By the time New Year's Day arrives, video-game sales will have shattered last year's record numbers at a time when many consumers are cutting back on spending. Projections by the industry-tracking NPD Group peg 2008 sales of hardware, games and accessories at $22 billion -- compared with nearly $18 billion last year.
One reason for video games' Teflon coating is that more people are simply playing along. Give Nintendo loads of credit for attracting the spending power of casual gamers with the still-sizzling Wii and DS.
In fact, more than two years after the Wii's introduction, the system can still be hard to find in stores. That didn't hinder it from becoming the No. 1 console in U.S. homes this year, passing the Xbox 360 in June.
Here are other notable trends in video games from the past year:
Price drops: The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 came out with lower-priced configurations to compete better with the $249 Wii. At one point, an arcade version of the 360 -- including games, "Guitar Hero III" and a guitar controller -- was selling for a spiffy $199.
Going casual: The impact of Nintendo's casual-gaming approach rubbed off on Microsoft, which redesigned its Xbox Live online network to include cartoonish avatars that look suspiciously like the Wii's user-created Mii characters.
Now downloading: The growing popularity of the home consoles' online networks made downloading new content a huge draw, whether it was grabbing vintage Nintendo games on the Wii Channel or add-ons for bestselling titles on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Movies, some in high-def, were also available to download on the 360 and PS3. Xbox Live even added the capability to stream Netflix rentals.
Virtual communities: Not satisfied to release just "LittleBigPlanet," a deceptively rich game that thrives on user-generated content and player interaction, Sony also created the online Home community for PS3 fans. Nintendo released "Animal Crossing: City Folk," which allowed players to talk to one another while "visiting." Microsoft redesigned Xbox Live to feel more homey, with user-created avatars. All were part of an effort to create virtual worlds where gamers will spend more time on their respective consoles.
Music wannabes: The popularity of the music-and-rhythm games "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" inspired not only sequels but a chorus of imitators. Some such as "Wii Music" found an audience, while others such as "Rock Revolution" hit a few bum notes.
Wii blockbuster: The standard pattern goes like this: (1) Buy a Wii. (2) Buy "Wii Play." Nearly two years after its release, that title is still among the top 10 sellers. It helps that the game comes with an extra controller, which most people would buy anyway.
Good exercise: Who knew that one of the year's biggest games would be a non-game? "Wii Fit" uses a motion-sensing floor board to track how well users do their workouts. And it's fun, too.
Getting along: The Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family made up with the video-game industry after years of acrimony by giving it a glowing annual report card and urging parents to become more involved in young gamer's choices.
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542
GAME OF THE YEAR
"Fallout 3" (for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC) took a doom-and-gloom scenario and turned it into an engrossing survival adventure lasting hundreds of hours. As players explore a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., the choices made along the way affect how events play out. That gamers eagerly anticipate every twist speaks to how brilliantly told the story is.
Since "Fallout 3" is rated Mature, the best games suitable for younger gamers were two brilliant racing titles: "Burnout Paradise," a rock-'em, sock-'em riot for the PS3 and 360, and "Mario Kart Wii," a revved-up revamp of the Nintendo classic.