PC Game Sales: 47% Of PC Purchases Are Digital

By Kieron Gillen on January 29th, 2009 at 1:40 pm.

This is totally not an easy one to illustrate

Or so say the RPS readers anyway. I wanted to do a follow up on the polls Jim ran a few weeks ago, highlighting the results and what they say about the state of the PC nation (in short: People buy stuff on direct download! Man!). Some of them didn’t require much other interpretation. Others – like the one in the header – required a little maths to arrive at. And more beneath the cut…

Before we’re going further, worth stressing the weaknesses of our numbers. Firstly, they’re from a poll of RPS readers. Are RPS readers characteristic of PC gamers generally? Maybe, but I’d argue they’re not exactly far from self-identified core PC gamers. Secondly, there’s traditionally a bias in polls like this, as people who aren’t involved in the practice don’t necessarily click. Thirdly, the 47% figure is extrapolated from other questions, as shown here, and the question was based on percentage of expenditure including things like subscriptions.

But on the other hand, almost two thousand PC gamers contributed to the poll. This isn’t a bad sample size at all. And the picture which it presents seems to confirm many’s gut feeling about the direction of PC gaming. Let’s take that 47% seriously for a second. If it’s a general rule, it basically means that you have to double the NPD figures to get a truer picture of where PC gaming is.

93% of RPS readers bought a PC game digitally in the last year, dwarfing the 7% who only purchase via traditional retail. 71% of them bought more than four digitally. In terms of the percentages of purchases via a digital channel, there’s 25% who say that fewer than 20% of their purchases are digital – but there’s also 17% who purchase more than 80% of theirs online. In fact, the spread across the four 20% groupings (25%, 19%, 21%, 18%, 19%) lacks an obvious peak.

We’re left with an undeniable portrait of PC gamers increasingly at home with the digital present.

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106 Comments »

  1. Heliocentric says:

    Yunno, if you asked outside a “Game” store i suspect you’d collect “digital distribution is dead” statistics.

    Still, interesting stuff.

  2. Pags says:

    I am glad we’re not stuffy bumpkins. Or buffy stumpkins.

  3. Ginger Yellow says:

    I’ve got to say, I doubt this survey has much use as an indicator of overall market trends. RPS readers are extraordinarily unlikely to be representative of the overall market (only a tiny fraction of games players read mainstream games magazines, let alone blogs by freelancers that specialise in esoteric games). I hope it helps you sell ads, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.

  4. Mr Pink says:

    I agree with Ginger. I don’t honestly think that RPS readership is representative of the wider PC Games buying public.

    Personally, I refuse to buy music online (because I want uncompressed DRM free music, and I like having the artwork etc), but I am entirely comfortable with online games distribution. In fact, I think have now reached a point whereby I much prefer it- disk hunting is so 2008.

  5. Downloads_Plz says:

    Just throwing this out there, but http://www.gamefaqs.com runs a “Poll of the Day” every day that typically has over 100,000 participants. I suspect if you would contact them and suggest running a simliar poll on their site, they would agree to it. That way your sample size and obsession with PC gaming (for lack of a better way of putting it) may be more accurate.

    Either way though, interesting results, I think.

  6. FunkyB says:

    Kieron commented on the failings of the poll so I’m sure he’s aware it is inconclusive. The number is almost certainly too high due to the self-selective nature of the survey, but results like this are important to balance those that downplay the contribution digital sales make. They also are simply interesting!

  7. Catastrophe says:

    I also agree with Ginger.

    We are a hardcore(?) gaming group who specifically read an ONLINE gaming blog.

    So naturally us online hardcore gamers are gonna buy games online more often than regular gamers.

  8. FunkyB says:

    @Mr Pink:
    ROFL, interesting that we both claim to be ‘incredibly busy’ but are both still commenting on the same story minutes after it is posted ;)

  9. Colthor says:

    I imagine the Steam sale helped boost those numbers quite a bit. It was rather good, more like that please!

    Which brings to mind: something it doesn’t take into account is what was spent on digital downloads vs. boxed copies. But that would be harder to estimate without inside information, I suppose (or a readership who keep exceptionally diligent records of game purchases). Either way, ignoring DD will lead to under-estimating game sales by quite a chunk.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    Download_Plz: I’d be interested to read that too – problem being doing it on a non-PC site is that you get people who don’t buy PC Games voting “No”. That’s not what relevant question is, y’know? Or, at least, not the same question.

    I agree with everyone’s reservations, of course. But I also don’t think RPS is anywhere near as unusual as people may think. It’s the traditional core-PC gamer demographic.

