People like scorecards, matchups, and football. It’s why Metacritic’s a success despite its flawed methodology. This game did better than that game. That one did worse than this one. It may seem arbitrary and sometimes silly, but it’s what we do, for better or worse.
Popularity’s one way to gauge the health of a consumption-driven industry (or just figure out what people like), but only with a view to the full picture. We’ve heard for years that PC gaming was dying--even dead. Unlike such proclamations made (and sarcastically rebutted) from the 1980s, the last few years seemed to put paid to the claim. You have to hunt to find stores that carry PC games these days, and where you do, they’re tucked away in obnoxiously not-visible back corners. The country’s largest brick and mortar games retailer, GameStop, reserves a few shelves on one side of a kiosk for a couple dozen titles lined up spine-out. The faced-out shelf space? Monopolized by Blizzard “battle chests.”
Of course we know where much of that PC business went, and why, but what we don’t know is by how much or whether sales in the new direct digital market reflect market growth or contraction. The monthly revenue reports we do get--limited to retail sales--tell an increasingly partial, fragmented tale.
Retail sales tracker NPD Group wants to change that by providing those online figures. It’s been working for some time to make it happen. But some of the largest digital distributors don’t want to play ball, the most prominent of which (Valve's Steam) putatively accounts for over half the online PC gaming sales market. At last count, Valve claimed around 30 million active user accounts.
The company's public refusal to contribute Steam online sales data to aggregators like NPD Group is certainly its prerogative, and it's not hard to see why they're opting out. They’re profit-minded and beholden to their clients: publishers/developers and consumers. The former need to know how they’re doing (and want those metrics in realtime ). They depend, for understandable reasons, on the confidentiality of their relationship with the Valve/Steam. The latter (you and me) just want a buying, downloading, and socially interactive gaming experience that's dependable and best of breed. Valve reputedly provides both, whatever concerns we care to raise about Steam's autocratic attempts to be to PC gaming what Xbox Live is to the Xbox 360 crowd.
The trouble comes in where someone tries to represent the sales or revenue health of a market using only partial information. NPD's monthly "video game industry" revenue reports keep coming. The annual ones that paint PC retail as a desert with one or two oases (World of Warcraft, The Sims), too.
“The idea of a chart is old,” Steam business director Jason Holtman told MCV. “It came from people trying to aggregate disaggregated information.”
Don't let that fool you--Valve offers a chart anyway. They’ve just titled it “Top games by current player count.” Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike Source hold the top two spots, followed by Portal 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Football Manager 2011. Valve’s still a rankings aggregator, they’ve simply traded static end-of-period sales lists for real-time usage-based ones.
Apple’s run App Store sales lists for years, but may itself have switched to a usage-based ranking model. Bring up the “Top 25” and sort by “Paid” on an iPhone and you’ll discover Air Penguin (#1) just unseated Angry Birds Rio (#2), and that NBA Jam (#5) appears to be chart-climbing alongside Fruit Ninja (#7) and Stupidness 2 PRO (#8).
Any way you slice it, digital distribution changes the old-school "sort by sales" narrative and upends the "once a month" or even "once a week" model. It lets publishers and developers know how well they’re doing in realtime. It lets us see--to the extent we're allowed--what people are up to now, an obvious upside being that it lets competitive players know where the action's at.
I’m not sure where we’ll land, or how accurately, when later this year NPD starts publishing “total spend” reports that include online sales. Their job as a sales tracker seems almost Sisyphean in 2011: They're increasingly dependent on individual publishers and developers instead of aggregate endpoint retailers for sales data. How did World of Warcraft download sales go last month (ask Blizzard)? How about Limbo on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade (ask Playdead Studios)? Or Pixel Junk Shooter 2 on Sony’s PlayStation Store (ask Q-Games)? How many sales were new versus ongoing subscriptions? How much was spent on aftermarket content? What exactly is the ratio of retail-to-online spending?
We may never know with precision. Publishers play that stuff close to the vest because so much of it's psychological and contributes to stock volatility. But then speaking strictly as consumers, the question has to be: Did knowing that stuff ever really matter anyway?