<< Portico: Secret Sales

8/08/2005

Secret Sales

Grumpy Gamer Ron Gilbert has a beef to pick with NPD. Why are sales figures for games kept a secret from the public or the small developer? You'll occasionally see a list of the top ten games of the week, or the month or the year but rarely with numbers attached. And there is never much of a clue whether these sales are typical or not. There is never much historical perspective beyond "PC Games are down. PS2 Games are up."

Can anyone out there tell me how Age of Mythology did compared to Age of Kings? If you have a few grand to spend on this type of data, you're probably also not allowed to tell me. Was Psychonauts a total failure? Where did it fail more? Are sales going up based on word of mouth? Think of all the interesting industry/audience analysis stuff that could be written about or discussed if gamers and bloggers and even tiny freelancers like me had access to sales data.

Gilbert's point is developer focused. How will indie developers know what sells unless someone tells them? Marketers and publishers might have a different definition of "flop" than a developer does. He notes that box office figures are public knowledge. Box Office Mojo has a lot of the historic data for how well movies do at the box office. Games are different. Point of sale info is controlled by one company - a company that doesn't count many online sales, and so may have limited reliability in any case. (It doesn't count MMO subscriptions, either.)

There may be good business reasons for keeping this information closed off, but I doubt that there are many trade secrets involed in reporting how many copies of Cossacks II were sold in the US.

8 Comments:

Anonymous steve said...

Ron's incorrect; it's not kept secret. Anyone in the press can request those numbers without paying for reports. If you want all of the numbers, you have to pay up.

Box Office Mojo, and all other news outlets that report box office, get the data from one source. If they didn't, all the numbers would be different. The source: the movie studios, which estimate the weekend totals based on one day performance, extrapolated over the weekend.

Game sales are way more complex than box office. You have more retail outlets, more alternative outlets (online, etc.), and wildly variable systems for reporting sales. Some stores do point-of-sale; others have older systems that make it hard to get data week-to-week.

In fact, with NPD, some retailers only send them monthly totals, not weekly ones.

8/08/2005 04:49:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

Thanks for the clarification, Steve. I can always count on you.

Complicated or not, is there a reason why one company (NPD) has a near monopoly on these numbers? If I were an investor could I demand to know how many copies of Madden were sold?

8/08/2005 05:50:00 PM  
Anonymous steve said...

I'm pretty sure all industries have a single entity for reporting sales to maintain consistency. There's a box office trade group that handles movies, and Billboard for music.

Public companies have to divulge sales, but I suspect it's not on an individual title basis. (I'm not sure if it's broken down, per title, in their reports.) As an investor, you could probably demand the number sold, but not through NPD.

8/09/2005 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger roboczar said...

It's likely sales performance for individual titles is kept privileged for one of the reasons you mention in your article, Troy.

By keeping the independent and smaller developers in the dark about what is grabbing the most sales, they have to work harder to come to the same conclusions when forming a product strategy. The longer it takes a company with less financial and marketing resources to find out what people want in software, the more time the larger companies have to get entrenched in that share of the market.

It would be interesting to find out whether they would furnish said numbers to anyone who asks, or if they make a habit of denying such figures to anyone outside the press and other privileged reporting agencies.

8/10/2005 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous steve said...

"By keeping the independent and smaller developers in the dark about what is grabbing the most sales, they have to work harder to come to the same conclusions when forming a product strategy."

That's just absurd. For one thing, big publishers don't view any indies as competition. EA isn't sitting around worried about what Shrapnel is doing.

Even if there was more data (revenue, absolute sales numbers) in the free reports, that wouldn't necessarily help an indie or smaller developer analyze the data as they may have a completely different metric used to gauge success. Finding out that Splinter Cell sold 100,000 copies and generated $4 million in revenue isn't going to help you determine a meaningful strategy for your wargame.

"It would be interesting to find out whether they would furnish said numbers to anyone who asks, or if they make a habit of denying such figures to anyone outside the press and other privileged reporting agencies."

If they gave all of the data to anyone that asks, there'd be no reason to pay for it. If no one paid, there'd be no one to track the data.

All of the other tracking services give you general numbers. Absolute sales or revenue give you the big picture, but people pay NPD to find out who's buying your games, and where they're being bought, and when. The reports are much more detailed, much like the actual tracking info for movies and music.

