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Grand Theft Auto III Ported to iOS, Android for 10-Year Anniversary

Grand Theft Auto III

It was ten years ago this month that Grand Theft Auto III was released. It was preceded by two games and two expansion packs, yet it wasn’t until III that the series became the influential juggernaut it’s known as today. Its open-world action led to countless clones and essentially started a new genre; now you’ll have the chance to play that monumental game on your phone.

Rockstar has announced it plans to bring GTA III to a select number of iOS and Android devices. On iOS, only iPad 2 and iPhone 4S will be compatible. Supported Android phones include the Droid X2, HTC Evo 2, LG Optimus 2X, Motorola Atrix, Samsung Galaxy S2, while Android tablets include the Acer Iconia, Asus Eee Pad, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. These are only the devices that will be supported when the game launches later this fall; more may be added later.

There is a Grand Theft Auto game on the iOS App Store already, Chinatown Wars, but that uses the top-down perspective seen in the first two GTA games. To think we’re at a point where a phone can play a game my PC used to struggle mightily with (unless I kept the camera pointed at the ground at all times) is incredible.

The only potential problem here is mapping the controls to a touchscreen interface. Rockstar did as well as it could with Chinatown Wars, but controls were an area where the DS and PSP versions were decidedly better — it was no fun having your finger slip off the virtual analog stick or missing one of the buttons because of the lack of feedback you’d get with a physical button.

Assuming this sells well enough, hopefully we’ll see Vice City, San Andreas, and the other GTA III series games end up on iOS and Android, too.

Grand Theft Auto III Claude action figure

In addition to the GTA III port, a limited-edition action figure is being released of GTA III’s silent protagonist, Claude. (His name is never mentioned until he makes an appearance in San Andreas, a prequel, though a reference to it can be found in GTA III data files.) You’ll get his standard cargo-pants-and-bomber-jacket outfit and the prison jumpsuit he starts the game out in, as well as a variety of weapons to slide into his hands like a bat, knife, sniper rifle, assault rifle, and grenades.

The 1:6 scale action figure was created by Sideshow and is priced at $149.99. Rockstar Social Club members can sign up here by October 16 for a chance to win one for free.

The GTA III port hasn’t been priced. Chinatown Wars currently goes for $9.99.

By Chris Pereira

Complete Gacha Ban Would Spell Bad News for the Social Games Business

Japanese social mobile games

The social games business is still very young, meaning there are a lot of things still to be worked out as certain Japanese companies are finding out right now. A highly profitable sales tactic employed heavily by companies like GREE and DeNA may soon be deemed illegal in Japan, a move which would certainly put a damper on what is a rapidly-expanding portion of the industry in that country.

The issue involves complete gacha, also referred to as compugacha or konpu gacha in Japan. Gacha on its own involves money being handed over in exchange for a random item; this is acceptable in a legal sense. Where complete gacha becomes problematic is in the way it rewards players with a special item for completing a set of items which are obtained randomly. This can, as you might imagine, become an expensive proposition as attempting to collect all the parts of a set can require countless transactions. Comparisons have been drawn between it and gambling, which is largely illegal in Japan.

Over the weekend The Daily Yomiuri reported (via Wired) that sources had indicated Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency reached the conclusion that complete gacha is in violation of the law. The issue was raised after an increasing number of complaints were received from players who were subjected to high charges or, in some cases, from parents complaining about their children becoming addicted and spending enormous amounts of money. Five such complaints were filed in the 2010 fiscal year, but that number jumped up to 58 in fiscal 2011 as the practice became far more commonplace. The sources indicated social game companies would be told to stop using these sales methods or face punishment of some sort.

The CAA confirmed an investigation was taking place, Nikkei reported yesterday, although the agency claimed it had not yet rendered a decision.

Yomiuri recounted the stories of two young boys, one who spent 400,000 yen (approximately $5,012) in one month, and another who spent 120,000 yen ($1,504) in only three days on games containing complete gacha. Bloomberg also mentioned one user who managed to rack up a whopping 4 million yen ($50,107) in charges over a two-month span. The games themselves are often free to play, although the charges players can accrue are anything but.

