Not so long ago, we knew exactly which games sold the most copies. If you wanted to know how many people bought Splinter Cell vs. Kingdom Hearts in the fall of 2002, the numbers were right there (opens in a new tab), provided by a research company called NPD, which obtained sales data directly from retail stores. Mathematical magic!
20 years later, we’re still comparing games against each other, but we’re now living in the age of service games, where the biggest games are free-to-play and sales numbers don’t tell the whole story. We no longer measure the effectiveness of a game in millions of dollars, but in how many millions of people play it.
In addition, it is much more difficult to track the exact number of players than sales data. There is no NPD report that tracks active users in free-to-play games.
There are some websites that claim to know (opens in a new tab) how many people play each game, but their methods of estimating the number of players are either ambiguous or completely unknown. (One of them, PlayerCounter, challenges naysayers on its website: “We’re not perfect, but our team does the best we can to track. … If you can program the algorithm better, step up. Walk a day in our shoes before We mostly rely on the game publishers themselves to tell us how many players they have, and the way they do this is inconsistent and confusing.
How to lie with statistics
“Over 30 million players,” advertised Sea of Thieves in a recent E3 trailer (opens in a new tab). “Join 10 million players,” reads the Naraka Bladepoint trailer (opens in a new tab) from the same event. This is almost exclusively the language used by publishers to describe the popularity of their game. You could be forgiven for thinking that 30 million people regularly play Sea of Thieves, but developer Rare actually says that over the course of Sea of Thieves’ existence, 30 million accounts have played the game at some point. anytime.
That’s the power of the lifetime player count: a big number that sounds impressive on the marketing side. What are fans supposed to do with this information, and what does it even mean? How often does someone have to play to get into that 30 million? Does Rare count my friend who downloaded Sea of Thieves with Game Pass and played for 14 minutes before deleting? If I plan to play Sea of Thieves and want to know if many people still play it right nowRare’s official stats won’t help much.
Among all gaming platforms, there is only one that shares raw concurrent player data: Steam. User tracking is a prerequisite for publishing on Steam that even the largest publishers cannot bypass. The official Steam Stats page shares a list of the top 100 games at the moment. Third party sites such as Steam Charts (opens in a new tab) use the freely available Steam API to compile data into historical graphs. Checking the Sea of Thieves page, I see that its community has risen and fallen with the usual fluctuations over the years, and still attracts 17,000 concurrent players on Steam every day – just 0.5% of the claimed 30 million, but still a lot of pirates . rob.
At some point in the service’s gaming craze, we began to treat games as promotions. But any Wall Street analyst or economist would tell you that it’s actually quite normal for the numbers to go up and down. No game in the history of Steam has added players continuously since its launch. If you want to twist the truth, you could say that CS:GO, probably the most popular game on Steam in the last decade, “dropped dramatically” from 1.3 million players in 2020 to a pathetic 586,000 average players this month.
Steam stats are a great way to see a photo what computer gamers are currently interested in, but they can paint a misleading picture. When New World came out, the servers were overwhelmed as tens of thousands of people had to queue up to play. A week after launch, New World made headlines when the number of concurrent players exceeded 900,000 (opens in a new tab)the pinnacle of any new game of 2021.
After many failures and failures in games, we succeeded. I am very proud of the team for their perseverance. See failures as useful obstacles that encourage learning. Whatever your goals are, don’t give up, no matter how hard it is. @playnewworld (1/2) https://t.co/LK0VUdCSS9October 1, 2021
Even Amazon itself promoted these numbers, and Jeff Bezos celebrated its popularity on Twitter (opens in a new tab) three days after launch. But the disproportionate number of people waiting to play the game inflated New World’s concurrency figure, as an unusual number of people kept the game open for hours on end just to log in. And since those artificially high numbers were understandably dropping, players were quick to point to the data as evidence that bugs and other supposed problems were having a negative impact on the New World.
So, in summary: From Steam itself we get a stream of publicly available data that is constant but incomplete and masquerading as an accurate picture of the overall state of the game. And from developers, we usually receive data based on proprietary definitions that cannot be taken at face value.
When we get real, useful numbers from a company, it’s usually because they want to share good news or are legally required to share bad news. In April, Activision told investors that while Call of Duty overall attracts more than 100 million monthly users, it actually lost 50 million users during 2021. (opens in a new tab). Last year, Riot (which is 100% owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent) proudly announced that Valorant, its PC-exclusive FPS, had 14 million monthly active players.
We’ve also seen these honest (albeit boastful) user disclosures fade over time. At Fortnite’s peak in 2018, Epic shared that it reached over 78 million players in one month (opens in a new tab). At some point after that, Epic stopped being specific and started sharing lifetime player milestones (opens in a new tab) like everyone else
Why the secret?
It seems to me that companies shame their competitors for the same reasons that websites like this one don’t have real-time pageview counters for all readers to see. Telling whether your game is popular or not is extremely important to keeping players interested, and developers probably don’t want their own data used against them. Competitors tell a powerful story when you have a strong launch, but they’re also a persuasive weapon in the form of facts that fanbases use to make claims or “prove” a dying game. The same numbers advertised at launch become the watermark against which your game will always be measured.
We’ve seen an explosion in this reactive behavior on social media, where fans, empowered by data and ready to sink something, present Steam Charts numbers out of context to loudly proclaim “the game is dead.” Remember when Apex Legends, one of the biggest games, supposedly died in 2020? Elden Ring, a game you can finish, apparently “lost 90% of its concurrent players” in May.
A more common bad habit is the recent practice of presenting live players as a leaderboard. If I were Turtle Rock Studios reading this article about Left 4 Dead 2 having more Steam players than Back 4 Blood over a period of time (ignoring that the latter is running on three additional platforms not counted in Steam), I would be would be very annoyed.
It’s no surprise that companies, especially public ones, only release data when it tells a favorable story, but the ambiguity only makes it easier for anyone to manipulate the data until it fits the narrative. Before skill-based matchmaking became standard in shooters, we scrolled through server browsers and saw exactly how many players were online. For years, even the Call of Duty games have told us how many people are playing each mode so we know which one to queue for the longest. Information was so readily available that it was considered mundane.
If other platforms were as quick with player metrics as Steam is, comparing Steam metrics for B4B and L4D2 would seem pointless. Inflated numbers in the tens of millions also probably don’t help set realistic expectations for how big the player base needs to be to be successful.
We would all do well to stop treating gaming as a popularity contest. We don’t need numbers and graphics to confirm our positive feelings about a game we already love. After all, it doesn’t take millions (or even hundreds of thousands) to keep a great multiplayer game afloat. Take it from someone whose top game of 2022, Hunt: Showdown, averages “only” 12,000 people playing at any given time.