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Analysts Mixed On Holiday Outlook

Analysts Mixed On Holiday Outlook Exclusive

November 9, 2011 | By Chris Morris

Gamers might be celebrating a horn of gaming plenty this holiday season, but it's still up in the air if retailers will be cheering along.

The fourth quarter of 2011 has one of the most impressive lineups of titles in years. And it's off to what seems to be a good start. Gears of War 3 sold 3 million copies in its first week. Battlefield 3 hit 5 million in that time. And the launch of Modern Warfare 3 will top that.

Making any sort of hard prediction about holiday sales trends before Black Friday is a fool's game - and Wall Street analysts who cover the video game industry say that's especially true this year.

Certainly, there will be some tremendous hits, and some surprises. (Few people expected Batman: Arkham City to be in the running for the #3 spot when it was announced.) On the whole, though, most are mixed about how the industry will do by the time we ring in the new year.

"It's a strong release slate, that's very clear," says Colin Sebastian of R.W. Baird. "There will be a good amount of high quality games for the holidays, but I don't think the overall demand for traditional video games is any different than it was six months ago. Seasonally it is, so you'll see a ramp up in sales, but it's still a sluggish market overall."

Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst of M2 Research, is a bit more optimistic.

"It looks very strong," he says. "People who are looking for hardcore games have plenty of choices, and there's a good slate of must-have games this holiday season - and that's going to spur other sales, like hardware and more online sales of the add-ons."

The core gamer is the demographic to watch this year. With so many good titles out - and so many offering rich online experiences, hooking players for longer amounts of time - people won't have time or inclination to buy them all.

In particular, analysts wonder how big a crater the one-two punch of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 will leave.

"The number one question in my mind is how much business is left after Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty come and soak up $1.5 billion in sales," says John Taylor of Arcadia. "How much is left for secondary and tertiary titles?"

Barring something truly unforeseen, the year's #1 and #2 top selling slots are sewed up. It's just a matter of what will the other numbers be. The battle for number three seems like a possible three-way fight, with Arkham City, Skyrim, and Assassin's Creed: Revelations duking it out for bragging rights.

After that, notes Taylor, "there are a lot of meaningless numbers".

Pidgeon again takes a more hopeful tone, acknowledging that some titles are bound to be de-emphasized by the dueling shooters, but when the final numbers come in, the bottom lines of the publishers behind them won't look as bad as some fear.

"I think what you're going to have is a lot of blockbusters, but a good slate of other AAA stuff that doesn't rack up huge numbers for each one, but adds up to tens of millions," he says.

This year, more than ever, marketing matters for games. And that, unfortunately, does not bode well for titles, even critically acclaimed ones, that don't have a solid TV budget.

"Marketing budgets definitely help in this environment," says Sebastian. "EA and Activision have a lot of [marketing] muscle [and] smaller publishers, regardless of the quality of their games, are going to struggle. There has to be word of mouth or some other variable to get those games on the same level."

On the hardware front, no one is too optimistic. Many expect the Wii and DS to see a boost, since they're the cheapest on the market and the 3DS will see a lift thanks to assumed retail bundles and promotions. Many fear the surge will be short lived, though - the gaming equivalent of a dead cat bounce.

Even Kinect, which tore up sales charts last year, seems vulnerable. With only a handful of gotta-have titles for the peripheral (the most notable of which is a sequel to last year's must have title), it's going to be tough to grow that business.

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