These are extreme examples, to be sure, yet it’s important to note that complete gacha is an important aspect of these companies’ bottom lines. The stock for both GREE (owner of the mobile-focused social networking service of the same name) and DeNA (owner of the Mobage cell phone social gaming network) have taken a significant hit, with each falling the maximum 500 yen on Monday before rebounding a small amount today. Those declines represented a 20 percent drop for DeNA and 23 percent for GREE; the latter resulted in founder Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japan’s youngest billionaire, losing $704 million according to Bloomberg.

kompu gacha example

The two, and mobile/social games in Japan as a whole, have been massively successful as of late — a rare bright spot for the Japanese gaming industry, and in fact its entire technology industry. Following their rise to prominence in Japan, overseas expansion has been targeted: GREE recently purchased U.S. developer Funzio, while DeNA obtained U.S. developer ngmoco and its Plus+ social gaming network in 2010 before signing a deal with Disney to develop mobile games earlier this year. But if the companies suddenly find themselves losing out on a significant revenue stream, that could put a real damper on their plans to grow internationally.

GREE and DeNA each instituted a limit on spending for teenagers last month so that, depending upon a player’s age, he or she could spend no more than 5,000-10,000 yen ($63-$126) per month. That may not be enough to save the companies from having the Japanese government intervene, which seems like a strong possibility, and analysts do not paint an optimistic picture if the CAA does indeed decide to ban complete gacha.

“This raises questions about whether the sector’s growth in Japan is sustainable,” analyst Yusuke Tsunoda told Nikkei. Another analyst, Mitsuo Shimizu, told Bloomberg, “The situation remains severe,” also adding, “Their profitability is at risk, depending on the government’s decision.” Makoto Sengoku agreed, stating, “The market for social games may shrink if the warning is issued.”

While DeNA would not comment on the matter, GREE expectedly attempted to downplay the impact of a complete gacha ban. “Even if the ‘complete gacha’ is abandoned, it won’t rock the foundation of GREE,” said Ryutaro Shima. “We will consider introducing new services to spur sales.”

Upheaval in the social/mobile games market would not be shocking in the slightest given its relatively young age. Just last year, concerns were raised about free-to-play game players in the U.S. spending large sums of money on microtransactions/in-app purchases, some of which can cost as much as $100. Complaints about this led to an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

With the Japanese games business hardly at its peak, this could prove to be a major setback for one avenue that it was doing exceptionally well in. And it’s not only companies focused on this market that will be impacted — Konami and Capcom are among more traditional game makers with intentions of exploring the space, and so they too would be losing out with a ban on complete gacha (which was reflected when their respective stock prices took a hit yesterday). This might please gamers who don’t wish to see these companies spending any resources on what they don’t consider to be “real” games, although publishers will no doubt look to find other revenues streams beyond complete gacha if that is no longer an option for social/mobile games. Whether they’re able to do so as effectively as they can now, however, is something we’ll have to wait to see.

[Complete gacha example image courtesy of The Daily Yomiuri.]

By Chris Pereira

Can Americans Still Make SimCity?


EA may announce a new SimCity game at the Game Developers Conference next month according to rumors spurred by the publisher’s announcement of a live-streamed event on March 6, where they promise a new Maxis game will be revealed. A related post on Facebook posed the question, “How can we change the world together? Find out when EA hosts the Game Changers event at GDC. What would you do if you had the power to change the world?”

When paired with descriptions of the game lifted from Maxis job ads looking for, “a highly talented and experienced team on an upcoming triple-A simulation style game,” the evidence seems to point to a SimCity announcement of some kind coming from the event next week. That same job ad also states that the developer is looking for someone with, “knowledge of the Xbox 360 and PS3 rendering architectures and APIs,” suggesting that the title will appear on consoles. No American developer has ever produced a console or otherwise “simplified” SimCity game that was actually playable or enjoyable.

Fans still fondly remember the Nintendo-developed SNES SimCity — particularly in Japan where few players had the chance to play it on a PC — because it managed to add a much needed layer of humor, character, and style to the iconic yet slightly bland original now known as SimCity: Classic. The series went on to inspire console and handheld sequels from Japanese developers, including SimCity 64 (N64DD), SimCity DS, and SimCity Creator (Wii). All of these titles take their immediate inspiration from the SNES version and capture at least some of its magic.

Meanwhile, in the West, EA hasn’t produced their own PC SimCity game since 2006′s disastrous SimCity Societies, which, like all other EA attempts to dumb-down the series, failed to excite fans, critics, or anyone else. In retrospect, the game ranks somewhere between SimTown and SimRefinery in annals of the franchise’s history. Even excluding Societies, EA’s treatment of the series hardly gives fans reason for hope; the publisher’s willingness to port shoddy versions of the game based on the aging SimCity 4 hardly qualifies as inspiring.