    KG

  11. BooleanBob says:

    Agree with the general tone of comments so far. For starters, the concession must be made that you guys heavily evangelise digital distribution (not that there’s any reason you shouldn’t, that being your wont) so the majority of RPS readers have probably been swayed at least once by some purple prose comparing Impulse (or whatever) to a summer’s day.

    As question 3 on your poll pretty much confirms, actually. Neat.

  12. Catastrophe says:

    Errrrr the edit feature broke ma comment!

    Edit: Or not? Wow that was confusing.

  13. dhex says:

    i would tend to lean in with what mr. gillen said – i don’t think the rps readership is *that* much different from the buying population at large; i know plenty of people who are not avid gamers who have bought pc games online. (peggle or bejeweled and whatnot)

  14. toni says:

    2008 was the year of
    - world of goo, crayon physics, bionic commando rearmed (all digital)
    - GOOD OLD GAMES (my new passion, i even buy it just to support them)
    - STEAM being an absolute asshole to the EU and continuing to serve products at the MOST ridiculous prices I have EVER seen (even for US the prices are a joke), sometimes DOUBLING the retail prices….

    so actually I would say until steam doesn’t get its act together 2009 won’t be a golden year for digital downloads

  15. Cormac says:

    KG – can’t one put in a trigger to filter out all the gamers that are not PC gamers and just NOT include those results in the total? Say only half of the participants actually buy PC games at all, you’d still have 50 000 votes…

  16. phuzz says:

    The only two boxed PC games I bought (as opposed to wii stuff mainly) were FC2 and L4D, both because they were cheaper at retail and I was a bit skint, I’m sure that had they not been I’d have bought all my PC games via intarwub.
    Mainly because I’m a lazy sociopath who can’t be bothered to walk tot he shops or wait for his games.

  17. Zero says:

    Kieron, I agree with that, and you’re bound to get some modicum of shenanigans from a non-scientific poll. But perhaps we could word it this way:

    Q) Did you buy PC games last year? And if so, did you buy at least one digitally?

    A) Yes, bought at least one digitally
    B) Yes, bought boxed copies only
    C) No, did not buy a PC game

    Clean up the wording obviously, but use something to that effect.

  18. Francisco says:

    there is that thing about distribution. Before steam, the only way for me to get a game was to pirate it here in brazil. Now I pay for my games because that option appeared.

    Between not playing and only having to pirate to play, what would you do?

  19. Ginger Yellow says:

    “It’s the traditional core-PC gamer demographic.”

    Well, yeah, but the point is that gaming has expanded way beyond the core. Now it’s entirely possible that the figure for the overall market is even higher than 47% – casual games like Peggle or Bejeweled or Scrabulous are usually sold or played online. I’m just saying that the poll doesn’t tell us anything about people who only play those games, or even the large chunk of people who mainly play Football Manager. It’s interesting in its own right, though.

  20. Hypocee says:

    Personally, I refuse to buy music online (because I want uncompressed DRM free music, and I like having the artwork etc)[...]

    I bought lots of JoCo a couple of years ago. Fair music exists.

  21. Hermit says:

    The RPS audience may well be “the traditional core-PC gamer demographic”, but there’s one thing we do especially well, and that is complain about any and all statistics ever posted on the site. Ever.

  22. Gap Gen says:

    Possibly with the rise of DRM in retail games, people aren’t so bothered with buying on Steam, which has fewer restrictions for a single user than some DRMed boxed games.

  23. DrGonzo says:

    Well I like to think RPS is very unusual thank you very much! If you saw any of us in the street you wouldn’t even want to spit on us.

  24. rupert says:

    how come RPS still havnt done an artical on why you cant buy EA games off steam in the UK :(

  25. Dan Harris says:

    I have pre-ordered Dawn of War 2. From where? Amazon. Why? One, because it’s a tenner cheaper than Steam, and two, because you get it in a shiny, shiny steelbook case with bonus content.

    My conclusion: DD needs to be as cheap as the big online retailers, and they need to sell special editions.

    Also, ‘steelbook’ is my second favouritest word after ‘chainsword’.

  26. dsmart says:

    Its weird, but even though my games are distributed via ESD, I have yet to buy a single non-casual PC game via this method.

    My problem is that having a rather extensive game library which I can stare at, I’m rather hesitant to buy an ESD game because then it won’t be nicely parked on my shelf.

    Even the Valve games I have are all boxed versions as I don’t have a single Steam game and don’t plan on buying any.

