The Farmer Report: September 2008 NPD Analysis

October 17, 2008

September has come and gone and, as usual, halfway through the next month, NPD has released its sales numbers so we can again take our monthly journey trying to figure out what those numbers mean for the industry at large. There weren’t a huge number of surprises in September, but it’s still a worthwhile endeavor to go over the results to learn what we can.

The NPD retail month of September was a 5 week month that started on Sunday, August 31st and ended on Saturday, October 4th. Since September was a 5 week month but most are only 4, most of the comparisons and trends will be drawn using weekly averages instead of the monthly totals. This allows for a more accurate understanding of what’s happening that isn’t broken by different months covering different time spans. We’ll start at the top of the list and work our way down. The first number will be this month’s sales, followed by the weekly average in parenthesis, then last month’s sales with the weekly average, and finally September 2007’s sales and weekly average.

Wii: 687,000 (137,400)/453,000 (113,250)/501,000 (100,200)

First, the 5 week month is worth noting here because it turns what at first appears to be a nearly 50% increase in sales into a more modest (but still impressive) 20% jump. However, this was still a nice jump from last month and broke a several month downward trend with a nice increase. Of course, with the Wii, terms such as “downward trend” are all relative. The system hasn’t been under 100,000 units per week since January, whereas none of the non-Nintendo have cleared that bar since December 2007. To truly put the Wii in perspective though, compare it to the PS2 in 2002, which is the best year any single console has ever had in the US market. In 10 the first 10 months of 2002, (ie through October), the PS2 sold a hair over 4.4 million units of hardware. By comparison, the Wii has sold nearly 5.2 million in the first nine of 2008. Even if it can’t match the 2002 PS2’s insane December (when it moved an astonishing 2.7 million units, the single month record), the Wii is still on track to shatter the PS2’s annual record for most hardware sold in a single year by 1.5 million or more.

DS: 536,800 (107,360)/518,300 (129,575)/495,800 (99,160)
As usual with the Wii and DS this year, whichever system didn’t come in first came in second. This is yet another outstanding month for the DS; otherwise commentary has become routine. Without software numbers beyond the top 10 it’s impossible to quantitatively say more about how DS games are selling (and they are selling, every time NPD pulls back the curtain a little extra or Nintendo reveals a bit more information we see that the DS moves software in tremendous amounts), and I can only point out how well the hardware moves in so many different ways. I’ll just finish up here by pointing out that the DS had a fantastic 2007 for hardware sales, but 2008 is looking to firmly eclipse it. It’s not a massive increase, but it is a substantial one. It will be interesting to see if the announcement of the (Japan-only until 2009) DSi will have any impact on hardware sales until the new model releases.

360: 347,200 (69,440)/195,200 (48,800)/527,800 (105,560)
In the battle between 2008’s price cut and 2007’s Halo 3 for which moved more 360s, Halo 3 takes the clear lead, proving once again that software is the first, second, and third most important factor in hardware sales. That shouldn’t diminish the 360’s success in September 2008 by any stretch. The 360 didn’t have any major mega-games hit this year, so the nice 40% increase in hardware was driven almost entirely by the price cut. With the price cut combined with a fairly strong lineup through the rest of the year, including two big exclusives, the 360 should nearly match the last three months of 2007. I’m not expecting Gears of War 2 to drive hardware sales much (the vast majority of people interested in a 360 for Gears 2 already bought one for the first; sequels to franchises already on a platform historically don’t influence sales much), but Fable 2, which is the sequel to one of the Xbox’s top sellers should do quite well. Banjo Kazooie might also attract some customers, although except for Perfect Dark 0 Rare hasn’t exactly been hitting it out of the park on the 360 in terms of sales. The lack of a huge mega-game like Halo 3 hurts, which is why I don’t think the 360 will match last year’s numbers, but it should still perform solidly.

PSP: 238,100 (47,620)/253,000 (63,250)/284,500 (56,900)
Hardware sales dropped substantially compared to last month, most likely due to the announcement of the PSP 3000.  Expect sales to return to their previous levels in October. Otherwise I (still) can’t think of anything interesting to say about the PSP.

PS3: 232,400 (46,480)/185,400 (46,350)/119,400 (23,880)
This is why I’ve pointed out that the PS3 beating the 360 in monthly sales so many times this year is more of a perceptual reality than any actual real momentum shift. Despite the PS3 outselling the 360 in 5 out of 9 months in 2008, going into September the difference was well under 300,000 and this month cut that gap by more than half. I expect the PS3 to rebound and retake the lead in October thanks to a boost from LittleBigPlanet, but whether that will put it in pole position through the rest of the holidays remains to be seen. Meanwhile MS merely needs to keep up in order to stay head, since they still have a 5 million unit lead in installed base, a gap that hasn’t closed by any meaningful degree over the course of this entire year. And the Wii continues to outsell both HD consoles combined.

