If you have a sense of déjà vu about this Christmas, it's because you really have seen it all before. In fact, just last Christmas. We are in for another yuletide of magic and fantasy; of child and childhood heroes; of classics in the bookstores and the cinemas - and this time on the software shelves.
Last year, it was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This year, it's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - and this time there will be games to go with both of them.
The Harry Potter franchise is already legendary. Last year's debut movie proved that the success of JK Rowling's books could be repeated on the silver, television and computer screens. The movie was a blockbuster and the games based on the movie and released at the same time are still selling well.
The movie was knocked off its perch by the first instalment of Lord of the Rings but there was no game to go with the JRR Tolkien epic. This year, it's different. Two games from different developers will hit the stores before the release of the second movie on Boxing Day.
Vivendi Interactive has secured the game rights to Tolkien's book (the entire trilogy), while Electronic Arts has the rights to the movies. Far from taking sales from each other, the two titles are likely to complement each other.
Vivendi Universal Games Australia managing director Pascal Brochier says the two games are totally different, but both are high-quality titles.
Vivendi, which notched up an Australian sales record in July with WarCraft III, will spend more promoting its game than it has for any other single title and it hopes to get further sales momentum from the promotion of the movie and the "general Tolkien enthusiasm" that followed the release of the first movie, Brochier says.
For the first time, Vivendi will back up its in-store and print media promotions with extensive television advertising. Brochier won't disclose the promotion budget but confidently predicts the Lord of the Rings game will outsell WarCraft III, which sold 26,100 units in its first four weeks, equating to $2.3 million worth of business to retailers, according to Phil Burnham, research manager for Inform. Vivendi says that figure had jumped to more than $3 million by the beginning of this month.
The benefit in the game for Tolkien fans is that it includes the sections of the book that were left out of the movie, including the chapters relating to the mysterious Tom Bombadill, a fact Vivendi will be pushing hard in its marketing. The PC, Xbox and Game Boy Advance versions will be released simultaneously on November 7, with the PlayStation 2 version due on November 28.
By comparison, the Electronic Arts title, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, is based on the first and second movies and, while the Vivendi game allows the player to take the role of Froddo, Gandalf or Aragorn, the EA game lets them play as Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. It will be released on PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance.
Despite the continuing buoyancy of the games market, developers and publishers are taking few risks, so the majority of the top titles on shelves this Christmas will again be sequels. Leading franchises such as Tony Hawk, Tomb Raider, Colin McRae Rally, Tekken, Unreal, Mario, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot and others are all expected to feature prominently.
The Christmas games market will be further buoyed this year by the presence for the first time of three 128-bit videogame consoles. While Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube have yet to make a major impact on the market, both have only been on sale in Australia for a matter of months and have yet to have the benefit of a Christmas shopping season.
Sales of both are below expectations, although Xbox in particular has picked up following a round of severe price cuts, which ended with its RRP cut in half.
There are at least 39 new titles scheduled for fourth-quarter release for GameCube, taking the total number of titles available for the console to more than 100 by Christmas. Xbox expects to have 160 titles available by then. However, Sony's PlayStation 2 continues to dominate the market. It has about three times the number of titles available and, despite being the oldest and least powerful of the three machines, has continued to clearly outsell Xbox, GameCube and Nintendo's Game Boy Advance combined.
In August, according to Inform, PlayStation 2 titles accounted for 32 per cent of all games sales, while Xbox accounted for just 6 per cent and GameCube could only manage 2 per cent. Both finished the month well behind the old PlayStation 1, which still has a huge installed base.
Ironically, PC games - which analysts last year predicted would suffer badly as the new consoles did battle - continued to outsell them all, as they have done for most of the year.
While the proliferation of titles might appeal to consumers, it can be a trap for retailers if they pick the wrong titles to stock. With the average first-release videogame title wholesaling at around $68 and retailing for $99.95 (including GST) and the average $89.95 PC title costing retailers just over $57, there is not a huge margin for error, but there is enough to produce a good return when they get it right.
While WarCraft III broke sales records in July, the PlayStation 2 game V8 Supercars: Race Driver shattered them again in August, according to Inform's Burnham, selling 23,000 standalone copies and 4,100 copies bundled with PS2 consoles in its first full week on sale. Burnham says the game's exceptional performance can be put down to both the quality of the game and the emphasis placed on localised content, including the accurate re-creation of Australian V8 cars and tracks.
Infogrames Australia, which distributed the game, is hoping to repeat the success over Christmas with Colin McRae Rally 3, an already proven franchise that ranks among the top-selling titles of all time in Australia. It will also have Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, the latest title in the billion-dollar Lara Croft franchise.
