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‘Grand Theft Auto’ drives up video game industry sales

NEW YORK — The video game industry’s stay in purgatory has come to an end, at least for a bit.

Last week, the NPD Group, which tracks game sales in US stores, reported that total video game sales, including hardware, software, and accessories, had risen to $1.08 billion in September, 27 percent higher than the same period the year before. The increase was almost entirely the result of a 52 percent increase in software sales for consoles and portable game devices, to $754 million.

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The reason software sales acted as if they had guzzled a giant can of Red Bull last month was “Grand Theft Auto V,” which has shattered sales records since it was released in September.

To find a month when the industry performed better, you need to go back nearly half a decade. The last time total game and software sales rose more than they did in September was July and June 2008, according to Liam Callahan, an analyst at NPD.

Around that time, the industry was riding high on sales of the last version of “Grand Theft Auto,” along with Nintendo’s Wii and “Guitar Hero,” both of which later fizzled. That was also a time before some of the disruptive forces in the games business, like smartphones and free Facebook games, began to gather steam (the iPad hadn’t even been released yet).

The year-over-year sales declines that have characterized the retail games business for most of the past several years reflected the growing appeal of these new forms of games, the sales of which are not as easily tracked by NPD and others.

A glimmer of light began to shine on game sales in August, when console and portable game sales rose 23 percent from the same month a year earlier, thanks to strong sales of “Madden NFL 25” and “Disney Infinity,” according to NPD.

“Grand Theft Auto” ’s arrival bolstered the industry even more. While sales of consoles are in a state of decline because of the imminent release of new hardware from Sony and Microsoft, a bundle of “Grand Theft Auto” with Sony’s PlayStation 3 was a hit in September, slowing the slide of the overall category. Hardware sales fell 13 percent year-over-year in September, compared with a 40 percent drop in August.

It’s virtually guaranteed that the industry will again get a big lift in November, when both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are expected to be released and gamers will get wound up about a new generation of games for the systems.

It’s a truism of the games business that consoles are always in short supply when they are first released and that the first wave of games don’t fully exploit their new hardware capabilities.

The real test for the business is likely to come during the holidays of 2014.

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