    In fact, the only games that I have ever bought online are casual games such as Peggle, Bejeweled etc – and they’re for my daughter’s laptop. I do have one or two games (e.g. Bejeweled, Chess, Scrabble etc) on my Tilt WiMo phone.

    As for XBLA, I don’t have a single game from there and don’t plan on buying any. I did try Braid and am planning on buying it next time I login, just to support Jon. No other reason.

    Of course for me it is all about old school, rather than the delivery medium, DRM or any such nonsense.

    Contary to popular belief, sales of PC games sold via ESD (Direct2Drive, Steam, Gamers Gate etc) have not taken off as some would think. Retail still rules. Even games like the excellent SiNs would never – ever – have sold anywhere near 500K units had Brad not distributed to retail via Take 2′s distribution. If they had relied on Stardock’s own Impluse service, they’d be singing a whole other tune.

    My guess is that ESD game sales can’t account for more than 15% (and thats being generous) of total game sales.

    And before everyone starts yelling about Steam and its bazillion registered users, remember that those numbers – apart from being woefully inflated as they do not represent customers who buy games from Steam – are indicative mostly of Valve’s own games, which have a very large install base. Just because Steam has that many users doesn’t mean that even 1% of them are buying any non-Valve games.

    There is a very good reason why ESD services are not willing to – and probably never will – divulge their sales numbers. That reason is that they’re dismal across the board. Ergo, while Valve is eager to tout things like Steam registraition numbers, marketing expenditure for L4D etc, go trying asking them about their sales figures and see how far you get.

    Services like NPD, ESA etc all obtain their numbers via accessible retail figures. They do not have that same accessibility when it comes to ESD.

    Its no big thing to send IGN/FOX a query saying “Yo, how many ESD sales did you push this month/quarter” since it is just a dB query. They won’t reveal it for the aforementioned reasons. Its like it is one big trade secret or something; despite the fact that they provide sales reports to everyone (such us who have games on most sites) whose games they sell. Weird that.

  27. Markoff Chaney says:

    What could a businessman ever want more
    than to have us sucking in his store?
    We owe you nothing
    You have no control
    You are not what you own

    Fugazi quote #2 (and they are both applicable!) for the day.

    I stand by my belief that moving away from a brick and mortar physical product delivery method will do nothing except provide for cheaper costs, increased innovation, and a better all around consumer experience.

    It’ll also help curb piracy to some degree. Especially if more and more content is controlled via a subscription or server based content. Patches and content can be delivered more seamlessly (unless you sign up with Microsoft for GfWL) and you can cut down on distribution and manufacturing costs (assuming the cost of bandwidth is built into the price point).

    Also, if it’s between pirating and not playing, I think you know the answer to that question. :)

  28. itsallcrap says:

    Surely some games industry group of other could pretty easily do this survey too. I bet they’d get pretty much the same result as RPS.

    Then they’d be forced to stop bitching about how no one buys PC games any more. They fscking do. Loads of ‘em.

  29. jalf says:

    I don’t really get people’s obsession with digital distribution.
    I mean yes, Steam isn’t too bad, but for the same price, I’d rather get the physical media, with box art, manual, and a game I control myself, which isn’t subject to “as long as we want to provide the service/haven’t banned your account”.

    I buy from Steam or other digital distribution platforms when one of two conditions are met:
    1: It is noticeably cheaper (Steam holiday sales)
    2: The boxed version is either unavailable (most of the GOG games), or badly crippled (EA’s DRM’ed games which Steam doesn’t have)

    But by default, I prefer boxed games.

  30. Dan Harris says:

    @jalf:

    Exactly. Ditto.

  31. Rook says:

    The vast majority of people who play PC games don’t even own a steam account. These numbers are meaningless if you try and use them as generalisations.

  32. Hoernchen says:

    There was a time of the “Euro Boxes” when you actually got a 50+ page manual, a nice cd case, and sometimes extra stuff for your money. Now the whole package is a dvd case, it includes no printed manual, and it’s just 2 dvd’s stacked on top of each other, so why bother to walk to the store – or even buy it at all ? A notable exception is bioshock with its metal case, but otherwise it’s just a fugly dvd case with a windows live crap logo plastered all over it.

  33. Y3k-Bug says:

    jalf says: I don’t really get people’s obsession with digital distribution.
    I mean yes, Steam isn’t too bad, but for the same price, I’d rather get the physical media, with box art, manual, and a game I control myself, which isn’t subject to “as long as we want to provide the service/haven’t banned your account”.

    But that’s the point. It comes down to preference. Personally I don’t care about box art or manuals, or physically having the media. I left that behind with owning physical copies of music. Is my way better? Not really, no. But I simply don’t care about owning it physically.

