Why NPD figures don’t matter: the absence of digital

Each month, the NPD Group, a market research company, release sales figures for games (among other products) on each platform. These figures can sometimes be surprising–Minecraft is still in the top ten, four years after its initial release–and are often a measure among gamers of how well a particular platform is doing.

However, are NPD figures all that relevant anymore? While there may be some value in seeing which platform a game sold more copies on (for example, in December, Fallout 4 sold more copies on PlayStation 4 while Star Wars: Battlefront sold more on Xbox One, despite each game being marketed heavily by the other platform), there’s a huge chunk missing from NPD’s data: digital sales.

A game like Minecraft, for example, is still selling better on Xbox 360 than it is on Xbox One. That may be due to the 360’s install base, or because the NPD can’t get numbers for digital downloads, which would likely inform them just how many people are playing the game on the latest hardware.

Other platforms, such as handhelds like 3DS and Vita, see a ton of digital downloads, though none are reported. As of May 2015, for example, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D had sold just over two million units according to Nintendo, while the NPD reported under a million units just two weeks ago. That’s a pretty staggering difference–more than 100%, for those keeping track–especially considering Nintendo’s figures are nearly eight months old.

The Entertainment Software Association blasted the NPD for not reporting accurate figures, saying that the NPD “continued to reinforce that traditional [retail-only] model at the expense of new areas where the industry is growing,” citing that “millions of consumers purchase innovative content in myriad ways, including subscription services, digital downloads, and via their mobile devices.”

Mobile games aside, DLC can be a huge driver for sales of a game, and many people who await downloadable content for a game purchase the main title digitally as well.

Back in 2013, the NPD issued a statement that they’d begin tracking digital sales at point-of-sale in order to offer a more complete picture of the industry, but nearly three years on, nothing has been implemented nor suggested since.

It is true that the industry all needs to bring their figures to the table in order for actual sales data to be accurate. Microsoft is the only one who has access to its online marketplace figures, Sony is the only one who has access to the PlayStation’s figures, and so on. But these companies are all members of the ESA as well, so they should be reporting the figures alongside any other company doing so.