Speaking candidly, I don't believe that anyone was ready for the numbers that we saw from NPD for the month of April... regardless of whether you're an armchair analyst like myself or whether you're a top-line professional in this business. Hardware sales numbers, in particular, were just painful to digest. It wasn't a total collapse, but when you drop by more than 40% from the past year—and when that April's comp targets weren't crazy to begin with—it just looks awful.
We have to start by looking at the Xbox 360. It's great for Microsoft that the 360 was #1 again, but the context behind that accolade isn't too great. A 45% decline versus last April? Only 130,000 units sold? Perhaps we've come to expect a bit too much from the platform, which is just a few months from celebrating its eighth birthday, but with many pre-NPD projections pointing to around 200,000 units, there's no other way to look at 130,000 then to question what happened. In my full analysis for Popzara, I posited that the news of the Xbox 360's successor getting a reveal in May might have convinced consumers to slow down on buying and wait to see what's coming. Before then, we had a lot of speculation and hearsay about the new Xbox, but it wasn't real. Now it is, and the Xbox 360 aged rapidly in the span of a couple of weeks. I do think that sales will recover for the 360, especially as more games arrive in the August-November time frame, but things may stay on the slow side for a little while and we should probably scale back our monthly projections accordingly.
I've been very vocal in the past about the slowing pace of 3DS sales, and after a brighter March, April was a step backwards for Nintendo's handheld here in the United States. I do believe that, as more software hits stores later this year, 3DS sales will accelerate and that it should be at least a consistent #2 on the hardware charts (if not higher). What surprised me was that 3DS sales contracted despite the platform having two titles in the software Top 10 list. I expected residual game sales to help bolster hardware sales and keep the 3DS within striking distance of April 2012 numbers, but it just wasn't meant to be.
Analysts calling for price drops isn't a new tactic, but that's what I'm doing here when it comes to the PlayStation 3. $250 isn't moving hardware, no matter what pack-ins that Sony decides to add in order to justify the price point. We're not in the launch window anymore, and consumers would much rather pay a lower cost of entry and pick their own games than pay a higher premium and be stuck with games like inFamous and Gran Turismo 5. If Sony comes through with a price cut at E3, and couples it with the release of The Last of Us, I think it's capable of making some noise especially since the Xbox 360 will be in the midst of a moderate software drought.
Wii U numbers continue to be low, and its six-month LTD totals are tracking lower than the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 during the same time frame. Nintendo announced a multi-game partnership with Sega during its last Nintendo Direct event, which demonstrates a step forward in the third-party arena; however, this partnership doesn't come close to filling the hole that the Electronic Arts departure has left behind. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is no substitute for the losses of Madden and FIFA on the Wii U, and the absence of EA's upcoming Star Wars games will be a considerable mark against the platform. Having said that, I'm still intrigued by what Nintendo will tell us during E3 next month. Obviously its relationship with Ubisoft is still strong, but what of Activision and Take-Two? Hopefully those will be shored up. Otherwise, Nintendo will be fighting this battle pretty much on its own.
Finally, seeing Vita move less than 20,000 units in a month is just poor. The platform is still relatively new, and yet it's been unable to find any sales momentum and is in danger of becoming completely irrelevant. If Sony is serious about the Vita's chances here in the US, drastic steps must be taken to prove it. Sony must announce a price drop to $200 (or lower) at E3 and the company needs to announce compelling software that will interest a wide audience. Indie games aren't going to get this done. Partnerships with third-party partners must be forged and Sony needs to involve its own first-party studios more seriously in Vita software development. If not, Vita is going to be a tough sell for retailers, even despite its ties to the PlayStation 4. Months and months of inaction from Sony need to come to an end, and I hope that E3 is the turning point.
While I'm surprised by the severity of the declines posted for April, it's important not to overreact and make assumptions about the overall health of the industry. What I think we're seeing here is the beginning of a wait-and-see period for consumers as Sony and Microsoft prepare to show off their new hardware platforms and try to sell people on them. Combine that with a relatively soft release schedule over the next 2-3 months, and we should keep our expectations in check. I believe that trends will turn more positive late in Q3 and into Q4. Conditions may be challenging until then, but it's not a long-term weakness.