PC Game Sales: The Mysterious 14%

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A number you might see a lot over the next few days is 14%. This is, according to the US games sales data compilers NPD, the percentage drop in PC game sales in 2008 from 2007, the market pulling in $701m. As reported by GameDaily, the figure suggests the PC has fallen in sharp contrast to the soaring figures for console sales. But of course this number doesn’t mean an enormous amount – it does not include so much of the PC market, including digital downloads, micro-payments or subscriptions. Which is a big deal.

As GameDaily mentions, NPD has recently started recording data that will hopefully give a better impression of the reality of PC game sales, and we might see the first of that as early as next week. And, as always, NPD is North America only, which is never the whole story.

But in the meantime, be ready for this 14% figure, that could be used as a weapon by those who want to imply the fall of PC gaming for many and various reasons. From the evils of the Big P to claims that the future’s all about consoles, it’s a number that meets the agenda of many. But it’s a number that, if anything, is likely to demonstrate the evolving nature of PC sales. Clearly we don’t know, and they could be falling, but this isn’t the data to show it.

It’ll be interesting to see how NPD calculates figures for digital transactions. Especially when companies like Valve are so peculiarly quiet about their numbers, and so much of the money changing hands for PC gaming is going directly into the pockets of independent developers, and not giganto-publishers who might need to boast such figures.

It certainly makes for interesting times. How interesting we’ll hopefully find out soon, as more relevant data becomes available. At the moment, measuring PC game sales by the number of boxes shifting from stores is like announcing a drop in album sales by the amount of vinyl being sold.

88 Comments

  1. James G says:

    Bah! If you exclude digital downloads you exclude a huge proportion of my PC purchases over then past year, and, surprise surprise, digital download sales are increasing.
    Also, I’m not sure US figures are a decent representation of the whole market, as if I understand it correctly, the PC market is larger in Europe (Germany in particular.)

  2. roBurky says:

    I believe that 2008 has been the year that digital download has really taken off. I bought more games this year than ever before, and almost all by download. These kind of figures are going to be utterly meaningless for the PC from here on out.

  3. harvb says:

    Oh goodness, you can see it coming: “PC gaming is dead!!!1”. Let’s hope the idiots don’t believe it.

  4. Nimic says:

    I’ve bought quite a lot of games the last two years, and nearly all of them have been digitally. And at least two of those which haven’t have included subscriptions (WoW and AoC, for a while), which the 14% also leaves out.

  5. Seniath says:

    To hell with the high street; they’re all going down the crapper anyway.

  6. Bobsy says:

    I’m going to go all Debbie’s Advocado again and suggest that we’re being a bit too quick to get defensive when it comes to sales figures. What would we do if they re-released the figures to include digital downloads and they’d barely shifted?

  7. Chris Evans says:

    @Bobsy – if that was the case, well at least then there is some concrete evidence of falling PC sales. Not just a figures which ignores what is becoming a massive part of the PC games market.

    I wonder though, to what extent are small indie developers such as those behind World of Goo, Crayon Physics and such like going to be represented when the NPD publishes figures for digital transactions. Sales of these games through the big portals such as Steam/GamersGate etc. will be counted (I assume) but what about direct sales from their own sites? It is something that has to be questioned.

    GOG.com is another thing, this is a great new site allowing people to get their hands on older games, will that be counted?

    That 14% does not show the whole picture, yet due to the fragmented nature of the PC market, will we ever see the whole picture? This is something that the PCGA really should be responding to, will they?

  8. danielcardigan says:

    “Especially when companies like Valve are so peculiarly quiet about their numbers, and so much of the money changing hands for PC gaming is going directly into the pockets of independent developers, and not giganto-publishers who might need to boast such figures.”

    So much of the money? A relatively tiny amount goes to independent developers more like.

    Steam only have to say how much their sales have increased by as a percentage. They don’t have to give dollar amounts.

