It used to be much simpler. We could rely on a monthly report from the folks at The NPD Group that included the hardware and software sales by platform. That report would be picked up by industry and the media, who depending on the particular outlet would either just quickly regurgitate what they considered the salient facts or spend a little more effort to try and provide some analysis and context.
The following hours and days would see those media stories appearing on The Internet where fanboys and girls would descend upon them with all the grace and finesse of a pack of hyenas devouring a fresh wildebeest carcass. Times are becoming much leaner on the hardware sales plains now though.
It was back in September that NPD changed the format of their reporting to exclude the hardware sales numbers and that software would now solely be presented in an all formats chart. All was not lost though as the hunger for the sales data was such that analysts would slip the data into their own updates.
Last month NPD sent a polite cease-and-desist to recipients of their data:
“NPD would appreciate it if you and your teams refrain from providing any of our Games data directly to the media”
Now to be clear, they are certainly doing nothing wrong by taking these actions. They spend the time and money to acquire the data which they then charge their clients to supply. By taking these actions they are essentially just trying to protect their source of income.
They are certainly not alone either as they are now supplying similar data in their reports to that which is provided by GFK Chart-Track here in the U.K. We are used to being almost completely in the dark about U.K. and European hardware sales so it should not be a problem right?
The thing is we had that data and now it has been taken away we miss it. America is by far the largest single market for video games which correspondingly makes it the most important. Whether we get the sales data for the consoles is now solely down to the manufacturers themselves so of course we will now only likely get numbers when they consider they have good news for us.
Take last month for example. With no data from NPD or the analysts we are left with Microsoft once again telling us that the Xbox 360 was the top-selling home console for the month with 433,000 sales. Nintendo was happy to counter that by pointing out that the DS family of consoles, not including the 3DS, was the top-selling console platform with 460,000 of its own.
They were also happy to add that the Wii sold “more than” 290,000 units. They did not say “almost 300,000” and you can be sure they would have if they could so that pegs the Wii sales firmly in the 290-295k range. That left only Sony to chip in with their PR perspective.
Sony are traditionally the most reticent to disclose U.S. hardware sales data unless the PS3 has a month where it out sells the 360. When Sony did make their own statements regarding this March they were predictably ambiguous and detail-light. They said only that PlayStation hardware platforms saw double digit growth compared to the previous March.
In March 2010 the NPD sales data for the PS3 tells us that it sold 313,900 units. Its handheld sibling the PSP record 119,900 sales. As growth is measured as a percentage “double digit” means an increase in unit sales of at least 10%. 313,900 plus 10% is 345,290 and 119,900 plus 10% is 131,890.
Of course double digit growth could also mean a gain of up to 99%, but we can be absolutely certain in this case that growth for the PS3 was less than 38% as that would have seen it in first spot for the month ahead of the Xbox 360.
It is also possible that they are using their ambiguous statement to conceal a poor performance of either the PSP or PS3. Perhaps it is the combined sales of the PlayStation platforms that saw said growth. Add the March 2010 sales for PS3 and PSP and you get 433,800. Ten percent on top of that is 477,180.
Maybe the PSP had a great month in the U.S. following its recent price cuts which saw the PSP-3000 shed $40 to reach $129.99 and the PSPgo fall $50 to $149.99. Maybe PS3 sales were below the Wii’s 290k (it has lagged behind the Wii in sales since November) and Sony do not want to have that widely know again.
That is the problem, we just do not know which leaves the information vacuum left behind by the absence of the NPD numbers to be filled by something else as, as any school kid learns, nature abhors a vacuum.
In this case that the lack of hard data combined with ambiguous statements from the manufacturers could lead to that void being filled by misinformation and misinterpretation. Given the flammable nature of the ‘console wars’ anything that leaves room for misinterpretation is best avoided.
If you look at the graph and table below that I have been using to track the last thirteen months* of NPD data the missing lines and cell contents tell the story of how increasingly incomplete the NPD data we have been able to track down has become.
Sadly it has reached the point where it is just no longer worth spending ever more time to try and root out ever fewer data points. So as much fun as it has been to track the NPD data this is almost certainly the last time this graph and table will appear:
It is yet possible that NPD will return with more and better data. It has increasingly come under fire for the fact that its data is based upon retail sales. This has a particularly big impact on its software figures as more and more software is purchased digitally and never goes near a traditional retail outlet either on the High Street or online.
That is something that EA in particular have openly criticised, recently calling the data “a misrepresentation of the entire industry”. NPD acknowledged last autumn that they were likely missing several tens of percent of the market as they did not cover digital sales. To address that weakness they have purchased In-Stat a market research company that specialises in digital and mobile entertainment.
So it could well be that case that NPD ‘returns’ in a few months time, bigger, better and more accurate than before. In the meantime, I will miss being able to follow the trends in U.S. console sales. Will you?
* In case you’re wondering why I tracked 13 months of data not twelve, it’s so that my spreadsheet can calculate the year-over-year growth, whether that be double-digit growth or not. Simples.