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Magic Numbers: Downloads > Retail

So says US market research group the NPD, who currently rule the roost in terms of game sales figures by dint of no-one else doing it properly. Today, they give with one hand and take with the other.

Give! US PC game download sales for the first six months of the year popularly known as Twenty Ten finally outweigh old-fashioned high street retail – by 11.2 million to 8.2 million units, to be precise. Well, I say precise… we’ll get to that in a minute.

Take! PC sales as a whole are lower than at the same time last year. 14% lower, to be precise. Well, I say precise. We’ll get to that in a minute. Actually, how about right now? What I really mean is “at a guess, because this isn’t actually based on sales figures and thus may well be utterly meaningless.”

Here’s what the NPD claim are the biggest download sites for the first half of this year (only for the US, remember):

Top 5 Frontline Digital Retailers –Jan.-June 2010 (based on unit % share)

1. Steamgames.com
2. Direct2drive.com
3. EA.com
4. Worldofwarcraft.com
5. Blizzard.com

Which is a whole fat bunch of interesting. Except… in my various other escapades, I’ve been told by the heavyweight likes of Valve and Blizzard that, despite being kings of these charts, they do not provide sales figures to the research group. Or, indeed, to anybody. The same very much appears to be true of every other download service – which makes where that 11.2 million sales figure came from a little opaque.

The answer to this conundrum is relatively simple: the NPD survey a bunch of gamers, multiply their answers several hundredfold, average it out, make a few educated “projections” and bingo. Exactly 11.2 million sales. Neat and tidy and half the internet blindly reports it as gospel truth because it’s a number and it’s come from a market research firm therefore it must be right.

Small print is still print. Read it, think about it, question what’s in the big print, by all means base your sense of what’s going on around the information there within, but don’t take it as an exact science and the final word. Please. Enough of this kind of reportage.

I’m not taking a pop at the NPD here. They’re clearly trying exceptionally hard, even if they should have started doing this years earlier. If the sales figures aren’t made available, the sales figures genuinely aren’t available – so they’ve gone to great lengths to try and read the lie of the land and thus this is genuinely as good as we’re going to get. It’s useful to have any information whatsoever on what’s going on in Mysterious Digital Land, and worth being grateful that someone’s trying to do that for us. But that most of the world’s games journalists and interested bystanders are currently basing their picture of PC Gaming in 2010 almost entirely on this set of survey-derived numbers is a little unsettling.

Even more so because of the omissions. Does that cover FarmVille? Minecraft? Love? D&D Online’s Free To Play relaunch? GoG’s retro sales (speaking of which, they’ve posted an update, which seems to somewhat corroborate mounting speculation that they’re not even slightly dead)? A hundred, a thousand, a hundred other thousand weird’n’wonderful’n’copycat
‘n’cynical’n’awful’n’amazing titles that lurk out there, stealing people in handfuls or barrow-loads. Are they represented in that 11.2 million and that -14%?

No, probably not. And thus to cheerfully wipe 7/50 health off PC gaming based on what scant information is available just seems ludicrous. For all I know it’s declined far more than that. But I suspect the sum total is in fact on the up, that these figures paint an image of an ailing platform when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Yeah, PC Gaming in its traditionally-perceived form, the kind of thing that we’d post videos of from Gametrailers, is perhaps not experiencing its rudest health right now. But PC gaming, the whole great, infinite mass of it? C’mon. You need more than a survey a few thousand people who fill in forms online to measure that ever-changing beast’s flabby, beautiful bulk.

Here’s that small print explaining the NPD’s methodology, by the way. Decipher!

– Games Acquisition Monitor

The NPD Group’s Games Acquisition Monitor is a quarterly tracker which measures both digital and physical forms of games acquisition activity, volume, awareness and usage of retailers and services, as well as other technology and entertainment activities that could influence game acquisition trends. It is based on online survey responses from over 8,000 members of NPD’s online consumer panel. Data is weighted and projected to be representative of the U.S. population ages 2 and older.

– NPD Consumer Tracker

NPD collects data on PC game purchases via its weekly video games consumer survey. Each week, over 180,000 individuals are selected from the NPD online consumer panel to participate in one of four weekly studies. The responding sample is demographically weighted and projected through a series of steps to represent the Total Adult (18+) and Total Teen (13-17) U.S. population. Respondents to the survey report whether in the past week they purchased a PC game on a disc or downloaded the game from a website directly to their computers.

Only digital purchases of games from the above websites are tracked in this report. Shipped boxed products from these sites are not covered; information about these can be obtained through our PC Retail Tracking service.

Hmm. 8000? Or 180000? And how do any of these people end up on the “online consumer panel?” Again, I’m not arguing that these figures aren’t reflective of the market, that NPD have done anything wrong, and most certainly not that anyone’s doing it better. But it’s important to only assess and digest the information they give us in the context of how it was gathered, and not just see site after site report the headline numbers as Ultimate Truth. Downloadable and online gaming is huge in both stature and moneyhats, it’s growing constantly and it’s almost impossible to comprehensively document. We can’t pretend to have its entire measure from survey results alone.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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