  9. Ado says:

    What a nonsense. How can you not include digital downloads?? That’s like recording sales of beer without including Pubs. I bought at least 50% of my games digitally this year (mostly off Steam), if this is true of us all then PC sales are going through the roof…

    Me thinks this report was just dreamt up this way to be more ammo for the console companies that want to line there pockets by charing devs for releasing games on there oh so precious formats.

    Just give us Fable and GTA games on the same release dates and you can have all of that other over blown rubbish to your selves…

  10. Down Rodeo says:

    Bobsy: I’m not sure but I find it very unlikely. If I am an average PC Gamer then my digital downloads easily outstripped my box purchases (roughly 10:1, pricewise).

  11. Dr. Quincy says:

    I don’t think I bought a boxed PC game all year.

  12. Down Rodeo says:

    No, that’s wrong. If I am an average PC Gamer then digital downloads are soaring as I did purchase far more as a download. Yay for logic!

  13. cliffski says:

    So much of the money? A relatively tiny amount goes to independent developers more like.

    Not always. When you buy direct, the dev gets a huge chunk of the money. And some on-line sellers like stardock are pretty generous with the cut the developer gets.

  14. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I’ve just been thinking about it, and my first thought was that I buy most games through Steam, but a look at my order confirmations reveals I only bought three games through steam last year, and four or so through retail. Lower prices for boxed copies helped with that though, I even bought L4D on CD as it was about £7 cheaper.
    That’s still under-representing the amount I spent on digital downloads by about half though.

  15. Lilliput King says:

    It wasn’t my understanding that steam/valve are particularly generous when it comes to the money going to developers of indie games on steam.

    Though its only fair of me to also mention I havent a clue where that understanding comes from.

    In any case, if proper retail sales are down then its really no surprise.

    The GAME in guildford seems to have been actively shrinking its PC games section down to a select few games over the past year, to the point that its genuinely not worth visiting for games anymore. Too expensive and not enough of a selection.

    If the online purchases offer a better service for less, then its no surprise retail sales are falling. It really says nothing about the state of the games industry whatsoever.

    But we all knew that anyway.

  16. Heliocentric says:

    My digital to retail ratio is about 1 to 3. But thats including ds and second hand games. New pc games only? Last year i got l4d retail as the only full price(£20) game i think. But retail can be rabidly cheaper than steam. But at those prices i don’t consider it full price(i get lots of games for £10 or less). Still i have enough crates of games for an fps to fully decorate its corridors. And no matter how long my steam games list gets retail most of my titles. But digital gets more new games purchases.

  17. cyrenic says:

    I’m pretty sure more than 14% of PC game sales are digital, now.

  18. Markoff Chaney says:

    PC Gaming (as supported by a long term quarter of a century love affair with shrink wrapped boxes of colorfully painted cardboard sometimes containing awesome collectibles, back story, useful, illustrated manuals and (back in the day) various and sundry forms of wheels and decoder rings on non copy machine reproducible colored paper as a primary method of DRM which) is DEAD!

    Long Live (As supported by a more intelligent distribution methodology which is inherently more difficult to measure amounts distributed from consumers to a large number of independent creators while somewhat bypassing the publishers who seem to have mostly turned into overlords who stifle true creativity while plopping out their latest iteration of Mediocrity 2009 (c)(TM)) PC Gaming!

    Take that you publishers! Consolidate your power, cheapen the physical product while spending more on development and making the game look and act beyond what my eyes ever imagined could appear on a screen that used to come in any color you wanted as long as it was green or amber before it got it’s first upgrade to 4 colors so I could play Alley Cat properly… Maybe that will learn ya!

