May 2014 was a big improvement over May 2013 in U.S. retail videogame sales, the NPD group said yesterday, with new launches last month selling 8 times as well as the new titles a year prior. Overall, physical sales of console, portable and PC games increased 51 percent year over year, the first annualized increase since October.

Cool. Happy days are here again for games at retail, right?

Right?

Erm … About that.

Let’s start with why the increase seems to be such good news. The past six months’ slide in game sales started in the same month that Microsoft and Sony released their latest game consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Game publishers like Ubisoft have reported shrinking sales despite the new hardware, with total console and portable software sales last year dropping nine percent, again according to NPD.

But this is one of those times where a year-over-year comparison masks part of the story. In real dollars, four of the six prior months were bigger for sales than May’s $274 million total. And there is no comparison between the new titles that came out in each May.

The past five Mays in U.S. retail game sales.

Data courtesy NPD Group The past five Mays in U.S. retail game sales.

Last month’s chart was topped by Ubisoft’s much-hyped hacking game Watch Dogs, trailed by Nintendo’s new system-selling Mario Kart 8, Sony’s MLB 2014 and Bethesda’s reboot of the Nazi-shooting Wolfenstein franchise. All four of those games came out in May; number five was a seemingly permanent resident of the NPD lists, Minecraft, the newish PlayStation 3 edition of which hit retail shelves in mid-May.

In May 2013, by contrast, only one game in the top five — Donkey Kong Country Returns — was a new title. The others, like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, came out a month or two prior. The No. 2 game that month, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, was holding on from a November 2012 release.

And the games that did come out that month, like Fuse, Grid 2 and Metro: Last Light just didn’t have the same intensity of marketing as Watch Dogs or a built-in audience like Mario Kart 8. Bouncing them off of one another doesn’t tell us much.

The really telling stat to watch this year will be how software does once the year-over-year release cycle is on more or less equal footing, e.g. during the holidays. Cumulative retail sales in November and December last year were down 20 percent, to $2.3 billion, versus the same two months in 2012.

P.S. The other news from yesterday’s NPD report: The PlayStation 4 outsold the Xbox One again (yawn). This was perhaps the least surprising in the PS4’s five-month winning streak, since Microsoft announced at the start of the month that customers could save $100 if they waited until after E3 to buy an Xbox.



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