Confession time... In my capacity as a corporate lawyer, I acted for one of the significant shareholders of PC Data, in connection with that shareholder's investment in PC Data. In my capacity as a hardcore gamer, however, I certainly am not biased in favour of supporting the accuracy, or the utility, of PC Data's statistics. To be frank, I believe that PC Data does as good a job as any statistics collector, but the accuracy of its core data is limited by its access to information and its correction methods.
According to the FAQ at PC Data's website, the company records data from 80% of the software sales from U.S. retailers and mail orders. Unfortunately, those retailers are primarily large companies that aren't solely software stores and, accordingly, those companies stock only a few titles compared to dedicated software gaming stores. Similarly, since the purchasers who shop in dedicated software gaming stores are generally hardcore gamers, the titles they select are usually those titles that have received good reviews and/or good word of mouth. You'll never see a title like "Deer Hunter 2" sell well in a dedicated software gaming store, even though it is tremendously successful as a "value priced" title in stores such as Walmart, which generally only stock a handful of titles.
Accordingly, while it seems sensible to just extrapolate PC Data's statistics, without modification, to get some idea of overall gaming sales in the U.S. (and worldwide), I've always suspected that it would be incredibly inaccurate to do so, since the titles that sell well in the markets which PC Data does track are significantly different than those that sell well in the markets which PC Data does not track.
But PC Data's statistics are still useful for revealing trends – and the PC Data sales statistics for recent RPGs are extremely interesting. While the genre has been extremely popular over the past few years, very few titles have actually been overwhelming commercial successes. Only Diablo and Baldur's Gate are undisputed commercial blockbusters, with Diablo selling over 1.3 million copies and Baldur's Gate selling over 500,000 copies. Sources within the industry that would prefer not to be named have informed me that those sales statistics are off by around 50%. If that's the case, the actual overall sales of Diablo and Baldur's Gate are likely as high as 2.6 million and 1 million, respectively.
The sales statistics for a variety of other titles may surprise you. Fallout and Fallout 2, which are considered to be two of the best RPGs released in recent years, sold approximately 140,000 and 120,000 copies, respectively, in PC Data's tracked data. Very good sales, especially since the overall figures are likely double those amounts, but considerably below the sales volumes for true blockbuster titles.
Even more interesting are the sales statistics for other RPGs. Diablo-clones such as Revenant and Darkstone have sold quite poorly, according to PC Data, in spite of decent critical praise and word of mouth, selling only 35,000 and 75,000 copies, respectively. But the most interesting sales statistics involve Ultima IX: Ascension and Planescape: Torment. Planescape: Torment received fantastic critical acclaim (almost universally receiving the 1999 RPG of the Year Awards) and great word of mouth, has to date sold only about half of the number of units that the Fallout games have sold. Ultima IX: Ascension, on the other hand, was a major release from a major company, and perhaps due to poor word of mouth and its negative reception from game reviewers, similarly achieved a mere 73,000 unit sales in the markets tracked by PC Data. While the sales numbers are almost the same for Planescape: Torment and Ultima IX: Ascension, it's worthwhile to note that most of Torment's sales have been in the year 2000, while Ascension's sales were predominently in 1999, even though Ascension was released later in 1999 than Torment. Again, word of mouth and critical praise obviously bolstered Torment's sales and negatively affected Ascension's potential sales.
Here's a summary of sales statistics for a variety of recent RPGs in the markets PC Data tracks, based upon data current to the end of March, 2000:
|Baldur's Gate (all formats)||500,000|
|BG expansion pack||156,000|
|Ultima IX: Ascension||73,000|
How meaningful are these statistics, especially considering the fact that I'm dubious of the utility of PC Data's statistics for the reasons set out above? Well, rather than rely solely on those statistics (and the anecdotal evidence I've garnered from industry sources that suggest that PC Data's numbers are generally off by about 50%), I also tracked information from a dedicated PC gaming store. The store I selected is called Mediascape, and it's located in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Mediascape also has a PC lab for multiplayer gaming and it attracts a lot of hardcore gamers. Interestingly, the sales statistics were as follows:
|BG: Tales of the Sword Coast||160|
|Revenant (discount priced)||49|
|Ultima IX: Ascension||66|
Note that at this hardcore gaming store, Baldur's Gate is even more of a commercial success, and while Diablo's figures are still very impressive, they are not as out of the ballpark as PC Data's numbers suggest. Ultima IX: Ascension was killed in sales by Planescape: Torment at the dedicated gaming store, and sales of Torment are actually closer to the sales of the Fallout games than PC Data's numbers suggest. Most of the other trends noted by PC Data are duplicated at the dedicated gaming store. Interesting.
What do these statistics reveal? That very few RPGs actually sell blockbuster numbers, even though the genre has been extremely popular over the past few years. Even the most critically acclaimed games, such as Planescape: Torment, are not guaranteed overwhelming commercial success, but games that generate negative word of mouth and critical reviews understandably don't do well either, in spite of being published by large companies and being the recipients of huge advertising campaigns. Those factors seem to be more important at dedicated gaming stores than in the markets PC Data tracks (suggesting that PC Data's figures can be very misleading for titles that receive strongly positive, or negative, word of mouth and reviews).
Not surprisingly, in order to generate good commercial success, games have to establish good buzz prior to release (suggesting that previews are far more valuable than reviews) in addition to establishing good word of mouth and critical reception upon release. Perhaps the majority of that information was intuitive, but I found it interesting to sort through it. Let me know what you think....
Next ramblings: The first of our E3 2000 reports!