EA spent the last ten years giving SimCity fans ill-considered spin-offs and unplayable cell-phone games, why should they give this new game the benefit of the doubt? It could turn-out to be the best game yet in the series, as the unambitious (but still entertaining) Japanese SimCity games prove that it’s a matter of design and skill and not something inherent to bringing an older title with older mechanics to modern players. However, the possibility of a console SimCity only heightens concerns, as the problem the series spent the past 10 years failing to overcome stems directly from trying to simplify the game’s mechanics for the sake of reaching a wider audience like Societies, or fitting into a non-mouse/keyboard control scheme like SimCity on everything from tablets to feature phones. Nearly a decade’s worth of failures — especially in the face of the relative success of Japanese takes on the series — easily justifies preliminary skepticism towards whatever EA reveals next week.

By Ryan Winterhalter

Star Command Demonstrates How Quickly Kickstarter Funding Can Disappear

Star Commander

Kickstarter is all the craze these days, though Double Fine’s adventure game was hardly the first game to turn to it for funding. Star Command, an iOS game described as a cross between Game Dev Story and science fiction, was seeking $20,000 last September. It easily surpassed that mark, ultimately bringing in $36,967 for developer Warballoon. Since that’s nearly double what was being asked for, one might expect money to be no issue. As a new update posted on the Kickstarter reveals, however, that money can disappear in a hurry.

The update provides a look at how that money has been spent since the Kickstarter came to a close on October 6. Immediately about $5,000 of it was gone; $2,000 didn’t come through because of problems with funds being transferred, while $3,000 or so went to Kickstarter itself and Amazon, whose Amazon Payments system is used to pledge money to projects. That means the nearly $37,000 you might expect to be spent on game development is now $32,000, and after prize fulfillment that figure drops down to $22,000.

As with many Kickstarters, among the rewards for pledging were various digital items that are fairly easy to distribute. But there were also physical items, including posters and t-shirts, that present more of a problem. While you may pledge $100 toward a project, it’s not as if a pile of t-shirts (or whatever the prize may be) is sitting there waiting to be handed out to people who walk up. They have to be designed, manufactured, and shipped. That costs money and takes time to do. “If we had to do it again, we would have probably had the price point a bit higher for the t-shirts and posters, as those turned to be a very large expense,” the update stated. “We also would have included the cost of a 3rd party fulfillment house – we just aren’t equipped or skilled in that area, and it was (still is) something that we struggle with.”

Of the remaining $22,000, $16,000 of it was spent on things like iPads, a PAX East showing, poster art, and music. As the other $6,000 wasn’t spent, about a third of it ended up being taxed as income, something other Kickstarter projects are encouraged to avoid having happen. This resulted in about $4,000 being left over, although it’s generous to even say it’s that much as the above figures fail to account for smaller expenses.

The question becomes, with the benefit of retrospect, what would they have done differently? Part of that $16,000 went to attorneys, an accountant, and startup fees; the attorneys were specifically identified as one possible area that money could have been saved.

“We got a little nervous after we received all the Kickstarter money and wanted to make sure our business was set up correctly. We registered our LLCs, got operating agreements etc, but in hindsight a nice piece of napkin paper probably would have done just as well. You plan for the worst (we all start hating each other and people start leaving) but if anything the team has gotten closer, so it seems like a lot of wasted money. If we could take it back we would.”

As a lesson for others, it’s also noted that rewards can be deceptively costly and time-consuming. “We just didn’t fully appreciate the cost of printing 200 posters, shirts, and more than anything shipping. Shipping is a) expensive b) a pain in the ass when you have tubes and c) time consuming. None of those things are productive. We don’t resent having sent that stuff off – we think the posters and shirts are awesome and we are super proud of them and it seems like everyone loved them, so that’s great. But they were a lot of work.”

Even having far surpassed the $20,000 they wanted, the developers have taken on debt — to the tune of over $50,000 — though they are still thankful for Kickstarter helping to make the game possible. “We’re extremely confident were going to hit our summer release date and that never would have happened without you guys. We have made a game we’re really, really proud of and you guys should be too. We have always felt an obligation to make your investment worth it, and hopefully we don’t disappoint.”

