Report: Nintendo Switch is smash hit, topping US console sales in 2018 (NPD)

The United States video game industry grew 18 percent last year.

Nintendo is back on top, closing out 2018 with the system-selling Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The exclusive brawler had the best-selling launch month for an exclusive in history, according to NPD’s Mat Piscatella, which pushed the Nintendo Switch to the top of the console sales charts in the United States.

The House of Mario set itself a challenging hardware sales goal for the year ending March 31, 2019. With only 5 million Switch consoles sold at the half-year against the 20 million unit target, some pundits suspected that Nintendo had oversold itself. Armchair analysts are now walking back their worries, with the company reportedly putting up enormous numbers in the holiday quarter (we’ll know for sure when Nintendo reports on January 31).

Expect Switch to dominate the news in 2019, especially as the competition starts to near end-of-life. With new hardware most likely arriving in 2020, this is the last chance for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to shine. That will likely be through price drops, bundling, and (especially for Microsoft) further emphasis of service-based offerings like Xbox Game Pass.

2018 was a strong year for the game industry, with total spending increasing 13 percent to $16.7 billion, the highest it’s been since 2011. Every category saw gains, with software up 7 percent and hardware increasing 8 percent.

Accessories and game cards jumped 33 percent to an all time high of $4.5 billion. This was largely on the back of controller and headset sales, no doubt part of the Fortnite effect.

“The real story of 2018 is Fortnite,” Piscatella said on Twitter. “Its impact across Hardware, Accessories and Game Cards cannot be overstated. And even though we don't track Fortnite software in this tracking, its impact on Software overall was absolutely massive and has changed the industry.”

NPD puts Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption II at the top of its best-selling software list in the United States for 2018. However, that win comes with an asterisk. NPD has started tracking digital sales for publishers that offer up that information. Activision shares some digital sales, but not those on PC, which knocked Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII into the number two spot.

“The race to the best-seller position in Software was very close,” Piscatella says. “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 digital sales on PC are not currently tracked by The NPD Group and made all the difference to the rankings.”

The full rundown of the top 10 tells interesting stories about how people purchased games in 2018:

  • Red Dead Redemption II
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII (does not include digital PC sales)
  • NBA 2K19
  • Madden NFL 19 (does not include digital PC sales)
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (does not include digital sales)
  • Marvel’s Spider-Man
  • Far Cry 5
  • God of War
  • Monster Hunter: World
  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Single-player games aren’t dead. Red Dead Redemption II, Spider-Man, God of War, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey drive home the point that while it’s getting harder to find sales success with solo play, there is still room for expertly woven single-player stories. Yes, Red Dead Redemption II has an online mode, but at this point in its life cycle, it’s safe to suggest that Rockstar’s storytelling is what’s bringing people to the table.

As a counterpoint, Grand Theft Auto V finished 2018 in the number 11 slot. Five years after its launch, it’s still earning Take-Two big money.

There are a lot of sequels on this list. In fact, every game on the list is either a sequel or, like 17th place Dragon Ball FighterZ and 20th place Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu, tied to a known quantity. We likely won’t start seeing publishers take big financial risks with new intellectual property until the new hardware generation.

What does seem to be working is taking those core pillars and updating them in interesting ways. God of War completely changes the formula in a soft reboot that doesn’t ignore its protagonist’s troubled past. Monster Hunter: World takes a leap toward accessibility that has paid off exceptionally well for Capcom. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes the soft reboot that Origins offered and shunts it further down the RPG path.

The melding of new ideas with familiar properties is the safest risk publishers can take as the market becomes more saturated. That’s not to say we won’t get fresh games. We’ll see how Sony’s Days Gone and Dreams perform. But it’s going to be harder for publishers to justify those risks, especially as the current console generation sunsets.

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Michael Futter is the author of The GameDev Business Handbook, a guide for creating and sustaining an independent video game studio, and The GameDev Budgeting Handbook. He is also the former news editor of Game Informer and has written about business and legal issues and video game industry trends for eight years.

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