Wii tops game sales in January

Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Good times seem to be coming back to the video game industry.

Thanks to new game systems - and an extra week in the month - industry sales in the United States rose 78 percent year-over-year in January, according to market research firm NPD Group. Overall retail sales of game machines, software and accessories rose to $1.25 billion last month, with sales of new game consoles alone jumping 161 percent from January 2006 to $505 million.

The big winner among game systems was Nintendo's Wii. For the first month since its debut last November, the Wii claimed the title of top-selling game console, beating out not only Microsoft's Xbox 360, but both Sony's PlayStation 2, the longtime sales leader, and its new PlayStation 3.

U.S. retailers sold 436,000 Wiis last month and likely would have sold more if not for widespread supply shortages. The second leading console was the PlayStation 2, with 299,000 sold, followed by the Xbox 360, with 294,000 sold.

Microsoft sold 18 percent more Xbox 360s this January than it did a year ago. But this January reporting period covered five weeks, compared to just four last year, according to NPD. Thus, on a weekly basis, NPD's figures imply that Microsoft is actually selling fewer Xbox 360s this year than last: about 59,000 a week this year compared to more than 62,000 a week last year.

The software giant recently slashed its forecast on the total number of Xbox 360s it will have shipped by the end of its fiscal year in June. The company now expects to ship 12 million by then since its launch in November 2005, down from an earlier estimate of between 13 million to 15 million.

But it's not just Microsoft that's struggling. Sony's pricey new PlayStation 3 came in a distant fourth with just 244,000 consoles sold last month.

In a statement, Sony attributed the disappointing sales in part to supply constraints, although informal surveys of online and brick-and-mortar retailers in recent weeks have indicated that the PlayStation 3 is much easier to find than Nintendo's Wii.

Sony said in the statement that supply is starting to "stabilize," and as it does, the company plans to step up marketing for both the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 2.

"We are pleased with the numbers from January," the company said in a statement.

In addition to the robust console sales, game accessories and game software also posted strong gains. Retail sales of accessories - items such as extra controllers, memory cards and the like - grew 84 percent in January to $198 million. Total game software grew 53 percent to $549 million.

The top game last month was Capcom's "Lost Planet: Extreme Condition" for the Xbox 360. Retailer sold 329,000 copies. Other top games were Activision's "Guitar Hero 2" for the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's "Gears of War" - the top selling game in December - for the Xbox 360.

The booming sales in a normally quiet month follow on the heels of a strong holiday period. Video game sales grew 28 percent in December alone last year, helping the industry post double-digit sales growth in 2006 after several years of slow growth or actual declines.

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