This is an interesting look at the actual process of using Kickstarter and how a goal being surpassed doesn’t guarantee those behind it will be swimming in money afterward. Unlike most game-related projects, none of the rewards included a copy of the game itself. This was done to ensure that, when released, the game would stand a chance of making it to the top of the App Store and Google Play sales charts. Doing so will expose the game to new customers, hopefully leading to a purchase. It probably also doesn’t hurt that the 1,167 backers will all be likely to buy a copy of the game at launch, helping to offset the debt that has been accrued during development.

Other Kickstarters can’t look forward to those (presumably guaranteed) sales as a result of handing out to the game to backers, but they are also less reliant on an initial wave of sales to push the game to the top of a sales chart (except, of course, other iOS/Android games). But they, too, may face similar costs and challenges in turning to fan funding for their games. The lessons learned by Warballoon and other Kickstarters going on now are sure to be taken advantage of by future projects, although these problems may still prove to be part of the reason why Kickstarter is unlikely to ever become the be-all and end-all for getting games funded, even in the case of smaller, non-blockbuster titles like Star Command.

By Chris Pereira

Draw Something Now Officially a Zynga Title

Draw Something

Just as recent reports suggested, social game behemoth Zynga has acquired OMGPOP, the developer responsible for the smash hit Draw Something.

The company is not talking about how much it spent, but it’s said to be around $200 million — AllThingsD claims it’s a deal worth $180 million, plus about $30 million in employee-retention payments. That is a huge sum of money for the New York City-based OMGPOP, which was founded in 2006, considering that, prior to Draw Something, it was not a big-name company. CEO Dan Porter said during a media briefing today it had racked up only 20 million registered users prior to the launch of Draw Something about six weeks ago.

Its latest game has already dwarfed that, racking up 35 million downloads and quickly topping the iOS App Store charts. It’s also got more Daily Active Users than any other game on Facebook, a fact that was sure to catch the eye of Zynga whose Words With Friends and CityVille would ordinarily take the top spot.

It was widely believed Zynga would attempt to acquire OMGPOP to bring Draw Something under its corporate umbrella or, failing that, create its own Pictionary-style game. The latter is what allegedly happened with Tiny Tower, where Zynga expressed an interest in buying developer NimbleBit before releasing what amounts to a Tiny Tower clone when the deal didn’t pan out.

It’s possible OMGPOP was concerned about potentially being faced with a similar situation: Zynga comes out with an extremely similar competing product and spends millions to make it bigger. Simon Khalaf of analytics firm Flurry told Business Insider that OMGPOP could have ended up being worth a great deal more — perhaps even a cool $1 billion — which would be a remarkable accomplishment. With the game reportedly bringing in $250,000 in revenue daily, maybe it could have gotten that high, but the threat of a competitor (or the next big thing) coming along and putting a dent in Draw Something’s growth makes this the far safer move.

Draw Something

With Zynga’s assistance, the developer says it can now bring the features fans are demanding to the game faster, which will help to ensure its growth is sustained. Porter talked about fan-requested features like chat and the ability to save drawings as things we’ll likely end up seeing, and with Zynga’s support we shouldn’t have to wait as long to see these as we otherwise would have. (Considering these were among my few gripes with the game, I’m all for this.) Surprisingly, it was said there are no plans to change the name to fall in line with Zynga’s other asynchronous “With Friends” titles; I presumed an acquisition would mean we’d be playing Draw With Friends before long, but at least publicly that is not in the cards at the moment.

I’ve heard some people say they’re disappointed with the news and will stop playing the game. People are certainly entitled to do so if they don’t wish to give Zynga their money (and even playing the free version does result in Zynga getting money, as that version is ad-supported), but I don’t see myself suddenly stopping. It’s a really fun game that is deserving of the success it has amassed, and while I don’t like some of Zynga’s business practices (demonstrated by Dream Heights) the acquisition is not enough to chase me off.

If I were an investor in Zynga, however, I might feel a bit worried about the acquisition. While it’s exciting to get your hands on such a hot property, shelling out in the neighborhood of $200 million for a company with only one hit is a potentially dangerous business model. Words With Friends’ popularity has taken a hit recently, presumably as users shifted to playing Draw Something, in which case a chunk of Zynga’s enormous purchase fee is reacquiring some of the same users it once had and may have regained before long. Picking up this one developer isn’t going to break the bank for the company, but continuing to acquire any independent company with a big hit may prove to be unsustainable in the long run.

