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The growth in November 2010 U.S. retail video game sales was driven largely by Treyarch and Activision Blizzard's blockbuster shooter, Call of Duty: Black Ops.
With single-month sales of 8.4 million units across five platforms in the U.S., the title not only had the best opening month of any game in American video game sales history, but also leapt to 7th on the all-time best-selling software list.
There are a variety of notable measures by which the release of Black Ops should go down in the record books. Using exclusive data provided to us by the NPD Group, we've assembled some of them here:
The largest launch of a game on a single platform, with a total of 4.9 million copies of all three editions (Standard, Hardened, and Prestige) sold for the Xbox 360. (The PS3 version sold 3.1 million copies across its three editions, making it that platform's biggest launch ever.)
The largest launch of a single version of a game on a single platform, with the standard version of Black Ops for the Xbox 360 selling a minimum of 4.3 million copies. (We estimate that the Prestige edition sold under 100,000 copies while the Hardened sold over 300,000.)
Combined unit sales across all five platforms (including the Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and Windows PC) accounted for 25% of all unit software sales in November 2010, according to NPD Analyst Anita Frazier.
Combined revenue from all of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Black Ops accounted for 1/3 of all software revenue in November 2010, putting the total revenue across all five platforms at over $500 million.
Put another way, out of every $14 spent at retail on video game software in the U.S. during the first 11 months of 2010, about $1 was spent on Black Ops.
If Black Ops had not outdone its predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, it is quite likely that November would have recorded yet another month of year-over-year decline rather than an increase. Not only would software have been down, in both units and revenue, but overall industry revenue would likely have been lower as a result.
Looking toward the effect that Black Ops will have on sales in December, the closest comparable game is Modern Warfare 2 from 2009. Sales of the lead versions of Modern Warfare 2 dropped 55% from November to December, and if the same were to hold true for Black Ops, then those same two lead versions could move another 4.4 million units before the end of the year.
However, there is the distinct possibility that Black Ops will have its sales even more concentrated in its launch month, and as a result second-month sales will be lower. In fact, first month sales will not tell the entire story, since even 2009's Modern Warfare 2 went on to have strong sales in 2010, adding a minimum of another 200,000 units each month through the middle of the year.
The question we would pose here, amidst the obvious success of Black Ops, is whether the reign of über-blockbusters is a generally healthy phenomenon. As noted above, without the revenue and units, the industry would be in far worse shape than it is now. But the dollars spent on Black Ops are potentially sapping dollars spent on other games on other platforms.
Beyond that, simply the existence of an annual release this heavily promoted and as successful is enough to push the release schedules of other games into other months. It is far from clear whether the publishers that moved their games from November 2009 to the first quarter of 2010 really benefited from avoiding the release of Modern Warfare 2.
We don't wish to begrudge Activision Blizzard or Treyarch their success; they clearly made a product that consumers wanted to buy by the millions. However the industry as a whole has yet to sort out a means for pacing its releases out to the entire year, and as game budgets balloon and Call of Duty claims an ever bigger share of the November and December pie, it becomes more important that the release schedule problem be resolved.
Finally, we end with some historical context for the 60/40 split between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Black Ops. As the figure below shows, the release of Black Ops was the best showing for Sony's flagship console out of the last four Call of Duty titles.
There are still some details below the figures that should be clarified. First, the figure for the release of Modern Warfare 2 in November 2009 does not include sales of that title that were bundled with a special edition of the Xbox 360 hardware. The NPD Group generally keeps those figures separate, since it can't be known whether the system was purchased for the game or not.
Moreover, the Xbox 360 version of World at War in November 2008 was the second major shooter available for that platform that month. Epic's exclusive third-person shooter sequel, Gears of War 2, was in fact the leading single-platform title that month, ahead of both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of World at War.