    As to the point about the status of the games were Valve to close up shop, they’ve stated before that they would remove the online checks so the games would work without Steam. Even if they fell through on that promise there are any number of warez sites that can make hacked executables.

  34. Heliocentric says:

    That steam/digital games cost more than retail is a sign of how whipped publishers are.

    As soon as the new games are cheaper on digital the retail shops will throw a tantrum. And stop stocking that publisher. And only platforms on the pc can even host those kinds of titles as the consoles cant piss off retail. Because they need to get boxes in stores. So, to be cheaper on digi you need to be pc only as a publisher. When pc gaming is “dying” i can see why that doesn’t seem to happen much.

  35. The Sombrero Kid says:

    if you’re in the UK and buy PC Games over Xbox games i’d wager you read this blog.

  36. Tei says:

    How exactly cost to sell a game digitally? you have the bandwith cost, but the user could download the game more than once.
    On a box, the cost is fixed, but on digital downloads, you have to mantain a team that make so the servers are always online and on good state. That has to be expensive.
    Also, a box is easy to ship. Theres already devides to transport and sell boxes. But to sell digitally, you have to built a website, and a download service good enough (if only, with the ability to continue a broken download where it left). That has to be a fixed cost.

    And why exist “bargain bin”? because space cost money, so is a way to “clean” the wharehouse. Maybe you don’t need to change the price of a game ….like never, If you don’t want to. I have to guest “digital download storage” also cost money, but is somewhat more cheap than fisical storage of boxs on a mortar shop.

    Another problem is “concentration”, the dynamics may evolve to have only one shop. One “Amazon” of digital download games. If theres only one shop, theres no reason to compete with prices, because theres no other shop!. Now It seems there are a few digital download services ( D2D, Steam, Impulse, GoG…) but maybe in the future only one will exist..

    I have my doubts DD will be really much more cheaper on the future.

  37. Gnarl says:

    All of this analysis is almost making me feel guilty about my habitual lying in any kind of survey.

  38. Ginger Yellow says:

    @jalf: The walls of my not very large flat are lined with hundreds of books, games, DVDs and CDs. The fewer boxes I accumulate the better. And that’s before we get to the inconvenience of switching discs all the time.

  39. Thomas Lawrence says:

    I’d say that the RPS readership in this poll is probably reasonably representative of PC “gamers” – that is, self-identified “hobbyist” types, who buy a fair number of games and keep up to date with gaming press. However, I doubt we’re representative of the games buying public as a whole – there’s a large market who game only occasionally, play only a few games a year, or just one type of game, or even just one specific game (not just MMOs, either: the Sims, Football Manager etc.) I would imagine such a group does significantly less purchasing of games digitally.

  40. Alaric says:

    I don’t like to buy games digitally, because that way I don’t get a box and a CD for my collection.

  41. Markoff Chaney says:

    re: Owning Physical Media

    I used to be in the same boat. I remember just how angry I was that the 100$ I gave to Valve for the super awesome HL2 + Every game we ever made up to this point deal (And a Hat. I still have my hat) netted me a code I could plug into steam. What a rip off! I like my boxes and art and manual and sometimes cool stuff (But at least I have a hat) and don’t want to not have that. Then Steam kinda sucked during that HL2 launch period, so I was against it even more.

    Then a funny thing happened. I stopped getting boxes around my games. That’s cool, they’re like saving trees or whatever. Huh. This game doesn’t have a manual? Well, at least the PDF is still in the installed directory, even if I can’t read it on the john any more (without my laptop).

    As what I physically got from giving the store my money kept dwindling more and more, eventually falling to where it usually is now, an anti theft device and a DVD or two with maybe a CDKey on a post card, I realized it really didn’t matter as much, to me, if I just got the 0s and 1s sent to me over the the tube.

    I really only feel comfortable with Steam and Executables. I can back up (or redownload) both of those methods, and my game is relatively safe. There is no intrinsic difference between the game that’s pressed on a DVD at the factory and the one that I bought directly from the developer or publisher and then burn myself. Even moreso, now that I don’t get anything with my purchase.

    Now, this being said, the OCD collector in me wants to hit backspace and say I’d rather have my nice stuff back (I do still buy retail for special editions (Witcher:EE, Bioshock Big Daddy, Fallout 3, etc) that actually HAVE content in them) but I know that’s not going to happen. As consumers, we’ve accepted the 50 dollar for a disk price point and, with notable exceptions, I fear that’s what we are going to get from now on.

