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Interview: Chart Track Talks UK Game Chart Specifics

How are video game charts are actually made? Our first in a series quizzes Chart Track's director Dorian Bloch about the UK game charts, discussing the ELSPA-commissioned countdown, how to prevent errors from confused retailers, and the company's push to
Market research company Chart Track currently monitor software, hardware and peripheral sales for the UK, Ireland and Denmark. The company formed by former employees of the Gallup Organization in March 1996 after a buy-out of the rights from their then-employers, who had been collating the videogame charts since the late 1980s. Chart Track perform the UK research project on behalf of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) and in Denmark on behalf of the Danish equivalent, the Multi Medie Foreningen (MMF). They currently estimate coverage of around 90% of the UK retail market for their data collection, and use a panel of 11 retailers in the Danish market. As well as the weekly charts available on their website, the company also makes more detailed monthly, quarterly and annual reports available for purchase. They have also been conducting an annual report on the European market in conjunction with GfK for the past five years, using a sample of more than 12,000 retail outlets. We spoke to company director Dorian Bloch to ask about the company, its services, and its methodology. When was Chart Track formed? We were formed just over ten years ago – March 1996 is when we kicked off as Chart Track. Before that, the directors at Chart Track all worked at Gallup before that – they used to do the music charts in the UK. To cut a very long story short, Gallup lost the music chart back in 1994 for various reasons, and we did a management buy out, which included the software, hardware, accessories markets – basically, the videogame and PC game markets. It’s also for console hardware and videogame and PC accessories, and indeed even the non-accessories: network devices, and routers and all manner of widgets for your PC. So, in the UK, our main contract is the software research project that we do on behalf of ELSPA. They regroup, I would say, every single publisher that is active in the UK market, so that would go from the smallest of the small, to the biggest of the biggest – they’re all members of ELSPA and we have a contract to provide the basic research in the UK. Who was in charge of that contract before Chart Track? Gallup. Basically, the music charts had been going for a long time, and then in the mid ‘80s Gallup found they were getting a lot of info from retailers about videogames, so they decided to start tracking it. It started out as very much a one-man-band operation, because back then it wasn’t really worth a lot of money. Then a few things happened: there was the formation of ELSPA, which sort of gelled everything together, so ELSPA and Gallup agreed to do some research, and it sort of kicked off around the late ‘80s, which is around when I arrived at Gallup. Then, of course, the market exploded. For us, ’95 to ’97 was a big explosion, with the launch of the PlayStation, and then we had another big one with the launch of the PS2, and there arrived a time when the videogame market was on a par with the music industry, in terms of revenue. Who do you work with to compile the charts? Well, the way it all works is that we tend to work the Trade Association for numerous reasons. Mainly because you can keep the costs down if you get a syndicated service, which is, in effect paid for by the members of ELSPA – so Sony, Microsoft, Sega, Activision and so on basically fund the research project through their membership of ELSPA. So they all pay ELSPA varying amounts of money, and some of that comes to us for the basic research in the UK. So, in the UK we work with ELSPA, then, more recently we signed an agreement with the Danish trade body, the MMF, which is the Multi Medie Foreningen, so we’re now tracking in Denmark on software and hardware. The eventual goal is to produce a Scandinavian service, which sort of works for us because most of them speak very good English, which makes it very easy for an English company to do business there, so we’d like to roll that out at some point. With what you’re doing in the UK, you’re working with 7,000 retail outlets, which you estimate is around 90% of the market? It’s probably closer to 8,000, actually, so in the UK, in the leisure market, that’s around 90%. We’ve done establishment surveys with people like Take Two on San Andreas or Liberty City Stories or whatever or with EA on their products, and we’ve found that it can be as high as 95% coverage, so we really do have an extremely authoritative panel in the UK. Are the retailers that you’re missing out on simply the smaller outlets in the market? Basically. There isn’t really anyone of any significance in the UK that isn’t on the panel. The only one I would possibly mention is Toy ‘R’ Us, but that’s simply because they have a policy of not providing any information – and, of course, they don’t get any information back. The beauty of being a participating retailer is that, not only do you get to see the size of the market and how it’s grown week on week, month on month, year on year, units, value, etc., but you get to see your share of the market and you get to work out whether you’re having any effect. You can tell whether you’re growing, whether you’re being successful compared to your competitors. So that’s pretty much the icing on the cake for retailers. Are you currently trying to fill in that five or ten percent gap? There’s not much point – when you get to a 90% coverage rate, you hit a certain level where it’s just not worth beefing it up any further. You could try and find out every independent retailer in the land, but it would take us five years and cost us a lot of money and it wouldn’t really make that much of a difference to the end result. Seeing as you’re going from Point of Sale software, is there any room for error from that? I guess there is – you could be supplied with the wrong barcode from a retailer, for example. But we have a lot of checking procedures in place for monitoring Electronic Point of Sale data. At its very simplest, you would walk in to a Virgin, or HMV, or Game or Wizards on the Coast or whatever, and buy a product which they would scan through the till, and then we would get that information. So if someone from the manufacturing level has supplied the retailer with the wrong barcode – say they put the PS2 barcode for the PSP product on their release schedule – then yeah, there is room for error. We tend to find that when we get our daily data, most of them supply one file with all of their store’s data in it. For example, Game in the UK will supply us today with yesterday’s data, which is basically one huge file containing approximately 400 stores worth of information with line by line