    Take my money, dear developers. I want you to have it more than publishers. You dreamed it. You sweated over it for months or years. Many times, you risked everything on getting it to me. You created it. I’m glad those publishing guys had those distribution models for a quarter of a century, since there was no communicative infrastructure to support a direct delivery fulfillment model. Whether it’s giving my money straight to 2DBoy or Valve or Kloonigames, Caravel Games, CD Projekt, or any of the other many small developers I send my money straight to these days, I feel SO MUCH BETTER! I strive in every way possible to purchase most titles so that they arrive as a stream of 0s and 1s through the magical tubes I dreamed about with my 2400 baud modem. I still buy some physical media (whereupon my Big Daddy and Bobblehead square off, perpetually eyeing each other from across a Virtual Springfield near some of my other Collector’s and Enhanced Editions) but I strive not to just because the majority of them are worthless now. The manual = the PDF that’s downloaded with the game from DD or on a page on steam and you are lucky if you get anything else out of that box any more… What’s the point of the physical media at that point, save a backup mechanism?

    Some distribution methods still suck and won’t get touched with a 10 nanometer fiber. EA Download won’t let me back up or re-download my game after 6 months without paying you more? Screw you. Some, like Steam, started rocky (HL2 launch was quite rocky) but have turned phenomenal. GOG is fantastic and a real wonderful opportunity to take a bite out of the abandonware market too.

    PC Gaming will NEVER die. May we lose some AAA high budget killer titles to consoles? Aye. There will always be that. Anyone remember the first mario clones for our PCs? Yeah. It wasn’t the same as those NESes. That’s ok. I got to play Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Wizardry, Ultimas and countless other, deeper, games properly.

    As long as there is an OS that can be coded for, there will be games for that system. Just because it changes, doesn’t mean it’s dying. It just means that the old ways don’t cut it. If the water is rising, you better evolve, engineer or miracle your ass some wings. Else you drown, and then you are dead. Those that saw what was coming, however, are safely soaring in the air: free as an independent developer, stomachs rumbling and seeking scraps and some kind soul to send 20 bucks via paypal instead of clicking some torrent link.

    Enough of my blather. Long Live PC Gaming!

  19. Bobsy says:

    I’m not sure we can count ourselves as “average” gamers either. “Average” would be the people that buy a thousand Sims expansions every year. From Tesco.

  20. Tei says:

    Well… DirectX is stuck on 9.0c in Windows XP for ages.

    IMHO (Conspiracy Theory follows…) Microsoft is killing Windows XP. Canivalizing it, to feed XBox Live and Windows Vista.

    All the sales lost are to be blamed on this strategy. People like Valve lost two dollars, and Microsoft win a dollar.

  21. Down Rodeo says:

    That is it entirely, Tei: there were a few technologies implemented in Vista that stopped DirectX 10 from working in XP but had Microsoft wanted to they could relatively easily upgraded XP. But they didn’t, which is upsetting.

  22. Sacrovir says:

    It seems that the falling confidence in PC sales is linked very much to it’s visibility. To what extent then are digital distributors failing the PC sector by either not declaring their figures or not shouting loud enough for recognition?

    Should we not be politely requesting that Valve and others make a bigger noise about the missing % of PC Sales rather than grumbling over our blogs?

  23. shon says:

    Wait, it didn’t factor in subscriptions? That refers to monthly fees for MMO’s right? If that is the case, how in the world can you accurately rate PC’s economic power when you eliminate the monsters like WoW from the equation?

  24. Sacrovir says:

    PS i dont really understand the argument that digital downloads mean more money for developers. So far as i can see, it is normally the publishers who continue to make agreements with the digital distributors as they previously did with physical distribution.

    Sure a developer can go it alone but this simply means higher costs with the digital distributor, probably no physical distribution (and thus less commercial competition between outlets for the consumer like me), and less cash upfront to fund the development in the first palce…

  25. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Had an even closer look at my gaming purchases over last year, and apart from realising I spent over £200 on games alone (ie excluding hardware), which was split about £150 on retail games vs £50 online (mainly Steam, but some console downloads too).
    Anyone else want to actually post some hard numbers rather than guessing?

    Oh, and I guess they left MMO subscriptions off because at the end of the day, all they measure is the size of Blizzard’s money hat, it doesn’t really affect anyone else.

  26. gbarules2999 says:

    It’s not piracy – I’m just not buying games any more. All I bought this year was The Orange Box and an olod copy of Darwinia. The rest of my PC game purchases came from gog.com.

