The 2004 shopping season is turning out to be the year of the blockbuster for video game companies as they race to score one more big hit before the current generation of Xboxes and PlayStation 2s makes way for new machines.
The list of new titles hitting the market these days reads like a who's who of major video game franchises, with sequels to Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mortal Kombat, Metal Gear Solid and Metroid Prime all arriving within days or weeks of one another.
The Xbox sequel Halo 2 sold 2.4 million copies on its first day. Gamers hardly seemed bothered that a new Xbox could be just around the corner.
(Greg Rihl -- Davis (calif.) Enterprise)
Many game companies regard the next few months as one of their best opportunities to cash in on past successes before a new crop of game consoles arrives with expanded capabilities. Though console makers Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. have yet to announce release dates, or many other details, analysts said they expect new versions of each company's machine to roll out in 2005 or 2006.
This year "became the deadline by which your game had to come out if you wanted to really harvest the cycle," said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc. "Nobody wants to launch the new Grand Theft Auto title for the PlayStation 2 three months after the new PS3 comes out."
The holiday season from September to December typically accounts for more than 60 percent of the video game industry's sales. But game makers are typically reluctant to launch new franchises this late in the console life cycle -- it's far safer to promote encore editions of games that have already sold millions of copies.
Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group, characterized the number of blockbuster sequels this season as "absolutely uncommon."
For gamers, sequels offer some assurance that the title will be worth the money, sometimes $50 a pop, especially when they sense new machines are right around the corner. Many Xbox owners bought Microsoft's console just to play Halo, so its long-awaited and long-delayed sequel had pent-up demand among Xbox owners. Halo 2 sold 2.4 million copies on its first day, and other established franchises with less buzz have seemed eclipsed by this sort of limelight.
Sony's popular Jak 3 sold 60,000 units in its first few days, by comparison; Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal, another sequel from Sony, has sold about 100,000 units in two weeks -- impressive debuts in any other year.
"Gamers will only spend so much money on games," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst at IDC. "Some second-tier titles are probably going to be lost in the background."
Electronic Arts' ever-popular Madden football game was last year's best-selling game, but even that reliable moneymaker is being outpaced by titles with even more buzz this year -- and some analysts think this may be the first holiday season in about a decade in which game giant EA will lose market share.