Long time readers may recall that we used to pay close attention to the monthly drops of US game and console sales information provided by the industry analysts at the NPD Group. We’ve stopped covering those reports as closely in recent years for a couple of reasons. The first is that NPD has taken steps to drastically limit the amount of information that it provides to the public, making these monthly reports less and less useful.
The more important reason, though, is that NPD data only includes estimates of retail, packaged game sales. In a gaming world that’s dominated more and more by revenue from digital downloads, the retail-only NPD reports have become misleading at best and useless at worst.
Today, NPD announced an important step towards improving its data. Starting with its June report (to be released on July 21), NPD data will include digital sales reported directly from some of the industry’s biggest publishers. Activison Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive, and Warner Bros. Interactive will now tell NPD how many games they’re selling on Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam every month.
NPD says the move has been a long time coming and is in response to criticism from the press and the industry alike that charts without digital data are becoming less and less useful. The analysis firm is now ready to start sharing downloadable sales data after years of behind-the-scenes beta work with publishers to iron out the wrinkles in reporting methodology.
“It’s really the industry moving towards being more clear about what’s taking place in their business,” NPD analyst Liam Callahan told Ars in a recent interview. “I think that’s a great milestone.”
Still a long way to go
While it’s definitely a step in the right direction, NPD’s digital sales reporting is still far from perfect. For one, it’s missing data from a lot of major companies, from console makers Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to big publishers like Ubisoft, Capcom, and Sega. The hundreds of downloadable games released each month by independent publishers also aren’t included in NPD’s reports. Online marketplaces like Nintendo’s eShop, EA’s Origin, Blizzard’s Battle.net, and Good Old Games won’t be included in NPD’s numbers, either. Neither will game purchases that are made at retailers but redeemed online.
Callahan says NPD is “actively engaged in talking to non-participants” to get them on board and fix this problem. Still, he says, the major publishers that have joined so far give NPD “a solid representation of what’s going on digitally.” Though Callahan acknowledges that there’s “room to grow,” he says the current product is a “significant change from what we have so far… I focus less on the holes and more on ‘Look at what we have!'”
“We have to be respectful of the publishers’ wishes and their comfort level,” Callahan continued. “It’s a journey we’re taking with them… We’ll take 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 holes might 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 that don’t provided them directly. Callahan wasn’t willing to go on record about projection methods that are still under development (and not being used yet), but he said that NPD is “evaluating a number of ways to get there.”
A small public peek
As ever, the public will still only get a tiny peek into the trove of data NPD collects, in the form of a list of the Top 10 games sold every month. That list still doesn’t include raw unit sales or revenue numbers for any individual games or platforms or any indication of the performance of games beyond the very top sellers. A fuller breakdown of digital sales data will only be shared with the participating companies themselves. Not even corporate partners will be able to buy it (NPD says that “over time we’ll see how the service evolves”).
However, the publicly reported Top 10 sellers list will now be ranked by total revenue, rather than unit sales. That should help the reported performance of games sold at a premium price and games sold in pricey collector’s editions. And while NPD no longer shares monthly hardware numbers for individual consoles, the public will still get industry-wide revenue numbers for the hardware, software, and accessory markets.
This lack of robust public data is by design, NPD’s David Riley tells Ars. “The PR side is more of a courtesy… It’s not like we are working monthly to get 100 stories or whatever in the press. We just want what is out there represented properly because we don’t want to misrepresent the industry.”
While there are still plenty of problems with the state of sales data reporting in the game industry, it’s refreshing to see NPD attempting to fill in one of the biggest holes out there. As more companies and download services join NPD’s reporting group, maybe we’ll finally be able to get some value out of the firm’s monthly top-selling games list again.
Listing image by Aurich Lawson / Getty