In the interest of ending on a brighter note, Zynga has shared some fun facts about the way people play, including the fact that people need to brush up on their art knowledge:

  • The most popular words in Draw Something are: Starfish, pregnant, hangman, six pack, boom box

  • The least popular word in Draw Something is latrine
  • The best guessed words in Draw Something are: Rainbow, catfish, sun, fish, house, god tornado
  • The least guessed words in Draw Something are: Oar, Metroid, Warhol, pounce, polaroid, meathead, Autobots

[Images courtesy of Facebook.]

By Chris Pereira

Rockin’ Android Releasing Qlione Evolve on PS3

Fresh off the release of Crescent Pale Mist, Rockin’ Android is prepping another release for PSN; this one a bundle containing Qlione and Qlione 2 (via Siliconera).

Originally released for PC, Qlione and its sequel are 2D shooter that take place in “liquid space.” It may remind PS3 owners of the watery puzzle game Flow, with geometric shapes similar to those found in the likes of Tempest.

The bundle is Qlione Evolve, and will be available December 7.

By Kat Bailey

SmartGlass Already Facing Trouble If It Launches Without iOS and Android Support


With the Xbox 360′s latest dashboard update out for everyone this week, there remains just one of its components to be launched: SmartGlass. The companion application for tablets and phones has the potential to be a significant feature for Xbox 360, and I was excited to try it out for myself once it became publicly available. Microsoft announced this week that SmartGlass will be launched alongside Windows 8 this Friday, October 26. I had my copy of Forza Horizon readied to see how well SmartGlass works in a first-party game, which should provide a good glimpse of what SmartGlass can realistically offer right now. Unfortunately, by all indications I — along with most people — will be unable to try it out this week because it inexplicably and unforgivably lacks support for iOS or Android right out of the gate.

In expressing my thoughts on how SmartGlass could give Wii U some trouble following its E3 reveal, I made note of what was probably the single most-important detail announced that day: support for non-Windows devices. By providing support for iOS and Android devices alongside its own line of products, Microsoft ensured SmartGlass’s install base would be significantly larger than it otherwise would have been and that it had a chance at being something more than a poorly-supported Windows Phone-only feature. Better yet, in many people’s case it meant all you would need to do to get a Wii U-style experience is download the SmartGlass app. Sure, it may not be a perfect stand-in for games designed specifically for Wii U’s GamePad, but not everyone necessarily needs that. Whatever the case, the availability of SmartGlass could only help the Xbox 360 this holiday season.

As it turns out, this critical point which Microsoft was universally applauded for is not indicative of what to expect from SmartGlass at launch. Joystiq reports Windows 8 devices will be the only ones capable of making use of the new feature on Friday; iOS and Android support won’t be coming until sometime next year. While these details weren’t made explicit in the official announcement, the company has not denied them, and, frustratingly, it isn’t offering specifics of any kind when pressed for more information.

Launching SmartGlass as a Windows 8-only proposition for the time being makes little sense. Support for SmartGlass is hardly what you would call extensive at this point — Forza Horizon and Dance Central 3 are among the only available games to make use of it, along with a handful of apps like HBO Go and ESPN. In other words, SmartGlass is not some killer exclusive for Windows 8 devices. Unusual as it may have looked, Microsoft would have been better off delivering SmartGlass support for iOS or Android first, considering their respective install bases dwarf that of Windows 8 devices and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s impossible to predict how the new Microsoft Surface will sell for sure, but the newly announced iPad 4 and iPad Mini aren’t going to do it any favors.

By failing to bring SmartGlass to a substantial user base from the start, Microsoft has put it in a difficult position going forward. Software support being soft isn’t troubling now, but if SmartGlass is going to remain available only to a small number of people (it requires having both an Xbox 360 and a Windows 8 device, the latter of which shrinks the number greatly) until an unknown point in time next year, what developer will bother developing support for it in the meantime? Setting aside first-party studios and those which Microsoft provides incentives to for doing so, the answer is likely to be “very few,” and it would be hard to blame them. Extensive SmartGlass support for a game released prior to iOS and Android coming on board would simply not be worth it for a developer. And even if a developer can be assured those devices will be SmartGlass-capable by the time its game comes out, Microsoft is losing this early opportunity to demonstrate gamers’ enthusiasm for SmartGlass and learn exactly what it is they like about it. (It’s also blowing its chance to use SmartGlass to attract consumers unable to get their hands on a Wii U this holiday.) By the time more devices can function with SmartGlass and developers begin to consider getting behind it, it could be that no one cares anymore.

