February proved to be another cruel month for the video game industry.
Sector tracker NPD Group reports that software sales fell 15% compared to February 2009. Console sales suffered an even steeper 20% hit, though that dip can be explained by price cuts implemented heading into last year's holiday season. On a unit basis, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Sony (Nasdaq: SNE ) actually gained ground. Nintendo's (OTCBB: NTDOY.PK) Wii was the only console to sell fewer units.
NPD's findings aren't perfect. The researcher doesn't track all retail outlets. However, its data showing monthly sales through most of the past year seems to match the bleak results posted by software developers and specialty retailers in recent quarters.
The industry should be cheering the uptick in Xbox 360 and PS3 console sales, but why isn't there a corresponding spike in software? Take-Two Interactive's (Nasdaq: TTWO ) BioShock 2 was the top seller last month -- moving 750,000 copies across platforms -- but it could have been better.
Earlier this month, Take-Two announced that it had shipped 3 million copies of BioShock 2 since its early February release. Why is NPD showing so few units as being sold? Is NPD's data that incomplete, is the game a bigger hit abroad, or are there a lot of shrinkwrapped copies sitting unsold?
And what's the deal with gamers spending less on software since last March -- with only a few monthly exceptions?
I have a few theories, and the industry won't like them:
- Thanks to the same online multiplayer platforms that the console makers created, gamers can milk a lot more out of a single game purchase. My teen son still spends gobs of time over the weekend playing Activision Blizzard's (Nasdaq: ATVI ) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with his classmates, even though the game is several months old. In other words, gamers can buy fewer titles.
- The upswing in PS3 and Xbox 360 sales may also be related to their abilities to play back movie discs or stream them online through Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) . In other words, consoles are no longer just game systems.
- Social gaming on Facebook and casual games for smartphones provide cheap or free diversions. Is this a substitute for deeper console games? No, but the "time suck" involved is the real problem. If folks are spending more time on Facebook or on their iPhones, they have less time to get through console games.
These aren't just grim scenarios -- they're growing trends. And right now, the trends aren't shifting in the industry's favor.
Disagree with me? Let me have it in the comment box below.