  27. Fitzmogwai says:

    The only boxed games I’ve bought over the last few years have all been old titles in the GAME 3 for £10 rack. Everything else has been digitally downloaded from either Steam Stardock or GOG.com, gawd bless ’em.

    The only titles I’m planning on buying boxed this year are Empire Total War and Dawn of War 2, and I may even DL Empire if the price is right.

  28. Ravenger says:

    It’s dredging up the old DRM thing again, but I would have bought at least 3 or four more games in the last few months if they hadn’t had activation based DRM, Far Cry 2 and Dead Space among them. I can see my PC game purchases dropping off sharply if that style of DRM increases.

  29. Bobsy says:

    Not hard numbers, no. But my most recent spends over the last 6 months break down like this:

    Digital:
    £20 – Tomb Raider: Underwear (Steam)
    £5 – Defcon (Steam)
    ~£5 – Broken Sword 3 (GOG)
    ~£5 – Fallout 1 + 2 (GOG)
    ~£5 – Freespace 1 + 2 (GOG)
    ~£5 – Sacrifice (GOG)
    ~£5 – Giants (GOG)
    About £45 total

    Online retail:
    £5 – Republic Commando (Play)
    £5 – KOTOR 2 (Play)
    Total: £10

    Shop retail:
    £18 – Wrath of the Lich King (Gamestation)
    £35 – Spore Galactic Edition (Game)
    Total: £53

    So for me, shopping still pips it, but I certainly prefer Steam. Also, considering I’ve spent most of the last six months in no-internets-land, I guess the digi-downloading I’ve done counts double or something.

    EDIT: Oh, forgot to put World of Goo and Crayon Physics there, which would bring digi-downloads well above shop retail. So dere.

  30. Colthor says:

    Personal anecdote (ooh, exciting!):
    I bought/was bought roughly £110 of boxed PC games last year.
    Buying SoaSE digitally (~£26) is more than enough to bump that over the ~£128 I should have spent last year, assuming I fit their analysis. Ignoring World of Goo, Robokill, Audiosurf and all sorts of other stuff I bought digitally last year.

    I much prefer boxed copies, but last year was pretty rubbish for new big-name boxed games (Fallout 3 and TR: Underworld were all I got), so that’s more money to spend on the indie games, budget games, and so on, which are often only available through digital distribution.

  31. itsallcrap says:

    it does not include so much of the PC market, including digital downloads

    End of story. Ignore it.

  32. Craymen Edge says:

    It would really interesting to see sales from digital distribution, but it’s probably impossible to get a comprehensive view, since there are so many places to get games, and few of them publish their figures.

    Personally, I haven’t bought a retail PC game since sometime in mid 2007. Not that my purchases would have much impact on the overall figures, my PC is well behind current specs, so my purchases are generally indie, old, or just a little bit niche to count in charts, etc.

  33. Manakha says:

    “At the moment, measuring PC game sales by the number of boxes shifting from stores is like announcing a drop in album sales by the amount of vinyl being sold.”

    Actually, vinyl album sales in the U.S. have almost doubled in 2008 compared to 2007 (source : Nielsen Soundscan via LA Weekly).

  34. Kieron Gillen says:

    John’s aware of that.

    KG

  35. jonfitt says:

    I estimate 70%+ of my purchases this year were from Stardock or Valve via their online services.
    Brick and mortar stores in the US are absolute rubbish when it comes to PC games (I’m sure you’d find a better selection in Woolworths than most Gamestops). The only non-Steam/Impulse purchases I made were from Amazon., does NPD count that too?

  36. Eli Just says:

    Without Steam sales you exclude almost $500 of PC game sales I’ve made in the last year. This number is useless.

  37. Brian says:

    No digital? wtf? this is the dumbest chart ever. I have bought 100% of my games via steam this year.