data. Basically, it has in it “San Andreas sold one unit in Game in Manchester” and it has the store code, the description of the product and the format, then time of sale, day of sale and so on. So, we get all that data in and we put it into our Oracle database. When a new product comes out it goes into a special area, so we can look at all the barcodes that aren’t in our product masterfile, and then we can look at who sold it and we can look at the description fields for each retailer. If you’ve got the release schedule for EA and it says Tiger Woods 07 for PSP and you’re getting that data through from seven or eight retailers and they’re all agreeing with the release schedule saying that it is Tiger Woods 07 for PSP, then that’s what it is, and you put it in the system. Occasionally, something might go wrong and there might be one retailer who’s got it down as Tiger Woods for PS2 when the others have all got it down for PSP, so we always check at least three or four of the data files just to make sure. In an ideal world, you would get the packaging for each product so you could have the barcode on the back of the box which would allow for no error, though there are some publishers who do send us that. How much of your information goes out in the standard service? Well, the standard service is basically a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual service. The weekly report is published every Monday night, so we run a Sunday to Saturday chart week. We put all the products on, check all the data and send it out Monday evening. The basic weekly is total market information: how many games were sold, how many of them were PC or PS2, etc. Then there’s the all formats chart, which you can see on the website, and the individual format charts, and all of those basically have the label, company and developer – so for Tiger Woods, you’d have EA up there as the company, with EA as the publisher and then EA Canada or Redwood Shores as the developer. We do that for every product – every single game that goes on our system, we identify the label, the company and the developer for every single version. That’s quite a laborious task, and can sometimes be a bit tricky. Essentially, we’re always putting on the title, the developer, what kind of game it is, which format it’s on, and the age rating. We hold a lot of data on our system for every product – a lot more than you get to see in the standard reports. Then the monthly is very similar, except that it introduces label and company market share for the publishers – it could be weekly, but to be honest it moves so quickly that no one is really going to gain a lot from looking at weekly publisher market share; you just wouldn’t really see anything. Quarterly and upwards take it a step further – you might have the publisher share for EA, and then the share of console vs. PC, or their share for full price vs. budget, or PS2 vs. Xbox 360. Are the quarterly and annual service available to non-subscribers? Quarterly and annual are available to non-ELSPA members, and there is a rate card that ELSPA hold for that. Essentially, if you’re a member, you get the weekly and monthly free as part of your subscription, and then you pay a token amount for quarter and annuals. If you’re not a member, then it’s quite expensive to pay for those reports, which is fair enough, because the members are funding the entire research project in the first place. After that, there are also a few details that you don’t see, like the age rating, if the developer is independent or publisher owned, and their country of origin. There’s obviously a lot of people out there who find it very interesting to look at sales categorised by developer, rather than publisher – instead of saying, let’s look at EA’s market share, they can say, let’s have a look at London Studio or Kuju. We produce database updates for all of the major publishers which they get from us, and it basically lists every single product sold in that month, as well as a huge amount of information on that product. Retailers ask us for a lot of information – they get a hell of a lot as standard. They get the same as a publisher would get, but with their share by format, by budget or even by title – they will see their own share on the top 50 Xbox 360 products. For a retailer, that’s obviously pretty important, so they can see that, say, they grew by 10% over a month or quarter or year, but the market grew by 20%, so they’re underperforming. When did Chart Track’s push into Europe with GfK begin, and how intensive is that compared to what you’re doing in the UK? That’s been going for quite some time now – I think the first was in ‘98/’99. At the moment, it’s an annual report. The last one we did was for ’05, and we’ll be doing the report for ’06 soon. It covered 11 European territories – the goal is always to cover the entire market, but that’s a difficult goal when there’s so many countries that make up Europe. We cover the main territories though, basically: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. We produce an annual report on those territories, and it shows quite a bit of information – it takes each format in turn, and shows units and Euros for each game on PS2, PSP and so on, as well as the best sellers in each country, a breakdown of sales in each country in units and Euros. That’s quite interesting, because it allows you to see the differences in each territory – for example, PC games have always been big in Germany, but they’ve also had a slant toward Nintendo. There’s a lot of reasons for that – one of the big ones is the ratings system, which makes it hard to sell a game like Manhunt, for example. So there’s a lot of little differences between each territory. Are there individual companies who put together charts for those countries on a more regular basis? Yeah – we do UK and Ireland, and now Denmark, and GfK contribute the others. It’s basically just Chart Track and GfK, and there aren’t really any others for the videogames market in Europe. At the moment, that’s just an annual report though – at some point we’d like to up the frequency and what we really need and what we’re working toward is a common European database, with every single barcode for every product released in Europe. That would be really quite tricky to do; obviously there are a lot of different barcodes for the same product, and the same product won’t be called the same thing in different territories because they’re not all in English. So that’s the goal – to get a common database together. That sounds like a very long term goal. It’s not something that will happen overnight [laughs]. I actually get contacted by people from the US, who will ring up and want to know how big a title is in Europe, and I have to explain why that’s a very difficult question to answer. For some reason, they don’t realise that Europe isn’t just one country – it’s lots of different countries.

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