Chris Eade, Infogrames Australia's public relations manager, says the company will push several of its top titles through radio and pay TV and with extensive point-of-sale and print campaigns.
"I expect the PC sector to continue to sell solidly over Christmas but the spotlight will be on the console market, with PlayStation 2 continuing to do well and Xbox expanding its installed base. The unique factor this year is that we have three viable console platforms aggressively working to increase their market share."
Sony Computer Entertainment Australia has a $3 million Christmas marketing budget, according to PR manager Anne Carroll. It will include national free-to-air TV campaigns for three of its key titles (The Getaway, WRC II Extreme, and Ratchet and Clank), a four-week promotion on the Disney Channel for Kingdom Heart, and support advertising for Harry Potter 2. In each case, it will be backed up with specialist press and POS campaigns.
All three console manufacturers will also be pushing key peripherals. While the US and European markets will be pushing Microsoft's and Sony's new broadband online gaming services, Australian customers will have to be satisfied with new wireless controllers. Although broadband take-up is increasing rapidly, there is still only just over 200,000 broadband subscribers throughout Australia, so it is likely to be some time before the pair offer online gaming in this country.
However, Nintendo and Sony are now offering cordless controllers and Microsoft has an enhanced "tethered" controller, called Controller S. Nintendo's WaveBird is a wireless version of its standard GameCube controller and has a range of about six metres. Sony's wireless controller has been developed by Logitech and, while it has the same range as the WaveBird, it also has several additional features to justify the $50 higher suggested retail price.
Nintendo will be hoping for a big improvement in sales of its GameCube and Game Boy Advance consoles, neither of which has sold as well as expected, despite a flood of games. While GameCube has only been on the market since May, it faces an uphill battle against the huge established installed base of Sony's PlayStation consoles and the growing popularity of Microsoft's Xbox, which is expected to improve its position over Christmas.
Best in years
Despite the softness of the general PC market, PC games are enjoying their best sales for several years and have regularly accounted for more than a third of monthly game sales.
PC gaming peripherals are expected to again provide a small but steady market, with products ranging from memory and graphics cards to controllers, joysticks and new portable hard drives. For the gamer who has almost everything, there is also a range of wireless home theatre systems and projectors that produce almost life-size game characters.
Maxtor's new range of portable hard drives is likely to create interest and potentially some controversy in the future. They can be hot-swapped from computer to computer using USB 2.0 or FireWire ports, allowing PC gamers to take their games with them.
Maxtor says there is also the potential to do the same with videogames and it is talking to the major console manufacturers over copyright issues, although that facility is not likely to be available in time for Christmas.
On the whole, game retailers can look forward to a good Christmas. Consumer confidence remains solid, the games industry is enjoying record growth and games companies are preparing to spend big dollars to promote their product.
Theoretically, at least, all the retailer has to do now is make the right decisions on what and how much to stock.
ACCC chips in to prevent regional codingWhile Sony's marketing team is preparing for Christmas, its legal team is girding its loins for the next round in a serious battle with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over the "chipping" of PlayStation consoles.
Earlier this year, the ACCC stepped into a Federal Court case between Sony Computer Entertainment Australia and a Sydney man it accused of pirating software and illegally modifying PlayStation 2 consoles to allow users to play copied games and DVDs from other countries.
The commission asked for and was granted Friend of the Court status and proceeded to successfully argue the chipping should be allowed because regional coding of games and movies "severely limited consumer choice" and, in some cases, access to competitively priced goods.
The court ruled in the ACCC's favour, making Australia the first country to find that regional coding was restrictive and the chipping was legal.
SCE Australia has handed the matter over to its head office in London, where some of the world's leading intellectual property lawyers are working on it. The company has lodged a notice of appeal, claiming that the issue is not one of restricting consumer choice but of protecting intellectual property and trying to prevent software piracy, which is a growing problem in Australia with up to 35 per cent of some leading games being illegal or counterfeit copies.
No date has yet been set for the appeal.
French-owned peripherals manufacturer Guillemot Australia has been quick to take advantage of the ruling and expects its Thrustmaster DVD Zone Free for PS2 to be one of the hottest-selling items this Christmas. Thrustmaster product manager Katy Richardson says the product allows users to watch imported DVDs on their PS2. It sells for $39.95 and is already attracting a lot of attention.
"Everyone is already going crazy over this product. Suddenly a whole new library of DVDs is available for viewing," she says. "It recently received a 5/5 score in the Sydney Morning Herald's Icon and Guillemot has been flooded with calls since."