor: Easter this year fell in April rather than in March.
"You might not think Easter is that big of a gift-giving holiday," NPD analyst Anita Frazier said. Surprisingly, she said, 8% of industry sales in March 2008 were for Easter gifts.
Pachter doesn't rule out the possibility that consumers may have started to cut back spending on games. But Divnich found positive signs in the diversity of the titles in March's top 10, saying they suggest a widening demographic.
"You have Killzone 2, Resident Evil 5 and Halo Wars for the hard-core gamers," Divnich said. "And then you have Pokemon Platinum for the under-13 set, and Wii Fit for the casual player. It was a healthy mix, which should keep the industry growing."
The $50-billion game industry, however, is likely to hit a few bumps along the way. Most analysts expect April to be below April 2008, when Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. released Grand Theft Auto IV.
"Until August, we will continue to see a lot of fluctuation based on new release schedules," Divnich said.
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Top U.S. video games in March
Title (platform): units sold
Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360): 938,000
Pokemon Platinum Version (Nintendo DS): 805,000
Halo Wars (Xbox 360): 639,000
Resident Evil 5 (PlayStation 3): 585,000
Wii Fit (Wii): 541,000
MLB '09: The Show (PlayStation 3): 305,000
Killzone 2 (PlayStation 3): 296,000
Wii Play (Wii): 281,000
Mario Kart (Wii): 278,000
Major League Baseball 2K9 (Xbox 360): 205,000
Source: NPD Group