  38. seraphic22 says:

    Well I still can’t justify buying online, I can see the convenience of it but two factors stop me. Australia has crappy internet costs (so I have this tiny download cap of 5GB) and I like hard copies, though the major thing stopping me is still it would eat my precious 5 gig a month, I could upgrade and pay more just to download the games but it is still not worth it.

    I think many people think the way I do, so these numbers still have some meaning. I would still think if it were counted then we would probably have a percentage increase.

  39. Jeremy says:

    I have to admit, I love books and maps, so I usually want to buy the retail copy. It’s probably how my parents really like paper copies of things, to them it’s a proof of ownership. Now for me, having a DVD of my game or an booklet that I’ll probably never read anyway will prove ownership to me. I’m such a dinosaur…

  40. Rich_P says:

    Riddle me this: the internet geeks who actually discuss NPD numbers are usually the first to celebrate the death of print, CDs, and watching programs on your TV. The internet is the future, they say! But as PC games leapfrog the consoles by offering awesome digital services, thereby making retail irrelevent, people claim that it’s dead!!11 Why the double standard? Why aren’t people celebrating this?

    I made about $200 worth of purchases on Steam and Impulse last year. NPD won’t ever count that money because both services are managed by private companies who’ll never report sales info.

    If Steam was sucking it up, I doubt we’d see EA jump on-board.

    cliffski also noted something important: digital distribution is more profitable, especially if you control the means of distribution. Brad Wardell said that Stardock receives 2x as much money if you buy their games through Impulse. So with the correct digital model, you could sell fewer copies online but still have it account for the majority of your revenue.

    PC games moving away from a clumsy retail model. Yay.

  41. MeestaNob! says:

    Yeah, these charts never reflect the digital download services available.

    Valve for example will not divulge their online sales whatsoever, other than to offer a smug “We’re still in business, if that’s what you’re asking” then going off to swim in money and then dry off in a money towel.

    With the poor performance of bricks and mortar retailers in PC titles compared to console stuff, plus the added convenience of buying online, I imagine digital downloads will be the overwhelmingly dominant source of PC gaming within 12 months.

  42. BC says:

    I bought one PC game in a box this year, FarCry 2 because the deal was good and it came in a fancy steelbox …but I spent a fortune on steam (january sale nearly bankrupted me)

  43. Papageno says:

    One question: I’ve heard/read that the NPD figures do not even include BOXED COPIES sold by online retailers like Amazon– is that correct? Because that would make the figures doubly suspect.

  44. Rich_P says:

    @Papageno: I’ve heard that too, but I can’t find a definitive source.

    If NPD only counts B&M retailers, and not Amazon, then those numbers really are worthless. Utterly, utterly, utterly worthless.

  45. Heliocentric says:

    Drm has no baring on this arguement as consoles are drmed up the jacksey. Npd dont even use walmart. But really i expect console gamers use amazon just as much as pc gamers. We are ahead in digital distribution though. This is good news overall you know. I can’t wait for the death of instore retail(online retail i want to survive though). As with no bricks and shits sales steam and the likes will have all games. I worry this will make pc gaming over elitist though.

  46. ScubaV says:

    Personally, I try to avoid digital downloads where I can. One, I don’t want to use 50 different downloading services clogging up my hard drive with who know how many unsavory, if not malicious, background processes running. Two, I like to have a physical copy so I’m assured I can play the game whenever I want even if the company goes belly up.

  47. Kalain says:

    I never believe anything that NPD produces anyway. They miss out so much data from so many sources for PC games that the number they come out with don’t make much sense. Their numbers are worthless.

    I do think that John is right, we’re going to hear all kinds of rubbish now because of this crap..

  48. Gpig says:

    Steam weekend deals accounted for half of my purchases for the last year. That said, I didn’t buy/play much for the pc last year.

  49. pkt-zer0 says:

    Especially when companies like Valve are so peculiarly quiet about their numbers

    Wouldn’t it benefit them if they actually declared their supposedly massive sales, though? Unless, of course, said sales aren’t that massive in reality. /CONSPIRACY