This is frustrating to me as an iPad and iPhone owner who was interested in making use of SmartGlass at launch. Not only does this mean having to do without features I planned to make use of in Forza, NBA Game Time, and HBO Go, it also possibly kills any shred of hope that may have existed for Madden NFL 13 being patched with the SmartGlass functionality shown off at E3. The Wii U version of the game is generally inferior to the version on 360 (and PS3), but I would still like to have the ability to draw hot routes on my iPad screen.

All hope for SmartGlass is not lost just yet. While official indications point to having to wait for iOS and Android support, sources have told the Penny Arcade Report that iOS support could still be delivered on Friday. If that’s a possibility, it’s perplexing why Microsoft has yet to clarify that iOS owners don’t have a months-long wait ahead of them. The fact that it has not done so fails to inspire much confidence in this initiative, and all of this leads me to wonder if SmartGlass is being rushed out the door either so it can beat Wii U to market or be another bullet-point on the long list of products and services Microsoft is shipping this week. These can’t be the kind of things it hoped would be on people’s minds as it releases SmartGlass to the public.

By Chris Pereira

Minecraft Developer’s Upcoming Game Exemplifies the Best of the Game Industry

Most games take years to develop, but Minecraft developer Mojang plans to make one over a single weekend. Announced on Wednesday, Mojang intends to livestream a new game’s creation over 60 hours and is partnering with the Humble Bundle team to raise money for charity. This latest announcement follows in the footsteps of other innovative Mojang projects which could only take root in a field as open to creativity as the game industry.

Starting Friday, February 17 at 10 A.M. Central European Time (1 A.M. US Pacific Time) Mojang will begin work on a brand new title. The company will answer questions via Twitter and promises “silly incentives” for reaching donation goals. Eager fans can even get involved now and vote for the genre and theme of the prospective game on Mojang’s website. “Of course, you?ve always wanted to play a Shoot Em?Up Dating Simulator with a Candy Land World War II theme. Choose wisely!” warns the company.

From the very beginning of Minecraft, when the company literally consisted of just one man, Mojang reached out to connect with their fans in novel ways. As Minecraft’s popularity exploded, rather than pulling back and becoming a more traditional developer Mojang pushed ever further. They created Minecon, continued to update Minecraft while simultaneously working on smartphone and 360 versions, and used Minecraft to help renovate Sweedish public housing. The 60-hour game project comes less than a week after Mojang founder Notch reached out to Double Fine’s Tim Schafer about a possible collaboration on Psychonauts 2.

Only in the game industry could a single company as small as Mojang reach out and engage other developers, their community, and fans in such an effective manner. Seemingly every project it undertakes exemplifies something special about games. Only the game industry would tolerate, let alone encourage Notch to reach out and offer to help an older and more experienced game maker — traditional media tends to focus on older artists aiding up-and-comers, likely to avoid embarrassing the more experienced talent.

How could a film or book allow public housing residents to design neighborhood improvements? Mojang allowed fans to design replicas of their areas on special Minecraft servers, and then allowed residents in to redesign everything from parks to road placement. Only a game could so effortlessly engender community participation in a large project like that. Traditional media would have relied on posters, radio and TV ads, cost tens of thousands of dollars, and produced minimal citizen involvement — Mojang did better for the cost of a handful of servers.

Time after time Mojang exemplifies the best and most exciting elements of this industry. The small developer’s uncanny ability to foster a sense of community and then use it to accomplish something unexpected — be it a massive convention or small charity drive — shows that, despite what common wisdom on internet message boards holds, the game industry still allows its best and brightest to express their creativity more than any other medium.

By Ryan Winterhalter

The Problem With NPD Numbers and the Incomplete Picture They Draw

NPD Group

The NPD Group’s monthly games industry reports continue to be widely covered in the media, and it’s easy to understand why. With game publishers hesitant to make a habit of sharing sales figures, the NPDs, as they’re often called, supposedly give us somewhat of a glimpse as to which games are succeeding and which are failing. Criticisms of the NPD Group’s numbers have becoming increasingly common over time, to the point where the question is now being asked whether the media ought to ignore the numbers outright.