PS2: 173,500 (34,700)/144,100 (36,025)/215,000 (43,000)
Again I’ll point out the importance of taking into account 4 vs. 5 week months. A substantial increase turns into a very slight decrease as soon as you factor in the extra week. Otherwise this is pretty much what the PS2 has been doing since March. Although it continues to sell well (and software in particular can sell extremely well for certain titles), the PS2’s time in the sun is definitively over.

Again, this was not a very interesting month. Wii sales were up, likely as Nintendo starts to increase supplies heading into the holiday season. The 360 saw a solid but not amazing jump from the price cut, and the PS3 was almost perfectly flat. Meanwhile the DS remains where it’s been and PSP sales drop in anticipation of a hardware refresh. There’s just not anything else interesting to say.

The software charts are somewhat more interesting, but even those don’t have a ton of excitement in them. First though I’ll put in my usual caveat that extrapolating the larger software market from the top 10 is impossible, and any attempts to do so will lead to wildly inaccurate perceptions of what’s going on. The top 10 list tells us quite a bit about the games that did make it and nothing about those that missed out.

1.    360 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 610,000
2.    Wii Wii Fit W/ Balance Board 518,000
3.    360 Rock Band 2 363,000
4.    Wii Mario Kart W/ Wheel 353,000
5.    PS3 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 325,000
6.    360 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames 297,000
7.    Wii Wii Play W/ Remote 243,000
8.    360 Madden NFL 09 224,000
9.    Wii Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 223,000
10.    PS2 Madden NFL 09 158,000

Slotting in at number 1, 5, and 9 and the 360, PS3, and Wii versions of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, respectively. I have to admit being a little surprised at the sales of the Wii version; I expected them to be higher. That the 360 SKU leads isn’t surprising; the game was considered a technical showcase from the beginning and those hav
e almost universally done extremely well on that platform. Nor are the PS3’s numbers surprising. They’re right in line with how most big games have performed on the PS3 relative to the 360. But on the Wii, TFU didn’t sell as well as Lego Star Wars did a year ago (of course, LSW launched in November in the heart of the 2007 holiday shopping season, which certainly helped). Not a horrible number at all, but I freely admit I expected more. Perhaps the fact that it’s almost an entirely different game is what led to this, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

Moving down the chart, the usual trio of Wii titles make their appearances. This month it’s Wii Fit at number 2, Mario Kart at number 4, and Wii Play at number 7. Wii Fit moved more this month than last month, even when accounting for the extra week, while Mario Kart dropped slightly. More interesting is Wii Play, which has been selling at about 45% of Wii hardware sales for months. In September that dropped to 35%. Not a massive drop, but it is notable. It will be interesting to see if that ratio stays down going forward or it it climbs back up.

Rock Band 2 debuted strongly on the 360, although the somewhat staggered launch may have hurt sales. You could buy the game and the instruments separately, but the full one box bundle won’t be available until later this month, when it hits day and date with the PS3 version. This is one that would be better judged in January or so, but it’s unlikely we’ll have adequate data to do so. Mercenaries 2 also had a very good launch on the 360, although its legs will be questionable. Finally the 360 and PS2 SKUs of Madden 09 round out the top 10. Unlike last year, the 360 remained the lead SKU in sales, although the gap between it and the PS2 version narrowed significantly. Last year the PS2 version sold the highest when all was said and done, but this year it looks like the 360 will remain on top. There’s no sign of the PS3 or Wii versions, so we can only speculate how well they did (or didn’t, as the case may be) do.

For October, on the hardware side the PSP 3000 is launching, which should bring a nice jump in PSP sales. Regarding software, the PS3’s biggest holiday title launches with LittleBigPlanet. There has been lots of speculation on how much of an impact this will have on PS3 hardware sales, and starting in October we get to trade in speculation for established fact. I’ve been skeptical myself on its long term effect, but many are heralding it as the PS3’s biggest game yet and one that will bring in huge audiences. It will have an impact in October, but it will be interesting to see how sales play out over the rest of the holiday season. In the middle of the month the PS3 gets Rock Band 2 while the Special Edition bundle hits the 360. Finally, right at the end, Guitar Hero: World Tour hits all 4 home consoles. GH 3 sold best on the PS2, followed by the Wii, then the 360, with the PS3 bringing up the rear. This year I expect the same to be true (especially with Rock Band 2 debuting first on the 360 and PS3, siphoning sales away from GH:WT), but the real news will be how many units the Wii version sells. The Wii SKU of GH 3 in particular showed tremendous legs, so it will be interesting to see how well World Tour does as a follow up. The answers are coming in 4 weeks.