    Would I have thought Ultima IV was as cool if my 2400 baud modem had delivered it without my cloth map? Probably not… Could I have played Kings Quest 3 without a printed manual where all the spells were? I don’t think so… I do pine for these days, but I also recognize the further march of progress and inevitable pull of economics at work.

  42. MrMud says:

    Unfortunately this means nothing.
    Any survey conducted voluntarily from any non general source is bound to have selection bias. I suspect that this bias is so large in this case that the numbers become meaningless other than to say that 47% of PC purchases by hardcore PC players are digital. Something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

  43. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Also, ’steelbook’ is my second favouritest word after ‘chainsword’.

    I first read steelbook as steelbok and imagined them as some form of power-armoured mecha-antelope. Which makes the fact that they’re an awkward marriage of steel plate and DVD case all the more disappointing.

    There is a very good reason why ESD services are not willing to – and probably never will – divulge their sales numbers. That reason is that they’re dismal across the board. Ergo, while Valve is eager to tout things like Steam registraition numbers, marketing expenditure for L4D etc, go trying asking them about their sales figures and see how far you get.

    Well, clearly they’ve been able to trot some sort of numbers out behind the scenes. I find it hard to believe EA, Ubisoft, 2K, Sega and Actiblizzion would get into bed with Valve if they hadn’t seen some sort evidence proving that Steam was a money-spinner.

  44. dsmart says:

    @ Heliocentric

    That steam/digital games cost more than retail is a sign of how whipped publishers are.

    As soon as the new games are cheaper on digital the retail shops will throw a tantrum. And stop stocking that publisher. And only platforms on the pc can even host those kinds of titles as the consoles cant piss off retail. Because they need to get boxes in stores. So, to be cheaper on digi you need to be pc only as a publisher. When pc gaming is “dying” i can see why that doesn’t seem to happen much.

    Absolutely. Which is why GameStop makes more money on used games than they do on new ones. Much to the chagrin of the publishers.

    In fact, since PC games have a near zero resale value, GameStop is quite happy that thus far, ESD hasn’t taken off for the console enough to impact its bottomline.

    When Sony released Warhawk first as a PSN download, it caused a rukus. Shortly after, there was a boxed version – complete with Bluetooth headset as a bonus.

    All of this analysis is almost making me feel guilty about my habitual lying in any kind of survey.

    lmao!!

  45. egg says:

    God, that looked awful.

  46. James G says:

    I first read steelbook as steelbok and imagined them as some form of power-armoured mecha-antelope.

    Quick! Someone contact flashbang!

  47. Jahkaivah says:

    @dsmart

    I wonder then, why have publishers not attempted to restrict second hand sales of console game the same way they have done with pc games?

  48. dsmart says:

    @ Jahkaivah

    They can’t because then the retailers – who control the sales – will hit back and the whole thing will collapse.

    Plus, they didn’t restrict the resales of PC games. Piracy did that. There is a reason why you are more likely to find a used console game than you would a used PC game. The same reason that buying a PC game become You open it you own it overnight.

    Do you think EA is happy that they’re losing money while GameSpot is making a mint with used game sales? Of course they’re pissed, but their hands are tied.

    I personally have nothing against used game sales because regardless of medium, First Sale doctrine should always trump capitalism. There is a reason why some people buy new cars, while others buy used cars. The sales of used cars hasn’t affect new car sales to the extent that the dealerships and manufacturers are up in arms about it.

    My guess is that ESD is going to take off in a few years once the publishers come up with a viable delivery medium that is enough to compete with retail sales. Once that happens, its game over. But as long as you have console games, the retailers will always have the upper hand.

    ESD was supposed to be the outlet for guys like me so we don’t have to worry about retail. But the truth of the matter is that unless you have a game that is less than $50K in budget, you don’t stand a prayer of getting your money back via ESD alone.

    Which is exactly why – for the first time in my career and despite having been an approved XBox developer since the very first console, and was approved again when XB360 came around – I considered doing an XB360 version of my upcoming All Aspect Warfare game. If it wasn’t for the risks involved with betting all or nothing on ESD, I’d never have considered it. Couple with the fact that this is – hands down – the most expensive game I’ve ever developed. Even when you consider that my first game was almost ten years in the making, compared to the eighteen month dev footprint of AAW.

  49. cyrenic says:

    @Jahkaivah

    They are starting to, actually: http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/55828

  50. Tei says:

    “ESD was supposed to be the outlet for guys like me so we don’t have to worry about retail. But the truth of the matter is that unless you have a game that is less than $50K in budget, you don’t stand a prayer of getting your money back via ESD alone.”

    Why? could add clarifications here?