That’s the position taken in a new piece by the Penny Arcade Report, and it’s one I find myself agreeing with. Regular readers of 1UP’s news section may have noticed a distinct lack of coverage of the NPDs as of late, dating back to before the change in how news was handled. I personally don’t give a second thought to the numbers anymore — a far cry from the days when I would be highly anticipating them every month. Rather than having multiple pieces per month analyzing and dissecting whatever could be deduced from the numbers, the NPDs are something that rarely cross my mind at this point. And there are a variety of reasons for that.

The first thing contributing to this situation was the NPD Group cutting back on the amount on information it freely shared with the public. It is a market research company, first and foremost, and it makes its money selling its extensive reports to, in the case of the videogame industry, retailers, videogame publishers, and console manufacturers. The data it shared with the press starting in 2006 was only a cursory glance at what it had to offer, but it was a tremendously helpful resource for providing additional insight.

In late 2007, it announced plans to reduce what it distributed. It wasn’t until three years later, in 2010, that it actually implemented this change, stripping out the hardware and software numbers from its monthly reports. A year later, it followed up by putting an end to analysts sharing its data. Now, beyond a numberless-top-10 list (which combines platforms, hurting its usefulness) and a few numbers (including total sales and amounts spent on videogame hardware and software), it’s been left up to publishers to share any numbers with us. More often than not, they’re disinclined to do so. Even with the occasional bone we’re thrown, that mitigates this only so much.

Much more importantly, the face of the industry has changed dramatically. Anytime NPD numbers are covered, there is a major point that is often not highlighted strongly enough: These figures account only for sales of new, physical games sold at retail in the United States. While it’s easy enough to understand the numbers only cover what’s sold in the United States, the fact that they are retail-only means they can be awfully misleading.

One example of this is in the way PC games have always been underrepresented in the NPDs. The Penny Arcade Report points to the recent example of XCOM: Enemy Unknown; by all accounts, it’s an excellent game, but it didn’t make the NPD’s top 10 list for October (the month it launched in) and sold an unspectacular-by-today’s-standards 114,000 units. PC is the platform you’d expect the game to do best on, and public Steam data would seem to suggest the PC version alone exceeded that mark. But just look at the NPD data, and you’d have no idea that was the case.

XCOM Enemy Unknown

This is true of any game with a strong PC or PC-only presence, particularly those which are available through Steam. In the past few years I can think of only one or two PC games I’ve bought at retail, and are therefore accounted for by the NPD’s numbers (which, mind you, don’t actually get sales data from every retailer in the country). The dozens of digital PC games I’ve bought, most of which I’ve gotten through Steam, might as well not exist, as far as the NPDs are concerned. Steam accounts for a major portion of digital PC game sales, and no doubt of PC games in general. Particularly considering that Valve is a private company, it has no incentive to ever share sales figures with the NPD Group, or anyone at all outside of the developers and publishers it works with. Even if other digital storefronts, like Origin, were to share data with the NPD, it would still be a very incomplete data set without numbers from the goliath that is Steam.

Beyond the lack of comprehensive sales figures of your average PC game is the hole which represents things like free-to-play and subscription-based games. World of Warcraft may be past its peak, but it still commands a significant number of subscribers representing a huge amount of revenue, and yet the release of a new expansion is the only way the monthly NPD numbers will ever provide any indication that interest in WoW remains. Other huge hits, meanwhile, have no chance of their success being reflected by the NPDs, because they are free-to-play games. Whether it’s Team Fortress 2, a mobile game, League of Legends, or FarmVille, these games are nowhere to be seen in the NPD lists irrespective of how they compare to those in the NPD’s top 10, which are treated as the top moneymakers in any given month.

The major problem with the NPD numbers is not so much what they claim to be when you examine the fine print, but the way they are portrayed. I do believe the figures can have some value, but only with a great deal of context — and even then, that value is quickly eroding as the industry becomes more and more digital-centric. (When even Nintendo is providing downloadable versions of its games, you know it’s a significant movement.)

Despite this, NPD numbers continue to receive far more attention than they should based on all of these qualifications that have to be made about them. The problem, of course, is the lack of a superior alternative to turn to; if such a thing existed, NPD numbers would have been left behind long ago. But ditching the NPD numbers, or at least paying less attention to them, means having less data — even if that data is less-than-ideal, to say the least — with which to work. But it can be very misleading to operate under the assumption that the entire industry is struggling when NPD numbers can only show that part of it — new, retail sales — is experiencing any difficulties. So while we might have to deal with having less information, in my estimation it would be better to move on and acknowledge our ignorance rather than carry on as we are.

By Chris Pereira