Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023
Digital game sales data just got a little less opaque

Aurich Lawson/Getty

Longtime readers may recall that we always paid close attention to the monthly declines in US game and console sales information provided by the industry analysts at the NPD Group. We’ve stopped covering those reports in recent years for a number of reasons. The first is that NPD has taken steps to drastically limit the amount of information it provides to the public, making these monthly reports less and less useful.

The main reason, however, is that NPD data only includes estimates of retail packaged game sales. In a gaming world increasingly dominated by digital download revenue, the retail-only NPD reports are misleading at best and useless at worst.

Today, NPD announced an important step toward improving its data. As of the June report (to be released on July 21), NPD data will include digital sales reported directly by some of the industry’s largest publishers. Activision Blizzard, Capcom, Deep Silver Electronic Arts, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft and Warner Bros. Interactive will now tell NPD how many games it sells each month on Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam. [Update: An earlier version of this story had a slightly outdated list of participating companies. Ars regrets the error]

NPD says the move is long overdue and comes in response to criticism from both the press and industry that charts without digital data are becoming less and less useful. The analytics company is now ready to begin sharing downloadable sales data after years of behind-the-scenes beta work with publishers to iron out the wrinkles in its reporting methodology.

“It’s really the industry that is moving towards being clearer about what’s going on in their business,” NPD analyst Liam Callahan told Ars in a recent interview. “I think that’s a nice milestone.”

Still a long way to go

While it’s certainly a step in the right direction, NPD’s digital sales reporting is still far from perfect. First, data is missing from many major companies, from console makers Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to major publishers like Namco Bandai and Sega. The hundreds of downloadable games released each month by independent publishers are also not included in NPD’s reports. Online marketplaces such as Nintendo’s eShop, EA’s Origin, Blizzard’s Battle.net, and Good Old Games are also not included in NPD’s numbers. This also applies to game purchases made at retail stores but redeemed online.

Callahan says NPD is “actively talking to non-participants” to get them on board and resolve this issue. Still, he says, the major publishers that have joined NPD so far give “a solid representation of what’s going on digitally.” While Callahan acknowledges there’s “room to grow,” he says the current product is a “significant change from what we’ve got so far…I’m focusing less on the gaps and more on ‘Look at what we have!'”

“We have to respect the publishers’ wishes and their comfort level,” Callahan continued. “It’s a journey we’re on with them… We’re taking it in steps… We’ve had to take into account [publishers’] needs and what they want to do as a group.”

Filling in those data gaps can be especially difficult when it comes to the hundreds of individual indie game publishers out there. “We could be recruiting indie publishers until the end of time,” Callahan said. To account for this, NPD is developing methods to project digital sales figures for publishers who do not provide them directly. Callahan was unwilling to report on projection methods that are still in development (and not yet being used), but he said NPD is “evaluating a number of ways to get there.”

A little public look

As always, the public will still only get a glimpse into the wealth of data that NPD collects, in the form of a list of the Top 10 games sold each month. That list still doesn’t include raw sales or revenue figures for individual games or platforms or any indication of game performance outside of the top sellers. A more complete overview of digital sales data is only shared with the participating companies themselves. Even business partners won’t be able to buy it (NPD says “we’ll see how the service evolves over time”).

However, the publicly reported list of top 10 sellers is now ranked by total sales instead of unit sales. That should help the reported performance of games that sell for a premium price and games that sell in expensive collector’s editions. And while NPD no longer shares monthly hardware numbers for individual consoles, the public still gets industry-wide sales figures for the hardware, software, and accessories markets.

This lack of robust public data is by design, the NPD’s David Riley told Ars. “The PR side is more of a courtesy… It’s not like we’re working monthly to get 100 stories or whatever in the press. We just want what’s out there to be well represented because we don’t want the industry wrong to introduce.”

While there are still many issues with reporting sales data in the gaming industry, it’s refreshing to see NPD trying to close one of the biggest gaps out there. As more companies and download services join NPD’s reporting group, we may finally be able to get some value out of the company’s monthly top-selling games list again.

By akfire1

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