That information isn't "free" to anyone either. Billboard offers additional pay services, and so presumably does the movie tracking companies.

If you're obsessed enough with sales data as a way to position or design your games, why wouldn't you be able to justify $15K in a year? Most indies aren't making games to compete with retail, so I'm not entirely sure why those numbers would be that meaningful.

8/10/2005 04:07:00 PM  
Blogger roboczar said...

"That's just absurd. For one thing, big publishers don't view any indies as competition. EA isn't sitting around worried about what Shrapnel is doing."

No, of course not. But they do know how to limit the amount of information that is placed in view of potential competitors. Sales data gives you an insight into market trends that any company wishing to actually make money off of a particular game need to understand. Maybe they should put down 15k to get the information. Maybe they could hire their own market research team. Either way, the barriers to entry in the market are huge, and mere mortals aren't likely to be able to absorb costs like that.

"Finding out that Splinter Cell sold 100,000 copies and generated $4 million in revenue isn't going to help you determine a meaningful strategy for your wargame."

Why would it? Who honestly would go into a wargame looking to base it on Splinter Cell? However, if I were making a first person shooter, and I wanted to know what was actually selling, I could make an educated guess from the data and use the gameplay style and symbolism to construct a game that is similar in style, knowing that market conditions assure the title of some success.

"If you're obsessed enough with sales data as a way to position or design your games, why wouldn't you be able to justify $15K in a year? Most indies aren't making games to compete with retail, so I'm not entirely sure why those numbers would be that meaningful."

The point I'm trying to make here is about barriers to entry. In order for someone to gauge the market with any kind of accuracy and ensure at least some success with a title on the store shelves, you have to fork out a lot of money. Making successful games will never be free, but the less you spend starting out, the more people you have making the plunge. With more people finding success in the market, the more likely one of those smaller companies will take gaming in a new direction.

Of course, releasing numbers for 'free' is not in the best interest of larger companies. And why should they? They paid for the marketing research. Why not charge 15k per report and make back the money they spent? Good question. Unfortunately, this is where the way the economy works comes into play in favor of those who have the most resources at hand. Sales reporting in all levels of industry is privileged information that adds a level of protection and secrecy to those in control of the market. Is this right? I have no idea, but it's certainly the way things have turned out.

8/11/2005 12:01:00 AM  
Anonymous steve said...

"But they do know how to limit the amount of information that is placed in view of potential competitors."

But you're talking about Electronic Arts vs. a small company. There is no competition there out of the gate, potential or otherwise. And by the time they really are a competitor, that $15K will be a non-issue.

Sales data like this is mainly of interest to big-buck publishers trying to figure out whether or not to greenlight $10 million games. And again, when you're talking budgets of even $250,000, $15K shouldn't be an issue.

"However, if I were making a first person shooter, and I wanted to know what was actually selling, I could make an educated guess from the data and use the gameplay style and symbolism to construct a game that is similar in style, knowing that market conditions assure the title of some success."

If you're designing games based on sales charts, you're in a lot of trouble. But even if that is what you're doing, your first-person shooter will likely have a minimum budget of about $4 million. Again, that $15K is a drop in the bucket.

And if you have a publisher funding your game--and most FPS games do have this--they have access to this data, and will shape your design accordingly.

And in all honesty, this is why most games are so derivative; they look at the charts and say, "Splinter Cell sold 1 million: add stealth! But Half-Life 2 is big, so make sure you have vehicles."

Bottom line: If you're not willing to invest that small amount of money in research, you shouldn't be making that type of game. $15K is nothing; if it is, chances are you're so small that sales data is irrelevant.

"Sales reporting in all levels of industry is privileged information that adds a level of protection and secrecy to those in control of the market. Is this right? I have no idea, but it's certainly the way things have turned out."

If you're asking if the more you sell gives you more access to more meaningful data, of course. Wal-Mart has a better grasp of what it's people want to buy than your corner store. It's capitalism.

8/11/2005 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger roboczar said...

"It's capitalism"

Yeah, I think that's basically the root issue here. The gaming industry is a small but growing microcosm of what goes on the the rest of commerce and industry. Can't say that I like it, but it's the way things are.

I think you and I just have fundamentally different views about how things do and should work.

8/11/2005 03:15:00 PM  

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