RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - With a new year ahead, video game publishers are returning to their roots and core gamers to maintain sales at a time when a contraction in the industry is expected to mean fewer overall new releases.
Mainstream audiences are expected to flock to upcoming big titles like Sony's "God of War 3," Take-Two Interactive's "Mafia 2," and Electronic Arts' "Mass Effect 2" but the game industry is working to make sure its biggest supporters, core gamers, are happy.
"2010 looks to be a good year for core gamers with a steady stream of titles like THQ's "Darksiders," Sega's "Bayonetta" and Electronic Arts' "Army of Two: The 40th Day," said John Taylor, videogame analyst for Arcadia Research Corporation.
In 2009, many game makers focused on mainstream and casual gamers with titles like MTV Games' "The Beatles: Rock Band" and Ubisoft's "Your Shape" exercise game for Wii -- games and consoles which many hardcore gamers shun.
But after three years of strong sales, Nintendo's Wii hardware sales have slowed and the music video game genre, while still viable, is no longer a key sales driver.
Michael Pachter, videogame analyst for Wedbush Securities, said video game hardware and software sales totaled about $16.8 billion in 2009, down 18 percent from $19.5 billion in 2008.
Despite the record-setting launch of Activision's "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," which accounted for over $550 million in its first week alone, game software sales were down 11 percent in 2009 to around $10.5 billion.
But things are looking up on the software side in 2010.
Pachter expects software sales to be up 10 percent this year due to a line-up of game releases like Sony's racing simulation "Gran Turismo 5," Microsoft's sci-fi shooter "Halo Reach" and Take-Two Interactive's underwater epic "BioShock 2." He said games will be the key driver this year.
"I expect the combined sales of hardware and software to decline to $15.4 billion in 2010, representing a decline of 25 percent in hardware sales," said Pachter.
"The primary culprit of the hardware decline will be a price cut for all three consoles, with a potential slight decline in Wii unit sales and a relatively large decline in Nintendo DS unit sales."
Another round of hardware price cuts this year will help grow the potential audience for the big games of 2010, especially since many of the big titles have built mainstream followings.
Square-Enix is releasing its latest fantasy role-playing game (RPG) "Final Fantasy XIII" this year.
"I'm a huge RPG girl and I am looking forward to being able to play "Final Fantasy XIII" on Xbox 360," said Jo Garcia, games editor and host of videogame website Gamerlive.tv.
"I played "Final Fantasy XII" for 180 hours."
Sequels will continue to play a big role in game sales this year as some of the most-anticipated games build on established fan followings.
Nintendo has a pair of potential blockbusters with "Super Mario Galaxy 2" and "Metroid: Other M" coming to Wii. Super spy Sam Fisher is back in the fifth installment of Ubisoft's stealth action franchise, "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction."
Game developers are also offering all-new adventures, and potential franchise starters, with upcoming releases like Zipper Interactive's 256-player online shooter "MAG" (Massive Action Game), Electronic Arts' interactive retelling of the nine circles of Hell in "Dante's Inferno," and Quantic Dream's film noir thriller "Heavy Rain."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith