There was a time not too long ago that we knew for sure which game sold the most copies. If you wanted to know who bought Splinter Cell vs. Kingdom Hearts in the fall of 2002, the numbers were there. (opens in new tab), provided by a market research company called NPD that obtained its sales data directly from retail stores. Math-Magic!
20 years later we’re still comparing games to each other, but we now live 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 health of a game in millions of dollars, but how many millions of people are playing it.
Besides, tracking exact player numbers is more difficult than sales data. There is no NPD report that tracks active users in free-to-play games.
There are a few websites that claim to know (opens in new tab) How many people are playing each game, but their methods for estimating player counts are either vague or completely unknown. (One of them, PlayerCounter, challenges the naysayers on its website: “We’re not perfect, but our team is doing the best we can at tracking. … If you can program an algo well, step in. Walk in our shoes for a day first.” . Throwing shade.”) Most of us rely on game publishers to tell us how many players they have, and the way they go about it is inconsistent and confusing.
How to lie with statistics
“Over 30 million players,” Sea of Thieves touted in a recent E3 trailer (opens in new tab). “Join 10 million players,” says Naraka’s Bladepoint trailer. (opens in new tab) From the same incident. This is the almost exclusive language that publishers use to describe how popular their game is. You’d be forgiven for thinking that 30 million people are regularly playing Sea of Thieves, but what developer Rare has actually said is that throughout Sea of Thieves’ lifetime, 30 million accounts have played the game for a period of time. ever.
This is the power of the lifetime player count: a large number that sounds impressive in a piece of marketing. What should fans do with that information, and what does it mean? How many times does someone have to play to count towards that 30 million? Does Rare count my friend who downloaded Sea of Thieves with Game Pass and played for 14 minutes before uninstalling? If I am considering playing Sea of Thieves and want to know if there are still many people playing it right nowRare official statistics are not much help.
Among every gaming platform, there is only one that shares raw concurrent player data: Steam. User tracking is a prerequisite for publishing on Steam that most big publishers can’t get around. Steam’s official statistics page shares a live list of the top 100 most played games at that moment. Third-party sites like Steam Charts (opens in new tab) Use Steam’s freely available API to compile data into historical graphs. Checking out the Thieves page, I see that its community has risen and fallen over the years with the usual ups and downs and still attracts 17,000 daily concurrent players on Steam — only 0.5% of the 30 million total, but still plenty of pirates. loot
At some point in the service game craze, we started treating games like stocks. But any Wall Street analyst or economist will tell you that it’s actually quite normal for the numbers to go up and down. No game in Steam’s history has added more players consistently since its launch. If you want to twist the truth, you could say that CS:GO, perhaps the most played game on Steam of the last decade, has ‘dramatically’ dropped from its 1.3M peak in 2020 to an average of 586,000 players this month.
Steam is a great way to view statistics snapshot What PC gamers are currently interested in, however, can paint a confusing picture. When New World was released, the servers were crammed as tens of thousands queued to play. A week after launch, New World made headlines when it reached over 900,000 concurrent players. (opens in new tab)The high point of any new game in 2021.
After many failures and setbacks in gaming we have found success. Very proud of the team for their perseverance. See failures as helpful obstacles that drive learning. Whatever your goal is, no matter how difficult it is, don’t give up. @playnewworld (1/2) https://t.co/LK0VUdCSS9October 1, 2021
Amazon touted these numbers as Jeff Bezos celebrated its popularity on Twitter (opens in new tab) Three days after launch. But the disproportionate number of people waiting to play the game drove up New World’s concurrency figures because an unusual number of people kept the game open for hours to log in. And as those artificially-high numbers understandably fall, players are quick to point out. Data as evidence that bugs and other perceived issues are taking a toll on the new world.
So to recap: from Steam itself, we get a stream of public data that is steady but incomplete, and masquerades as an accurate picture of the game’s total health. And from developers, we typically 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 it wants to share good news or is legally obligated to share bad news. In April, Activision revealed to investors that, while Call of Duty attracts more than 100 million users each month, it actually lost 50 million users in 2021. (opens in 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 seen these honest (if arrogant) user disclosures fizzle out over time. At the height of Fortnite’s popularity in 2018, Epic shared that it reached over 78 million players a month. (opens in new tab). At some point after that, Epic stopped being specific and started sharing A lifetime player milestone (opens in new tab) Like everyone else.
I understand that companies are shy about their concurrents because websites like this don’t have live pageview counters for all readers to see. The story of whether your game is popular or not is very important to maintain player interest and developers probably don’t want their own data used against them. Concurrents tell a powerful story when you have a strong launch, but they’re also a convincing fact-finding weapon that fanbases use to demand or ‘prove’ the game is dying. Those same numbers once touted at launch become the watermark by which your game will always be measured.
We’ve seen an explosion in this reactive behavior on social media when fans, empowered by data and primed to dive into something, present steam charts with out-of-context statistics to loudly proclaim “dead game”. Remember when Apex Legends, one of the biggest games around, allegedly died in 2020? Elden Ring, a game you can finish, apparently “lost 90% of its concurrent players” in May.
An even more widespread bad habit is the current practice of presenting live player counts in the form of leaderboards. If I were reading this article at Turtle Rock Studios about how Left 4 Dead 2 had more Steam players than Back 4 Blood for the time being (ignoring the latter three not being counted by Steam on additional platforms), I’d be pretty pissed off. .
It’s no surprise that companies, especially publicly traded ones, release data only when it tells a favorable story, but ambiguity only makes it easier to manipulate data until it fits the story. Before skill-based matchmaking was the norm in shooters, we’d scroll through server browsers and see exactly how many players were online. Over the years, Call of Duty games have also told us how many people are playing individual modes so we know which ones take the longest to queue for. Information was so accessible that it was considered mundane.
If other platforms were approaching player metrics in the same way as Steam, comparing B4B and L4D2’s Steam numbers would look silly from the jump. Milestone stats inflated into the millions are also not helping to set realistic expectations of how big the player base needs to be to be successful.
We all better not treat gaming like a popularity contest. We don’t need numbers and graphs to validate 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 most played game of 2022, Hunt: Showdown, only had an average of 12,000 people playing it at a given moment.