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Opinion: When counting software sales, what's a 'unit' anyway?

The way that video game software has evolved leaves Gamasutra analyst Matt Matthews wondering: What counts as a video game "unit" sale, anyway?
The way that video game software has evolved leaves Gamasutra analyst Matt Matthews wondering: What counts as a video game "unit" sale, anyway? Regular readers will know that part of my job is to talk about video game software unit sales figures. Just look at my recent blog on global unit sales -- retail only. As I point out toward the end of that column, the specter of digital sales casts significant doubt on the value of such metrics. The actual rankings could slide all around if we could aggregate those retail sales estimates with sales through the Microsoft's Xbox Games Stores, the Sony Entertainment Network Stores, Nintendo's eShops, Valve's Steam service, EA's Origin, and any other digital distribution outlets. The problem, however, is actually more fundamental than how many of each game are sold. You see, before you can count things, you have to actually know what the thing itself is. So the question is, when talking about counting units, what is a video game?

Frayed edges

I thought I used to know what it meant. It was some physical object – cartridge, floppy disk, CD, or DVD – on which existed code and graphics that would perform for me and with me on a video screen. These things could be passed around, akin to other physical objects like books, and shared by more than one person. Then when a company like the NPD Group or GfK/Chart-Track would estimate sales of a game, they were really estimating the sales for physical objects. Million-selling games and then multi-million selling games became the standard for success in the industry, all based on these physical metrics. The number of people who actually could play a game might be marginally different – like multiple people installing Civilization on their PCs from the same set of 3.5” floppy disks – but the number of copies actually bought by consumers was at least a pretty well-defined concept. Over time, however, the edges of this concept began to fray. For example, what is id Software's iconic Doom? Is it the original 1993 game? Is it just the original data files (WADs)? How about the modified official data files that changed the red cross on the health packs to a health pill – is that different? If you pair any official WADs with a port of the source code to a modern platform, is it still Doom? If that source port fails to accurately reproduce a behavioral quirk of the original engine, did you still really play Doom? What if a fan created a complete clone of a game, down to re-creating the levels with redrawn graphics and rerecorded sound effects and a similar musical score, all played through a source port of the Doom source code – would you still call that Doom? Perhaps the answer is that there is some abstract concept that we all agree to called Doom, and we have all experienced different manifestations of it in our lives.

Counting units

As consumers, the thing that we buy when we buy a game is just a license. That is, we've bought a limited right, an agreement, that we have the owner's permission to use the thing they call a video game subject to certain restrictions – like the platform on which we play it and whether we can modify the bits to change the behavior of the software. At that level, the game is actually more virtual than bits on a storage medium – it's just a contract granting you permissions to access those bits. So that's the answer, right? Just count up how many licenses have been granted, and you've got the number of sales of a video game. If only it were that simple. You see, if I create an account on Valve's Steam and buy a license to access the bits to id Software's Doom, then you can (probably) say that the number of copies of Doom sold has increased by one. But there are also versions of Doom that have come inside of other software – like the version sold as part of the Doom 3 BFG Edition for the HD consoles last year. If 100,000 copies of that collection are sold, should we count it as a new sale of Doom along with a new sale of Doom II and a sale of Doom 3 and a sale of Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil? These kinds of questions – about how many copies a game has sold – don't even have to go as far back as Doom. How many copies of the original Bioshock have been sold? Should we count the codes for copies of Bioshock that were included with retail copies of Bioshock Infinite for the PlayStation 3 earlier this year? How about the free digital version of Bioshock that was included with each digital version of Bioshock Infinite that was pre-ordered through Sony's PlayStation 3 online store? If the codes are never redeemed, should it still count? A license to own the game was given as part of a transaction involving money – but that right to access the bits in the cloud might never have been accepted by a consumer. And with the advent of free-to-play (F2P) games, a game qua game gets even more illusory. Consider that some F2P games are simply shells into which you can pack the pieces you're willing to buy – like characters or outfits or levels. Many consumers can't even be said to be playing the same game as someone else because each will buy different numbers and types of items, and this will change the experience that is part of a video game. If I'm willing to pay EA real money for access to the Snow Pea plant in Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time and my best friend does not – did we both play the same game? What about if he's more liberal with spending money on Candy Crush Saga while I refuse to spend a single dime on King's clever little puzzler. Other F2P games are more insidious. At least with PvZ2 and Candy Crush Saga, I can eventually earn my way through the game without ever carrying out another transaction with the developer or publisher. I can disconnect my device from the network, and never look back. The same can't be said of games that require a network connection or which limit the amount of free time you can play in any session. Take Namco's upcoming Ace Combat Infinity, scheduled to be F2P on the PlayStation 3. Recent reports suggest that you may play for a certain number of missions and then either wait for the timed release of another right to play a mission – or pay for the right to continue to access missions. In a game like that, the consumer never really owns the game – the game owns him. No matter how much you pay, there isn't any infinite access to the game without paying in one way or the other – with money or time (which I'm reliably informed is also money).

No game?

And, to bring this back around to the frame we've used for success for so long: How many copies of Ace Combat Infinity will Namco sell? None. They don't actually offer it for sale. Instead, they will grant limited licenses and then provide a system to extend those licenses in certain extremely limited ways. Not only is there no game in the sense that perhaps we thought we understood it, but because of that we can't even talk about what it means to sell one. Maddening, and on some days it's enough to make me want to give up on all the modern games and go back to playing on an Atari 2600 and PlayStation 2. At least back then, what I thought I was buying and what I ultimately experienced seemed to be one and the same.

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