Video-game news: A record-breaking sales year; music games rule

News from the virtual world:

- SO MONEY: The U.S. economy may be limping, but one sector went into overdrive in 2007: the video-game industry. According to the market research firm NPD Group, retail sales of game hardware and software hit $17.94 billion last year, a 43 percent increase over 2006.

Hardware sales drove the surge, jumping 54 percent, and Nintendo reaped the most benefit. Americans bought 8.5 million Nintendo DS portables and 6.3 million Wii consoles, despite widely reported shortages of the latter.

Software sales were led by Microsoft's "Halo 3," with more than 4.8 million copies sold. But Nintendo had a great year in software sales, too, with "Wii Play," "Super Mario Galaxy," "Pokemon Diamond" and "Mario Party 8" all landing in 2007's top 10.

- LETS ACTIVE: The big winner in 2007 among third-party game publishers (that is, those not named Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony) was Activision, thanks to "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" and continuing sales of 2006s "Guitar Hero II." Between the different "GH" releases on the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStations 2 and 3, as well as the stopgap release "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s," the series sold "over $820 million at U.S. retail, which is a record for any single franchise in any one year," NPD analyst Anita Frazier said. And Activision reported that "GHIII" players have downloaded 5 million copies of extra songs to play in the game since its launch in October. Electronic Arts and MTV Games "Rock Band" isn't moving those kinds of numbers, probably because the whole kit and caboodle (with drums, guitar and microphone) is so much more expensive. Still, "Rock Band" fans have downloaded 2.5 million songs since the game arrived in November. The "Rock Band" best-sellers are a three-song pack of Metallica tunes and a cover of Foreigners "Juke Box Hero." But "Rock Band" developer Harmonix has also invited some younger bands to the party, serving up tracks by the likes of 30 Seconds to Mars and The Sounds. The publishers have offered new content just about every week; this week brings three tracks from the brawling Brits of Oasis, including the modern rock staple "Wonderwall." And MTV says full albums (like the long-promised "Whos Next") are right around the corner.

- A LAUREL AND HEARTY HANDSHAKE: While "Halo 3" had more buzz than any other game in 2007, it barely registered among the finalists for the annual Interactive Achievement Awards. The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, which bestows the video-game industry's most prestigious prizes, only nominated "Halo 3" for two " far behind the record-setting 12 nods garnered by "BioShock."

The dozen nominations for 2K Games' undersea epic make it the front-runner for yet another Game of the Year trophy, but it has some stiff competition. Other finalists include "Rock Band," "Call of Duty 4," "Super Mario Galaxy" and Electronic Arts/Valve's "The Orange Box." The champs will be announced Feb. 7 at the D.I.C.E. (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) Summit in Las Vegas.

- WRITERS BLOCK: As a union member " and, well, a writer " I support my brethren in the Writers Guild of America in their 11-week-old strike against The Man. But I can't get behind the nominees for the guild's first-ever Videogame Writing Awards: "Crash of the Titans," "Dead Head Fred," "The Simpsons Game," "The Witcher" and "World in Conflict."

Out of that motley batch ("Crash of the Titans"? Really?), I'd keep "The Simpsons." The rest of the announcement had bloggers scratching their heads over the absence of beautifully written games like "BioShock," BioWare's "Mass Effect" and Valve's "Portal."

Turns out you have to be a member of the WGA's New Media Caucus to be nominated. For what it's worth, the winner will be announced Feb. 9.

- NEW IN STORES: It's the first big week of 2008, with three major releases. Electronic Arts puts the pedal to the metal with "Burnout Paradise" (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). ... Ubisoft swings in with its stylish sword-fighting epic "No More Heroes" (Wii). ... Nintendo continues its addictive strategy series in "Advance Wars: Days of Ruin" (DS). ... And if all that mayhem wears you out, you can take a relaxing dip in Nintendo's "Endless Ocean" (Wii).

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