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Rearguard Action

Price drops and redesigns are business as usual - but can this week's Gamescom announcements jumpstart the retail market?

Germany's Gamescom has been rapidly growing in stature as an industry trade event each year - with its increasing importance in global terms being most readily seen from the rapid rise in the number of important announcements made at the event's platform holder conferences. As such, the event's organisers were no doubt delighted this week when Sony and Nintendo took the opportunity to unleash a barrage of major announcements.

Taken in a wider context, though, those announcements start to look worryingly like fire-fighting - and they remain overshadowed by the steady drip of depressing figures from retailers' tills, the most recent being a stat which showed that the UK market has shed a full decade of growth and returned to 2001 figures.

With that in mind, everything from Nintendo's redesigned Wii to Sony's new bargain-basement PSP starts to look like a bit of a rearguard action. Not everyone is suffering equally, and some segments of the market are still seeing growth, but something is rotten in the state of dedicated gaming machines. Slow growth and stagnation are the norm, with genuine decline becoming ever more common - and the platform holders are desperate to jump-start the engine.

There's a sense that the Wii may have gobbled up the territory underneath the PS3 and 360. Nobody's quite sure if a mass market price drop will unlock mass market sales.

Of course, it's not entirely a negative picture. Last week I wrote about digital distribution and the rapid rise of revenues flowing through the industry from digital channels - either simple digital distribution or more exotic business models such as freemium and subscription. These revenues aren't measured in any meaningful or reliable way - we know that they exist, that they're pretty significant and that they're growing rapidly, but that data isn't included in the ostensibly depressing figures we're now seeing each week, which stem solely from traditional and online retail.

That doesn't account entirely for the situation we're in, however, and nor does the wildcard that is the world's macroeconomic malaise (although that's certainly not helping). There are other factors that need to be borne in mind when we're taking the pulse of the console games business right now.

One obvious factor is simply the age of the consoles that are on the market right now. It was noted by several observers that the present sales decline in North America has brought us back to levels last seen at the middle of the decade - which is the point directly before the last console hardware transition. It's normal for the market to take and hold a deep breath at that stage - new machines are coming and consumers slack off from investing in the old generation of hardware.

To a large extent, this explains the Wii's sales problems - Nintendo has, after all, announced a replacement, although the subsequent drop in sales is really only a continuation of a sharp downturn that began long before Wii U confused the hell out of consumers of all stripes at E3. PSP, too, has a replacement on the way which is making its older sibling look tired and unattractive right now. Both of those systems would be entirely expected to have a tough year as the market turns its interest to their replacements.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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